The "Lega Nord" or "Northern League" is one of Italy's main political parties. It started as a tiny group of eccentrics in the 1980's who wanted independence for the Northern part of Italy ("Padania"), a cause which nobody had ever spoken of before. Surprisingly, the group met with a spectacular success, thanks to the charisma of the party leader Umberto Bossi. The official political parties, by now very far from the people, were swept away in a police investigation into corruption, and the "Lega" became the first party in many important Italian cities. Although the party has since lost votes, it is still quite important and is part of the current government. When it was in opposition, its main thrust was against Southern Italians, but the alliance with Berlusconi led it to change its tune, launching massive campaigns against immigration from outside Europe, conducted with violent language and mixing every stereotype on "Muslim invaders and common criminals from the Third World".
I was on my way to listen to a speech by Umberto Bossi in Bologna, together with the "Leghisti" of the small town of Imola: Francesco, an energetic farmer and former Communist; Angela, a dynamic and likeable cleaning woman; and Emilio, a retired farmer who whispered to me, "I don't understand a thing about politics."
Francesco introduced me to the others as a Mexican sympathiser for the Lega. "No, sorry, I sympathise for the Ottoman Empire only." A moment of silence, then a laughter of relief: "Ah, you're joking!"
Bossi was a surprise. On television, his image is that of a noisy demagogue, who shouts slogans. Actually, in Bologna he spoke impromptu for nearly two hours. His tone of voice was generally calm, and he tried to make his audience reason about the tremendous transformations of our times. The picture he drew was fascinating: German intrigues, the hidden alliance between France and the USA against a German-dominated Europe, the history of air bombings in our century, Albania as a great military base for the USA to cut Europe off from Russia, Gorbachev's mistakes and much more. One had the feeling of discovering the secret mechanisms of the world.
The audience was mostly made up of people without any previous interest in politics; they felt that they are getting back something that the powerful had deprived them of: the right to
understand the world they live in. This made them feel important - in fact nearly everybody was wearing his best clothes, as if at a wedding.
After the speech, Bossi signed autographs for another hour, talking with each person; and afterwards, at the dinner, he spoke with dozens more people. Emilio managed to get no less than three autographs. If Bossi could only speak directly to everybody, Northern Italy - what the Lega people call "Padania" - would already be an independent country.
During the dinner, the big man seated in front of me started talking about immigration from other countries, clearly the issue the Lega people feel most strongly about.
Prostitutes in the streets, Tunisian drug pushers, nimble-fingered Gypsies - resentment and hatred grow day by day. "Out of four million of these people, 90% are criminals," the man told me. I tried to object to both figures, but this only helped to awaken further emotions and talk about the need for flamethrowers. I find it amusing how people immediately forget I am an immigrant from the Third World myself.
Maria spoke about the pub she owns, where drunken Tunisians beat up peaceful Senegalese. One particularly violent Tunisian who was kicked out of the pub sued Maria for "discrimination." I tried to explain that getting drunk and beating up other Muslims is not exactly Islamic behaviour. Of course, it is a fact that the percentage of criminals among immigrants is higher than it is among the natives (at least in Northern Italy) - as long as we take the word criminal to mean somebody who goes to gaol. Because rising on the social ladder also means finding an Algerian who will sell drugs (and risk gaol) in your place, or finding how to make money out of corrupt politics rather than by armed robbery. People, wherever they are from, are also thieves.
Speaking to the "Leghisti", I mentioned the small mosque in Imola, a former shop rented by some North African workmen for a high monthly rent. A place which is also important for preserving community ties and keeping people out of crime. The mosque receives no support, either from the municipality or from anyone else. The Centre-Left town government funds Catholic events all year around and has received special funds from the national Government for the Jubilee year, definitely a religious event.
So, I said to the Lega people: you want to cut down crime. Very well, then help the mosque. Nobody is doing so, since the local Muslims are disorganised, the municipality has other ideas of integration, the Catholic priests are afraid. So there is no competition - start a campaign against crime supporting the mosque and calling on the municipality to support. Angela finds the idea interesting, but Francesco is absolutely contrary.
He says he is a Christian. If Muslims want to build mosques, let them do so where they come from. "I wonder what they would do to me if I tried to open a Christian church in Tunisia". Such ideas are widespread, understandable, but also quite wrong. Tunisia is, to a certain degree, a Muslim country. Italy is not a Christian country. It is a pluralist and capitalist entity. A place where economic, ideological and human forces are launched against each other in constant competition - let the fittest survive! Actually the competition is anything but fair, however that is at least the basic idea.
This is the model that has made "Padania" rich, heavily populated, polluted, full of crime and tremendously ugly. This model implies that the State should be neutral. An Islamic society is based on quite different notions, as is Vatican City, where nobody is asking to build a mosque.
