Islamophobia in Italy

By Rinella Cere

For the last year we have been studying representations of migratory populations as well as refugee and asylum seekers from the southeast to the northwest in the Italian media (television news and press).  Some of this research involved the representations of Islam, as anti-Islamic feelings were whipped up by the Lega Nord[1] and other centre-right forces alongside sections of the Catholic Church, around what in the first instance could appear a non-event: the building of a mosque in Lodi[2], last October (2000). Through the pretext of a so-called ‘Islamic invasion’ new alliances were forged and for the purpose of our research it re-proposed the problem of whether the Italian state is a truly secular state, whether the RAI (the Italian public service broadcast) is in fact still the same ‘Christian videocracy’ (videocrazia cristiana)[3] of old and whether a multi-cultural society is a reality only in terms of ‘negation’ of the other.

The 11th of September changed indeed some of the parameters we were working within, but not for the same reasons we have read about in much of the western media, i.e. that the world will never be the same again. As far as media representations of Muslim culture is concerned the world is very much the same, only worse. We will only briefly mention an example from our sample last year to illustrate how the prejudices deeply embedded within western Christian culture were unfolding prior to the 11th of September in sections of Italian society and political culture. The example concerns a statement made by Cardinal Giacomo Biffi about Muslims and how they were not ‘part of our humanity’. Although our works was predominantly concerned on how this ‘public statement’ was covered by the national public service news broadcast (see Appendix 1 for transcript of RAI 1 News) it is worth pointing out that anti-Islamic discourses had been circulating for some time and that ‘a pact with the devil’ was clearly made between sections of the Catholic Church and the Lega Nord.[4] .

This undoubtedly produced the ‘classical’ polarisation of orient vs. occident, Islam vs. the Christian west (in this case Catholic), what has been very well discussed by Said in his book Orientalism[5] and in Covering Islam: ‘Insofar as Islam has always been seen as belonging to the Orient, its particular faith within the general structure of Orientalism has been to be looked at first of all as if it were one monolithic thing, and then with a very special hostility and fear’.[6]

These sentiments may not be as severe as in the ‘Middle Ages and the early Renaissance when in Europe Islam was believed to be a demonic religion of apostasy, blasphemy and obscurity’[7], nonetheless Cardinal Biffi’s pronouncements evoked similar judgements towards Muslims today. Especially significant was the fact that Biffi’s judgement extended beyond the religious divide and Muslim culture as a whole was seen as a threat to Italian national identity and to Italian customs, with an inevitable confluence of Catholic identity with Italian identity: ‘Catholicism remains our historic Italian religion and we have to worry about safeguarding our national identity’.

According to this view Italy would be a theocracy rather than a ‘videocracy’[8]. In fact in Italy the Constitution states that people are free to practice different religions, and Catholicism, although the majority religion, cannot be equated with being a state religion; a contradiction which is picked up Hamza Piccardo, the leader of the Muslim Community interviewed:

‘…The Cardinal seems to forget some important things, firstly that Italy is a secular state, secondly that Italy is not only made of Catholics but of Jews, Protestants and today of Muslims; …the fact that our community has full right to live in this country and practise in a relation of reciprocal communal life and respect with all the other communities. His insistence (Biffi’s) on our inability to fit in, to homogenise with Italian society, I think shows for the most, a sign of difficulty from sections of the church (Catholic)’.

And this brings us to the discourses circulating in Italy post-11 of September, as I feel centre-right political forces and an uncritical televisual media had already laid the ‘ground’. In a so-called open society with a ‘free media’[9] all discourses are indeed allowed to circulate, even the most misinformed and prejudiced.  Although this is also the same society, which organised a peace march attended by 200.000 people, the largest in Europe (14 October 2001). 

We will just touch on three anti-Islamic episodes, the first of which has been reported European-wide as they concerned the ‘airing’ of the Prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi on a trip to Berlin on the 26th of September[10]. The second concerns the call to close the two mosques in the centre of Naples by counsellors of Forza Italia and Alleanza Nazionale.[11] The third and most recent one concerned the amendment proposed to the European Parliament by Francesco Speroni, MEP and member of the Lega Nord, to bar Muslims from entering the country.[12]

When racist utterances come out of the mouth of a Prime Minister in a public forum, one is not inclined to think that it is a single incident devoid of significance, even when that utterance is timed with an event where self-proclaimed Muslims have killed about 5000 people. It is undoubtedly a clear example of what has for years gone under the terminology of ‘structural racism’, a deep and embedded culture of discrimination, largely based on the dichotomies mentioned above.  When Berlusconi commits one of his blunders, which he does often, in spite of the ‘communication machine’ he has put in place ever since he entered the political arena, he always claims that he has been misunderstood.  As if his words were written on sand and could be removed with the next tide.  Perhaps his worst to date are the words uttered in Berlin about the ‘superiority of our civilization’.

