Italy: why flags and crowds can corrupt the view

 
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By Ray O’Reilly

The least you’d expect of a disgraced politician is to bow out of the limelight. Not Silvio Berlusconi with his grandstanding and rent-a-crowd.

Tuesday 14 May 2013

Would you buy a used car from this man? Photo: Lorenza and Vincenzo Iaconianni

Would you buy a used car from this man? Photo: Lorenza and Vincenzo Iaconianni

The Sicilian team Trapani Calcio made history at the weekend by winning the Serie B football competition. I know this because I was stuck in a taxi crawling through the flag-waving crowd that poured into the city to bask in a rare winning moment for a struggling region.

Our driver honked his horn at the passing motorcade of chequered maroon and white flags – not as an expression of road rage or frustration at the slow progress, or his passengers’ very real fear of missing their flight, but as a shared moment of noisy joy. “It’s fabulous Trapani wins … corruption possibly, but a big success,” he told us.

The night before, I watched a televised speech by Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s former premier, as he grandstanded before a rally of more flag-waving Italians, but this time in the northern part of the country.

According to the Associated Press, the ‘Everyone for Silvio’ rally was backed by his People of Freedom party in Brescia, a small industrial city that is a bastion of the conservative leader’s political support. A handful of detractors shouted “jail, jail” at the edge of the rally, but the police reportedly kept them apart from the majority who were waving pro-Berlusconi banners.

“Anyone who is not caught up by political factionalism can see clearly that there are politically motivated magistrates who are blinded by hate and prejudice towards me,” he told the crowds on Saturday night, days after losing his appeal against a tax fraud conviction, and days before the Milan judiciary was due to deliberate on charges of paying for sex with a minor.

The least you would expect of a disgraced politician or leading figure is a bowed head and a dash for a waiting black car, or a nervous apology on the 6 o’clock news. In Italy, in Berlusconi’s Italy, you get a full stage, mounted cameras, and a neat rent-a-crowd of acolytes to help you sell your lies.

Beppe Grillo, a comedian who’s ‘Five Star Movement’ won the popular ‘protest’ vote at Italy’s recent elections, refused to enter government with any of the old-guard Italian parties, which meant one thing … a fractious coalition of centre-left and centre-right parties. Grillo prefers to do his politicking from the side lines through his blog – painting his nemesis Berlusconi as a caricature of mafia figures and clowns.

Berlusconi holds no ministerial position in this new coalition government which is led by Italy’s centre-left Prime Minister Enrico Letta. He does, however, wield considerable clout in the corridors of power and, according to commentators, could bring down the government if he were to withdraw support in parliament.

The fact that his Mediaset company owns three free-to-air national TV channels in Italy, including naturally the one televising the recent rally I watched, is shocking but no real shocker to clear-eyed observers of Italian politics and business. Critics, including The Economist magazine, have long argued that Berlusconi holds inappropriate control over national media and that he is unfit to hold leadership positions in Italy, or sit next to legitimate European leaders.

Berlusconi’s two dates with the court raise questions yet again about his political future at a delicate moment for Italy, as it faces economic and political turmoil, and increasing pressure from Europe to put its house in order. It is remarkable to anyone outside Italy that he was even allowed to take part in the country’s February elections – and that people voted for him.

That a disgraced politician should be anywhere near politics or be deemed fit to own national media is stupefying. That he has a national platform to ‘rally’ support for his brand of conservative politics which clearly has not delivered Italy from the throws of economic collapse is bordering on criminal negligence. Negligence that casts a shadow over the European Union’s credibility and economy.

 Shame on Italy and Europe for allowing this corruption of democratic values to go on this long.

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Malta’s mash of civilisations

 
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By Khaled Diab

Malta’s complex heritage is living proof that cultures mash more than civilisations clash.

4 August 2010

Mdina, Malta's one-time capital

Mdina, Malta's one-time capital. ©Khaled Diab

A fifth the size of Greater London, Malta is the smallest country in the European Union and one of the smallest in the world. Given its tiny proportions, it is no big surprise that Malta, which is actually geologically in Africa and less than 300 km away from Tunisia, does not register high in the consciousness of most Europeans, some of whom actually believe that Maltesers come from there.

After having spent a week on the island, I can reliably report that no aged Maltese artisans work with their young apprentices in little chocolatiers patiently passing down the secret of how to get the crunchy bit inside the chocolate ball.

