The anti-immigrant rhetoric of the far-right movements in Italy and its consequences

By Federico Quadrelli

Elections Berlusconi credentialsOver the past four years, Italy has seen a significant increase in hate speech and hate crimes against migrants and asylum seekers. This development is connected to the rise of far-right movements and parties, which aim to restore national sovereignty through exclusion, the limitation of the freedom of movement, and a strong anti-European approach. The narrative they espouse exacerbates the negative perceptions of migrants among “ordinary people” (Berger and Luckmann, 1966) and is reshaping our idea of society around the old “inside/outside” dichotomy. In this article, I explain why the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the far right poses such a grave threat to Italy’s open society.

The rise of far-right movements and parties in Italy: An overview          

The political landscape in Italy is quite complicated. Italian politics has since decades been characterised by a strong instability of institutions and political parties, especially after the crash of the old political system in the nineties.

The former secessionist group of Lega Nord, today just Lega, represents the oldest party in the Italian parliament (Biorcio, 1994; Tambini, 2001). After its worst ever electoral performance, at the general election in 2013, a change happened in the Lega Nord. Matteo Salvini, the new leader of the party, abandoned the traditional secessionist narrative based on the distinction between a productive and wealthy Italian north and the unproductive, parasitic Italian south, in favour of an anti-European and anti-immigrant discourse. He turned Lega Nord into the strongest nationalistic party in Italy, establishing electoral deals at the local level with far-right movements such as Forza Nuova (FN) and Casapound (CP), which are collecting unexpected wins in some part of Italy.

Salvini began a strong campaign with anti-immigrant and anti-European slogans during the European election of 2014, reaching 6 percent and being elected as Member of the European Parliament. The nationalistic and anti-immigrant propaganda was strengthened for the regional elections of 2015 when the party elected two governors in the North, and the communal elections of 2016 collecting wins in many major cities in the north and in the middle of Italy. He travelled across the country, performed on television, where he was, and still is, an habitué, arguing that migrants are stealing job positions from Italians, that they are committing crimes, especially sexual assaults against women, and that they are unwilling to respect our rules and values trying to overcome our culture and traditions.

The effect of the anti-immigrant rhetoric

Did this anti-immigrant rhetoric produce a change in the way ordinary people understand society and the values that characterise it? Did a specific way of political communication influence people in the way they perceive the “other” and “themselves”? In order to answer to those questions, I wish to present and discuss some peculiar cases and the reactions registered.

The first case is the aggression perpetuated by a neo-fascistic group in Tuscany against a catholic Priest, who hosted a group of immigrants and integrated them in the activities of the local church. In summer, after an eight-hour day job, the priest decided to bring the migrants to a local swimming pool. It became a national case, with Matteo Salvini shouting and labelling him “anti-italian Priest”. The far right movement began a strong campaign against the Priest, accusing him of disrespecting working italian people that have no opportunity to go swimming in a private pool. Matteo Salvini too, twittered against him. A local neo-fascistic group threatened the Priest with an official statement: “we will control how the Priest will do his activities” and “he will respect the catholic doctrine during the ceremonies”. 

The second case is the shooting in Macerata operated by a far right extremist and candidate for the local election with the Lega Nord party. In the shooting, six immigrants were severely injured. The perpetrator ran away dressing an Italian flag and performing the roman greeting. The Italian police discovered in his home documents and objects celebrating the fascist period and a copy of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”.

According to Left-Avvenimenti, those are just two peculiar cases that showed what the anti-immigrant rhetoric produced. Lunaria, an Italian NGO, released a report explaining that the number of aggressions, hate demonstrations and speeches have dramatically risen: between 2007 and 2016, 5369 cases of violence, aggression, murder and propaganda based on xenophobia. 

This is not per se an indicator of what is happening in the “belly of the society”. However, what is shocking is the way a great number of people reacted to those phenomena of violence and hate.  The idea that some red lines can be crossed, is today, seen as “possible” and justified, sometimes. Some people have therefore resorted to public solidarity demonstrations for those who threatened the priest as well as for the man who injured six immigrants, willing to protect the interests of the Italian people. The idea of many people is that those aggressors protect our rights, identity and values, taking care of Italy and our nation. A concrete example of that general feeling came from the results of the general election. In Macerata, for instance, the Lega reached 21 percent and on the national level collected a remarkable result of 17.6 percent, just 1 percent behind the Democratic Party (PD).

Conclusion

Who counts as insider and who counts as outsider? This, today, appears to be a key theme. Our society is turning towards an old dichotomy. One could argue that we are returning to a time of exclusion, separation, and distinction, based on the definition of who deserves to be included and who should be excluded from our society. The perception of the other as an enemy is not new (cfr. Schmidt, 1932). Politics and civil society should understand the danger represented by the rise of far-right movements and their institutionalisation through every-day-life practices, media, and political discourse. It is a danger for the cohesion of our society. We should investigate more adequately what the effects of hate speech and political propaganda against minorities and immigrants are and what can be done to counter it.  

 

The author of this article, Federico Quadrelli, is a Research Fellow at CILD

Disclaimer

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, Federico Quadrelli.

 

Bibliography       

Berger P.L., Luckmann, T., (1966) The social construction of reality: a treaty in the sociology of Knowledge, Anchor Books, New York.

Biorcio, R. (1993) “Nel ventre della Lega” in: Il Manifesto.

Schimdt, C., (1932) Der Begriff des Politischen, Duncker und Humblot, Berlin.

Tambini D., (2001) Nationalism in Italian politics: the stories of the Northern League, 1980-2000, Routledge, London.

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