Fiamma Nirenstein, The Caliph and the Ayatollah: Our world under siege.

, September 4, 2018

Fiamma Nirenstein, The Caliph and the Ayatollah: Our world under siege. Translated from the Italian by Amy K. Rosenthal. Institute for Global Antisemitism and Policy, 2018, 149 pp.

Three years after it was published in the original Italian, Il Califfo e l’Ayatollah, Assedio al nostro mondoThe Caliph and the Ayatollah: Our world under siege – is now available in English with a new introduction by Italian Israeli journalist, author, and political activist Fiamma Nirenstein, today a senior fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

Born in Florence, Nirenstein began her career with the Il Giornale daily, which was part of the press empire of Silvio Berlusconi. She then went on to the La Stampa daily, amassing along the way a number of awards for her investigative activities.  She focused on two loosely related subjects: European anti-Semitism and the Middle East, with special emphasis on Israel.

In 2008 Nirenstein abandoned journalism for politics; she joined Berlusconi’s People of Freedom Party and was elected to the parliament, where she served as vice-president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the Chamber of Deputies. In 2011 she was elected chairperson of the International Council of Jewish Parliamentarians. This is only a very partial list of her many achievements at that point.

In 2013 Nirenstein announced that she would not seek reelection but would move to Israel and become an Israeli citizen. It was in Jerusalem that she put the finishing touches on her book – little more than a pamphlet but pulling no punches and easily her most important project to date.

Fiamma Nirenstein is a woman with a mission. She wants the world, and more particularly Europe, to recognize the real threat posed by radical Islam both in its Sunni and Shiite incarnations. Her postulate is that the Supreme Leader of Shiite Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Islamic State, are but two sides of the same coin, both pursuing the same goal of reviving the Islamic caliphate and imposing their brand of Sharia law on the whole world while using the same methods to destabilize the Old Continent.

As Nirenstein was working on her book, Islamic State was at its peak, ruling over millions of people in the vast territories it had conquered and imposing its strict interpretation of Sharia through brutal violence and terror. Its annual budget was estimated at over $1 billion and it could muster some 30,000 fighters. What it demanded, she wrote, was ”above all complete allegiance to the Quran,” and it used “terrorism as a method of conquest” while actively seeking “to extend its influence in the West through terrorist and cyber-attacks.” 

Nirenstein then drew a parallel with what she calls the stealthy Shiite revival: “In the shadows, militiamen, terrorists and even armies at the service of the Ayatollah’s Iran work…on the great comeback of the Shiite world, a world accounting for only 20 percent of Islam.” Her book, she writes, “attempts to describe in real terms the risks we are running in the face of the collapse of the Middle East” while endeavoring to outline “a concrete hope for peace.”

Nirenstein’s analysis of the emergence of Islamic State and of the revival of Shiite Islam is textbook material.  She witheringly assesses the impact of Obama’s policy on the events of the Arab Spring, as well as his readiness to enter into a disastrous treaty with the ayatollahs and his repeated failure to respond to the Syrian regime’s violations of the successive red lines he himself had drawn. This state of affairs led to the refugee crisis, which was at its peak as this book was being written. Nirenstein notes that “the interests of the Sunni Arab countries, especially those of Saudi Arabia and Egypt are very close to those of Israel,” though there are fissures in the Sunni bloc and Qatar is taking a separate stand on the Iranian issue.  

Much, however, has happened since Nirenstein’s pamphlet was published in Italian in 2015. In her lengthy introduction to the English edition she strives to bridge the gap by surveying some of the major events that have occurred in the intervening three years. Islamic State is in defeat, and if al-Baghdadi is still alive, his empire is in ruins and he is on the run, though it may be too early to dismiss the power of his appeal. Barack Obama is no longer president and a new American leader has emerged who is determined to confront Iran.

Nirenstein stresses the plight of the Old Continent, faced with the refugee crisis and “needing to choose between letting its brothers die…or else becoming prey to a confusing and dangerous barbarian invasion without rules.” Nevertheless, she reserves some of her harshest criticism for the continent’s reluctance to acknowledge reality: “Europe, which is hesitant, toothless and feeble should address once and for all the radical monster lurking between its beautiful cities full of glorious history. In other words, it should tackle the Islamic radicalization thriving in its neighborhoods.”

This is a bleak assertion that differs from the slightly more optimistic conclusion of the original book. At that time Nirenstein pinned her hopes, on the one hand, on the West getting to know Islam better so as to fight it more effectively, and on the other, on a redefining of the lines in the Middle East with alliances based on shared interests: “Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Gulf countries…everybody can be part of the solution. Perhaps even Qatar… Only Sunni and Shiite extremism can take advantage of the confusion and only multiple actions created by the dramatic convergence of interests may mitigate or stop the wave.”

This short, rich book has many more thought-provoking remarks to offer.

Michelle Mazel

Michelle Mazel is a graduate of Sciences Po – the Institute for Political Science – and the Paris Faculté de Droit. She is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction and lives in Jerusalem.