Berlusconi’s Italy: a European Country ruled by a Populist Far Right

Giulio Ercolessi – Critica liberale foundation

ABSTRACT – The xenophobic and racist climate currently existing in Italy is much more the responsibility of Silvio Berlusconi’s supposedly “mainstream centre-right” party than of the boorish Northern League. The internal opposition, the EPP, the Catholic hierarchy and foreign governments largely underestimated the phenomenon or were actively conniving. A disgraceful treaty with Libya is almost ignored. A part of the Italian cultural heritage, total control of the most important media, the power of setting the political agenda that comes with it, lack of conflict of interests prevention, a mediocre opposition, the collapse of cultural paradigms, the widespread “barbarity of specialisation”, the consequent lack of responsible élites allowed Berlusconi to absorb every populist demand and just merge them with his own personal interests. All this has legitimised xenophobic and racist attitudes and discourses, that at this point are not likely to disappear along with the end of Berlusconi’s political venture. Liberals should denounce and fight all forms of xenophobia and discrimination and promote the integration of immigrants as individuals, not as members of special communities. Strict enforcement of separation of religion and public institutions and protection of individual freedom, also against families and communities religious impositions, should be the path to integration and citizenship.

NOTE – This paper was written in November 2010, before the beginning of the uprisings in North Africa. The subsequent events made the xenophobic attitude of the Italian government even more evident. It was released as a contribution to the Klagenfurt seminar “Liberal Answers to Xenophobia and Community Conflicts in Europe”, organised on May 8th 2011 by the European Liberal Forum with the support of Liberales Zukunftsforum, FORES and NOVUM .


It is true that today’s Italy is the worst regression scenario in Western Europe, «an example of how fast racist ideas can gain a foothold once you let the extreme right in from the cold», as Lisa Bjurwald writes in the conclusions of her essay. The worst aspect of this political development is precisely the unprecedented and unpredictable cultural or perhaps anthropological change it induced in the general public.

Until a quarter of a century ago, most Italian media used not only to despise, but also to make mock of racism and communitarian riots and troubles occurring in other countries, and especially in the US. The assumption was that the more civilised and sophisticated Italian cultural tradition – the universalistic Catholic or perhaps even ancient Roman heritage – had immunised from such disease the country and its population, that would allegedly have “spontaneously” grown tolerant throughout the centuries. Even the anti-Jewish laws of 1938 were mostly ascribed to the sole personal responsibility of Benito Mussolini, and were often considered a mere cynical gesture on the part of the dictator, only aimed at showing the geopolitical alignment of the fascist regime to Nazi policies, rather than a cornerstone of its totalitarian views: their enforcement was usually – and wrongly – portrayed as relatively superficial and mild; and in any case the general public would just have acquiesced to their imposition, which would have in fact marked the beginning of a consensus collapse, leading in the end, after 1943, to an almost generalised rejection of the fascist regime and to the Resistance movement.

Actually, it is true that there was no sign of hostility towards foreigners a quarter of a century ago in Italy. The fact is that there was almost no foreign immigration at the time.

Spring 2010: in a small and until then quite inconspicuous town in Northern Italy, the mayor decides that pupils in the local primary school whose parents are in arrears with the payment of their contributions would only be served bread and water at lunch in the school canteen, where their schoolmates get normal meals. Not surprisingly, defaulter parents are mostly immigrants. A local small entrepreneur, a self-proclaimed Berlusconi coalition elector and supporter, says that, as a committed christian, he cannot accept such discriminations against innocent children and offers to pay the debts himself. And here comes the unimaginable reaction, a true sign of the utterly new cultural climate, obviously inoculated by the present current political and media discourse on immigration. The other children’s parents cry shame on the private benefactor: «It is an injustice that we, the local population, have to pay and they, the foreigners, are offered free meals for their children: from now on we also won’t pay if the foreigners are allowed to do so. If he wants to pay the foreigners’ bills, let the gentleman pay for our children as well».

This uncivilised reaction is nothing more than the popular translation of growing uncivilised political attitudes. Another example speaks more than any general comment on growing political xenophobic attitudes, and it is worth relating, also given it is inexplicably little known outside Italy.

