The obituaries and tributes to Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, who died of cancer last week, illustrate the gulf between principle and politics.
When I was in college, Fallaci was twice a hero — as a reporter whose portraits and interviews cut to the heart of the arrogance and brutality of power in Interview With History — and as a political activist who took enormous risks to fight fascism, dictatorships, sexism, and the Vietnam War.
In Margaret Talbot’s recent profile in The New Yorker, she quoted from Fallaci’s preface, words I still remember from 30 years ago:
“Whether it comes from a despotic sovereign or an elected president, from a murderous general or a beloved leader, I see power as an inhuman and hateful phenomenon. . . . I have always looked on disobedience toward the oppressive as the only way to use the miracle of having been born.”
As a journalism student, I was blown away by her interviews. Like everyone who fancied themselves a non-fiction writer in the 70s, I was attracted by the highly stylized “new journalism” of Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, Michael Herr and Hunter S. Thompson. But Fallaci made them all look silly, soft-headed and obsessed with trivia. Her writing, at least in the English translations I read, had a Hemingwayish clarity and economy, left nothing to interpretation and engaged the most serious, life-and-death issues of her times. And the things she got her subjects to say! Henry Kissinger describing himself as Richard Nixon’s “mental wet nurse,” and agreeing with Fallaci that the Vietnam war was “useless.”
There’s a mind-numbing cliche now, “speak truth to power,” which is mostly used by self-indulgent politicians to flatter themselves. But Fallaci was the rare example of someone who walked right up into the faces of powerful people, and using a mix of charm and intense honesty, got them to admit what were, essentially, crimes and misdemeanors against humanity.
But in her final years, Fallaci became much more controversial, primarily on the left. No neo-conservative, Fallaci was a feminist and a Socialist until the day she died. But she was infuriated to the point of hysteria on the way Europe’s political establishment was turning a blind eye to impact of a growing Muslim population on Europe, in particular Italy. Again from The New Yorker:
According to Fallaci, Europeans, particularly those on the political left, subject people who criticize Muslim customs to a double standard. “If you speak your mind on the Vatican, on the Catholic Church, on the Pope, on the Virgin Mary or Jesus or the saints, nobody touches your ‘right of thought and expression.’ But if you do the same with Islam, the Koran, the Prophet Muhammad, some son of Allah, you are called a xenophobic blasphemer who has committed an act of racial discrimination. If you kick the ass of a Chinese or an Eskimo or a Norwegian who has hissed at you an obscenity, nothing happens. On the contrary, you get a ‘Well done, good for you.’ But if under the same circumstances you kick the ass of an Algerian or a Moroccan or a Nigerian or a Sudanese, you get lynched.” The rhetoric of Fallaci’s trilogy is intentionally intemperate and frequently offensive: in the first volume, she writes that Muslims “breed like rats”; in the second, she writes that this statement was “a little brutal” but “indisputably accurate.” She ascribes behavior to bloodlines—Spain, she writes, has been overly acquiescent to Muslim immigrants because “too many Spaniards still have the Koran in the blood”—and her political views are often expressed in the language of disgust. Images of soiling recur in the books: at one point in “The Rage and the Pride” she complains about Somali Muslims leaving “yellow streaks of urine that profaned the millenary marbles of the Baptistery” in Florence. “Good Heavens!” she writes. “They really take long shots, these sons of Allah! How could they succeed in hitting so well that target protected by a balcony and more than two yards distant from their urinary apparatus?” Six pages later, she describes urine streaks in the Piazza San Marco, in Venice, and wonders if Muslim men will one day “shit in the Sistine Chapel.”
For saying things like this, Fallaci was excommunicated from the left, with anti-racism organizations working to get her most recent books — all about the threat to Europe she perceived from Islam — banned. A Milan art gallery, Talbot reported, showed a large portrait of Falacci — beheaded. Nice. When she died, she was facing trial in Italy for blasphemy.
To her critics, it didn’t seem to register that this lifelong feminist might have a problem with what another recently ostracized feminist, Phyllis Chesler, called “Islamic gender apartheid” — the brutal, total subjugation of women in the more fundamentalist Muslim societies.
