Like many people all over the world, I have been deeply troubled and concerned about Pastor Terry Jones‘ plan to host “Burn a Koran Day” at his small church in Gainesville, Florida. Amid mounting tensions surrounding the mosque debate in New York and the international backlash from Muslims worldwide, I can’t help but think: could this small, isolated incident prove to be as precipitous as the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914? Almost a hundred years later–and this being the nuclear age, the stakes are much higher.

As emotions are heightened on all sides of the debate, it seems that radicals on both sides are shaping the discourse. It has come down to radical Christians (personified by Terry Jones) vs. radical Muslims. I agree with Feisal Abdul Rauf (Imam of the controversial mosque in NY) when he said in an interview on CNN,

“The radicals actually feed off each other. And in some kind of existential way, need each other. And the more that the radicals are able to control the discourse on one side, it strengthens the radicals on the other side and vice-versa.”

Now, with Florida Imam Muhammad Musri denying having said to Pastor Terry Jones that the mosque in New York will be moved in return for the cancellation of the Koran burnings, it seems that the nightmare is far from over.  Furthermore, the way the discourse in this matter proceeds from here on will need to be handled very carefully, as any tip in the balance can send U.S. and global security into a state of red alert. In fact, Interpol (the International Police Organization) has already issued “a global alert to its 188 member countries, warning of a “strong likelihood” of violent attacks if plans for a Quran burning in Florida go ahead” (CNN).

But it isn’t just a heretofore-unknown radical Christian pastor of some small, 50-person church in Florida that has resorted to radicalism as a means to an unjustifiable end. Erika Steinbach, an ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, has stepped down from her post after suggesting that Poland may have been as responsible as Hitler for the outbreak of World War II. She said that Poland had mobilized its troops six months prior to the Nazi invasion in September 1939, and therefore are to blame for provoking Hitler’s attack.

Mrs. Steinbach heads the Federation of Expellees, a conservative group dedicated to documenting the suffering of Germans expelled from parts of Eastern Europe after World War II. She is the daughter of a German army officer who served in Nazi-occupied Poland and a member of the Christian Democratic (CDU) party.

However, Steinbach did not appear out of nowhere; she has been a figure of hatred for Poles, who often depict her as a Nazi on magazine covers and call her the “Blonde Beast.”

The controversy over Steinbach began in the 1990s, when she voted against accepting the Oder-Neisse line (the present-day border between Poland and Germany) in the Bundestag in 1991. She also repeatedly and publicly expressed doubt about Poland’s readiness to join the European Union, before it eventually did in 2004.

The current debate centers on Steinbach’s Federation of Expellees and its efforts to build a center in Berlin which would document the expulsion of Germans from Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe after WWII. In an online interview with Der Spiegel on September 3rd, when accused of asking too much of Poles in the way of a shared interpretation of history, she responded:

“The post-communist countries have not completed their process of self-discovery yet. They are still holding on to their trauma and they are still holding on to their economic problems. For them, the process of finding their identity is a long way from complete… The Poles just have to deal with their own issues first. But they have no right to meddle in domestic German affairs and determine how we commemorate our victims.”

Angela Merkel, a long-time friend and ally of Steinbach, tried to remain out of the debates, but put her foot firmly down after Steinbach’s comments about Poland having a share in Hitler’s 1939 invasion. The Polish ambassador to Germany, Marek Prawda commented that today’s relations between Poland and Germany were too strong to be affected by Steinbach.

Settling into Forlì

September 5, 2010

So I finally arrived in Forlì on Friday, September 3rd!

First impression: gorgeous little city, calm and quiet, not far from the Adriatic coast. The rolling Apennines–the mountain range that runs along the length of Italy–happily greeted my one hour-delayed flight.

The University of Bologna’s Student Association, which helped me find accommodation in Forlì, picked me up from the airport and whisked me off to my new apartment. Right in the center of the city, it’s a street over from my university, a 5 minute walk to the main square (Piazza Saffi), and a maximum 20 minute walk to anywhere else of importance.

After unpacking and settling in, my new flatmates Chiara and Paola– who are graduating this September as International Relations majors–welcomed me to the apartment with a delicious dinner! We began with a salad and purè (mashed potatoes). Then, Chiara, who hails from a town in central Italy (Umbria), made a pizza with arugula and stracchino, a soft white cheese that comes from her region of Italy. The following day, they made me try real, authentic, home-made pasta carbonara. It was so good!!

On Saturday, I walked around the city to get familiar with the streets and shops. Of course, I walked towards Piazza Saffi, Forlì’s main square which features the 12th century cathedral, San Mercuriale and its 75m-tall belltower (one of the tallest in Italy!). I mainly walked down Corso Garibaldi– one of the four main arteries of the city. Palazzo after palazzo, piazza after piazza, I began to get the feel of this picturesque city.

Some History

Founded in 206 BC, and the site of the ancient Forum Livii, Forlì has a rich history. The region itself has been inhabited since the Paleolithic era. It is currently an important agricultural center and primarily focuses on the manufacture of silk, rayon, clothing, machinery, and metals. The city itself has many buildings of architectural, artistic and historical significance, many of which include beautifully restored frescoes. It is also the seat of the University of Bologna’s Roberto Ruffilli Faculty of Political Science– which is why I’m here!

I was quite confused when I first saw the Forlivese coat-of-arms; it featured a German eagle……which–I think– perfectly reflects the colorful history of the city. It became a republic for the first time in 889 AD and offered its loyalties to the Holy Roman Emperors in order to keep its independence. This was no exception in the case of Frederick II, one of the most powerful Holy Roman Emperors of the Middle Ages (and also a king of the German Hohenstaufen dynasty). In 1241, Forlì aided Frederick II in the capture of its rival city, Faenza, and was presented the Hohenstaufen eagle as a token of gratitude.

Forlì is also home to many known artists throughout history, who collectively created the Forlìvese School of Painting (famous for its sophisticated use of perspective, foreshortening, and color.) The most famous of these artists was Melozzo da Forlì, a celebrated Renaissance painter and architect. (He was the first to practice foreshortening with much success and one of the most outstanding fresco painters of the 15th century.)

Pope Sixtus IV Appoints Bartolomeo Platina prefect of the Vatican Library, c. 1477 (fresco, Vatican Museums)

However, probably the most famous Forlivese native is Benito Mussolini(!) He hailed from this region and became actively involved in local politics in the 1920s, before becoming a powerful dictator who would rule over Italy for almost 20 years. Eeek….

So, who knows? Maybe Forlì is the ideal place to cultivate art as well as politics…