It is a well known fact that only a tiny percentage of illegal immigrants land in Southern Europe, or used to land until recently, on board of small unsafe overcrowded boats. They are not at all the bulk of the total number, but a highly spectacular and impressive minority. At the time of the Prodi government, every new boat approaching the coast of Sicily was prime time news on Berlusconi and state TVs alike (after Berlusconi came once again to power, they were no longer given any relevance, strangely enough). That traffic was facilitated by the Gaddafi regime, whose officials used to get large amounts of money in bribes and extortions out of it.

The Berlusconi government signed a “friendship treaty” with Libya last year, committing Libya to systematically push back by force all immigrants trying to cross the Mediterranean on their route to Italy. Two thirds of those immigrants are asylum seekers, more than half of them recognised as such in the end by Italy in previous years. Now they are all indiscriminately sent back to Libya by patrol boats, provided to Libya by Italian taxpayers and with Italian liaison officers on board, ready and willing to open fire in international waters against any vessel disobeying their orders. Once in Libya, immigrant and asylum seekers (obviously including possible Libyan asylum seekers) are not given the opportunity of any, even summary, check of their legal position, and are locked up in concentration camps built, many of them in the Libyan desert, with financial means also provided by Italian taxpayers (Italy has also committed to finance a lot of other public works in exchange for that service). A few months after the treaty came into force, the Libyan regime expelled the handful of UNHCR inspectors trying until then to prevent at least the most awful abuses committed in those camps. That is, the Italian government is using the Libyan regime to hand it over all would-be immigrants and asylum seekers, and charge it with a dirty work impossible to be carried out on European soil: no international controls and no media watch.

Even more astonishing if possible, the so-called opposition joined the majority in ratifying the treaty in Parliament, on the ground that it was a long-overdue compensation for what colonial and fascist rule had done to Libya: in fact, because they did not want to be exposed by the Berlusconi coalition as the gauche-caviar advocates of asylum seekers’ rights. The decision was dictated on the Democratic Party by its former prime minister Massimo D’Alema (now the president of FEPS, the Foundation for European Progressive Studies, the network of foundations and think tanks connected to the European Socialist Party), who described the treaty with Libya as having «strategic importance». Only members of the two small Italian parties connected to ELDR (the radicals and Italia dei Valori), and a handful of Democratic Party dissidents voted against the ratification (greens and the extreme left are not represented in the present Italian Parliament).

In another move, the Berlusconi coalition introduced the new crime of illegal immigration: not its organisation, not human trafficking, just individual illegal entry on Italian territory, or overstaying after the expiration of residence permit. The largely predicted consequence has been an atrocious overcrowding in all Italian prisons, appalling living conditions in jails, lack of sanitation, sky-rocketing suicide rates among inmates.

It would be an extremely reductive explanation to blame these developments on the sole or main responsibility of the Northern League: after all, it is just a regional party, its influence being limited to a number of Northern regions, with just a tiny although growing presence in the central ones and totally absent in a large part of the country, including the entire South. Furthermore, the Northern League was born in the Eighties not as an openly racist, but as a mainly anti-tax party, its most important claim being the alleged imbalance of the fiscal burden between a tax-dodging South, largely ruled by a mafia-linked political establishment always ready to off-load lavish public expenditure on the shoulders of a supposedly law-abiding and more European-minded North. At the beginning, the Northern League was more radical than it is now in its claim for a secession of the Northern regions from the rest of Italy, but it pretended to act as a modernising (sometimes almost libertarian) rather than as a traditionalist Blut und Boden party, claiming noticeably that the more developed North of Italy was artificially kept distant and separated from its Central and Northern European natural markets and hinterland, thus preventing a virtuous deeper integration among similar territories because of the backwardness of the South of Italy. At the beginning they played according to the traditional national stereotypes: the North was also more secular than the South and the historical ground of the antifascist Resistance battle, unlike the more opportunist, clerical, obscurantist and fascist-minded South; it had voted for the Republic and against the monarchy in 1946, for the introduction of the divorce and abortion laws in 1974 and in 1981, each time defeating neat clerical majorities in the South; leaders of the Northern League even claimed that smaller Northern Italian families had to provide social benefits for the traditionally much more prolific Catholic South (even if birth-rate trends were already converging to the present lowest levels of the entire planet). A Northern League gay movement was very active and publicised for years in the front pages of the Northern League daily paper “La Padania”, and Roberto Maroni, already the Interior minister in the first Berlusconi government in 1994, gave an interview to a gay magazine in which he stated his support not only for gay families legal recognition, but also for the possibility of children adoption by gay couples – something that was not even in the agenda of the Italian gay movement at the time.

