Nationalism has permeated Italian politics more than other Western European countries. In all the elections that have been held since 2018 the right-wing nationalist parties of Lega Nord (Lega) and Fratelli d’Italia (FdI)have significantly increased the number of their voters. However, Italy’s nationalist turn has not only concerned parties of the right but also from the left. This article illustrates the way in which the proliferation of nationalism affects the mobilization of Italian citizens with non-Italian backgrounds. For mobilization I intend all the efforts of right-wing and left-wing parties and media to either involve or marginalise Italian citizens with non-Italian backgrounds. I argue that, although they might differ in their scope, both right-wing and left-wing political agents promote politics of difference through communication strategies that serve to mobilize Italian citizens with non-Italian backgrounds. In this context the term “politics of difference” primarily refers to policies that are meant to track and exploit arbitrarily defined distinctions between citizens based on their “origins”.
The right-wing political parties and their attacks on Italians with non-Italian backgrounds
Legaand FdI are officially members of the coalition of the center-right, but they have endorsed political attitudes that are closer to the tradition of the post-World War II Italian far-right parties. They have founded their propaganda on the exaltation of the Italian national identity in opposition to several external and internal “others”.Lega’s slogan Prima gliItaliani (Italians First) was firstly used by the fascist ideology-inspired party Casa Pound. FdI leader Giorgia Meloni started her political career as a member of Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), which was the first Italian neo-fascist party. In her social media communication Meloni uses the word Nazione(nation, with a capital ‘n’) to refer to Italy instead of using the term “state” as most of her Italian colleagues would do.
The leaders and the activists of Lega and FdI have generally shown a hostile attitude toward Italian citizens with non-Italian backgrounds. Congo-born former Integration Minister Cécile Kyenge, who was in office between 2013 and 2014, received all kinds of insults from Lega activists because of her origin. In January 2019 the court of Bergamo sentenced current vice-president of the Senate Roberto Calderoli with eighteen months of prison for saying in a public meeting that Kyenge looked like an orangutan. During the electoral campaign in Sardinia in February 2019, the president of a local Lega club Giovanni Barbagallo posted pictures of the Partito Democratico (PD) and Liberi e Uguali (LeU) candidates on his Facebook page, asserting that they were foreigners and that he hoped that at least they knew the Italian language. However, both candidates owned the Italian citizenship since it is mandatory to participate in the electoral process.
Salvini has always displayed a scornful attitude toward Muslims and Roma people, independently of their citizenship. In a radio show in June 2018, the then Minister of Interior Salvini claimed that he planned to make a statistic of Roma people in Italy. He also added that all foreign Roma nationals needed to be expelled from the country except those with an Italian citizenship, that “unfortunately we have to keep (…)”. In a public speech held in August 2019, Salvini defended his right to use the racial slur zingaraccia against a Roma woman who had said that he deserved to be killed. The controversial Decreto Sicurezza(safety decree) that Salvini promulgated when he was Minister of Interior introduced a norm that enabled the state to deprive individuals of non-Italian background of their citizenship if they were found guilty of terrorism.
Lega and FdI accuse the government to take more care of foreigners’ needs instead of focusing on Italians. In spring 2019, the FdI and other far right circles of Rome organized public protests against the allocation of state-owned houses to Roma families. Tensions arose especially in Casal Bruciato where an Italian family that had squatted a municipal flat, was forced to leave so the legitimate beneficiaries could move in. A Roma family with Italian citizenship moved inside the house escorted by police who protected the family from an angry mob that had rallied outside the building. The FdI section of the 4th Municipality of Rome wrote on the Facebook account that the Mayor gave houses to “nomads” instead of the Roman families that needed them.
