Why is Magdi Allam one of only a few prominent Muslims in Europe speaking out against Islamic extremism and the terrorism it breeds? Walking across the tarmac to the helicopter that will take him on an aerial tour of Israel, Allam answers: “There’s only one word. Fear.”
The deputy editor of Corriere Della Sera, Italy’s largest newspaper, Allam was assigned an armed security detail three years ago after Italian intelligence authorities uncovered death threats against him, allegedly from Hamas and other Islamic movements.
Since the terror attacks of 9/11, the Egyptian-born journalist has become one of his country’s most outspoken voices against extremism. He has also not been shy about his support for Israel.
“Only if we stress Israel’s right to exist, we shall stress everyone’s right to live,” Allam, 54, said in his May 21 speech accepting the prestigious Dan David Award for his work fostering understanding and tolerance between cultures.
He shared the $1 million prize with three other journalists: Monica Gonzales of Chile, Adam Michnik of Poland and Goenawan Mohamad of Indonesia, all of whom risked their lives and careers to tell the stories of their countries.
He received a standing ovation from the audience when he proclaimed, “We are all Israelis” and “Am Yisrael Chai.”
Allam, who arrived in Italy when he was 20, is nostalgic for the Cairo of his youth, which he describes as a multicultural, secular hub where Europeans, Jews and Egyptians lived together peacefully.
His first brush with intolerance came at age 15, when he was summoned by the Egyptian secret police because he had been dating a Jewish girl. He had not even realized she was Jewish at the time, he said, because the communities were so integrated.
But following the 1967 Six-Day War, everything changed, he told JTA.
Allam, with his youthful face and wiry frame, seems at first an unlikely figure to take on the forces of international terrorism. He says he speaks out for the good of everyone, including the European countries he worries are pandering to extremist elements by giving in on key social issues with their own growing Muslim communities. He dismisses arguments that terrorism, including Palestinian terrorist acts, are borne out of the desperation of the disempowered.
“Terrorism is not reactive, there is always a puppeteer” who uses terrorism as a means to wield power, he said. On his helicopter trip tracing the route of Israel’s security fence through the center of the country to Jerusalem and then flying south toward the Gaza Strip, Allam looks out the window and takes in the view.
The helicopter tour, sponsored by The Israel Project, a non-profit group committed to Israel’s security, was instructive, he said.
“It clarified for me the importance of security for the Jewish people,” he said. “It explained the necessity of the security fence. It is now clear that the Israelis and Palestinians have failed to build a common ground of confidence so we need to have this separation.”
This visit was Allam’s fourth trip to Israel. His first was in 1988 during the first intifada. Looking out at the view over the northern edge of the Gaza Strip, he recalled being attacked there by Palestinian youths. He was on assignment, traveling with other Italian journalists, when Palestinians began pelting their car with stones.
The helicopter landed briefly near the border with Gaza, where Allam and other journalists were shown areas where homemade rockets are being launched into Israel by Palestinian groups. He asked questions about the security arrangements — the fence that surrounds Gaza and the army guard towers positioned nearby. He said he would not be going to Gaza during this trip.
“It’s dangerous for me to go there,” he said, looking out at the hazy view of Gaza City in the distance.
Allam said he hopes to help encourage Western countries like Italy to rid themselves from the growth of fundamentalist Islamic elements. In his upcoming book, he urges Italians to safeguard their own heritage and society.
“We have to eradicate the culture of death, intolerance and violence,” he said. The struggle, he argues, is not Islam versus the West, but of barbarity against civilization.
Allam, who has an easygoing smile and relaxed manner, says he does not regret the positions he has taken, despite the personal risk.
“It’s a price I accept. This is about life and freedom for everybody,” he said, adding, ” I’m fighting for Muslims, Christians and Jews. There is no such thing as good terrorism and bad terrorism. It’s the same ideology of death and violence.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.