TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Prodi and the Veil

Mr. Prodi has been extraordinarily busy lately. First, he went to Spain to visit with his friend Zapatero, and found nothing better to do there than complain with the local press about things Italian. Airing one’s dirty laundry in public is not the most elegant and diplomatic thing to do, but Mr. Prodi evidently, and in this case, did not care about elegance or diplomacy.

Then, when in his office in Rome, he has been busy drafting the 2007 budget for Italy. It is a budget which, thanks to a huge tax increase, will bring the Italian middle class to its knees and has already prompted both Standard and Poor’s as well as Fitch to lower Italy’s rating to a historic low.

Not content with all these frantic and (de-)constructive activities, Mr. Prodi (also known in Italy as Mr. Mortadella, a nickname which in the English translation reads Mr. Bologna—his hometown—or Baloney!) has found the time to state something seemingly sensible on the issue of the Islamic veil.

Taking a position only apparently similar to those of Jack Straw and Tony Blair in England, Mr. Prodi was quoted in the Italian Corriere della Sera to have said that Muslim women should be free to wear the veil as a sign of respect of their religious beliefs, provided, however, they do not cover their faces. “It is a matter of common sense,” declared, with one of his usual big smiles, the Italian Prime Minister.

Prodi’s position on this controversial question is no baloney, to be sure. But both his take on the issue and the issue itself are not at all matters of common sense. What Mr. Prodi calls common sense is actually a law and one which has been around for quite some time, too. It is law number 152 issued in 1975 as one of the measures Italy took to counteract a decade of brutal terrorist attacks coming from Italian extremists of the left and of the right. That is why Italians, as dictated by this law, must never conceal their physical identity, must carry an ID at all times, and be ready to produce it on a number of occasions including when checking-in in hotels and well before they pull their credit cards out of their wallets.

More than enlightened, Mr. Prodi turns into a rather diplomatic ruler when it comes to the controversial issue of the veil, and a careful ruler as well who takes a position on the veil which is just the opposite of what it appears to be. By suggesting common sense and not the actual necessity to abide by a law, Mr. Prodi is providing a ready-made interpretation of the law itself which does allow for what it defines “justified exceptions” to the rule.

Calling a law a “matter of common sense” is not merely a euphemism nor does it necessarily entail a contradiction. Indeed, many laws can be said to be commonsensical but nonetheless remain first and foremost laws. It makes sense to wear a helmet when you drive a motorcycle, but no policeman would ever give you a ticket for not wearing a helmet simply because it is a matter of common sense (or lack thereof). You get the ticket when you break the law. Prodi’s “commonsensical” interpretation of the law translates into the opposite of what his statements seem to indicate. He, in other words, clearly implies that the existing law should not apply to the veil and allows for a free commonsensical interpretation of it.

In his diplomatic vein, Mr. Prodi is careful not to displease the Islamic communities present in Italy and not to upset the very different political sensitivities in his coalition. In doing so, he is quick to turn an anti-terrorist law into a friendly exhortation, showing an extraordinary tact and an uncommon diplomatic ability as well.

He also shows that he can be politically correct and careful, too. And he is right to be careful. People who are not and decide to articulate their thoughts and ideas have to be concerned that some Imam might end up issuing a fatwa with all the inconveniencies that entails.

This is in fact what precisely happened to Daniela Santanchè (a member of the parliamentary opposition), when a few days ago on television, she spoke of the veil as a political more than a religious symbol and as a discrimination against women who are made to wear it against their will. Abu Shwaima, an Imam who has made a town just outside of Milan his home and who was on the same show with her, reacted quite strongly and explicitly calling Santanchè “ignorant” and a number of other names.

Santanchè, who has also authored a book on the topic (La donna negata or The Denied Woman), has been assigned bodyguards as a result of her candor on television (courtesy of the Minister of Domestic Affairs in the Prodi government) for fear that the televised words of the Imam against her might prompt someone to harm or kill her.

Many members of the Italian government have publicly expressed their support to Santanchè and to her political party, Alleanza Nazionale, but Mr. Prodi has stayed silent.

Italy, where laws abound and are all too seldom and selectively applied, has one which stigmatizes what it calls “instigation to commit a crime.” If, in the words of the Imam against Santanchè, one were to envision and prove the existence of an instigation to commit a crime, it would be quite interesting to find out if Mr. Prodi would label the incident a “matter of common sense” or if he were ready to prosecute it.

But he is very busy and might not even have the time to devote his attention to this issue. After all, on his agenda is also the case of the Italian freelance photographer, Gabriele Torsello, who converted to Islam some time ago. Kidnapped in Afghanistan, Mr. Torsello represents a difficult case first on a human level, of course, and then politically, too. How will the Prodi government solve the issue remains to be seen, especially considering the non-commonsensical requests coming from the kidnappers, together with the fact that this time they chose to take a European Islamic brother of theirs. The loud silence coming from Mr. Prodi himself and his government on the issue might make some sense, provided, of course, it is a sign that the Italian Prime Minister is busy working on this.

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