Actually, and oddly enough, the Northern League MEPs had initially even joined the liberal group in the European Parliament. They left it in 1996, a few hours before being expelled because of their growing populist and xenophobic attitude.

It is in fact very difficult for a populist party to play at the same time the role of a modernising movement and that of a movement rooted in ancestral traditions; especially if the tradition has to be invented outright, as no unitary Northern Italian state, political entity, nation, culture, language or dialect ever existed. Already since the early Nineties the flow of foreign immigrant workers, initially even more than nowadays concentrated in the North, had prompted a more and more racist attitude of the party, more than ready to take on board, with no filter or mediation, every complaint towards the central state power: foreign immigrants became more and more a target of discrimination, partly replacing the previous enemy, i.e. traditional internal immigrants from the South of Italy. But the great shift actually only took place in 1998, when the Northern League leadership lost its bet that the Prodi government would not be able to take Italy into the Eurozone. Until then, one of the “economic” reasons put forward by the Northern League to advocate the secession from Italy was that the unity of the country was the millstone round the neck of Northern Italy, preventing it from entering the Eurozone: the North should break away from Italy in order to be free to adopt the Euro as its currency and be a part of a prosperous Central Europe. From then on, instead, Europe and Eurocrats – and alongside all supporters of globalisation and “cosmopolitism” – became the chief enemies of Northern Italy. And with the Catholic Jubilee of the year 2000, the Northern League leadership, that previously had even threatened the Catholic Church that the North of Italy could join the Protestant Reformation with a delay of 500 years as a consequence of its charitable help to immigrants (Italian Protestants, who are mainly liberal and progressive, had obviously been horrified), suddenly became the most clerical party of the Italian political system, swiftly turning into the staunchest advocates of the “Catholic roots” of Italy and Europe, boycotting individual rights reforms, de facto families legal recognition, gay rights, artificial insemination, the availability of “day-after pill”, living will legal validity, any legalisation of euthanasia, etc., and overcoming in their novice clerical zeal even Berlusconi’s party and the heirs of the most clerical sectors of the former Christian democrats.

The primary political responsibility for Italy’s new racist and xenophobic attitude is not to be ascribed to the Northern League (that is just the tip of the iceberg, the most bizarre and ludicrous side of the phenomenon), but to what has been unfortunately for more than fifteen years now, the largest Italian political party, that of Silvio Berlusconi, a large and manifold party indeed, but basically a radical right-wing populist party, whose “centre-right” supposed qualification is largely endorsed for social and political convenience both in Italy and abroad. Neither most of the Italian political opposition nor Italy’s European and international partners and allies are willing to recognise that one of Europe’s biggest players is being ruled for years by a radical right-wing populist coalition. And almost no one in Europe is charging the European Popular Party with the disgrace of taking on board Berlusconi’s Italian party, thus helping him cover the true nature of his entire political venture, in the eyes of so many Europeans and indeed of so many Italians.

Yet, the nature of Berlusconi’s policy should have been obvious from day one: in the very first press conference when he announced his decision of starting a political career, Berlusconi’s first commitment as a political leader was supporting the then secretary general of the then openly neofascist party in the run-off ballot for the Rome municipal elections of 1993 (that party was named Movimento Sociale Italiano, after the name of Repubblica Sociale Italiana, i.e. the puppet state established by Mussolini between 1943 and 1945 in the last, bloodiest and darkest stage in the history of the fascist movement, when it really acted almost as a local branch of the Third Reich). Is then Berlusconi a fascist? Not necessarily, he simply doesn’t care, he just needed some already existing party in the political system in order to build up a winning coalition, and the MSI leaders had no other possible coalition partner: Berlusconi offered them, for the first time in almost half a century, the opportunity to be a partner in a possible governmental majority.

