When the Taliban in Afghanistan were busy destroying ancient gigantic stone statues of Buddha, some commentators asked: What’s next? Now, a fundamentalist Muslim group known as Unione dei Musulmani d’Italia (Italy’s Union of Muslims) has demanded that a priceless 15th-century fresco, which they call “obscene and blasphemous,” be removed from San Petronio, the 14th-century cathedral in Bologna.
“A new Rushdie case? Perhaps, but only six centuries late,” noted il Giornale on June 27, 2001. On June 7, 2001, the Unione wrote Pope John Paul II and Giacomo Cardinal Biffi, the archbishop of Bologna, calling for the fresco to be destroyed and the Catholic Church to apologize to the Islamic community “in much the same way as your superior, the non-EU pontiff John Paul II, has already asked for pardon from the Jews and Orthodox Greeks.” Neither the Vatican nor Bologna’s archbishop responded to the Unione’s letter.
The fresco depicts the sixth-century founder of Islam, Muhammad, naked and burning in the flames of Hell. It was painted by the early Renaissance master Giovanni da Modena on the wall of the Bolognini chapel as part of a wider scene based on the Last Judgment, showing Hell with a monstrous Lucifer at the center, munching on a sinner. To his left, a grimacing, horned demon drags the naked figure of Muhammad down to the underworld. The Unione claims that the fresco compromised relations between Catholics and Muslims, arguing that it is far more offensive than Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. Muslims, the Unione said, had never depicted Jesus or the Virgin Mary naked on the walls of a mosque. (They failed to note, however, that they consider depicting any human being in an image on the wall of a Mosque—or anywhere, for that matter—idolatry, and it is forbidden.)
The Unione, headquartered in the outskirts of Rome, has announced it will hold demonstrations outside the capital’s mosque—the largest in Europe—despite the fact that the head of the local Islamic Cultural Center said that not all Muslims in Bologna agreed that the fresco should be removed. So far, no such demonstration has taken place. The International Herald Tribune’s Italy Daily supplement may have been right to describe the Unione as a “tiny Muslim organization.”
Still, the social and cultural implications of the controversy could be enormous, since the Unione contends that the problem started in the Middle Ages with Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), Italy’s national poet, who, in Canto 28 of the Inferno, placed Muhammad in the ninth circle of Hell alongside other idolators and schismatics. The fresco was based on this literary masterpiece, written 100 years earlier. The Unione also demands that the teaching of Dante be suspended in Italian schools in immigrant areas since, in their words, “nothing against the prophet Jesus is studied in our schools.”
The World Muslim League, which operates out of the mosque in Rome, said the request was “pure madness” and called the petition “more than silly.” But Roberto de Mattei, the president of a Rome-based think tank, Centro Culturale Lepanto (named after the 1571 battle that saw a huge Muslim fleet routed by the Christian forces), was of a somewhat different opinion. “The demand exposes the aggressive nature of Islamic fundamentalism, which never has renounced its goal to dominate Europe one day,” he told the Asian Wall Street Journal (July 13-15, 2001). “What other explanation is there for attempts to destroy Italy’s cultural heritage?”
The fact that the controversy erupted in Bologna may not be coincidental. In September 2000, Giacomo Cardinal Biffi set off a tempest when he issued a pastoral letter on Muslim immigration to Italy and the dangers posed by Islamic proselytizing. He stated that it would be best if Italy changed its immigration policy to favor immigrants who were Catholic, rather than Muslim, in order to “save the nation’s identity.” In his opinion, economic and social criteria alone should not be the guidelines for allowing immigrants to adopt Italy as their home. Cardinal Biffi repeatedly stressed the incompatibility of certain aspects of Muslim culture and religion with the traditions of Italy: different eating habits, family rights, a different weekly holy day, the concept of the role of women in society, polygamy, and a fundamentalist view of public life in which religion is one with politics. “Europe must either become Christian again or it will become Muslim,” he argued, and he rejected accusations that his suggestion amounts to discrimination on the basis of religion. “There is no right to invasion!” the cardinal said. “A country can let whom it wants into its house.” Anti-Muslim feelings were further fueled by the Northern League, now part of the center-right government led by Silvio Berlusconi, which has campaigned on an anti-immigration platform and called for the defense of Christian society against outside influences. Berlusconi has also held marches to protest the building of mosques in Italy.
The spokesman for the Bologna curia confirmed that, even if the cardinal wanted to modify or erase the fresco, he would not be able to. In Italy, all public monuments, including the Bologna basilica, are state property, and the approval of the Ministry of Culture is needed to move even a single stone. The same applies to Dante’s poetry: In Italy, school syllabi are determined by the Ministry of Public Education, and it is highly unlikely that the new center-right government would ever consider, let alone accede to, such a request.
After all, why should others change their cultural patterns to please the Muslims, who would never change theirs for the sake of others? What if Catholics started asking that insults and threats to Christians be removed from the decorations in many mosques and from the Koran itself?