Some exponents of FdI tried to normalize the idea that every citizen of foreign origin could be harassed in the privacy of his/her domestic environment if s/he was suspected of receiving benefits that the state did not provide for Italians. In November 2019, FdI members Marco Lisei and Galeazzo Bignami filmed the names of alleged “foreign” families that lived in state-owned houses in Bologna. The video was posted on Facebook in order to argue that the local administration gave houses to foreigners and not to Italians. However, as argued by the online newspaper nextquotidiano.it on November 12, 2019, nothing in the video proved that these families were not Italian. The video was deleted when the public prosecutor of Bologna opened a case for possible infringement of privacy laws.
Salvini emulated the act of the FdI exponents in his own Padano style. While the leader of Lega was touring the “Pilastro” neighbourhood in Bologna a lady in her sixties told him that she knew where a family of foreign drug dealers lived. Without verifying the information Salvini went to the doorstep of the building where the family of presumed drug dealers lived and pressed the buzz. A person answered the intercom and Salvini asked whether it was true that they were selling drugs. It turned out that the person that was indicated as the main pusher of the house, was a 17-year-old Italian citizen, born in Italy from an Italian mother and a Tunisian father. He did not have any criminal records and was not at home when Salvini went to his door. The exploit of the Lega leader drew harsh criticism. The vice-president of the Tunisian parliament Osama Sghaier claimed that Salvini was a racist and that his attitude undermined relations between the two countries. The former president of the Italian Constitutional Court Gustavo Zagrebelsky declared that Salvini’s act brought to memory the Kristallnacht. Salvini has now deleted the video because the boy that he accused of drug-dealing reported the former Interior Minister for privacy violation. It was recently discovered that the lady who gave this false information to Salvini had been introduced to the Lega staff by a carabinieri marshal. The Carabinieri Force has now opened a case to determine whether the officer infringed his institutional duties.
Despite the continuous provocations shown toward Italian citizens with non-Italian backgrounds, FdI and Lega have always rejected accusations of racism and xenophobia and both parties count activists with non-Italian backgrounds among their party members. For instance, Nigeria-born Toni Iwobi had been a member of Legafor nearly 25 years when he was elected member of the senate in 2018. The exponent of FdI Paolo Diop was born in Senegal and moved to Italy at a very young age. He used to support CasaPound and in a 2015 interview he declared that he admired Salvini, that he was a nationalist and a fascist, and that he preferred people to call him negro – the equivalent of the English word “nigger” – rather than being labelled as a person di colore – literally “of colour” – as the politically correct phrasing would put it. Ironically, in April 2018, Paolo Diop and his girlfriend were victims of a racist aggression by a group of people who insulted Diop calling him negro. This unfortunate event did not make Diop change his political convictions.
The “New Italians” and the search for “italianness”
Nationalism is not a prerogative of the right, and the left has also claimed its historical and cultural connection to this ideology. In July 2018, current Liberi e Uguali (LeU) member (former PD) Stefano Fassina published an article on the Huffington Post in which he announced the formation of the party “Fatherland and Constitution” (Patria e Costituzione). According to Fassina, it is necessary to return to the anti-fascist ideal of fatherland that is inscribed in the Italian Constitution to avoid the negative impacts of liberalism and extreme nationalism. The leftist circles often employ the term NuoviItaliani(New Italians) to refer to the generation of citizens that have non-Italian backgrounds. In the 2013 electoral campaign, PD pompously announced the inclusion of NuoviItalianiin the party’s list of candidates. The term has perhaps been coined to provide a positive image of Italians with non-Italian backgrounds. But the “New Italians”appear as a category of people marked by different cultural backgrounds and the overall Italian population is conceptualised as if it was composed of two main ethnic bodies: The “old”, autochthones and purest Italians who are simply Italians and the “new” culturally-hybrid Italians who are Italians but also something else and consequently something less.