Later he also offered the Catholic hierarchy, that had lost its decades-long Christian Democrats traditional political representation, all they could demand: not only he imposed on a more and more secularised society the most clerical legislation in Western Europe in all the controversial social issues involving the interests of the Vatican, and a round-the-clock Catholic programs presence in all public media, but also a flow of taxpayers money that can approximately be estimated to amount to about eight billion Euros yearly. Enough to convince the Vatican hierarchy to keep extremely discreet or silent on Berlusconi’s own insouciant personal lifestyle.

Indeed Berlusconi had no political ideas of his own to defend: he started a political career just because it was the only way to escape criminal prosecution for himself and bankruptcy for his companies. This would have been the most likely consequence of the anti-corruption investigations and rallies of the early Nineties, that had already brought to jail a huge number of prominent politicians, industrialists and businessmen. For all the rest, his political agenda was open to be entirely written on the basis of the demands of the public, pinpointed with the same techniques used in commercial marketing. The agenda was repeatedly changed later, throughout the years, in order to fit the changes registered by opinion polls and focus groups. He just managed to combine those demands with the vested interests included in his social coalition and to package the result with the most sophisticated and updated techniques of commercial advertising. Berlusconi offered his public the political product they demanded, deliberately bypassing and spurning any filter provided by civility, intellectual prudence, civilisation, established political cultures, respect for individuals’ dignity and the existing constitutional framework, care for possible unintended regressive consequences of his political and social actions, international commitments and so on. Whatever political promise he is not able to keep, it is the fault of others: public prosecutors, judges, academics, intellectuals – all labelled as “communists” or “useful idiots” in the hands of communists – and unidentified “strong powers”. Everybody is allowed to fill this label with whatever one’s own stereotypes, prejudices, personal aversions suggest, from financiers to communists, from old-established industrialists to free-masonry, from Eurocrats to islamists. No surprise, he appeared to his supporters as the child claiming that the king wasn't wearing anything at all: a simple truth that the previous hypocritical and ossified establishment was no longer able to perceive, as ordinary solid hard-working citizens – and Berlusconi himself – naturally are.

So, even if nothing suggests that Berlusconi is a true racist in his private life, he has no problems in showing a totally uninhibited racist attitude if he is convinced that his customers like that: a few days before a crucial election he can utter with no unease or regret that he «reject[s] a multiethnic Italian society», the growing multiracial look of many Italian cities being for him a reason of annoyance. He commits his coalition to «zero tolerance towards gypsies, illegal immigrants and criminals». He can state that «a decrease in the number of non-EU immigrants means fewer recruits for criminal organisations» (he made this statement a few days after a pogrom was organised by the local mafia against immigrants in the Calabrian town Rosarno). He repeatedly joked on President Obama being very “tanned”, on gays and even on the Holocaust. Critics of such statements, “jokes” and comments are systematically dismissed by Berlusconi and his supporters (ministers, MPs, prominent journalists and commentators) as hypocritical and “politically correct”.

The treaty with Libya is just one of the most horrible among the consistent consequences of this general attitude. So are the sadistic bureaucratic ordeals continuously imposed on legal immigrants, the brutal evacuations of Romanies ordered by local mayors in many cities, the customary racial characterisation of crime news reporting, especially on TV. So is the general cultural climate where all this appear normal and, most of all, is passed off to public opinion as “moderate” by most of the mainstream media.

How has that been possible, after almost half a century of nearly normal liberal parliamentary democracy? And how is it possible that Italians accept as prime minister an individual that refused to take the oath in a mafia trial, whose two closest political and personal friends were convicted respectively for corrupting judges to his personal advantage and for cooperating with the mafia, who was himself acquitted of an incredible number of ignominious accusations only because judgements were barred by the statute of limitations (he was entitled to refuse and claim a judgment on the merits – something he never did), or because he took advantage of a general amnesty (which he also would be entitled to refuse), or because his own parliamentary majority reduced the amount of time required for the statute of limitation to be applied to the crimes he was indicted for, or even because legislation was rushed through Parliament so that one of those crimes be simply cancelled from the penal code a few days before he is sentenced (in a trial that had been going on for months)?

