Time for a quick quiz: Who, in the end, is the biggest victim of the whole Afghan crisis?
If you answered “Italy”, you’d be correct – at least in the view of the Italian right wing.
Consider, for starters, a recent article in the Italian newspaper Il Tempo, which warns that the Taliban’s reconquest of Afghanistan will unleash an “unprecedented wave of migrants” – a veritable “migratory tsunami” – that will soon inundate Italy with millions of Afghans. According to the article’s author, Afghan men often struggle to integrate into European society, and have already “committed hundreds of sexual aggressions against European women” – something European men obviously never do.
The bottom line, we are told, is that the right to asylum must not continue to be a “Trojan horse for mass immigration, Islamism – and in some cases terrorism”. Other Italian media, too, have been hit by the wave of renewed xenophobic upheaval – an unsurprising state of affairs in a country where four-time prime minister and billionaire media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi once complained that Milan looked too much like Africa.
Lest the moral of the story go unappreciated, he spelled it out: “Some people want a multicoloured and multiethnic society. We do not share this opinion.” Then there was that time in 2015 that the Il Giornale newspaper – presided over by Berlusconi’s brother Paolo – published a blog post by Nino Spirlì, titled “Italy is not an Islamic country”.
Spirlì, who has since become acting president of the southern Italian region of Calabria, contended that invading migrant hordes were endeavouring to take over Italy and expel Italians from the land, thereby replicating events of a millennium ago “when the Moors landed … on my shores to rape and kill”. Sending migrants back to their own countries was thus “not a sin” but rather a “sacrosanct” duty.
Indeed, any good Orientalist rant requires situating Arab/Muslim antagonists in an ancient, barbaric past. Never mind more recent invasions – like, say, Italy’s imperialist and colonialist manoeuvres in Africa that helped set the stage for current migration patterns in the first place.
In The Addis Ababa Massacre: Italy’s National Shame, for example, scholar Ian Campbell notes that a “policy of terror” underpinned the Italian military occupation of Ethiopia, which lasted from 1936-41. During a mere three days in February 1937, Campbell estimates, approximately 19-20 percent of the Ethiopian population of Addis Ababa was slaughtered by Italian militants and civilians.
Fast forward to the mass carnage inflicted under the pretext of the United States’s so-called “war on terror” – which has relied on Italian military support in Afghanistan and elsewhere – and the portrayal of Italy as the ultimate victim of the refugee “tsunami” becomes even less endearing. Spirlì, it bears mentioning, belongs to the League, a far-right political party headed by former Italian interior minister and deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini, who in 2018 declared that Italy was “under attack” by Muslims, adding: “Our culture, society, traditions and way of life are at risk.”
Salvini, who is also known for closing Italian ports to migrant rescue vessels and pledging to deport half a million migrants as part of his envisioned “mass cleaning” of the patria – to be carried out “street by street” – credited the late Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci with having foreseen the Muslim attack.
The course of Fallaci’s own post-9/11 descent into total Islamophobic derangement is well preserved in her screeds on topics like Muslim plots to replace European miniskirts with chadors and cognac with camel’s milk. Shortly prior to her death in 2006, Fallaci threatened to blow up a mosque and Islamic centre scheduled for construction in Tuscany – no doubt a unique counterterror solution.
Despite ostensibly distinguishing between refugees who are actually fleeing war and other allegedly less deserving categories of migrant, the League has not shown much sympathy in the case of the Afghan crisis – with Salvini reiterating that Italy cannot serve as a giant refugee camp on behalf of Europe and the world or maintain an open-door policy for “potential terrorists”.
The approach to Afghan refugees promoted by the Brothers of Italy party – which happens to be the successor to Benito Mussolini’s outlawed Fascist Party and yet is the leading component of Italy’s so-called “centre-right” coalition – is meanwhile summed up by the La Repubblica newspaper as follows: “No refugees in Italy… but in any other country yes.”
Not that migrants who actually make it to Italy always have much to write home about. In addition to being inundated with racist vitriol, they are often detained in deplorable conditions that are inconducive to recuperating physically or mentally from having just risked their lives on hazardous and violence-ridden trajectories necessitated by the unilateral sanctity of European borders.
There are, of course, plenty of more humane Italian voices calling for a hospitable reception of refugees. But thanks in part to calculated exploitation of the migration issue, Italy’s right-wing sociopaths are experiencing a renaissance – and a recent survey by the online paper Affaritaliani. it reported that nearly half of Italians opposed accepting refugees from Afghanistan.
To be sure, one function of fascistic fear-mongering is to distract public attention from domestic malaise and mis-governance by channeling The Blame For All Problems onto immigrants and other “Others”.
Case in point: recurring prime minister Berlusconi has propagated the claim that “all these migrants live off trickery and crime”. This same Berlusconi has himself been indicted various times for corruption – while “trickery” would also seem to be a pretty good description of a situation in which a billionaire politician presides over a media empire in the country where he is politically active.
In 2018, United Nations human rights experts warned that a “public discourse unashamedly embracing racist and xenophobic anti-immigrant and anti-foreigner rhetoric” had produced a “climate of intolerance” that was unquestionably linked to the “escalation in Italy in hate incidents against groups and individuals, including children, based on their actual or perceived ethnicity, skin colour, race and/or immigration status”.
One presumable case in point: the 13-month-old Roma girl who was shot from a balcony by a man with an air rifle. This was in July 2018 – coincidentally on the heels of one of Salvini’s anti-Roma campaigns. Before the coronavirus pandemic, I myself used to spend a part of every summer in the region of Puglia in southern Italy, where I was able to observe the effects of the political-mediatic war on refugees and migrants.
Each year, local residents would update me on the rumoured transgressions of Italy’s unwanted guests, who in addition to being thieves, rapists, and terrorists, were also said to be milking the Italian state for every last euro – to be spent on luxury accommodations, the latest mobile phone models, and all manner of other material excesses.
Things got even more out of hand in summer 2017, when a photograph went viral of Samuel L Jackson and Magic Johnson sitting on a bench in Tuscany with Louis Vuitton and Prada shopping bags. The American actor and ex-basketball player, both Black, were mistaken for migrants by many online Italians, who registered their “shame” and other sentiments at the apparent gross squandering of Italian taxpayer money.
Reality be damned, the Italian narrative of victimhood is still going strong – with Salvini complaining, inter alia, that migrants are “bringing war” to his country – Italy bringing war to other countries is obviously not a problem. Now, as Afghan refugees attempt to transit from one circle of hell to another – a journey that will inevitably cost many of them their lives – Salvini has sounded the alarm that “the flight from Afghanistan risks being a disaster”. And while we are surely dealing with a disaster here, it is not the kind he is talking about.