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Nir Arielli. Fascist Italy and the Middle East, 1933-40.

Nir Arielli. Fascist Italy and the Middle East, 1933-40. New York: Paigrave Macmillan, 2013.

In Fascist Italy and the Middle East, historian Nir Arielli revisits a significant moment in the history of Fascist Italy: Mussolini's pro-Muslim policy in the broader Middle East during a time when Italy was fully engaged in the colonization of Libya and Ethiopia. In a compelling introduction, Arielli describes how assessments of the Fascist policy remain divided. For noted historian Renzo De Felice Mussolini's stated sympathy for the Muslim world, an area comprising Egypt, the Palestine Mandate, Transjordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and the Arab peninsula, was but an opportunistic move against the rival imperialisms of France and Great Britain. However, for British and North American historians (e.g. MacGregor Knox, Robert Mallet, Bruce Strang, John Pollard), this policy was designed to further the territorial expansion of Fascist Italy. Seeking to mediate between these two schools of thought, Arielli approaches the topic by considering domestic and economic forces, in addition to European foreign policy and expansionistic claims. The remainder of the introduction describes the organization of the volume in six separate sections and concludes with an important observation about the methodological difficulties that studies of this sort pose since the Arab perception of the Fascist policy remains somewhat difficult to assess.

Chapter one, "Continuity and Change: Italy and the Middle East, 1870-1943," considers the origins and development of the Italian policy towards the Middle East in its relationship with Islam as well as Zionism. Arielli not only maps the rise of Italy's colonial culture from the late 19th century onwards, but provides a fascinating discussion of young Mussolini's support for the independences of Middle Eastern countries so to advance Italy's interests in the Mediterranean. Arielli also discusses how an official pro-Muslim policy was forged by considering Radio Bari, one of the regime's main tools of propaganda from 1934 onwards, when it started to transmit programs in Arabic to Libya, Egypt, Syria, Palestine and some of the countries of the Arabic peninsula.

Chapter two, "In the Shadow of Ethiopia, 1935-June 1936," focuses on the years of the invasion of Ethiopia and the rise of an overt anti-British foreign policy. Arielli discusses how the regime, in its effort to find support for its claims on Ethiopia, launched a propaganda campaign that presented the Abyssinians as enemies of Egypt and Islam. Galeazzo Ciano even set up a press agency in Cairo to further the regime's propaganda. Headed by Ugo Dadone, this agency disseminated various types of pro-Italian material in French and Arabic. In addition, a number of films and documentaries were also sent from Rome to Egypt while Radio Bari began daily broadcasts defending Italy's invasion of Abyssinia while criticizing Britain. Yet, Italy's aggressive imperialism caused much apprehension in the Muslim world. In Egypt the campaign in Abyssinia was vigorously opposed and the only support that it received came from the Italian communities residing in Alexandria, Cairo, Port Said, and Suez. In the Arab peninsula Italy's strengthening position in the Red Sea and involvement in Yemen, where the Fascist state recruited soldiers, or askari, for the African campaigns, was the cause of much concern. Jewish opinion in Palestine, including that of Zionists, also remained unfavorable towards Italy. The only states that appeared to have tolerated Italy's advance were Syria and Lebanon, quite possibly because of their location at a relatively safe distance from East Africa.

Chapter three, "The Protector of Islam, June 1936-March 1938," discusses the period spanning from the declaration of the Fascist empire in 1936 and the tightening of Italo-German relations to racial laws. Arielli examines, once again, the central role played by Ciano in consolidating and presenting Fascist Middle Eastern policy at home and abroad. Not only did Ciano describe Italy's policy as the forging of a bridge between East and West, but disseminated the idea that it was a way to further Italy's commercial and financial interests in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon. Efforts abroad included the building of mosques and schools in Ethiopia; the granting of religious freedom to all followers of Islam; and the allocation of money to assist Muslim subjects who where traveling to Mecca and Medina for the yearly Haj. The apex of these propagandist efforts took place in Tripoli in mid-March 1937. In a carefully choreographed ceremony orchestrated by Balbo, Mussolini was presented with the 'Sword of Islam' by a Berber chief.

Chapter four, "Italy and the Arab Revolt in Palestine, 1936-9," considers the unrest that took place in Palestine in 1936, when the Mufti of Jerusalem called for a general strike to stir up already existing concerns with the sale of Arab lands to Jewish settlers. The unrest was seen by Fascist Italy as the chance to consolidate its anti-British policies and so the decision was made to supply military assistance to the Palestinians. In this same chapter, Arielli also surveys the Arab reactions to Italian support of the Palestinians, explaining that they ranged from the moderately appreciative to the skeptical.

Chapter five, "Unattractive Policies, April 1938-May 1940," describes how the complex, ambiguous and often contradictory Italian foreign policy in the Middle East crystallized with Italy's entrance into World War II, the adoption of racial laws and the aggressive totalitarianism and empire-building of Mussolini from the late 1930s onwards. In this chapter, Arielli provides a concise but very illuminating overview of the Fascist racial legislation at home and in the colonies. He points out that, despite the racial laws, Balbo was very careful to project an image of respect and tolerance among Libyan subjects so as to avoid unrest and revolt. Nevertheless, the aggressive imperialism and mounting racism of the Fascist regime was not lost to the people of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and Syria who openly ridiculed the notions of Italians as protectors of Islam.

The last chapter, "The Optimistic Summer, June-October 1940," argues that by 1940 the Duce's aspirations exceeded the confines of the Mediterranean. To Arielli, the proposal of Quinto Mazzolini to annex Palestine and Transjordan under the house of Savoy testifies to the regime's ambitions. Yet, by the late 1930s, it had become clear, both at home and abroad, that Italy lacked the military and financial power to widen its territories.

Arielli's volume concludes with a broad summary of the Fascist's Middle Eastern policy as an ambiguous, contradictory and, as time went on, "both unattainable and irreconcilable" (194) policy.

A fascinating, lucidly written and well-argued book, this is a must read for all those interested in 20th -century Italian cultural history. Scholars of Italian Fascism, colonialism, and Mediterranean studies will also find Fascist Italy and the Middle East of great appeal for the insights that it sheds on Italy's political and cultural involvement in North Africa, the Horn, and the broader Middle East.


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Author:Bouchard, Norma
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Date:Sep 22, 2014
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