Not the Rome of Old: Muslim Threats Rattle a City

Plus: Oriana Fallaci, RIP

| 1571 hits

By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, SEPT. 21, 2006 (Zenit.org).- The Romans are worried.

On the bus, in the cafes and standing in the interminable post office lines, people are weighing the possibility of a Muslim reprisal in the wake of Benedict XVI's citation of a 14th-century dialogue between the Byzantine emperor Manuel II and a Persian theologian.

Though Romans gracefully weathered the 4 million visitors for the funeral of Pope John Paul II in April 2005 and stoically considered the possibility of a terrorist attack before the general elections this past spring, the reactions to Benedict XVI's lecture at the University of Regensburg have sent the Romans running for cover.

The whole affair has a rather surreal aura. How one line -- a medieval citation, no less -- in the midst of an academic lecture can provoke not only death threats but church bombings and even the assassination of a 70-year-old Catholic nun baffles the modern imagination.

In the now well-known text, the emperor stated that if one looks for what "Mohammed brought that was new, there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."

This line, taken out of context by some reporters, has become a pretext for fundamentalist Muslims to proclaim war against the Pope and the Eternal City.

The full text was printed by ZENIT on Sept. 12.

Like their U.S. counterparts, many Italian newspapers are not doing much to assuage the growing Roman anxiety. One major paper ran the headline, "Distruggeremo Roma," or "We Will Destroy Rome," in big bold letters so that even a casual glance would strike fear into the heart of the passers-by.

Security has indeed been stepped up in Rome, but the fear of being bombed seemed to worry only the natives. Tourists lined up for hours as usual to visit St. Peter's Basilica and the Vatican Museums.

Rome's long history has seen many sacks and invasions, but the city also bears the memory of being an oasis of peace during periods of war and violence. Romans are proud of being a crossroads where leaders from all over the world can engage in dialogue. The idea of the Eternal City as a prime target for terrorism is difficult to accept.

But more worrisome to me than a suicide bomber in St. Peter's Square, is the disposition of many Romans to give into the demands for suppression of discourse. As someone who spends more time at the Vatican than the average Roman, and whose children walk through St. Peter's Square to get to school every day, I am disappointed to see the Romans fold under pressure.

Gone apparently are the Romans of old, who in 390 B.C. waited for the Gaulish invaders, armed only with the pride and dignity of being citizens of this great city. Forgotten are the Romans who rebuilt the city after it was sacked by Normans, Muslims and Lutherans. Now many Romans look to keep their heads down and hope they won't be noticed on the world scene.

If the Pope, in an academic lecture at a university, cannot cite a medieval text without being burned in effigy, and his home threatened, there isn't much hope for dialogue. The violence of the fundamentalists just seems to prove the Byzantine emperor Manuel II right.

But if the Romans take the attitude that every word must be considered so as not to offend the Muslims, how far back will they have to draw the line?

Shockingly, in fact, a great many Romans on the street don't blame al-Qaida or Islamic extremists for their worries; they blame Pope Benedict.

They say, "He shouldn't have provoked them," and complain that the Holy Father's expression of regret wasn't enough since he only apologized for the reaction his lecture caused, not for his words in themselves.

What kind of world are we living in when we cannot engage in civil discourse, even on hotly contested points, without a knee-jerk recourse to violence? More importantly, how can we blame the Pope as if his words "caused" the violence, or as if there were any proportion between his words and the unconscionable actions that followed?

Are we so afraid for our own skins that we would rather abandon the open discussion of crucial issues than risk irrational violence?

Unfortunately the mood of the people on the street found an echo in the halls of the Italian Senate. The senators shot down a proposed "solidarity vote" of support for Benedict XVI. Meanwhile a few from the far left criticized the Pope for inflaming an "explosive situation."

In the midst of this general abandonment of the Bishop of Rome, several center-right leaders rallied to his side. Pier Ferdinando Casini, president of the Union of Christian Democrats, said, "The West should be ashamed of itself for asking explanations from the Pope for things he didn't say."

Gianfranco Fini, leader of the National Alliance party, commented, "I think that Ratzinger hasn't offended anyone. We can't dilute our identity."

What is desperately needed now is not political correctness but clarity. Respect, yes. Civility, by all means. But clarity.

We ought to embrace Benedict XVI's challenge to renounce religiously motivated violence in any form, and insist on reciprocity in this fundamental condition for a peaceful world.

The great Pope St. Pius V, who called together the Holy Alliance to defeat the Turkish fleet in 1571, implored the entire Catholic world to recite the rosary and beg Our Lady's aid in repelling the imminent Turkish invasion.

With the feast of the Holy Rosary only two weeks away, we should take a leaf out of his book.

* * *

A Maverick Passes

A few days after Benedict XVI's lecture at the University of Regensburg, Florentine author and journalist Oriana Fallaci died at the age of 77. Her obituary was buried in the back pages of Italian papers because of the polemic raging around the Pope. But the thoughts and ideas of Fallaci were on the minds of many Italians as the controversy unfolded.

Oriana Fallaci was born in 1929 in Florence. A young girl during World War II, she assisted her father in the resistance movement and was decorated for her efforts against the Nazi occupation at the age of 14.

Fallaci went on to become a journalist and during the course of her career, she reported from the front lines of battlefields and interviewed some of the most influential people of our age.

In these years, Fallaci belonged to the Radical Party, hung around with Pier Paolo Pasolini and his circle and proclaimed herself atheist and very anti-clerical. Her books sold well and she lived half her time in Florence and half her time in New York.

In 1990 she stopped writing and maintained a 10-year silence until 2001, when she started writing about radical Islam. In her interview, titled "Rabbia and Orgoglio," the Florentine raised an alarm regarding Europe's incapacity to defend itself against the Islamicization of the West.

She lauded the patriotism of the Americans to bond together in the face of threat and contrasted it with the internal squabbling that was weakening Europe.

Her next book, "The Force of Reason," followed up the first warnings with a red alert that Europe had already succumbed to Islam. Coining the term "Eurabia," she denounced the forced conversions, the treatment of women and other aspects of Islamic culture, and claimed that Europe was on the verge of becoming a dominion of Islam.

Fallaci's rough language and frank words soon got her into trouble. She was indicted in 2005 for the crime of "vilipendio" (vilification) of religion and faced trial and imprisonment. (It is interesting to note that her accuser, Adel Smith, is the same man who sued to remove all public crucifixes in Italy a few years back.)

Fallaci remained in New York, primarily because she had been diagnosed with lung cancer. In the United States, Fallaci began to speak out on questions that one would associate more with Catholic journalists than with a self described "atheist anti-clerical."

She denounced the starvation of Terry Schiavo, praising George Bush for his attempt to save her life. She also wrote opposing homosexual "marriage." In August 2005, Oriana came to Rome to meet with the newly elected Benedict XVI at his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo.

The contents of the meeting were not made public, but Fallaci spoke frankly of her admiration for Joseph Ratzinger. She said, "I feel less alone when I read the books of Ratzinger."

It seems odd that Fallaci isn't here to comment on the events of these days, but a headline in the Roman newspaper Il Messagero sums it all up with "Oriana was Right!"

* * *

Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University's Italian campus. She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org.