The willing censor - Muslim critic charged in Italy
'The moment you give up your principles, and your values, you are dead, your culture is dead, your civilisation is dead. Period.'
By Tunku Varadarajan
Oriana Fallaci faces jail. In her mid-seventies and stricken with a cancer that, for the moment, permits only the consumption of liquids - so yes, we drank champagne in the course of a three-hour interview - one of the most renowned journalists of the modern era has been indicted by a judge in her native Italy under provisions of the Italian penal code which proscribe the "vilipendio", or "vilification", of "any religion admitted by the state".
In her case, the religion deemed vilified is Islam, and the vilification was perpetrated, apparently, in a book she wrote last year - which has sold many more than a million copies in Europe - called The Force of Reason.
Oriana Fallaci Its astringent thesis is that the Old Continent is on the verge of becoming a dominion of Islam and that the people of the West have surrendered themselves fecklessly to the "sons of Allah". So, in a nutshell, Fallaci faces up to two years' imprisonment for her beliefs - which is one reason why she has chosen to stay in New York.
Let us give thanks for the First Amendment.
"When I was given the news, I laughed," Fallaci says of her indictment.
"Bitterly, of course, but I laughed. No amusement, no surprise, because the trial is nothing else but a demonstration that everything I've written is true."
An activist judge in Bergamo, in northern Italy, took it upon himself to admit a complaint against Fallaci that even the local prosecutors would not touch. The complainant, one Adel Smith - who, despite his name, is Muslim, and an incendiary public provocateur to boot - has a history of anti-Fallaci crankiness and is widely believed to be behind the publication of a pamphlet, Islam Punishes Oriana Fallaci, which exhorts Muslims to "eliminate" her.
(Ironically, Mr Smith, too, faces the peculiar charge of vilipendio against religion after he described the Roman Catholic Church as "a criminal organisation" on television. Two years ago, he made news in Italy by filing a suit for the removal of crucifixes from all public school classrooms and also, allegedly, for flinging a crucifix from the window of a hospital room where his mother was being treated. "My mother will not die in a room where there is a crucifix," he said, according to hospital officials.)
Fallaci speaks in a passionate growl: "Europe is no longer Europe, it is 'Eurabia', a colony of Islam, where the Islamic invasion does not proceed only in a physical sense but also in a mental and cultural sense.
"Servility to the invaders has poisoned democracy, with obvious consequences for the freedom of thought and for the concept itself of liberty."
Such words are deeply, immensely politically incorrect and one is tempted to believe that it is her tone, her vocabulary, and not necessarily her substance or basic message that attracted the ire of the judge in Bergamo and made her so radioactive in the eyes of Europe's cultural elites.
"Civilisations die from suicide, not by murder," the historian Arnold Toynbee wrote, and these words could certainly be Fallaci's. She is in a black gloom about Europe and its future: "The increased presence of Muslims in Italy, and in Europe, is directly proportional to our loss of freedom."
There is about her a touch of Oswald Spengler, the German philosopher and prophet of decline, as well as a flavour of Samuel Huntington and his clash of civilisations. But above all there is pessimism, pure and unashamed. When I ask what "solution" there might be to prevent the European collapse of which she speaks, she flares up like a lit match.
"How do you dare to ask me for a solution? It's like asking Seneca for a solution. You remember what he did?" She then gestures at slashing her wrists. "He committed suicide!" Seneca was accused of being involved in a plot to murder the emperor Nero. Without a trial, he was ordered by Nero to kill himself. One senses that Fallaci sees in Islam the shadow of Nero.
"What could Seneca do?" she asks, with a discernible shudder. "He knew it would end that way - with the fall of the Roman Empire. But he could do nothing."
The impending fall of the West, as she sees it, torments Fallaci. And as much as that fall, what torments her is the blithe way in which the West is marching toward its precipice of choice. "Look at the school system of the West today. Students do not know history! They don't know who Churchill was! In Italy, they don't even know who Cavour was!" - a reference to Count Camillo Benso di Cavour, the conservative father, with the radical Garibaldi, of modern Italy.
Fallaci, rarely reverent, pauses to reflect on the question of where all the conservatives have gone in Europe. "In the beginning, I was dismayed, and I asked, how is it possible that we do not have a Cavour.
He was a revolutionary, and yes, he was not of the Left. Italy needs a Cavour - Europe needs a Cavour." Fallaci describes herself, too, as a revolutionary - "because I do what conservatives in Europe don't do, which is that I don't accept being treated like a delinquent."
She professes to "cry, sometimes, because I'm not 20 years younger, and I'm not healthy. But if I were, I would even sacrifice my writing to enter politics somehow."
She pauses to light a slim black cigarillo and take a sip of champagne.
Fortified, she returns to vehement speech. "You cannot survive if you do not know the past. We know why all the other civilisations have collapsed - from an excess of welfare, of richness, and from lack of morality, of spirituality." (She uses "welfare" here in the sense of well-being, so she is talking, really, of decadence.)
"The moment you give up your principles, and your values, you are dead, your culture is dead, your civilisation is dead. Period.
"I feel less alone when I read the books of Ratzinger." I had asked whether there was any contemporary leader she admired. Pope Benedict XVI was evidently a man in whom she reposed some trust.
"I am an atheist, and if an atheist and a pope think the same things, there must be something true. It's that simple! There must be some human truth here that is beyond religion."
Fallaci, who made her name interviewing statesmen (and not a few tyrants), believes that ours is "an age without leaders. We stopped having leaders at the end of the 20th century".
Of George W. Bush, she will concede only that he has "vigour," and that he is "obstinate" (in her book a compliment) and "gutsy". But it is "Ratzinger", as she insists on calling the Pope, who is her soulmate.
John Paul II was a "warrior, who did more to end the Soviet Union than even America", but she will not forgive him for his "weakness toward the Islamic world. Why, why was he so weak?"
The scant hopes that she has for the West she rests on his successor. As a cardinal, Pope Benedict XVI wrote frequently on the European (and the
Western) condition. Last year, he wrote an essay titled If Europe Hates Itself, from which Fallaci reads this to me: "The West reveals… a hatred of itself, which is strange and can only be considered pathological; the West… no longer loves itself; in its own history, it now sees only what is deplorable and destructive, while it is no longer able to perceive what is great and pure."
"Ecco!" she says. A man after her own heart. But I cannot be certain whether I see triumph in her eyes or pain. She refuses to attend the trial in Bergamo, set for next June.
"I don't even know if I will be around next year. My cancers are so bad that I think I've arrived at the end of the road. What a pity. I would like to live, not only because I love life so much but because I'd like to see the result of the trial. I do think I will be found guilty."
She laughs. Bitterly, of course, but she laughs.
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