After the teaser of a few weeks ago, please find below the full text of my remarks at the 3rd Arab PR Conference held in Cairo on December 19 and 20.
Conferences in the Arab world are not the pinnacle of presentation skills: thanks to their difficult relationship with images, most presentations are a dull sequence of text in Arabic (which I don’t speak or read). So mine was exactly the opposite, and contained nothing but images, some of which are interspersed in this text.
MESSAGES (Italy, 1970s – the Years of Lead)
In the 70’s the Italian economy was ravaged by rampant inflation, slow growth, corruption – the usual set of deadweights that unfortunately bogged down my country since the end of Second World War. Actually, when you read essays on Ancient Rome, you realize that Marcus Porcius Cato was complaining exactly about these same evils in 200BC so it’s a tradition that goes back a long way…
As usual, the poorer segment of the population was bearing the brunt of this situation and social strife was everywhere: hardly a day went by without a protest march or a strike and the mildly conservative governments that rapidly came and went were unable to cope with diverging extremes both on the left and on the right.
In 1969 a bomb exploded in a bank in Piazza Fontana in central Milano, killing 17: it was the start of an escalation of violence that lasted about ten years, collectively known as “Years of Lead”. Terrorist groups formed in both extremes, the best known perhaps being right wing Ordine Nuovo (“New Order”) and the leftist Brigate Rosse (“Red Brigades”).
While the neo-fascists always operated under guidance or inspiration from Secret Services (both Italian and American), the Red Brigades prospered like piranhas in the fish tank of a dispossessed working class.
Exactly like piranhas in a feeding frenzy, inebriated by their newly found enormous visibility, they escalated their military actions from symbolic non-lethal woundings of key figures of the establishment (journalists, industrialists, politicians) to deadly attacks which culminated in 1978 in the cold-blooded murder of Aldo Moro, then President of the Christian Democratic Party, together with the five men of his security detail.
Despite the violence, the rhetoric of what was then the largest Communist Party outside of the Soviet Union, and especially that of the hardline Union of Metalworkers CGIL, was to characterize the Red Brigades as “comrades who went too far”.
In 1978, however, Guido Rossa, a CGIL Union Representative working at the largest Italian steel mill, Italsider, reported to the Police one of his co-workers for distributing Red Brigades leaflets at his workplace. It was an act of isolated bravery: two other Union Reps, despite having witnessed the same event, refused to testify for fear of reprisals.
These fears proved not without foundation, as a few months later Guido Rossa was murdered by the Red Brigades, the first homicide against a member of the working class.
The Red Brigades attempted to portray Rossa as a spy, but both the Communist party and CGIL subtly altered their stance, starting to call the Red Brigades “Enemies of the People”.
The phenomenon had peaked and without popular support the Red Brigades frayed in a myriad of bickering small units, militants started to defect and soon all terrorists were apprehended and sentenced long prison terms.
The fish tank had been emptied killing the fearsome piranhas.
Forty years later, we know a great deal of what happened during that dark decade but back then? Propaganda fed us all kinds of credible stories, mixing bits of truth with loads of lies and confusing everybody.
The switch that made possible that a divided and confused country would come out from a season of blood and hate was the shift in Communications which did away with the subtle differences, justification and historical rationales and painted the world in much simpler colors, pigeonholing terrorists in their right box: enemies of the people.
If I bring up this image, what do you think? Most of you will think Islamic State, right?
Well, I think we are making a significant semantic and communications mistake every time we call “Islamic” something that has no relation to Islam, and “State” something that is definitely not a State. The use of the adjective shoud be sanctioned in the same way we ridicule the Ku-Klux-Klan’ abuse of Christian symbols.
The use of the noun should also be sanctioned, because a “State” is such only if other States recognize it.
It is quite clear that the real target (and the worst enemy) of terrorists are the many peaceful, integrated, hard-working people that happen to be of Muslim religion. They are the living demonstration that people CAN and WILL live peacefully together, improving unjust western societies and making them a better, more tolerant place with every generation. But they are also the living chain of transmission that will eventually import what is good from western societies to the betterment of their home countries.
It is high time that this majority, their leadership and their clergy empty the fish tank by denouncing terrorists for what they are, i.e. enemies of Islam and of the Muslim people, addressing them with the only word that is appropriate.
But as I said, there are two components to every great Communications projects, because alongside a clear message strategy, we need a reputable spokesperson.
REPUTATION (Europe, 1377: the Great Schism)
Christianity lived through a profound schism (called the Great Western Schism) for most of the XIV century: initiated with the transfer of the Pope from Rome to Avignon in 1307,
the Schism itself appeared with the return of the Papal Siege to Rome decided by Pope Gregory XI in 1377: upon his death, the french faction and the roman faction both elected a Pope, and Europe found itself divided in “french obedience” (France, Spain, southern Italy, Scotland) and “roman obedience” (Eastern and Northern Europe, northern Italy, England, Ireland) with the German Empire and Portugal flip-flopping between the two depending on political convenience.
Such divisions on matters of faith masked – as it’s often the case – unresolved political issues existing between the various Empires and Kingdoms, starting with the Church, itself a secular potentate at the time. Therefore a seemingly innocuous religious dispute became the “reason” for much bloodshed.
In 1409, an attempt to resolve the problem made it worse by adding a third Pope to the existing two.
It took until 1417, when the Ecumenical Council of Konstanz, having sorted out in three years of discussion the doctrinal differences, deposed all three Popes and elected a new one, Martin V.
The Ecumenical Council was not a “new” instrument: in the history of the Church it had been called sixteen other times (but only five since) to address doctrinal issues such as heresies. The 1414 one was the first time it was used to decide which Pope was the legit one, a thorny issue which called into discussion the supremacy of the Pope which was sanctioned in 1870 when it was upheld formally stating that the Pope was indeed infallible when speaking “ex cathedra on matters of faith”.
This brief history lesson teaches us two things therefore:
- it’s a matter of words, which we call
Changing the way you call someone that has gone the wrong way will have an impact on the perception of the masses. If Italian Unions had not started to call the Red Brigades “Enemies of the People” probably the Years of Lead would have stretched much further in time.
- it’s a matter of authority which we call
The Western Schism could not have been composed without stretching the mandate of the Ecumenical Council, something that was only possible because all parties recognized the explosive potential of the Schism to precipitate Europe into another endless war.
This is probably what is needed by Islam today: an extraordinary measure to sanction that the perversion of the words of the Quran to justify terrorism is an unacceptable heresy, and preachers of such hate doctrine should be publicly thrown out of Islam,
…into a furnace of fire:
there shall be wailing
and gnashing of teeth