Remembering Oriana Fallaci - And How The Truth is Rarely Pleasant to Hear
Why her core message is more relevant than ever.
Oriana Fallaci, Italian journalist and author, died in 2006 after she was indicted by a judge in her native Italy for violating the provisions of the Italian Penal Code for “vilifying” a religion admitted by the state. The religion in this case was Islam.
Fallaci’s trilogy of writings critical of Islam, beginning with The Rage and The Pride, published one year after 9/11, set the tone for The Force of Reason (2006) and Oriana Fallaci Interviews Herself, caused many of her fans on the Left to distance themselves from her work. Fallaci, however, was a supernova journalist whose sole aim was to tell the truth. If reporting that truth caused her to become unpopular, she was ready to embrace that reality.
The core message in Fallaci’s books had to do with the Muslim colonization of Europe through immigration and having large, multiple families. Fallaci was no armchair critic of Islam but had had direct experiences with Islam as a Middle Eastern war correspondent and when she interviewed the leader of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. During that interview Fallaci realized that political Islam had returned to the world stage in a big way. While making a point about women’s rights in Iran (and political Islam) to Khomeini, Fallaci, who was wearing a chador, ripped it off her head after Khomeini told her she didn’t have to wear it.
“That’s very kind of you, Imam,” she said. “And since you said so, I’m going to take off this stupid, medieval rag right now.”
September 11, 2001 only reinforced her views on political Islam and led to the trilogy of books on the subject that she wrote towards the end of her life.
Fallaci says that when she read the news of her indictment by the judge, she laughed. "I laughed. Bitterly, of course, but I laughed. No amusement, no surprise, because the trial is nothing else but a demonstration that everything I've written is true."
She never perceived her criticism of Islam as a betrayal of her lifelong anti-fascist views. She viewed her critique of Islam as a continuation of her fight against fascism, because to her political Islam was fascism. As she told Khomeini,
It seems to me that this is fanaticism, and of the most dangerous kind. I mean, fascist fanaticism. In fact, there are many who see a fascist threat in Iran today, and who even maintain that fascism is already being consolidated in Iran.
Her respect for the truth went beyond criticizing Islam. In 1973, she told Dick Cavett that Henry Kissinger had criticized her for quoting him out of context, a claim that she said was false. “That is not true,” she told the talk show host. “I tape recorded it. He knows that this is not true.” Lighting up a cigarette on- air (Fallaci smoked three packs a day) she told Cavett, “Politics and diplomacy are the sublimation of lying. Sometimes they do have to lie. I understand that. But as a journalist I have to write the truth. If I understand that he has to lie, he has to understand that I have to say the truth.”
Still, one has to wonder what would have happened to the 5’1” 92 pound Fallaci had she lived to be tried by the Italian courts?
Would she have gone to prison? If so, there surely would have been an outcry among intellectuals as there had been when Salman Rushdie was put under a fatwa for writing Satanic Verses. Perhaps Fallaci, who had a serious form of cancer when she was charged with pillorying Islam, might have died in prison. At best, she might have been released on ‘editorial parole’ with an EU fatwa over her head forbidding her from writing additional books critical of Islam. While we will never know how the court scenario might have played out, what is certain is that Fallaci would have ignored any order that had to do with what she could or could not write.
Criticizing Islam has always been a classic tradition among the great minds of western civilization. The list of Islam-criticizers is legion. From John of Damascus, a Syrian monk in 600 AD to Voltaire (who wrote a satire on the life of Muhammad), to Alexis de Tocqueville ("I studied the Kuran a great deal ... I came away from that study with the conviction that by and large there have been few religions in the world as deadly to men as that of Muhammed.")
Other writers like Hilaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton, Winston Churchhill, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Pipes, Geert Wilders, Robert Spencer and David Horowitz have leveled their own Islamist critiques and would no doubt have been found guilty by the same Italian courts had they fallen under its censoring hand. Fallaci died before the hateful Hate trial got underway, so she did not have to suffer the indignity of fools, but because of her stand on political Islam her legacy today is mixed.
