After her right-wing coalition won the September 25 elections in Italy, Giorgia Meloni is set to become the country’s next prime minister. In the lead-up to the vote, there was a lot of media attention focusing on her neo-fascist background and her campaign which recycled the Mussolini-era slogan “God, homeland, family”. But one aspect of her politics has remained relatively under the radar: her cooptation of solidarity with persecuted Middle Eastern Christians and embrace of Middle Eastern dictators.
On her Twitter profile, Meloni has added the Arabic letter nuun (ن), which in 2014 became a symbol of solidarity with Christian victims of the armed group ISIL (ISIS) as it took over the Iraqi city of Mosul and ethnically cleansed it of one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. The group would mark Christian homes with that letter to make it easier to target them. They did so with the first letter of the word Nasrani, or Nazarene, one of the words for Christian in Arabic which references Jesus’ childhood home of Nazareth. It is perceived as derogatory by some Arab Christians.
By adopting this symbol in 2014, Meloni, like so many others, declared that they are “also Nazarene, also Christians”. On the surface, this could be mistaken for just another online act of solidarity. Indeed, many – myself included – added nuun to their profiles in 2014. Over time, the symbol also expanded to campaigns of solidarity with Christian victims of extremists from Egypt to Nigeria and beyond.
We could be forgiven for hoping that a simple, honest campaign of solidarity at a time of horrors would not be co-opted for nefarious purposes. But it happened. The more violent ISIL became, the more the European far right mirrored the extremist group’s “Muslims versus non-Muslims” worldview and smeared Muslims, including refugees, as terrorists.
This went hand in hand with the far right embracing various dictators who claimed they protected Christians, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad being one prominent example. In a 2018 interview, Meloni herself praised al-Assad, and his allies, Russia, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, for making Syrian Christians feel safe.
Somehow, I doubt that Meloni has watched Merry Christmas Homs, the short documentary by Bassel Shehadeh that documented what Christmas was like for the Christians in the Syrian city of Homs in 2011, as it was being bombarded by al-Assad’s forces.
Shehadeh, himself a Syrian Christian, was killed a few months later in a regime shelling. In Homs, his friends, Muslims and Christians alike, stood by his casket, which was draped with the flag of the Syrian revolution, while one man recited The Lord’s Prayer in Arabic. In Damascus, the regime prevented his family from holding a memorial service in a church.
I also doubt that Meloni has read Marcel Shehwaro’s 2016 Christmas essay, What Christ Is Born Among Us Today?, in which she expressed the pain she felt being forcibly displaced from her home city of Aleppo and leaving behind her friends, who suffered under a brutal siege imposed by al-Assad and his allies – those that Meloni praised.
Such selective declarations of solidarity with Christians in the Middle East aren’t limited to Syria or Iraq. Indeed, we have seen a very clear example of that recently, when Israeli occupation forces killed Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh and attacked her funeral procession, including the pallbearers, who almost dropped the coffin.
The assassination of a Palestinian Christian and the direct attack on a sacred Christian ritual was met with a deafening silence by much of the “nuun crowd”.
To be fair to Meloni, her supposed solidarity with “eastern” Christians and support for their “defenders” is not that dissimilar from statements by some mainstream European politicians. We can think of, for example, former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson praising Putin’s “ruthless clarity” in 2016 for helping al-Assad retake the city of Palmyra from ISIL. Then there are the representatives of Spain’s Izquierda Unida (United Left), the Latvian Russian Union and the Estonian Centre Party who met with al-Assad himself in 2016, embracing his “war on terror” discourse. Even French left-wing presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon bought into the myth that Putin intervened in Syria to destroy ISIL and described accusations of Russian war crimes as “chatter”.
There are dozens more examples of Western politicians, mostly right-wing but some left-wing, praising the Assad regime. The problem with such statements isn’t just the purported “realism” that leads one to back a brutal regime, but also the short-term memory required to do so.
Indeed, al-Assad’s own role in encouraging religious extremism in Syria following the 2011 revolution has been overwhelmingly ignored. In the early days of the uprising, he released extremists from prison while crushing the largely non-violent, multi-religious and multi-ethnic resistance.
As Syrian thinker Yassin Haj Saleh has noted, the Syrian dictator’s brutal repression led to an environment of profound cynicism and nihilism in which religious extremists competed for supremacy. The voices of all those who view themselves as supporters of the 2011 revolution (and of the older generation’s pre-2011 resistance to the regime) continue to be drowned out by the dominant discourse of “the Syrian regime versus the extremists”.
Al-Assad correctly calculated that the more extreme the rhetoric of the groups that took up arms against him became, the more he would be viewed as the lesser evil. By the time ISIL came onto the scene as a force opposed to most existing actors, pro and anti-regime alike, the Syrian dictator had already spent years promoting a “modern” and “secular” image of himself and his surroundings; his wife’s 2011 Vogue magazine profile being a prominent example.
The worse the situation got and the more Syrians fled the country, the more al-Assad’s discourse found adherents in the West. Here was a man who studied and lived in Europe, and who had no problem portraying the refugees fleeing his rule as religious extremists while praising the Trump administration’s refugee ban in 2017.
When ISIL launched a number of attacks in Europe, all al-Assad and his allies had to do was repeat his “warnings” and many were more than willing to join him in associating refugees with ISIL.
Meloni is one of them. Ignoring the brutal realities of living under Putin and al-Assad’s bombs in Syria, she wrote in her 2021 book, I Am Giorgia, that Russia “defends European values and Christian identity”.
It is important to remember that the values and identity she refers to are violently exclusionary. They are shaped by a selective reading of history that downplays or outright ignores the atrocities committed by the fascist regimes defeated in World War II, including the Italian one.
Meloni’s ideological forefathers have been quite explicit about who is “European”. For example, Giorgio Almirante, who founded the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI) and who she publicly admires, was an official in Benito Mussolini’s last government, supported his racial laws and thought Italians should be “protected” from Jews and Black people.
Indeed, despite her “nuun” declaration, the “values” and “identity” Meloni upholds underpin her extreme anti-immigration stance, which denies the rights of Arab Christians (and Muslims), who try to reach Europe seeking asylum. Given her extreme anti-LGBTQI+ rights stance, these values clearly do not include providing refuge to LGBTQI+ people fleeing ultra-conservative states and hardline groups.
And until Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, when Meloni strategically flipped her rhetoric on Putin, Ukrainians too were not European or Christian enough for her to defend.
Finally, to borrow from Shehwaro again, it is worth asking ourselves whether Jesus himself would be welcomed today in Meloni’s Italy. Personally, it is hard to believe that a poor Jewish Levantine refugee – who would likely be called Palestinian today – wouldn’t be one of those desperate souls going on a dingy boat and being left to drown by an increasingly closed and hostile “Christian” Europe.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.