Although the island is no Charlie and the Chocolate Factory wonderland, it is nonetheless a fascinating place where so many cultures have mixed and mashed that Malta has created its own rather original flavour.

Take the language. Maltese, an official language of the EU and the only Semitic language to be written in Latin script, sounds almost as if it is a dialect of Arabic, with Italian and English vocabulary thrown in. In fact, to my ears, it sometimes sounded more comprehensible than the Algerian dialect!

Given that the Arabs only ruled Malta for less than two centuries and the island is overwhelmingly Catholic, it is somewhat surprising that Arabic provides Maltese with its basic structure and an estimated 40% of its vocabulary. This is all the more impressive when you consider that Maltese is derived from Siculo-Arabic, a language that has died out in neighbouring Sicily.

Although the architecture of Malta, which has a strong Baroque character, has less of an Islamic feel about it than Sicily‘s, the evidence of the Arab presence lives on in a large number of place names, from the old capital, Mdina and its suburb, Rabat, to all the Marsa-this and the Marsa-that (“Marsa” means port in Arabic).

The Arab influence also survives in the cuisine and culture, including some forms of traditional Maltese music. For example, the improvised singing duels of traditional Maltese għana (derived from the Arabic for “song” and “wealth”) bear a striking resemblance to the witty exchanges of poetic fire involved in traditional zajal.

This not only indicates an Arab influence but, more profoundly, reflects – as do many aspects of daily life, ancient superstitions and beliefs in the region – an underlying Mediterranean heritage predating both Christianity and Islam. In fact, given their long centuries of shared history, it could be argued that many Mediterranean countries have more in common with each other than with their coreligionists in, say, northern Europe or Arabia.

Despite Malta’s obvious cultural mash, many will argue that the island is essentially European, and that the Arab and Islamic influence are the accidental leftovers of an unwelcome conquest. But this raises the tricky and thorny question of what exactly is ‘European’.

If, by European, we mean Christian, then Malta probably qualifies more than most. It is not only home to one of the world’s earliest Christian communities, it was also the base of the Knights Hospitaller. The knights, drawn as they were from all over Europe, have been described as the “first embryonic council of Europe”, and their successful repulsion of a far larger invading Ottoman force in 1565 is the stuff of legend.

And it is this kind of standoff that people who believe in a monumental ‘clash of civilisations’ draw upon to justify their views. Two major failings of this theory, as I’ve argued before, are that it ignores the very real conflicts within individual civilisations, and it overlooks the fact that political alliances are multiple, shifting, and often cut across self-defined civilisational boundaries. This is because, although societies may sometimes come to blows over abstract principles, more often they clash over conflicting interests.

Malta’s own history demonstrates this. Along with Sicily, it fell into Arab hands following an appeal for Muslim support from its Byzantine ruler in his power struggle with the Byzantine emperor, Michael II.

In addition, the clash between Catholics and Protestants has often been far more bitter than the clash between Islam and Christianity (a similar situation exists between Sunni and Shia Muslims). In Malta, Napoleon’s occupation of the island was hugely unpopular because of its hostility towards Catholicism, not to mention its high taxes. Following British rule, Malta actually found common cause with other post-colonial states, such as Egypt, and became a member of the Non-Aligned Movement.

In an increasingly secular age, the suggestion that Europe is just a modern rehashing of what used to be known as ‘Christendom’ is not appealing or desirable to many, and they will argue that the EU is a union of values. And in terms of democracy and voter turnout, Malta is an exemplary member of the European club.

However, some traditional values that go against what we regard as fundamental freedoms in the modern age continue on the island. For example, divorce is still illegal in Malta, and the public controversy surrounding a bill to legalise it does not bode well. Abortion is also illegal in Malta, whereas, for instance, Albania has some of the most progressive abortion laws in the world.

Malta’s complex and mixed heritage, and its continuing cultural and economic ties with the southern Mediterranean, made the island the most reluctant of the new member states to join the EU. Union membership remains something of a contentious issue on the island, as demonstrated by former Labour prime minister Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici’s recent pronouncements on the subject.

I personally do not think that Malta should pull out of the EU. Rather, the prospect of future EU membership should be extended to other Mediterranean countries who manage to meet the necessary legal, political and economic criteria. This would not only finally lay to rest the notion that there is some kind of inherent ‘clash of civilisations’, it would also enable the EU and its Med neighbours to benefit from the region’s young population and (renewable) energy resources.

This column appeared in the Guardian newspaper’s Comment is Free section on 26 July 2010. Read the full discussion here.

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