Fallaci’s 1979 interview with the Ayatollah Khomeini must have been a pivotal experience in her intellectual journey. On reflection, she realized he was “the Robespierre or the Lenin of something which would go very far and would poison the world.” From The New Yorker:
She had followed instructions from the new Islamist regime, and arrived at the Ayatollah’s home barefoot and wrapped in a chador. Almost immediately, she unleashed a barrage of questions about the closing of opposition newspapers, the treatment of Iran’s Kurdish minority, and the summary executions performed by the new regime. When Khomeini defended these practices, noting that some of the people killed had been brutal servants of the Shah, Fallaci demanded, “Is it right to shoot the poor prostitute or a woman who is unfaithful to her husband, or a man who loves another man?” The Ayatollah answered with a pair of remorseless metaphors. “If your finger suffers from gangrene, what do you do? Do you let the whole hand, and then the body, become filled with gangrene, or do you cut the finger off? What brings corruption to an entire country and its people must be pulled up like the weeds that infest a field of wheat.”
Fallaci continued posing indignant questions about the treatment of women in the new Islamic state. Why, she asked, did Khomeini compel women to “hide themselves, all bundled up,” when they had proved their equal stature by helping to bring about the Islamic revolution? Khomeini replied that the women who “contributed to the revolution were, and are, women with the Islamic dress”; they weren’t women like Fallaci, who “go around all uncovered, dragging behind them a tail of men.” A few minutes later, Fallaci asked a more insolent question: “How do you swim in a chador?” Khomeini snapped, “Our customs are none of your business. If you do not like Islamic dress you are not obliged to wear it. Because Islamic dress is for good and proper young women.” Fallaci saw an opening, and charged in. “That’s very kind of you, Imam. And since you said so, I’m going to take off this stupid, medieval rag right now.” She yanked off her chador.
But Fallaci’s intemperate language about the Muslim religion and culture gave license even to supposedly objective journalists to marginalize her as a bigot. To take just one example, consider Los Angeles Times’ Tracy Wilkinson’s obituary:
It was the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon that jerked her out of semi-retirement and launched her on her final crusade, against Islam. She saw radical Islam — and argued there was no such thing as moderate Islam — as the new brand of Nazi Fascism, “SS and Black Shirts who wave the Koran.” In the book that emerged, “The Rage and the Pride,” she ranted against Islamic terrorists and fundamentalism.
But Fallaci did not stop at terrorists; all Muslims, she wrote, posed a problem for Western civilization. She assailed European officials and the intelligentsia for bending over backward to accommodate Muslim immigrants who she said were hostile and insulting, who refused to adapt to Western values and customs, and who were ruining her city of Florence and much of Italy.
Using derogatory, ugly, distasteful language, she portrayed the “Muslim intruders” who “infest our streets and squares” as drug dealers, thieves, leches and prostitutes spreading AIDS. “They breed too much,” she said.
“The children of Allah spend their time with their bottoms in the air, praying five times a day,” she noted.
She also attacked the Vatican under the late Pope John Paul II, saying that the church appeased Islam and did not do enough to solidify Christian values in Europe.
“Tell me, Holy Father: Is it true that some time ago you asked the sons of Allah to forgive the Crusades that your predecessors fought to take back the Holy Sepulcher?” she wrote. “But … did they ever apologize?”
Does Fallaci’s language make me uncomfortable? Of course. Perhaps her zeal caused her to be too sweeping in her judgments and too vivid in her antipathies. If Wilkinson is right that Fallaci saw “no such thing as moderate Islam,” then of course that’s a falsehood. She lived in New York during her final years, but apparently didn’t notice the predominance of “moderate Islam” among the US’ millions of Islamic faithful.
But I’m still going to defend Fallaci. Perhaps her strategy is wrong, but her objective was noble — to remind Europeans and Westerners in general that the culture in which they were born and raised is at war with an enemy. We will lose this war, Fallaci saw, if we don’t think our way of life is worth defending.
It strikes me as a fitting irony that an atheist like Fallaci would seek to strengthen the morale of the Catholic Church, inasmuch as she saw in the traditions of that church the seeds of tolerance — paradoxically, in an institution guilty of horrific intolerance during its history. Neverthelesss, the Judeo-Christian ethic respects diversity of opinion and the integrity of the individual. It is a culture open to change such that, eventually, after painful struggle, feminists, gays, atheists and other apostates from the fundamental creed, could find places of honor in our society. At least that was Fallaci’s experience. She saw all that, and then compared it with the social vision of Khomeini and his followers, and experienced a sense of dread. She looked around and saw complacency, and it made her want to scream.