A lot of answers have been proposed throughout the years, ranging from the cultural heritage of the Counterreformation to that of fascism, from the late XVI and XVII century “refeudalisation” process to the inculcation of authoritarian and servile attitudes in education and social relations since the time of Renaissance seigniories, to the heritage of courtliness and long foreign domination.

The author of this paper is far from underestimating the importance of such historical or perhaps “culturalistic” explanations.

Yet, even if that sort of historical heritage is still to be considered rooted in some cultural depositories of important segments of the Italian society, its fast and effective reactivation at the end of the XX century has probably also more obvious and pedestrian reasons. And many of these reasons are much less peculiar to the Italian case. Indeed, in interpreting Italian history one is often led to mistake what actually is the vanguard of a common European regression for some sort of peculiar national backwardness. The same had already happened about ninety years ago.

A first possible explanation is the lack of any effective anti-trust media legislation, that had allowed Berlusconi to get the control of the entire sector of commercial TV at national level and of a huge proportion of the existing printed media – from daily papers to all kind of specialised magazines – before he decided to make any political use of it and to enter into the political arena. According to some estimates, up to half of Italian professional journalists are Berlusconi’s employees: that means that even those who are not his employees for the time being can reasonably think that they too can be sooner or later absorbed in Berlusconi’s media empire or find better career opportunities in one of his media. That obviously does not stimulate widespread critical attitudes by media professionals.

Freedom of the media exists, although Berlusconi has the habit of suing many of his most severe opponents for defamation damages in civil (not penal) courts, counting on the lengthy times of civil justice, and thus forcing his most dangerous critics to advance often unbearable legal costs. But he found that in order to achieve a deep and decisive political influence one does not need to crush media freedom in general: one only needs to control the media that count most. In Italy, one of the countries with the fastest ageing population on earth, that basically means controlling the major TV news. If 80% of the population have TV as their main source of political information, five of the major national TV journals provide a virtual control of the information reaching 60% of the Italian public: a sector of the population unlikely to be particularly avid for more than one source of information. Berlusconi’s control over those TV news is total.

A previously marginal or even ridiculous political thesis becomes that of a respected minority when continuously repeated and not seriously challenged for weeks, and has good chances of becoming majority in a matter of months; and of representing the general common sense and wisdom after a few years. Most of all, the control of the major TV news allows Berlusconi to set the political agenda, forcing the opposition to play on the ground he decides, obviously the most favourable to him.

A majority of the Italian public is nowadays convinced that Berlusconi has been consistently and unjustly persecuted for years by an almost thoroughly “communist” judiciary and thinks that he was always acquitted of all charges rather than almost always saved just thanks to the statute of limitations.

A second condition for Berlusconi’s success has been the lack of an effective legislation on conflicts of interest, preventing the holder of huge economic and media interests to make use of them to acquire and exercise top political power. Both these two first explanations describe situations that are obviously also a consequence of the poor quality and cultural frailty of the main political opposition, the Democratic Party, basically composed of surviving former communist and christian democrat party rank and file.

But the most important lesson to be drawn from the Italian case is that liberal democracy continues to be almost as fragile as it used to be before World War II: perhaps it is fragile again, after its main identitarian enemy collapsed together with the Soviet block – communism had after all been for decades the main identity supplier for Western democracies in their effort to build an opposite and rival model of organisation of society.

When liberal democracy is given for granted, just because regular elections are held in due time, when the basics of its foundation are no longer considered at risk, the quality of democracy is probably bound to decline.

Education of the public should be considered paramount. But citizens’ democratic education should require a widespread historical awareness, an aim that is probably more and more difficult to pursue when sequential and diachronical knowledge becomes obsolete. Even more than that, the very early specialisation in the plans of studies especially required of the most brilliant students in our universities – and certainly not liberalism or “relativism” – is the real cause for the “closing of the Western mind” and for the growing short-sightedness of all Western élites. It is retrospectively amazing to recollect how this development could have been predicted by Ortega y Gasset since 1930.

