Italy's softly, softly bid to get youths to stay away from terrorism

By Rick Noack

The Trevi Fountain in Rome at night. The scheme highlights Italy's cultural offerings. Photo / AP
The Trevi Fountain in Rome at night. The scheme highlights Italy's cultural offerings. Photo / AP

As Europe struggles to counter the threat posed by Isis and other militant groups, the Italian Government is set to launch a scheme that will take the fight to a different level.

Starting this month, more than half a million 18-year-olds living in Italy are eligible to receive vouchers valued at more than US$500 each. The vouchers will allow recipients to visit museums free, go to concerts for reduced prices or watch movies.

"It sends a clear message - a welcome for those who reach the age of 18 and a reminder of how crucial culture is, both for personal enrichment and for strengthening the social fabric of the country," Tommaso Nannicini, the official in charge of the programme, was quoted as saying last week.

According to the Italian Government, the programme is also intended to send a message to militant groups. When the scheme was announced last year, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi implied that extremists should be countered not only militarily, but also ideologically.

The announcement came days after militant attacks in Paris killed at least 130 people. "They imagine terror, we answer with culture. They destroy statues, we love art. They destroy books, we are the country of libraries," Renzi reportedly said, referring to a "cultural battle."

Italy's cultural offerings are well known and appreciated across the world, drawing a flood of tourists. Giving free money to 18-year-olds in a country where the youth unemployment rate is more than 35 per cent is aimed at motivating younger Italians to have similarly positive experiences and to see their own country in a different way.

The idea of countering extremism through cultural and social incentives is increasingly popular in Europe's welfare states. Britain's Channel programme - part of a broader "Prevent" counterterrorism strategy - offers counselling and social support to youths who might be at risk of radicalisation. The programme, however, remains controversial because some Muslim communities view it as a police-led initiative to monitor terrorism suspects.

France and Germany also have experimented with smaller, similar schemes. French students already benefit from free admission to all public museums in Paris.

But Italy's approach is viewed as unprecedented: The Government expects to spend about US$300 million on the programme, depending on how many eligible recipients claim the money. Theoretically, all 18-year-old European Union citizens living in Italy are allowed to apply. The programme runs out at the end of next year.

Opposition parties have criticised the scheme as populist, but counterterrorism experts and international observers say it could be more effective than some other past efforts to counter youth radicalisation.

Although the programme was launched with the declared intent to counter radicalisation efforts, the Government has since been careful to label it a "culture bonus".

A special smartphone app will allow recipients to choose how to spend the money. Experts have said that approach, which refrains from pressuring participants into a particular programme, could prove effective.

"It is hard to say what is the best approach. But what we can say is what is the wrong one: a spying system that stigmatises and excludes people," Maina Kiai, the UN special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, said in a recent interview that focused on counter-radicalisation schemes in Europe.

Kiai has been critical of other European anti-radicalisation efforts, including Britain's Prevent strategy, saying they marginalise Muslims. "You have to be careful to not marginalise and to make people feel as if they are targets and unwanted," he said.

Under Italy's plan, the money will be distributed to all 18-year-old E.U. citizens in the country, regardless of ethnicity or religion.

- Washington Post

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter


© Copyright 2016, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf02 at 23 Oct 2016 08:52:42 Processing Time: 695ms