How Oriana Fallaci's Writings on Islamism Are Remembered—and Reviled

The first authorized biography of a controversial Italian reporter sheds a new light on her legacy.

Oriana Fallaci smoking a cigarette.
Oriana Fallaci is shown in this undated photo. (AP)

The Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci was born in 1929, before the outbreak of World War II, and died in 2006, after 9/11. These two horrifying events shaped her writing and worldview. Traveling the world, she covered some of its worst conflicts as a war reporter, with a tone fans would call incisive and critics would call caustic. In the process, she developed a deep fear of Islam’s influence in Europe.

She is most remembered—and often reviled—for the views informed by this fear. Fallaci believed that the Western world was in danger of being engulfed by radical Islam and, toward the end of her career, she wrote three books advancing this argument. She claimed that Muslims were colonizing Europe through immigration and high fertility, and that the passivity of the European left to the dangers she saw would soon turn Europe into a “colony of Islam,” a place she called “Eurabia.”

Her views have led her to posthumously develop a reputation as a darling of the far right—a dubious honor that would have troubled the woman who was in life an anti-fascist activist. A new biography, Oriana Fallaci: The Journalist, the Agitator, the Legend, emphasizes the diversity of Fallaci’s colorful career, and makes the case that her critics are mistaken in judging her based on her writings about Islam.

Fallaci was, for one thing, an interviewer of great men and women. She was wary of power, having grown up under authoritarian rule, and she took pleasure in challenging it. In one of the most famous examples, while she was interviewing Ayatollah Khomeini before the Iranian Revolution of 1979, she so irritated him with questions about women’s rights that Khomeini exclaimed, “If you do not like Islamic dress you are not obliged to follow it. The chador is only for young and respectable women.” Fallaci then tore the chador off her head, saying, “I’m going to take off this stupid, medieval rag right now.”

For a public figure and provocateur, she could be a private person, which makes the publication of her first authorized biography especially noteworthy. Her biographer, Cristina De Stefano, drew on unprecedented access to the journalist’s personal records. I spoke with De Stefano about Fallaci’s legacy, the manipulation of her memory, and what she got right—and wrong—about Islam in Europe. Below is a condensed and edited transcript of our conversation.

Annabelle Timsit: How did Oriana’s views on Islamism in Europe affect her career?

Cristina De Stefano: Oriana’s last trilogy almost destroyed her career, so she took a great risk in publishing it. She went from being a respected left-wing intellectual to being considered an Islamophobic icon of the far-right.

But Oriana Fallaci was not a political commentator—she was a novelist, she was a writer. I think that, in talking about politics, she often asked the right questions, like: What is Europe’s position toward Islamic culture within its borders? Is Europe ready to stand up for its values? How can two such different cultures meet?

But I am not sure she provided the right answers. She made often-simplistic accusations against European Muslims; she was violent in her expressions and negative in her view of the future. She was more a prophetess of catastrophe—a Cassandra, as she used to say—than a provider of concrete suggestions. Let’s keep in mind that we are talking about an artist here, someone who was, first of all, inhabited by her creativity.

Timsit: Can you tell me about her identity as a feminist and her views about Muslim women?

De Stefano: Oriana had a first-hand experience of Islam. She was a war reporter and covered a lot of conflicts in the Middle East. She was one of the first to understand that the Iranian Revolution of 1979 marked the return of political Islam on the world scene.

She [witnessed] the condition of women in Islam very early, in the ’60s, while traveling across the world for her book, The Useless Sex. In it, she wrote that Islamic countries were prisons for women. At the same time, she was never in a position of proselytism, she never tried to bring equality to these countries—she just said she didn’t like it, but if they wanted to live like this, in their own countries, it was fine by her.

The problem she pointed out was the danger of these different values coming to [Europe] through immigration. She stressed that we have to stand up for our values, and we have to say very clearly that immigrants have to accept our rules.

Timsit: But did she really think Islamic values were an existential threat to Europe? Do you?

