Oriana Fallaci’s The Rage And The Pride

In Europe, the late Oriana Fallaci needs no introduction, but North American readers might benefit from a primer: she was a member of an Italian resistance movement during the Second World War; a celebrated journalist, whose coverage of the Vietnam War made her famous, allowing her to interview some of history’s most powerful actors – from Indira Gandhi and Golda Meir to Yasser Arafa, Henry Kissinger and Ayatollah Khomeini; and a novelist of no small critical and commercial success. But she was as famous for her personality – outspoken, brash, quick-tempered – as she was for her accomplishments, and these traits are on full display in The Rage And The Pride, her polemical response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Fallaci was living in New York when the Towers fell, in a self-imposed exile from her native Italy. She describes herself, only somewhat jokingly, as a “political refugee,” running from a country whose ideals “lay in the garbage.” And in that capacity, she kept silent for two decades, eschewing her former popularity for the kind of anonymity only New York can offer – a difficult thing to do for someone constitutionally provocative. However, in the aftermath of 9/11, and at the behest of an Italian newspaper editor, she broke her silence. “[T]here are moments in Life when keeping silent becomes a fault, and speaking an obligation. A civic duty, a moral challenge, a categorical imperative from which we cannot escape.” She worked, nonstop, for two weeks, producing hundreds of draft pages, all of them angry broadsides: against her native Italy, for its political complacency; against the European intelligentsia, the chorusing “cicadas” who drown out meaningful debate with disingenuous moralizing; and, above all, against Islam, which she describes as a barbaric and retrograde religion, come to conquer her beloved patria. Her work first appeared, in condensed form, in an Italian journal, Corriere, under the apt title “La Rabbia e L’Orgoglio” (The Rage and the Pride). Within four hours of being on the stands, it sold over a million copies, and created a national and international stir. Fallaci faced multiple lawsuits, alleging that her work was hateful, racist, defamatory. Her self-described “sermon” on the state of Europe struck a chord, and the publication of the unedited original manuscript, in book form, added new fuel to the fire.

Unlike most critics of Islam, Fallaci declines to distinguish between the fundamentalists and the mainstream; every practitioner of the faith becomes, in her view, a disciple of Osama Bin Laden, every imam a “spiritual guide of terrorism.” At best, she is simply wrong; at worst, she is deliberately slandering one billion people. Neither approach makes for effective persuasion, though given the book’s title and tone, one can sincerely doubt whether she seeks to persuade. Islamic reformers and more cautious critics of the religion have taken to making a distinction between Islam, a faith with many different interpretations, and Islamism, a virulent, explicitly political and expansionist creed, descended, in its modern form, from Sayyid Qutb, that brooks no dissent and actively seeks to impose its values on other peoples, countries and cultures. In the context of terrorism, such a distinction is useful: practitioners of Qutbism are exponentially more likely to commit or sanction a terrorist act. But Fallaci is not merely talking about terrorism; she is addressing herself to what she views as a clash of cultures, and in this context Islam very well might represent an existential threat to Europe, in the sense that even the moderate Muslims of Europe have proven difficult or unwilling to assimilate. The “real protagonist” of the war Europe finds itself in, according to Fallaci, is not Osama bin Laden, nor is it Saudi Arabia “or Iran or Iraq or Syria or Palestine.”

It is the Mountain. That Mountain which in one thousand and four hundred years has not moved, has not risen from the abyss of its blindness, has not opened its doors to the conquests of civilization, has never wanted to know about freedom and democracy and progress. In short, has not changed. That Mountain which in spite of the shameful richness of its retrograde masters (kings and princes and sheiks and bankers) still lives in scandalous poverty, still vegetates in the monstrous darkness of a religion which produces nothing but religion. That Mountain which drowns into illiteracy (don’t forget that in every Moslem country the percentage of illiteracy surpasses sixty percent). That Mountain which gets information only through the backward Imams or the cartoon strips. That Mountain which, secretly envious of us, unconfessedly jealous of our way of life, throws upon us the responsibility of its material and intellectual miseries.

Call this the pessimistic vision of European-Islamic relations, the oil-and-vinegar paradigm that posits that, whatever your efforts, nothing will suffice to integrate the two cultures – or, that integration will really mean the destruction of everything meaningfully “European,” from secularism and democracy to women’s rights and freedom of speech and conscience. I confess, despite the discomfort it causes me, that I view this pessimistic outlook as essentially correct, justified both by Islam’s history and by the present trends in Europe.

Christopher Hitchens described The Rage And The Pride as “a sort of primer on how not to write about Islam,” and no one can deny that this work lacks nuance, and frequently veers into objectionable moral territory. For example, Fallaci too often generalizes from her own negative experiences with Somali street vendors, or employs the kind of racially-charged language (“vermin”) that should be inexcusable for a writer of her intelligence and historical understanding. I doubt Fallaci would be terribly concerned with these complaints, however; she viewed herself as a kind of Cassandra, a prophetess with an uncomfortable and dire message, and she wrote to achieve maximum provocation. Whether or not she was ultimately persuasive remains to be seen, but the recent Italian elections – which saw two populist, anti-immigration parties ascend to power – would certainly have been viewed, by her, as a vindication.