Even though what can be described as the Italian national academic and intellectual establishment in the strictest sense of the words has so far largely resisted to political corruption on average and despite many remarkable exceptions better than one could expect (and much better than under fascist rule), the overall poor quality of the Italian élites is another major clue to understand Berlusconi’s success.

It is indeed frightening to realize how little the awareness of the current cultural decline is generally perceived by the present Italian political and economical establishment. The collapse of the totalitarian ideologies of the XX century is often described as a sort of liberation from every cultural framework enabling individuals to combine their intellectual knowledge with ethical-political values and historical awareness. Popular media and TV trash political discourse are thus establishing their influence also on those segments of society that should be normally expected to act as the most aware civic conscience of the society. Individuals who are articulate, learned and very knowledgeable in their own professional field often discuss political affairs – and notably immigration and integration – within the same superficial framework provided to the general public by trash TV programs and political charlatans.

Can liberal democracy expand or even survive when élites are no longer able to provide any accepted filter or framework for the discussion of public affairs? I think this is a good subject for European liberals to debate.

Discussing the xenophobic influence of the new extreme and far European populist Right obviously entails another question: is there a peculiar liberal contribution that can be proposed to immigration and integration policies?

Fighting all forms of xenophobia is obviously paramount. Hate crimes should be a public order top priority and always severely persecuted. Hate towards minorities should always be taken into consideration as a special aggravating circumstance to any crime, and involve much more severe punishment. Actually these crimes always have a double criminal intent and double victims: the directly targeted individuals and all those belonging to the groups they are part of, who suffer intimidation and stigmatisation. Ethnic, racist, gender or sexual orientation discrimination also deserves rigorous repression, prompt and effective legal remedies and should entail punitive compensation.

But in my opinion liberals should always treat individuals as individuals, never accept to ascribe them to homogeneous communities on the basis of their ethnic or family origin. And if religious freedom is to be taken seriously, no public authority should ever be allowed to make any assumption on an individual’s own religious or cultural belief or affiliation based upon his/her ethnic or national origin. We should never accept towards or inside immigrant communities behaviours and attitudes that we would fight – and actually always fought in the past and in the present – towards our fellow citizens or within the native population. Even minors’ religious freedom is nowadays protected in our countries by our constitutional laws and by the New York 1989 international convention on the Rights of Children. This states that «the child who is capable of forming his or her own views» must be protected from religious impositions, also by his/her own family or community.

Intolerant religious communities often consider the freedom of criticising their beliefs, as well as separatism and secular public institutions, as an infringement to their religious freedom. Such has been, for example, the traditional attitude of the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy every time that neutrality of public institutions is enforced or religious signs removed from public buildings in order to respect equal rights and the equal social dignity of every individual. Liberals always opposed this attitude of intolerant religious leaders, advocating (in the words of Thomas Jefferson) «a wall of separation» between the public and the religious spheres. Requiring the respect for this principle on the part of all organised religions, and also on the part of non native ones, should not be considered a sign of disrespect – or, in the case of Islam, a sign of islamophobia.

The subject is very delicate indeed, because there is no doubt that populists often do make use of secularist issues and attitudes as excuses to cover their own xenophobic ones. But liberals, at least in traditionally Catholic European societies, have such a consistent, centuries old and still ongoing history of opposition to clerical authoritarian claims that they cannot give up to similar or identical claims when laid down by immigrant communities or individuals rather than by natives.

Individuals should always be rigorously protected by law against any form of defamation, but we should never accept that religious beliefs be protected against freedom of speech: we can by no means accept to outlaw Voltaire again.

Moreover, in the case of Islam, there is no reason for supporting fundamentalists’ positions against those of more liberal or even more traditional Muslims, just because some of our fellow citizens like the idea that the immigrated population has to be as much exotic as possible and as much entrenched in communitarian enclosures as possible. This idea, according to which immigrants should “naturally” behave and appear as much separate, exotic and cohesive as possible, is paradoxically shared by populist xenophobes and by those most naive supporters of multiculturalism that appreciate communitarian co-existence more than a society of individuals based upon a common civic and constitutional covenant. We cannot accept that religious uniformity be imposed, by fair means or foul, inside immigrated communities and families, more than we would be prepared to accept that in the native population. We cannot ascribe children of immigrated families to the supposed culture of origin of their parents or ancestors, assuming that it is, or should be, “their” culture. In the end we should never forget that religious freedom is not only the freedom to practice the religion of one’s ancestors as it was. It is also the individual freedom to abandon and relinquish one’s ancestors’ religion.