De Stefano: I don’t believe that [Islamic values] are incompatible [with European values]. There are difficulties with integrating highly-religious immigrants into secular societies, and that can create problems. We need time to find a way to coexist. In the long run, I am optimistic. On this matter, I am in a completely different position than Oriana [who], on the contrary, was very pessimistic. She was particularly worried about the role of religion in society and about the condition of women.

Her declarations and writings after 9/11 were not the fruit of a mature political reasoning, but of a mix of rage, solitude, and illness. She was dying of cancer, alone, struggling with time and writing her last book. She was at the end of her life and she considered the attack on America, and then on Europe, as the end of the world.

Was she Islamophobic? Yes. Do I agree with her? No. But are the last words of a person a good reason to [negate] their whole life? Also no. That’s why I wrote the book and that’s why I hope people will read it: I wanted to show that there was another Oriana before, a person who accomplished great things, and was an inspiration for many women.

Timsit: Can she really be considered feminist, if she excludes Muslim women from her views?

De Stefano: Oriana’s position as a feminist was very interesting, because she was not a part of the movement of feminism, and she was often critical [of it]. She pointed out the contradiction within feminism. For example, after the [2015] New Year’s Eve sexual attacks in Cologne, many feminists in Europe were afraid to encourage xenophobia, so they kept silent. If Oriana was there she would have been furious at this silence. She would have considered it a lack of courage—and she praised courage above all.

She never took a stand for Muslim women, but she never did for Italian women either. She wasn't an activist. I would say she was a feminist in her actions, in her own life.

Timsit: What was it about her actions that was feminist?

De Stefano: Her [feminist] legacy is her story as a woman who was able to become a world-renowned journalist during a time when journalism was a man’s profession; it is her invention of a new and personal way of doing political interviews; and it is the millions of novels she sold all over the world.

Timsit: What can her writings teach us about the resurgence of the far right in Europe?

De Stefano: When we think about Oriana and politics, we tend to think about Islam. But in fact, the center of her political ideas and her obsession was not Islam—it was fascism. For her, the first stage of fascism is to silence people; and for her, political Islam is another form of fascism.

[She] would be very shocked by what is happening in Europe today. She would have said that we have to be vigilant, because the freedom we have can be taken back from us.

Timsit: Doesn’t this fail to take into account the different ways in which political Islam expresses itself across the Muslim world?

De Stefano: She did not explore the whole range of today’s Islam. She underlined the extremes [because] she considered herself in a battle for civilization, and for this reason she was often too extreme herself, [hence] the accusations of Islamophobia. The central focus of her writing wasn’t against a race or a religion, but rather an attitude. She claimed that political Islam is aggressive, while Europe is too shy to react to it. She was worried that Islamic culture isn’t afraid to claim its own cultural and religious superiority, while European culture is uncomfortable about defending its own values and achievements.

I think there are a lot of attacks on Oriana that are hypocritical, in the sense that they focus on the form but they don’t discuss what she said. Of course, you can be opposed to what she said, but you can’t deny that she asked some very important, uncomfortable questions that still need to be answered today. That was the main point of her trilogy, [to ask]: Europe, are you ready to fight for your values? And Europe has no answer to this question.

You can love or hate what she wrote, but she was quite right in pointing out what the future would bring. Today, Europe is facing a real crisis from migrants and she saw this coming.

Timsit: So, for her, immigration was a tool of invasion?

De Stefano: Yes. She wrote the famous, awful phrase, “The sons of Allah breed like rats.” Of course, it’s awful. But she was saying that Muslims don’t need to kill [non-Muslims]—they will just outnumber [non-Muslims].

The problem with Oriana, and the reason why a lot of readers don’t like her, is that she said a lot of uneasy things. [After World War II] the continent decided that war was over and that we would never fight again. Oriana told Europe that, in fact, war was not over; that political Islam is bringing war back to the continent.

Timsit: What is the most striking thing that you learned about Oriana in writing her biography?

De Stefano: Oriana made a feminist out of me. I was born in 1967, and I was convinced that feminists were old and out of fashion. Writing about her life, I realized how much women before me had to fight to work and live like men did, to be accepted and recognized. And through her writings, she convinced me that the rights that women [achieved] in the past can be taken away from them—so we have to be vigilant all the time. I am a different person now.