Today, critics either make excuses for her anti Islamist books—9/11 sent her into a sort of permanent mental breakdown, etc.—or they divide her career into two parts: the mostly anti-fascist leftwing part when her best work was produced, and then the downward spiral anti-Islamist part where the woman once famous for her celebrity interviews, her novel A Man and her book, Letter to a Child Unborn, went bonkers.
Fallaci biographer Cristina De Stefano (Oriana Fallaci: The Journalist, the Agitator, the Legend), admits that Fallaci’s last trilogy almost destroyed her career, but then she adds that Fallaci was not a political commentator—“she was a novelist, she was a writer. I think that, in talking about politics, she often asked the right questions, like: What is Europe’s position toward Islamic culture within its borders? Is Europe ready to stand up for its values?”
Had Fallaci not died in 2006 but lived to the present day, there’s little doubt that her publishing options would be limited had she gone on wiring about Islam. In the United States, those options would certainly be close to nil sans publication in conservative publications like Frontpage, Gatestone Institute, Newsmax and The American Spectator. As for publishing books, what American publisher in 2021 would touch her stuff after her codification as an Islamophobe?
The Rage and the Pride (2001), her inaugural book on the rise of political Islam, was published by Rizzoli International Publications, Inc.
“Italians don’t produce babies anymore, the idiots,” Fallaci wrote in The Rage, “
For decades they have had and still have the lowest birth-rate in the West. Our foreign workers, instead, breed and multiply gloriously. At least of the Moslem women you see in our streets are pregnant or surrounded by streams of children. Yesterday, in Rome, three of them delivered in public.
Would Rizzoli, known for its exquisite coffee table and illustrated books on architecture, interior design, fashion, literature, photography and the fine arts have continued to publish Fallaci in 2021? Because the world is further down the rabbit hole of censorship than it was in 2006, a “yes’ answer to this question is doubtful.
Also, were Fallaci alive today she may have found herself as another hapless Amazon author, where thousands of books about car maintenance to astro-physics to Aunt Bertha’s first Gothic romance novel are published with zero promotion or marketing and “rest” in online perpetuity like rows of endless tombstones in real time cemeteries. Yet even Amazon books are subject to unwanted surprises. Ever vigilant Amazon “editors” often force its authors to amend or cut offending passages from their books or risk ‘execution’ via the delete button. This is why it’s reasonable to suppose that Fallaci’s work would engage Amazon’s censors.
Fallaci-- novelist, a writer of war dispatches, polemics and celebrity profiles-- began her social and celebrity reporting for Italian newspapers in Hollywood in the 1950s (where she acquired friends like Ingrid Bergman and Sean Connery.) The New York Times equated her questions during interviews to “rectal probes.” Some critics insisted she was a poseur and a narcissist.
Throughout her life, she often complained that she felt like Cassandra because people were not heeding her warnings.
She was a wildly diverse writer. At times she could sound like a college co-ed freelancer for Cosmopolitan magazine, especially when she penned the following,
I have trouble writing when someone is hanging around. Men know how to isolate themselves to write because their wives don’t dare disturb them. But it’s different for women because men are always interrupting them, asking for a kiss or a cup of coffee.
In 1991 after discovering that she had a tumor in her breast, she said, “You goddamned bastard, don’t even think about coming back. Did you leave offspring inside of me? I’ll kill you! You won’t defeat me!”
Fallaci returned to Italy when she knew that she was dying. From her sickbed she had a view of the famous Brunelleschi dome atop the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Foire while a CD played a melody of church bells.
Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based journalist/columnist and the 2005 recipient of the AIA Lewis Mumford Award for Architectural Journalism. He is the author of fifteen books, including Literary Philadelphia. His play (with Sabina Clarke), Rendezvous in Bangkok…Who Killed Thomas Merton will premier September 26 at Philadelphia’s Commodore John Barry Club at Philadelphia’s The Irish Center.