RACISM'S RISING TIDE

Foreigners are not strangers to the old spice shop on Genoa's Via del Campo. The narrow little street near the port was first built up during the Crusades. In legend and song, it's glorified as a place where people on the edges of society find their way, and for several decades many of those people have been North African. But when a couple of middle-aged men walked into the shop the other day and asked for some dried fruits in Arabic instead of Italian, the old woman behind the counter blew up. "If they talk their language, then we talk our language!" she shouted--in a Genoese dialect which even many Italians wouldn't understand.

Such outbursts aren't unique to exasperated shopkeepers. Resentment of immigrants, along with fear of Muslim terrorists, is fueling intolerance almost everywhere in Europe. Some incidents, like recent desecrations of Muslim and Jewish graves in France, draw wide attention. But Italy is fast acquiring a reputation for pervasive racism that's at once more passive and more passionate than elsewhere.

Earlier this month the editor of the Paris daily Le Monde, Jean-Marie Colombani, wrote an open letter to the Rome daily La Repubblica warning against "the idiotic attitude that's ruining our beloved Italy." Colombani, who is French, was on a family trip to Venice when his 20-year-old adopted son, of Indian origin, was singled out at the airport to be searched and questioned. This had happened to him many times before in Italy, and the authorities in Venice didn't seem to think twice about the humiliation--unlike German or British police, he pointedly noted. "Our Europe cannot be one of racism. Never."

But other, more strident voices in Italy are pushing in exactly that direction. Oriana Fallaci, now 74, has developed a niche all her own as a best-selling voice of fear and fury. Since her book-length essay "The Rage and the Pride" was published in the wake of September 11, she's been kindling the flames of a new inquisition against Muslims in Europe. A more recent diatribe, "The Strength of Reason," has sold 800,000 copies--ample evidence that Italians still have a ready appetite for her anger. Europe is no longer Europe, Fallaci argues, it is "Eurabia." As far as she's concerned, attempts by European governments to legislate tolerant, multicultural societies have been disastrous. "They don't like me to say that Troy is burning, that Europe has become a province, even a colony of Islam and Italy is an outpost of that province, a bastion of that colony," she writes.

Ironically, Italy used to be considered one of Europe's least prejudiced societies, at least in racial terms. But that was partly because Italians tend to be as suspicious of one another as they are of foreigners. "In Italy, outsiders can be from not very far away," says Tony Judt of New York University's Remarque Institute. In Genoa, for instance, a line could be drawn between those who speak the local dialect, and those who don't. In Torino or Milan or Venice, it's common to hear Sicilians and Neapolitans talked about, privately, as "Arabs" and "Africans." Umberto Bossi's Lega Nord, or Northern League, a fractious party in Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's government, built its base on just that sort of rabid regionalism--and now plays politics with the country's growing anti-immigrant sentiment.

For Italy's "Africans," role models for successful integration are very few. There are no black or Arab faces in Parliament. They're rare on Italy's national football team. Few are in executive suites, and most jobs available to them are menial or marginal. That's the case with most immigrants of color. Centuries ago Venice might have had a moor commanding its fleets, but the most common African faces there now are selling knockoff designer handbags in the streets--and even that sort of presence is too much for some Italians.

Whether it's the wary regionalism of old or the more recent anti-immigrationism, a mood of visceral racism is sweeping Italy--and Europe. You see it in the persistence of right-wing political parties across the Continent, from Jean-Marie Le Pen in France to the Flemish Block Party in Belgium, the Danish People's Party or the Pim Fortuyn's List in the Netherlands, where notions of "zero immigration" for a "more livable Holland" are now mainstream. Such antiforeign sentiment would have been political suicide not long ago--too close to the nightmare racism of the 1930s. But today attitudes are changing, particularly in Italy. When old regionalism and new racism are heightened by fears of terror, discrimination can take many forms, from the banal (as in the Colombani case) to the hysterical (as with Fallaci). It can also go mainstream--at football matches, say, where fans of the Roman team Lazio hoot like monkeys when opposing teams field black players, and Veronese call out such insults as "Albanians! Kurds! Smugglers!"

Much of this anger and fear, across southern Europe, is a hangover from the careless complacency of the recent past. These countries, which sent economic and political emigrants across the world for a century or more, began attracting net immigration only in the last three decades: Italy in 1972, Spain and Greece in 1975 and Portugal in 1981, according to a study from Sussex University. And few people expected the immigrants to stay. But many did. In Italy alone, nearly 1.5 million were given legal-residency papers between 1990 and 2002. In Spain, the number was roughly 260,000 between 1990 and 2001. Greece regularized 370,000 in one big batch in the late 1990s, mostly from the Balkans and East and Central Europe. Even Portugal gave papers to 61,000 immigrants largely from sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. And actual immigration to all of these countries is probably "two to three times higher," says Jean-Philippe Chauzy, spokesman for the International Organization of Migration in Switzerland.

Every day headlines tell of more people on the way in desperate voyages to the shores of Italy or Spain. Just last week a small boat was rescued off the coast of Sicily carrying more than 70 starving and dehydrated West Africans. Twenty-six others had died and been thrown overboard. Out in the Atlantic, another boat overladen with would-be immigrants sank while trying to reach the Canary Islands, leaving one woman dead and more than 32 missing.

Many Italians simply feel overwhelmed by this assault on Europe's shores. But they're also scared, and not without cause. Antiterrorist investigators keep turning up evidence that groups linked to Al Qaeda have operated out of Italy to recruit immigrant Muslims for missions in Europe and the Middle East. The self-described mastermind of the Madrid train bombings last March, which took 191 lives, was captured in Milan. According to court documents, at least five suicide bombers in Iraq were sent there from Italy. "Isn't there anyone who wants to put out the flames?" Fallaci asks at the end of "The Strength of Reason," as if no Italians--much less immigrants--are up to the job.

Yet one of the most effective antidotes to the resentment and the fear behind Italy's racism may have come from the same court documents Fallaci cites to sow hatred. One of the Italian intelligence services bugged the Milan apartment of Ahmad Osman Rabei, who was later accused of plotting the Madrid bombing. The microphone soon picked up an argument between Rabei and another man, Mahmoud, who lived in the same place:

"I am very worried," said Mahmoud, "because we all came here to work, and thanks to this country our fellow countrymen have managed to create something. Some have bought a house, others have set up businesses and there are some who have made money."

"They are asses, unbelievers," said the alleged Madrid mastermind. "They exploit you, and after you have been here you have nothing, neither your honor nor dignity."

"I told you that everyone has his own ideas," Mahmoud replied. "Only God knows my faith, and you need not come and judge me." There are few better responses to radicalism, or racism, than that.

RACISM'S RISING TIDE | News