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Italy: Salvini’s Folly

There is something very gratifying about watching a political thug get hoist by his own petard. Matteo Salvini, the hard-right populist who thought he could force an early election and become Italy’s strongman by breaking up the coalition government he served in, has publicly cut his own throat. And almost everybody is enjoying the spectacle.

It’s not even a year and a half since the last Italian election, when the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement (M5S) and Salvini’s ultra-nationalist League party got enough seats to form a government together. They had very little in common, but political power is a great lubricant and they managed to rub along together with no major disasters for eighteen months.

What caused the break-up was not policy differences but the polling figures. Back in March 2018 the Five-Star Movement got 32% of the vote and the League only got 17%, so M5S was definitely the senior partner. Salvini only became deputy prime minister, but he used the job to appeal to Italians’ worst instincts

He demonised migrants, Romanies, Muslims and left-wing ‘do-gooders’ as enemies of the people, and presented himself as the super-patriotic hard man who could see them all off and Make Italy Great Again. He prevented ships that had rescued drowning migrants from landing them in Italian ports, he carried a rosary and kissed it frequently, he thanked the Virgin Mary for all his ‘successes’.

And it kind of worked. Many Italians are sick to death of the country’s political and economic stagnation, and Salvini was brash and new. Nasty and bullying too, especially towards non-whites and migrants, but many people didn’t mind that. The League’s polling results began to improve, and M5S’s started to slide.

By the European elections last May, the two coalition parties had entirely reversed their positions: the League got 34% of the votes, and the Five-Star Movement got only 17%. The European poll had no direct effect in Italy, but inevitably Salvini began to dream of ditching his awkward M5S partners (who are neither racist nor neo-fascist) and going it alone.

The political arithmetic seemed to make sense. If the League’s numbers kept on going up, it would win enough seats in the next election to form a different coalition with a more congenial small party like the Brothers of Italy (which is openly fascist). By this month the League was hitting 38% in the polls, and Salvini decided it was time to pull the plug on his current partners.

He clearly knows how to count, which is a valuable skill in politics. But a good politician needs to understand strategy too, and in that department Matteo Salvini is as thick as a brick. He forgot that polling numbers are not the same as seats in parliament.

The League would clearly win an election if one were held today, but an election could only happen if no alternative government can be formed in the current parliament. However, last year’s national election gave the Five-Star Movement almost twice as many seats in parliament as the League – enough seats that it might be able to form a coalition with some other party.

It would be tricky, of course, because M5S is deeply unpopular with most other parties, and especially with the official opposition, the centre-left Democratic Party (PD). Politicians hate being mocked, and the Five-Star Movement specialises in mockery. Maybe that was what Salvini was counting on to save him. If so, he got it wrong.

The moderate parties in parliament are utterly horrified at the prospect of a far-right government in Italy run by the League in coalition with the Brothers of Italy. So last week the Democratic Party began talks on a coalition with the Five-Star Movement.

They would both be decimated if there were an election now, and neither of them wants to see an extreme right government take power in Italy, so agreement on principle was relatively easy.

Agreeing on a programme and a cabinet in the next week will be harder, and it could all still unravel. But it could also be a coalition that lasts until the next scheduled election in mid-2023.

Salvini is outraged, of course. He’s even talking about a ‘march on Rome’ next month, in a sly allusion to the March on Rome that brought the dictator Benito Mussolini to power in Italy in 1922. But his blunder has been huge, and for the moment at least his credibility is shot.

It almost makes you feel sorry for him. Lie down for a bit and the feeling will pass.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 10. (“It would…wrong”)

Middle Eastern Christians: Going, Going…Gone

Two high-profile incidents last week, at opposite ends of the Arab world. In northern Iraq, recently conquered by the zealots of the newly proclaimed “Islamic State”, the Christians in Mosul were given three choices: convert to Islam, pay a special tax (about $750, on this occasion), or be killed. They all fled, and now Mosul is Christian-free for the first time in almost two millennia.