Francesco now starts to speak of Turkish atrocities in the 16th century. A revealing remark, since these stories are known only through a series of widely but rather secretively distributed
Catholic publications. This issue is totally irrelevant. Immigrants in Italy are not Turks, let alone the Turks of the age of Mehmet II, who are all dead by now. The Turks were cruel in a very cruel
age: in 1527, the mercenaries of the Catholic king of Spain sacked the Catholic city of Rome; and one should not forget the machines for torturing and maiming people, some of the most sophisticated
creations of Western technology. A little further to the East, the good Christian king Vlad, probably the model for Dracula, used to impale Turks by the thousands along the banks of the
Yes, says Francesco, but there is an Islamic project to take over the world; "and maybe there is somebody in the Islamic world who decided to launch this invasion by immigrants". The first statement is not completely false. Every human being is born a Muslim, so the good believer hopes that everybody will discover his intimate Islamic nature, whether he lives in New Zealand or in Berlin. The notion of unlimited expansion is also present in Christianity, where it goes back to the Biblical idea of forcing the world into universal peace. But what does this have to do with today?
From a purely Islamic point of view, the fruits of migration are bitter. Millions and millions of young men have lost touch with Islamic life; they engage in every kind of forbidden activity, and are subjected to laws and rhythms of life which are not Islamic at all. Even when they do return home, they bring Western ideas with them. And the majority is lost forever: in France, only 5% of Muslims go to the mosque on Fridays. Any Muslim father is too busy trying to stop his daughter from going to the disco to think about converting his non-Muslim neighbour.
The idea of a "great Islamic project" is based on a Catholic view of religion: people imagine there must be a Muslim power centre somewhere, like there is the Vatican or the Governing Body of the Jehovah's Witnesses. But Islam is totally different. And besides, there could just as well be a "conspiracy" behind the "invasion" of the Arabian peninsula by millions and millions of Christian and Hindu workers coming from the Philippines and India! In the land where Muhammad was born, those who believe in Jesus and Ganesha may soon become a majority.
Francesco at once moves over to speaking about "terrorism", the great Hollywood fantasy about Islam. Here too, the important thing is to be realistic. I doubt there has been one single act of "Islamic terrorism" in Italy, and very few in any Western country. The Near East is the scene of many conflicts. About twenty years ago, some Palestinians, politically to the Left and often Christian, undertook military actions in Europe. Some Near Eastern countries have had their own political opponents killed in Europe. In France, there was some fallout from the civil war in Algeria, but what does this have to do with Islam?
"You know, if anybody wants to speak to Bossi, they can do so" Angela unwisely tells me. "Very well, let's ask his opinion about supporting the mosques". "Oh, no, please!" Anyway, I try. The leader of free Padania is standing, and several people are speaking to him. One of them is telling him how good his own home made liquor is, and is trying to give him a bottle of it. A quick exchange of jokes is going on between Bossi and his enormous bodyguard. Bossi is telling everybody that the creature looks big, but is a failure with women; the giant says that he has every defect in the world, but not that one. So Bossi replies that a real man is a man who has had at least five hundred women.
I slip into the discussion, and start talking about the mosque of Imola. Bossi pulls back his chin, smiles, twirls a cigar stub in his hand. "Oh yes, Muslims do have the right to a place to meet" he answers vaguely, then adds, "I was wondering, how do Muslims manage with four wives?", shakes my hand and says goodbye to everybody.
Of course he leaves me wondering how the "Padani" manage with their five hundred wives.
In recent years, islamophobia has been on the increase in Italy. And when one has an enemy, one also needs a symbol with which to fight against it. For many years, the Lega has been using the ancient Keltic people who once lived in Northern Italy (and were the ancestors of the Galatians in Anatolia as well). The Kelts disappeared two hundred years before the Christian era, leaving practically no trace beyond a few place names, but as victims of the Roman Empire, they provided a useful myth for the Lega in its struggle against the present day capital of Italy, and the followers of the group have even improvised "Keltic marriages."
However, the Kelts disappeared centuries before Islam, so they are no use against Muslims. For this reason, the Lega people have suddenly become convinced Catholics.
Catholic fundamentalism in Italy moves through a hundred underground channels, little noticed by the official media. Catholic fundamentalist movements now inspire a great deal of the far Right in
Italy. It is interesting to notice that the more the far Right becomes Christian, the more intolerant it becomes. This is quite logical: Catholicism, ultimately, admits no other possibility of
salvation, and a great deal of Catholic history has been spent in fighting Islam.
It is not only among self-proclaimed extremists that these ideas are spreading. Alleanza Cattolica is very active inside the Centre-Right (opposition) coalition. For one full year, the official magazine of Alleanza Cattolica, Cristianità , devoted the cover of every issue to a celebration of the Crusades.
No political movement has expressed more violent hostility towards immigrants than the Lega. The press had much to say about an "anti-Islamic" Mass celebrated in the open market in Turin, amidst applause from the local residents.
We are living through truly extraordinary times, which are frightening for all. The whole world is undergoing violent changes, which - unlike many changes in the past - seem only to promise suffering and destruction, without any hope.
Fantasies from a hundred different ages rush in to fill this terrifying vacuum. The dinner with Umberto Bossi, who invented Keltic rituals for his followers, was held (by chance) in a restaurant located in a street called Stalingrad Avenue.
Does anybody remember Stalingrad? Just over fifty years ago, the most terrible battle in the history of mankind took place there. A battle between two ideologies, neither of which exists any more.
Even the city where the battle took place has changed its name. Today, it is only a street in Bologna, where people hurry to work. And it is curious to think that it is in Stalingrad Avenue that
people are starting to talk again about the Crusades.