As liberal organisations and individual rights advocates, we cannot afford underestimating, or even be perceived as playing down, such social – and not just criminal – issues as genital mutilation, forced marriage, abuse of chastisement, domestic violence, only because xenophobes and racist scandalmongers use to exploit these issues to their ends. Liberal campaigns aimed at fighting xenophobic and racist foes, exposing the benefits of open borders and diversity and fostering integration can only take advantage and gain in credibility from the most unequivocal and most uncompromising stand on such issues.

And if a cultural policy is to be encouraged, we should favour the interaction and knowledge by Western Muslims of modes of argument, techniques of texts exegesis, contaminations with principles and values typical of democratic, liberal, egalitarian modernity that could possibly even lead to a renewal of Islam, if not a full-fledged Reformation: should it ever occur, it will probably spring precisely from the immigration in the West, and may have enormous and beneficial consequences for the entire global Islamic world as well as for international understanding, cooperation, peace and security.

In Italy, as a reaction against a naive centre-left coalition that was never prepared to take seriously their demands for protection from communitarian and domestic impositions and violence, just like it was not prepared to openly fight the government xenophobic agenda and discourse, the leader of the Association of Moroccan Women in Italy was even led to accept a parliamentary candidature within Berlusconi’s party rather than with the opposition! Maybe she understood or cared little about Italian politics, but she was even too much aware of what communitarian and religious violence meant for her and her sisters.

It is common wisdom to note that both the two main models of integration policies – the French individualistic one and the Anglo-Dutch communitarian one – have failed. And to an extent it is probably true. But the reasons are very different. In my opinion the real shortcoming of the French experience does not lie in the legal model, but in the widespread social racism existing in the French society, that creates an explosive contradiction between the principles, the promise of legal equality and equal opportunities and the actual results.

On the one hand it is true that in the French political tradition separation was not born as a defence of religious freedom in the first place, even though, like everywhere, it liberated native religious minorities from oppression by the dominant religion. In the French tradition the emphasis is rather on the sovereignty of the nation above any sort of religious, cultural or political membership or affiliation of individuals, and on the prominent cultural role of the state. But on the other hand, if the Jacobinic ideological framework is not acceptable from a liberal point of view, in real terms all debates on immigration and integration policies in France today have much more to do with the protection of individuals from de facto religious impositions than with the alleged “sacralised” neutrality of republican institutions.

Take, for example, the integral veil issue (burqa or niqab): there obviously are also practical public order concerns (the same that in some countries motivate the prohibition to walk in the streets wearing an integral motorcycle helmet), but the main problem is that individuals in the public sphere should be made individually responsible for their acts, and that requires that they are individually recognisable.

One could argue that religious freedom and respect for ethnic identity should suggest a more “open-minded” attitude and therefore an exception. But the veil is not only a religious sign. On the contrary, as a religious sign, the Koranic foundation of the prescription of the veil – of whatever kind of veil, not only the integral ones – is disputed by non fundamentalist Islamic scholars – and by the way, very reasonably, according to the letter of texts. The veil has been, rather, a traditional, and indeed almost universal, not merely Islamic, sign of patriarchal subjugation of women in the past, and, as such, is conflicting with a very basic principle of our constitutional fabric as equality between men and women. In the balance between the two ethical and constitutional values – equality and equal social dignity of women on the one hand and respect for religious and communitarian identity on the other – why is it that the second should prevail and allow an exception to a general rule? It is true that today the integral veil is used by a tiny minority. But failing to regulate it now could entail being barred from doing it if and when many more women would decide or could be forced to wear it – and the evidence of the imposition be almost impossible to detect.