Meanwhile, in Sudan, Meriam Ibrahim finally got permission to leave her homeland after spending months chained up in a jail cell. The young woman had been condemned to hang by a Sudanese court for the crime of having “converted” to Christianity, but the government couldn’t legally kill her until after her baby was born.

Now, neither of these incidents gives an accurate picture of government policy in Arab countries that have traditionally had Christian minorities (which is to say, most of them). Indeed, big Arab countries like Syria, Iraq and Egypt have all had Christian ministers in their governments, and their laws guaranteed  religious freedom.

Sudan, whose legal system has been based on Islamic shariah law since a military coup thirty years ago, does not treat its citizens equally regardless of their religion. At first glance, however, the restrictions apply mostly to the Muslim majority, who, for example, are forbidden to leave their faith on pain of death. That was the law that almost killed Meriam Ibrahim.

Her father had been Muslim, but he had abandoned the family when she was very young and her Christian mother had brought her up in the Catholic faith. Nevertheless, according to Sudanese law you are a Muslim if your father was, and professing any other faith makes you an apostate. She refused to abandon her Christian faith, and so she was sentenced to hang.

But they do understand the concept of bad publicity even in Khartoum. The suspicion hangs heavy that the prosecution grew out of a blackmail attempt gone wrong, for Meriam Ibrahim is a doctor and her husband, also a Christian, holds dual Sudanese and American citizenship. To your average impoverished Sudanese – like, perhaps, her absent father’s family – that would have spelled “money”.

So the accusation was made that she was really a Muslim who had abandoned her faith and married a Christian (both hanging offences), but it may have been made privately at first. Then, however, the professional zealots who make a living out of “defending Islam” got in on the act, demanding the apostate be killed, and the Sudanese government had to enforce its own laws.
The only saving grace was that Meriam Ibrahim was pregnant, and could not legally be killed until her child was born and had lived about two years. This gave time for the saner elements in the Sudanese government to work with her lawyers, and ultimately with US and Italian government representatives, to find a way to let her go. (Meanwhile, for all but the last month of her six-month ordeal, she was chained to the floor in a jail cell.)

It all finally came right, and last Thursday Meriam Ibrahim, her 20-month-old son and her newborn daughter flew out of Khartoum, landed in Rome, and was whisked off to a meeting with the Pope.

“She is unhappy to leave Sudan. She loves Sudan very much. It’s the country she was born and grew up in,” her lawyer told the BBC.  “Her life is in danger so she feels she has to leave. Just two days ago a group called Hamza made a statement that they would kill her and everyone who helps her.”

So a happy(ish) ending to the story – but there were probably several other Sudanese Christians on the same flight who were leaving their country forever with less fanfare. It’s no longer wise for Christians to live there if they have any other options. And that is rapidly becoming the case for Iraq, too.

There were still about 60,000 Christians in Mosul when the United States and its sidekicks invaded Iraq eleven years ago. By last year, it was down to 30,000. Only two months after the arrival of the ISIS extremists, there are none. Most have fled to Kurdistan with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. They are not going back, and if they can they will leave the Middle East entirely.

What has changed? For many centuries, the Christian minority of Arabs lived in relative peace and prosperity under Muslim rule. In the early 20th century, they were in the forefront of the nationalist and literary renaissance in the Arab world. But in the past decade, about a quarter of the Arab world’s 12 million Christians have emigrated, and the flow is increasing every year.

Most of them are not facing execution, like Meriam Ibrahim or the former residents of Mosul. They just feel excluded from an Arab discourse that is increasingly radicalised and obsessed with religious differences – both Muslim-Christian ones and Sunni-Shia ones – and they have lost hope. They are Arabs who have lost their place in the Arab world, and they have to find one elsewhere.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 4 and 10. (“Now…Ibrahim”; and “She…her”)

Eppure Si Muove

15 January 2008

Eppure Si Muove

 By Gwynne Dyer

The Pope’s words have come back to haunt him, and so they should. The authorities at La Sapienza University in Rome had invited him to come and speak this week at the inauguration of the new academic year, but the physics department mobilised in protest. It was at La Sapienza seventeen years ago that Pope Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, declared that the trial and conviction of the astronomer Galileo by the Inquisition in 1633 for asserting that the Earth goes around the Sun was “rational and just.”

