Why you should care
She was always controversial. Sometimes she was magnificent.
“How do you swim in a chador?” she asked Ayatollah Khomeini before taking off her headscarf and throwing it at his feet. She had been granted a world-exclusive interview with Khomeini but didn’t flinch when the incensed old man stood up and left. She refused to bend for anyone, not even Iran’s supreme leader.
That’s how Oriana Fallaci, in 1979, became such a revered journalist, not because she was beautiful, with long dark hair and delicate features, but because she was bold. Fallaci managed to land interviews with the world’s most powerful men — or, as she liked to call them, “the bastards who decide our lives.” Editors from Corriere della Sera to the The New York Times Magazine wanted her stories; her antagonistic interviews and polemical essays on Islam gained her both fans and detractors.
Fallaci’s confrontational style makes most of today’s political interviews read like puff pieces.
Fallaci frowned on press neutrality and believed there was no such thing as objectivity. “The word is a hypocrisy, which is sustained by the lie that the truth stays in the middle,” she once said. She was no fly on the wall; more like a bull in a china shop. But Emmy Award-winning journalist Giselle Fernandez thinks Fallaci represents what today’s media lacks: “the courage to tell truth to power.” Fallaci’s confrontational style makes most current political interviews read like puff pieces and the angriest of modern TV commentators look timid.
Born in Florence in 1929, Fallaci grew up among Italian fighters. Her father was an activist against Mussolini’s Fascist regime during World War II, and she joined the resistance at the tender age of 14. She considered becoming a doctor but quickly traded the scalpel for the pen. Writing would be her lifelong passion, especially after her beloved partner Alekos Panagoulis, a Greek resistance hero, died in a car crash at age 34. Fallaci never married or had children, devoting herself instead to writing, which she did obsessively, along with smoking like a chimney, until her death from cancer in 2006 at age 77.
As a war correspondent, she covered the major conflicts of her time, from Latin America to Lebanon, Vietnam to Kuwait. Being a woman in such a testosterone-driven field wasn’t easy, but Fallaci saw it as another opportunity to fight. “It wasn’t sin that was born on the day when Eve picked an apple: what was born that day was a splendid virtue called disobedience,” she once wrote.
Her professional trademark was the high-profile interview in which she often skewered well-known intellectuals and leaders like Muammar Gaddafi, Haile Selassie and Yasser Arafat. Henry Kissinger recalled his talk with Fallaci in his memoirs, labeling it “the most disastrous conversation I ever had with any member of the press” and admitting he knew little about her “evisceration of other victims.” Fallaci’s last interview in this series was with Ariel Sharon, in 1982, in which she accused him of knowingly bombing civilians.
After 9/11, Fallaci turned her attention to what she viewed as a new enemy: Islam. She began to write increasingly politically incorrect essays against all Muslims, not just Islamic extremists. “Europe is no longer Europe, it is ‘Eurabia,’ a colony of Islam,” she told The Wall Street Journal in 2005. In her book The Force of Reason, the cancer-ridden journalist accused the West of letting its ideological enemy grow from within. Force of Reason became a best-seller in Europe but also won Fallaci several death threats and lawsuits, in both France and her homeland, for vilifying Islam.
“I can’t explain how a high-profile journalist with such a wide cultural, social and personal background could base her reasoning on such narrow-minded views,” says Egyptian-Italian journalist Randa Ghazi. And yet, she continues, that polarized view is “being picked up by the media today.” Examples include televised debates on whether Islam promotes violence, atheist author Sam Harris calling Islam “the mother lode of bad ideas,” and Bill O’Reilly questioning whether a religion practiced by 1.6 billion people is a “destructive force.”
Nine years after Fallaci’s death, such intellectually extremist barbs continue to stir controversy. From brilliant political journalist to Islamophobe, Oriana Fallaci will long be remembered for — and accused of — many things. But never of keeping her head down.
This OZY encore was originally published April 13, 2015.