For other forms of veil – or scarves, if we accept the euphemism – dilemmas are less dramatic, but still serious. In a secular state neutrality should be required of public institutions, or at most of those acting in their name. In theory, in the French interpretation of laïcité it is also required of private individuals entering the public sphere. But if one listened to the hearings of the Stasi commission (the presidential commission set up a few years ago to discuss “religious signs” in public schools), the real point was not that. I confess that, due to listening to those hearings on TV, I myself entirely changed my initial position: at the beginning I opposed any prohibition, in the name of individual religious freedom. In the hearings the point appeared not to be the sacred public sphere of the French Republic, the point was the protection of the free development of the individual personalities of minors of age, in face of a previously unimaginable widespread family and community imposition of religious uniformity that had been established in large areas of the French territory. The tragic choice of the French legislator was between either prohibiting the use of the veil also to those school-girls who really wanted to wear it or accepting its imposition on those who were victims of a silent violence that was possible to detect only in a few number of extreme situations and only in case of a stubborn and almost heroic resistance on the part of the girl. And in any case its constant imposition from the age of puberty onwards would inevitably turn out in a life-long conditioning, because everybody understands that through the years a garment that must be constantly worn in public can develop into nothing less than a second skin. But the real rationale of the French prohibition of the veil during school time is the respect for the free development of the personality of minors of age and not, as officially stated by the French authorities, the mere (and unacceptable) protection of the sacralised neutrality of the public sphere, extended to include even the garments of private individuals: the proof of this is that, unlike in Turkey, wearing the veil is an available option for students in French universities, and rightly so, because university students are not under age.

Immigrants have an indisputable right to build their own churches, temples or mosques. That does not mean that they should be entitled to do it with taxpayers’ money (nor should Catholics), nor that every mosque built in Europe should be an architectural copy of those of Saudi Arabia: like the sort of imposing “Gulf spacecrafts” that were built in Bosnia after the recent war, replacing the destroyed elegant old Turkish-style mosques traditional in the Balkans. Not surprisingly, given the donors and sponsors, the change in the architectural patterns has carried along a change in the brand of teaching and preaching. Modern architecture has changed the way Christian churches are built: it has not to be considered islamophobia negotiating the appearance of buildings, the same way it is routinely done for the designs of every kind of new buildings, houses, edifices or structures, including Christian churches, to be built in our cities, so that the horrible Bosnian experience is not replicated in other European countries.

Even in Italy, and already a lot of years ago, courts decided that churches bells would no longer be allowed to wake up citizens early in the morning or to ring every hour of day and night in our cities, after long and sometimes quite bitter legal disputes: it should not be considered a sign of islamophobia in the next few years preventing imams from using minarets loudspeakers the way they are now claiming they have the constitutional right to use them in some towns of Northern Germany, the same way that has been customary in some traditionally Muslim countries.

In conclusion, I think that we should take up the challenge of populist fear-mongers, explain the good reasons and the beneficial economic and cultural consequences of immigration and diversity, fight racism and xenophobia openly rather than adopt the typical cautious low profile that always results in an implicit legitimation of populist discourse. But we should at the same time refrain from playing down the problems for individual freedom and human rights arising from any attempt to re-introduce authoritarian or patriarchal traditions and from growing religious fundamentalisms. If a part of the Catholic Church hierarchy is more than ready to join the xenophobic and populist wave as means to claim the restoration of its old own privileged stand, it is revealing that other Catholic leaders are tempted to seize the opportunity of a new multireligious society in order to try re-imposing religious supremacy in a joint venture with the most fundamentalist among newcomers, aimed at repealing the secularisation of the public sphere, sharing out more public resources and taxpayers’ money and restoring a privileged status of religious beliefs, leaders and institutions at the expenses of secular citizens and their cultures and associations. In some European countries the “interreligious dialogue” has already replaced integration policies aimed at individuals and based upon a shared constitutional and civic covenant.

Liberal values and principles can only be enforced in an institutional framework of religious neutrality and separation – as large as practically feasible – between religion and political power, that has proved so successful in our liberal tradition. A multireligious society needs neutrality and separation more, not less, than the European more homogeneous societies of the XIX and XX centuries.


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