The scientists took this to mean that Ratzinger sees religious authority as superior to scientific inquiry, and seized the occasion of his return visit to make a fuss about it. Radical students then took up the cause, festooning the campus with anti-Pope messages, and on Tuesday the Vatican announced that the visit was off. It’s a tempest in a rather small teapot, but he has stirred up a series of such tempests over the years.

Last year, during a visit to Brazil, Pope Benedict declared that the native populations of the Americas had been “silently longing” for the Christian faith that arrived with their conquerors and colonisers, and that in no way did it represent the imposition of a foreign culture. Indigenous groups protested bitterly, but he stood his ground.

In 2006, speaking at the University of Regensburg, he quoted with seeming approval a 14th-century Byzantine emperor’s comment: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”

When Muslims protested, Benedict took refuge in the claim that he was just quoting somebody else, not saying it himself. (You know how those quotes from Byzantine emperors just pop into your mind unbidden.) His defence of the Church’s treatment of Galileo all those years ago was done in just the same style: an outrageous proposition delivered in what he seemed to think was a deniable way.

Galileo was the first man in Italy to build a telescope, with which he discovered the moons of Jupiter — and the sight of them rotating around their much larger planet set him to thinking about the relationship of the Earth and the Sun. Copernicus had published his book asserting that the Earth rotated about the Sun more than half a century before, but a “Copernican” had been burned at the stake for his heretical views in 1600, so Galileo approached the matter carefully. On the other hand, unlike Copernicus, he had a telescope, so he could SEE what was going on.

Galileo was summoned to Rome in 1616 and ordered not to write about the Copernican theory any more, but in 1623 a man he saw as a patron and sympathiser was chosen as Pope Urban VIII. He travelled to Rome again, and believed that he had been given permission by Urban to discuss the Copernican theory in public, provided he presented it as only a hypothesis. Unfortunately, either the political balance in the Vatican subsequently changed, or else Galileo simply misunderstood what he was told.

When he published his book in 1632, it was banned. In 1633, he was interrogated in Rome under threat of torture, and condemned for “following the position of Copernicus, which is contrary to the true sense and authority of Holy Scripture.” He recanted his views to save his skin, but they sentenced him to life imprisonment anyway.

But there is a story, perhaps untrue, that as Galileo was led away he muttered defiantly under his breath “Eppure si muove” (“And yet it moves”). True or not, scientists see that scene as the great defining moment in the conflict between authority and truth — or, if you like, between faith and reason. Clearly, so does Joseph Ratzinger, which is presumably why he felt compelled, back in 1990, to take one more kick at Galileo.

Speaking at La Sapienza, Rome’s most prestigious university, he declared that the Church had been quite right to try and punish Galileo. Or rather, in a typical Ratzinger ploy, he quoted the maverick Austrian philosopher Paul Feyerabend, who said: “At the time of Galileo the Church remained much more faithful to reason than Galileo himself. The process against Galileo was reasonable and just.” God knows what Feyerabend actually meant by that, but that was the quote that Ratzinger chose to use.

If you pay attention to what Pope Benedict has been saying all these years, it’s clear that he does see Catholicism as superior to other religions and faith as superior to reason. There is nothing surprising about this. After all, he is the head of the Catholic church, and many if not most committed Catholics do believe these things.

But he does go a little farther than most, believing that “Error has no rights” (in the old Catholic phrase) and that “error” is whatever the Church said it was at the time. In the circumstances, you can see why the scientists at La Sapienza University were not all that keen on a return visit.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 7. (“Last year…ground”; and “Galileo was summoned…told”)

What the Pope Really Did

8 April 2005

What the Pope Really Did

By Gwynne Dyer

It was the biggest photo-op in world history, and everybody who is anybody was there. Even the Protestant president of the United States and the Muslim clergyman who is president of the Islamic Republic of Iran felt obliged to show up for the Pope’s funeral. But the media circus has already moved on to the next global event — two divorced British people in late middle age getting married in a registry office in Windsor — and there is one last opportunity to consider the life of Karol Wojtyla.