The left-right competition over who endorses the authentic values of the Italian identity, has pushed people to question their degree of belonging to italianità (italianness) – an increasingly popular term – and that of others. Individuals with non-Italian backgrounds are trying to subvert the prejudices that have been constructed on their account because of their alleged different “origins”. Their voice reaches the mainstream through political organizations such as Cara Italia, media (television, newspapers, blogs and social media) as well as various art forms, music and sports. Several known and less known Italian-speaking trap and reggaeton artists describe their personal experience of italianness against a context that refuses to consider them as part of the national body. Unlike fifteen years ago, national discourses are now fashionable and national identity seems to be a fundamental part of the construction of one’s personal and collective self. Journalist Oiza Q. Obasuyi has published several articles about the way in which she and other citizens with non-Italian backgrounds feel stigmatized in their everyday life because of their “origins”. In her view people find it difficult to either accept or understand that one could be plainly Italian if s/he has a different skin colour or place of birth. In February 2019, she noted the absurdity of a question that a journalist made to pop singer Mahmood who won the most prestigious music competition in Italy, Sanremo. Mahmood was born in Italy and his father is Egyptian. Although he had never visited his father’s country, a journalist asked him which was the thing that he missed the most of his “country”, that is Egypt.
Journalists of either right or left political orientation are equally contributing to spread the idea that citizens with non-Italian backgrounds are somehow different from the rest of the population. The 17-year-old boy that Salvini accused of drug-dealing was asked in an interview whether he was Italian. The question was irrelevant and it shows that the journalist accepted the idea that being a foreigner is perceived as an aggravating factor for any crime or presumed crime that one has committed. In an article published on November 22, 2018, the online left-oriented newspaper nextquotidiano.it commented sarcastically on the fact that Paolo Diop had joined FdI. The journalist assumed that his non-Italian origins were not compatible with his political ideas and cynically exposed his non-italianness by stating that his original name was not Paolo but Talla.
Italian athletes are particularly subjected to journalists’ endeavours to make citizens with non-Italian backgrounds declare their allegiance to the Italian identity. Few years ago former football player Thiago Motta who is born in Brasiland who played for the Italian national team was asked to illustrate his mixed national feelings. Motta answered puerile questions such as whether he preferred pasta or churrasco and if he would rather dance samba or tarantella. When the Italian women 4X400 relay team won the gold medal at the Mediterranean games in July 2018, politicians and medias from the right and the left depicted the team as a symbol of diversity which can contribute to the development of the Italian nation. Roberto Saviano claimed that the four athletes represented the dream of a multicultural Italy that would not have been hindered by Lega’s racism. More recently, the press praised the “multi-ethnic” character of the Italian women’s volleyball team and designated it as a model for the society that Italy should try to build. In both cases journalists fail to see that by depicting the team and the athletes as “multi-ethnic” or “multi-cultural”, they build a narrative in which the athletes and the category of people that they are haphazardly called to represent have different “ethnicities” or “cultures” and are different from “usual” or “old” Italians.
The athletes know that their image is exploited for political purposes and are also aware of the essentialist ideology that informs the discourse on their “origins”. In an interview with Corriere della Sera volleyball player Paola Egonu was asked how she felt about the fact that “Italy” fell in love with the “multi-ethnic” character of the team. She replied that she was surprised of this reaction, because all players were Italian and it was normal to have different origins. Egonu implicitly told the journalist that origins are irrelevant to one’s degree of national belonging. Paradoxically, her opinion mirrors Giorgia Meloni’s comment on the picture of the Italian relay women’s team. The FdI leader commented the image of the four athletes holding the Italian flag stating that “The only thing the radical chic see in this picture is black athletes to politically exploit. I see the Italian flag waving. Long live our girls”. Meloni used the image of the girls to attack her opponents and therefore her act was not free of exploitative intents. However, she emphasised the symbol that makes the athletes simply Italian rather than their “origin” that makes them differently Italian.