When councillors from Forza Italia and Alleanza Nazionale call for the closure of two mosques in the centre of Naples because, according to them ‘mosques in the centre of Naples are a public danger’ and ‘people are frightened, there are too many Muslims around here’, again it does not strike one as unmotivated act.  Especially when the motives given for such a call are described as ‘trying to avoid any clashes between the two communities’, which in fact have been co-existing for decades.  And as a ‘way of reparation’ they suggest moving the mosques to the countryside (‘meglio creare nuovi luoghi di culto in provincia’) where according to them, there is less tension and less possibility of conflict. 

Before exposing his racist idea in Strasbourg Speroni had already circulated them in Italy, namely on the Lega Nord own television station, Telepadania and latterly on TeleLombardia.  This ‘idea’ is that Muslims should be denied entry into countries of the European Community. And if that was not bad enough he suggested that we should treat Muslims the way we have treated the ‘Fiorentina’ (the Italian steak on the bone banned by the European Community): ‘The European Community has decided that we cannot eat ‘Fiorentina’, not because it tastes awful or because it is harmful, but because there is a danger.  In the same way we should behave with Muslims.’  This ‘degrading’ parallel, apart from its sheer ‘ignorance’, is symptomatic of the direction the Lega Nord has taken over the years, further and further into right-wing racist and xenophobic ideologies, to encompass not just southern Italian people but all immigrants.  Even more dubious is the final part of Speroni’s argument when he states that ‘Muslims’ already in Italy (and Europe) who are good and well behaved (‘buoni e bravi’) can stay, which underlies the far more worrying racist trend described by Taguieff as ‘tolerant racism’.[13] For the Lega Nord there is a further argument about ‘separateness’, never looming far in the background, which is the ‘trademark’ of their formation and yet another ‘new form of racism’, again what Taguieff has defined as ‘the substitution of the much discredited racial superiority with the acceptable version of difference between traditions’.[14]

Which for Taguieff is just as problematic, where clearly the western tradition is nonetheless seen as superior, and as we have seen above not completely extraneous to the dominant party of the coalition, Forza Italia.

Rinella Cere is a lecturer in international media studies at Sheffield Hallam University.  Her latest book is EUROPEAN AND NATIONAL IDENTITIES IN BRITAIN AND ITALY: Maastricht on Television, published by Edwin Mellen Press, Lewiston, NY.   2000



[3] Bianco A (1974)  La Videocrazia Cristiana.  Rai-Tv, cosa, chi, come.   Rimini, Guaraldi

[4] I called it ‘the pact with the devil’ because the Lega Nord, at least in its earlier history declared to be an anti-clerical party, and many of the earlier campaigns not only were they directed against the power of Rome in the state sense but also against the power of the Vatican.

[5] Said E W (1991, 1st ed 1978) Orientalism. Western Conceptions of the Orient.  London, Penguin, p205

[6] Said E (1997 ed., first ed. 1981) Covering Islam.  How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World, London, Vintage, p4

[7] ibid, p5

[8] A term widely used in Italy, in the past used to refer to the political control of the Christian Democratic Party over the public service RAI, today more in reference to the fact that the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, owns most of the commercial media.

[9] This term of course is especially problematic in a country where nearly half of the media is still in the hands of the now Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, previously known as one of the first European moguls and still presently indicted in Spain for ‘tax evasion’ on his media enterprise there, TeleCinco.

[10] Luzi G, Berlusconi a consulto da Prodi ‘Niente scontri tra due civilta’, la Repubblica, 11 October 2001

[11] Russo P, Guerra santa del Polo 'Chiudere la Moschea', La Repubblica, 12 October 2001

[12] Passalacqua G, La crociata di Speroni 'Via tutti i musulmani', La Repubblica, 17 October 2001; also Tutti contro Speroni 'No alle frontiere chiuse', La Repubblica, 16 October 2001 

[13] Taguieff P (1994) La forza del pregiudizio. Saggio sul razzismo e sull’antirazzismo. Il Mulino, Bologna, pp399-435

[14]Ibid, p423