Forget all the stuff about how he smothered all the new thinking and decentralisation that were beginning to transform the Catholic church when he was chosen pope in 1978. It’s true, but he was elected precisely to carry out that task. The conservatives in the Curia who had been sidelined by Vatican II were determined to stop the rot (as they saw it), and they were well aware that Wojtyla was a man in their own mould when they pushed him forward as the dark-horse candidate to succeed John Paul I.

He acted as they expected that he would, and it would be foolish to condemn him for it. He held those beliefs long before he became pope, and he never hid them. But there was one thing he did that astonished and appalled the conservatives. It was also the one thing he did that will still define the Catholic church’s policy centuries from now.

Most of John Paul II’s policies are eminently reversible, if a subsequent generation of church leaders should decide that a different line on contraceptives or women priests is more in accord with divine teaching. That isn’t likely to happen any time soon, given the way that he has packed the College of Cardinals with like-minded individuals, but with enough time many things become possible. What later generations are most unlikely to reverse is his acknowledgement that Judaism is a valid alternative path to God.

We are not just talking “apology” here — although Christians certainly owed apologies to the Jews for two millennia of slander and persecution — nor even “reconciliation”. John Paul II went far beyond that, though few members of the general public realised it at the time: he recognised Judaism as a true religion.

There is an old saying, beloved of Catholic theologians, that “error has no rights.” It drives the ecumenical crowd crazy, but it is perfectly logical: if you believe that your religion is true, and the others are different, then the others are false. John Paul II was perfectly affable and hospitable to various Protestant Christians who came to visit, but he truly believed that they were wrong, wrong, wrong — and he refused to enter into the equal relationships that they fondly imagined to be possible between the various Christian sects.

He was more open to the Orthodox Christian world, both because he came from eastern Europe himself and because the quarrel between the Orthodox churches and the Church of Rome has always been about hierarchical and stylistic matters, not about basic doctrinal issues. It was in his relations with the non-Christian religions that are also in the lineage of Abraham, however, that John Paul II broke decisively with Christian and Catholic tradition.

In fourteen hundred years of constant and intimate contact between the Muslim and Christian peoples around the Mediterranean, he was the first pope ever to enter a mosque. He doubtless continued to believe that Christianity was the one true successor to Judaism and that Islam was a post-Jewish, post-Christian heresy, but he was the first pope to argue that cordial relations between them were possible and desirable. And in the case of the Jews, he went much farther.

It’s understandable that the new religion of Christianity, struggling to distance itself from its Jewish roots, should have insisted that the Christian revelation had invalidated and replaced the older faith. By implication, however, that meant that those Jews who refused to convert were in revolt against God — and from that mind-set came the Christian image of Jews as “Christ-killers,” and two millennia of savage Christian persecution culminating in the European holocaust of 1942-45.

Karol Wojtyla was a witness to that holocaust, which may be why he did the extraordinary thing that he did. On his visit to Israel in 2000, he posted a prayer in a niche in Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall which said: “God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your name to the nations. We are deeply saddened by the behaviour of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the covenant.”

By posting that prayer in the wall, he acknowledged that this uniquely Jewish method of communicating with the Almighty is valid — and by its contents he accepted that the Jewish covenant with God is still in force. It was a thing done in a moment, but it ended two thousand years of Christian rejection of Judaism. The Catholic church, while still advocating the conversion of everybody else, no longer seeks the conversion of the Jews, which is as close as it can come to acknowledging the essential validity of the Jewish faith.

That was the Big Thing that John Paul II did, and it is more important and will last far longer than all the other things he did put together.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 3. (“Forget…now”)