Overcoming the Italian identity crisis
The idea that “origins” can establish a person’s degree of affiliation to a nation is absurd and its application would lead to the ontological dissolution of the Italian project. Italy was formed in 1861 and this means that every inhabitant of the peninsula has non-Italian origins if we look seven generations back. The myth of the “origins” is a politics of difference implemented in order to create a distinction between “old” and “new” Italians at the benefit of the former. In the framework of a nationalist political discourse, the narrative on one’s own past is always conceived to mediate the degree of his/her national belonging in the present and in the future. However, as Egonu’s words suggest, in everyday face-to-face relations, belonging and loyalty to a given collective entity is not conditioned by one’s putative origins, but rather depend on the way one decides to structure her/his self in the social, political, economic and cultural environment that s/he inhabits.
This article has shown how left-wing and right-wing Italian politicians and media deploy a politics of difference in order to mobilise citizens with non-Italian backgrounds. On the one hand, the right-wing parties Lega and FdI refute accusations of racism, fascism and xenophobia but on the other hand they are accustomed to racial and ethnic slur, they marginalize Italian citizens with non-Italian backgrounds, contend their italianness, and ignore their privacy and other basic civil rights with gestapo-type behaviours. They mobilise these citizens not simply as Italians but rather as foreigners or as “Italians of foreign origins” who for this reason may not always be considered as entitled to enjoy full political rights. This politics of difference, that is the emphasis on the distinction between old and new Italians, reflect the fear of competition between Italians and migrants, a fear that was spread by right-wing propaganda and that has generated a myth of “substitution”. The myth says that “foreigners” or citizens with non-Italian backgrounds and non-Italian cultures will outnumber and therefore substitute the original ethnic component of the country. The presence of activists with non-Italian backgrounds in the ranks of Lega and FdI does not reduce their liability and that of other party members who have stigmatized citizens with non-Italian backgrounds.
The politics of difference carried out by political and media agents through the emphasis of their different “origins”, “cultures” or “ethnicities” mobilises individuals with non-Italian backgrounds in the form of a dialectical positioning toward other citizens. Citizens with non-Italian backgrounds will be mobilised not as purely Italians but as a category that oscillates between the internal and the external otherness. The parties of the left, and in particular PD and LeU, are fighting the hard nationalism of the right with a soft nationalism of the left. In analogy to the policies implemented by the rightist circles, the exaltation of the national identity by the left and the discourse on origins that they propagate generates a contradictory effect on the mobilization of citizens with non-Italian backgrounds. The promotion of a “multi-ethnic” society leads to the formulation of ethno-building discourses. Ethnic identities – like religious identities – tend to become catalysts for political violence and marginalization as soon as political and economic problems emerge. Citizens should be granted full political rights whichever their backgrounds are and should not either be forced into assimilation nor be given the opportunity to ghettoize. More than that, one should not preclude the possibility that a citizen can embrace a given set of ideas or ideologies only because his/her “origins” seem to contradict his/her political choices.
The nationalist turn that has characterised Italy in the last years does not stem from the necessity to express a consolidated sense of belonging to the Italian nation, but rather the opposite. The search for italianness in the self and in the others shows that those who are conducting this search – right-wing and left-wing politicians and journalists, Italian citizens and “foreigners” who aspire to become Italians – have either lost or are scared to have lost not as much the character of italianness that they are looking for but rather the economic and symbolic assets that it gave them. Until fifteen or twenty years ago, there was no need for mainstream politicians and journalists to frantically look for who was Italian and who was not, because the question of what it meant to be Italian did not appear problematic. There were infinite modalities of being Italian which were validated by the possession of the Italian passport and/or by the possession of a permanent residency permit in the country. The crisis of the EU and the decade-long economic crisis have shifted the function of the Italian identity from a tool that allowed people to project their ambitions and lives in a trans-national horizon, to a ticket that individuals use to claim assets in a context with scarcer resources. The endorsement of an Italian identity has become an opportunity for political subjects who used to repudiate the Italian project and claim independence from Rome, such as Lega. The history of Lega that is now arrogating the right to decide who deserves to be Italian, show how national identities are constructed and dismissed according to the symbolic and economic assets that they offer. It is nonetheless impossible for any of the seekers of italianness to determine which aspects define italianness and who represents them better.