Saturday, August 1, 2009

Oriana Fallaci's "The Rage and the Pride": Book Review

Bikinis vs. burkahs, bell-towers over minarets: secular humanism vs. retrograde bigotry. Dividing foolish tolerance of intolerance from righteous defence of human rights, Fallaci's attack on Islamic fascism and Muslim extremism post-9/11 reads passionately if inevitably unevenly in her translation from Italian. Her famous journalistic career that brought her into Vietnam, 1968 Mexico, to Arafat and the Dalai Lama, among despots and dictators provides her backdrop for her disgust with how the West capitulates to the "Reverse Crusade." I liked its content; her presentation remained erratic.

She explains in an extended preface how this article expanded into this short book, why she chose to render it into her idiosyncratic English, and how it relates to her adopted American audience. She errs in assuming Yanks put their hands over their heart for "God Bless America" (it's not our national anthem), and her usage does have its antiquated touches: "Read History and you'll see that behind every event of Good and Evil there is a piece of writing. A book, an article, a manifesto, a poem, a song." (23) Still, I can "hear" her in her rhetorical flourishes on the page, as if her own quirky, ineradicable "accent."

The book follows the pattern of Bernard-Henry Lévy's later (2008; also reviewed by me on this blog and on Amazon US) "Left in Dark Times." Taking the Italian (as he chides the French) surrender in the name of political correctness the professoriate, the chattering classes (she calls them the "cicadas"), the media, the churches, the bureaucrats, and the politicians to task, Fallaci comes from the background of a family whose own anti-fascist, progressive, secular, and leftist values find themselves undermined by a people who refuse to apologize for their culture's destruction of intellectual and scientific and rational patrimony. Even as they insist on mosques as they colonize Western Europe, Muslims forbid churches in the Middle East. They demand unlimited immigration, importation of their customs, and municipal acceptance of their limitations on the freedom of women, of unbelievers, of dissenters.

This infuriates Fallaci; Italy, she elucidates, cannot be compared to pioneer America. Her small country cannot accept so many foreign migrants determined to assert their dubious "rights" to spread drugs, prostitution, discrimination, squalor, and backwardness into the heart of civilized Europe. She has the "guts" that she finds lacking in her Florentine counterparts in office, to call out her enemies and face them heedlessly. As a woman refusing to give in to sexism, crude advances, catcalls, and second-class status, Fallaci seeks the moral high ground, in her advocacy of the universality of decency, equality, and dignity.

She reminds us that the real protagonist of the war the West has taken on is not Bin Laden, or even the backward regimes that sponsor and foment terror. The "Mountain" for 1400 years remains unchanged, "which in spite of the shameful richness of its retrograde masters (kings and princes and sheiks and bankers) still lives in a scandalous poverty, still vegetates in the monstrous darkness of a religion that produces nothing but religion." (30) Illiteracy rates surpass 60% in most Muslim nations; information comes "only through the backward Imams of the cartoon-strips." (And this years before the Danish uproar.) In Kabul, beards can be shaved or grown, burkahs discarded or forced back on-- the military victories of the West, she warns, will not "solve the offensive of Islamic terrorism. On the contrary, they encourage it. They exacerbate it, they multiply it. The worst is still yet to come. Here is the bitter truth. And Truth does not necessarily stay in the middle. Sometimes it stays on one side only." (32)

I was reminded of Robert Ferrigno's alternative-history novels "Tears of the Assassin" and "Sins of the Assassin" (both reviewed by me, written after Fallaci's 2001 book) about a near-future Islamic takeover of much of America: Fallaci predicts that such a movement may not be as dramatic as Ferrigno portrays, but perhaps as insidious. She wonders why Pope John Paul II apologized for the Crusades while no Muslim leaders acknowledged the depredations upon Italy of their Moorish slave trade for so many centuries that terrorized the Mediterranean. She cites (this book lacks footnotes, and often sources are not fully identified) an October '99 Vatican synod between Muslims and Christians where "an eminent Islam scholar addressed the stunned audience declaring with placid effrontery: 'By means of your democracy we shall invade you, by means of our religion we shall dominate you.'" (98)

Such threats often become buried in the mainstream media by "cicadas," eager to promote a more placid view, she argues. I'm not sure if the subsequent "war on terror" can be aligned with her thesis; her book needs to be placed within the immediate aftermath to 9/11, as it appeared but twelve months after the attacks. In that context, it reads years later as an artifact of the immediate rage and the intensity that Fallaci brings to her subject. It lacks the academic air of Lévy, it shares his scattered structure as both progressive journalists desperately try to talk sense into their grovelling colleagues, and it fails often to keep attention for a foreign reader unschooled in the intricacies of Italian (as in Lévy's French) political factions and cultural discourses.

The second half of Fallaci's exhortation slides into long perorations against her foes. This again is intentional, as her preface indicates. I found her tone reeled about; its lack of coherence perhaps may have been minimized if it was delivered as a series of separate articles rather than compressed into a single text lacking chapters or divisions as it's given to us here. It fits, again, her own personality I suppose, and nowadays might have been blogged serially. But as a narrative, it's idiosyncratic to say the least. Her admissions to being a careful and slow writer appear to be at odds with the intensity that she admits fueled its composition.

For all its awkwardness, her passion and energy may reward some readers even as its denunciations, periginations, and execrations may continue to gain her-- albeit after her death from cancer five years after this book appeared-- lots of rotten tomatoes. She bravely faces her tormenters, and while her stubborn defiance may enrage the gentler liberals, she takes a liberated stance that shows courage, however misguided in her rhetorical excess that likely goads her opponents to more hatred and more intolerance. This is the strategic risk she seems eager to encourage. It's up to you to regard this as insensitive or principled, bold or foolhardy. At least we have freedom of the press to do so, unlike many Middle Eastern polities.

The Taliban's horrible demolishing of the Bamiyan Buddhas "was pronounced on the 26th of February 2001 (not 1001)." (118) The squares of Italian cities, full of medieval and Renaissance splendor, are desecrated by Somalians in tents, urinating against church walls, drowning out bells with boombox recordings of calls to prayer. The contrast of Third World squalor amidst First World patrimony she conjures up powerfully. She does not shirk the hypocrisy of the West who expects the East to do its dirty work, and she does stress too the manipulation of the desperate immigrants by both the Muslim and Western politicians. Most of all, her feminism informs her pride, as it stokes her rage, against those who dare to mock her, paw her, and insult her for her right to walk among them as a modern woman. She expects to be treated with respect, and reacts accordingly when she is denied that politeness from those who enter her native land to assert their "right" to stay there, to live off the largess of Italian charity, and within their new home or tent to denigrate her.

She's best when evoking the machine-gunning of three women presumably executed by the Taliban for going to the hairdresser. This episode was recorded by a journalist, and the scene was followed by the announcement of the brutality by the local Minister of Foreign Affairs as approved by the Taliban. One woman, in her death agony, as her last gesture lifts up her burkah to expose a bare leg to her murderer.
(Posted to Amazon US and my blog 8-1-09.)

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