Italy’s Far Right Targets a Museum Discount for Arabic Speakers
Posted February 12, 2018 5:25 p.m. EST
ROME — When the Egyptian Museum in the northern Italian city of Turin began offering 2-for-1 admissions for Arabic speakers in January, the offer seemed innocuous enough.
After all, the artifacts in the museum, one of the largest collections outside Cairo, originated in Egypt, which is now the world’s largest Arab country.
But in Italy’s heated campaign before national elections March 4, nothing, it seems, is ever so straightforward. That is especially so if the issue touches even tangentially on immigration.
The Brothers of Italy, a small but vocal far-right party that is a member of the coalition headed by Silvio Berlusconi, took offense at the offer for “discriminating against Italians” and staged a protest Friday.
“This is a specific case directed to a specific religion,” Giorgia Meloni, secretary of the Brothers of Italy, said in Turin, where she led the protest carrying a “No Islamization” banner.
“There is racism in Italy — against Italians,” Meloni proclaimed.
The museum director, Christian Greco, left his office inside the building to confront the chanting protesters.
“The museum belongs to everybody,” Greco explained calmly to Meloni, in an exchange that was captured on video, and then widely circulated on social media and on Italian television stations over the weekend.
Greco made the point that the museum belonged to everyone and had various promotions to lure many types of visitors — including discounts for couples on Valentine’s Day.
“Why don’t you come to protest when students get in free on Thursdays?” he asked jokingly.
But none of that has stopped the anti-immigrant Brothers of Italy from using the museum’s offer to grab the spotlight.
On Sunday, the party’s head of communications, Federico Mollicone, said in an interview to the Italian news agency ANSA that the museum’s offer was a “symptom of the illness of the West.”
Mollicone added that, once in government, the party would “implement a spoils system” for all Culture Ministry appointees, based on “transparency and meritocracy, not ideological membership.”
The perceived threat to Greco stirred academic and institutional circles. Italy’s culture minister defended the director in a Twitter post, and the country’s top-ranking archaeology and culture experts wrote a statement expressing solidarity with Greco and his campaign — the second one aimed at Arabic speakers in 13 months.
Some also pointed out that the museum was in any case run by a foundation, not the state, and that the director’s position was not a government job.
On Monday, Mollicone backpedaled and denied ever threatening to fire the museum’s director.
Brothers of Italy derives the name from the first line of Italy’s national anthem and is a direct successor of the country’s long-disbanded Fascist Party, which has continued to inspire political movements in Italy even though it is illegal. Others include the neo-fascist party CasaPound.
Known for its stances against the euro currency, Brothers of Italy is now the third leg of Berlusconi’s center-right alliance, along with the anti-immigrant League of Matteo Salvini. It was formerly allied with Marine Le Pen, of the far-right National Front in France.
Polls estimate Brothers of Italy’s support at about 5 percent, more than twice the consensus that the group gained in the 2013 elections.
While officials and commentators were engaged in a public soul-searching last week following the xenophobic shooting in central Italy, Meloni noted that there is a “connection between uncontrolled immigration and a spike in crimes.”
The party also recently called for “suspended democracy” in Pontedera, a town in western Tuscany. Officials there barred the Brothers of Italy from setting a campaign stand after its local chapter refused to sign a form stating that it would respect Italy’s laws against racial hate and apology for fascism.