How a kidnapped help employee who transformed to Islam shook Italy | Islamophobia


In November 2018, Italian help employee Silvia Romano was kidnapped by gunmen linked to the Somali armed group al-Shabab in northeast Kenya. On the time of the assault, which left a number of folks wounded, Romano was volunteering for an Italian NGO in an orphanage within the village of Chakama. 

The information of Romano’s kidnapping induced not solely disappointment and fear, but in addition controversy in her residence nation. Proper-wing politicians and public figures, and a few members of the general public, accused the help employee of “searching for hassle” by going to Kenya, and claimed she ought to have “stayed in Milan and helped folks there”.

They known as her resolution to go to Kenya as a volunteer help employee an expression of “bravado” and claimed she was searching for consideration. These accusations have been countered by outraged liberals who talked of the “significance” of idealistic kids like Romano going overseas on voluntary help missions, and serving to these in want in different nations. 

Within the following weeks, the information cycle moved on and the discussions about Romano, and the work she had been doing in Kenya, slowly got here to an finish.  

Las month, nonetheless, Romano as soon as once more discovered herself on the receiving finish of right-wing assaults, this time not just for going to Kenya and “inflicting hassle”, but in addition for voluntarily selecting to transform to Islam throughout her ordeal. 

The outpouring of Islamophobia and hate

On Could 9, when Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte introduced on Twitter that Romano had lastly been freed, most Italians have been overjoyed. Quickly after, nonetheless, it was revealed that the help employee had chosen to grow to be a Muslim throughout her 18 months in al-Shabab captivity and that she had modified her identify to “Aisha”. This dampened the celebratory temper and led many on the Italian proper to as soon as once more query Romano’s motivations for going to Kenya within the first place.  

After Romano landed in Rome carrying a lightweight inexperienced jilbab – a loose-fitting gown that covers your complete physique and is commonly worn by Somali girls – her conversion swiftly turned the only real focus of right-wing Italian media shops. They revealed “earlier than and after” photographs displaying the help employee’s “transformation” and launched into a quest to make clear “the thriller surrounding the conversion”: Was she forcibly transformed? Was she brainwashed? Was she a sufferer of Stockholm syndrome? 

“Now we have freed a Muslim girl,” declared conservative every day Libero Quotidiano, as if solely Christian Italian residents, and never Muslim ones, should be protected by the federal government of the nation they name residence.

“Islamic and pleased. Silvia the ungrateful,” learn the front-page headline of an article by Alessandro Sallusti, the editor of Il Giornale. In the identical article, Sallusti accused Romano of carrying the “jihadist uniform of the enemy” and claimed her conversion is as absurd as a Jew getting back from a focus camp dressed as a Nazi.

A number of right-wing politicians additionally used Romano’s ordeal and conversion as a chance to advertise Islamophobic views. The chief of the right-wing League celebration, Matteo Salvini, for instance, framed Romano’s kidnapping and conversion inside an alleged conflict of civilisations, and claimed that “Islamic terrorists” have gained “the cultural battle within the identify of the Islamic veil and conversion”. Salvini’s deputy, Alessandro Pagano, in the meantime, branded Romano “the brand new terrorist” throughout a parliamentary session.

The correct-wing media’s aggressive and accusatory protection of Romano’s launch and conversion to Islam, coupled with distinguished League politicians’ hateful and discriminatory feedback, uncovered how entrenched Islamophobia has grow to be in Italy.

However, Romano was not solely focused by these common suspects.  

Some Italian feminists additionally attacked the younger help employee for changing to Islam and carrying “Islamic garments”.  

Distinguished feminist historian, Nadia Riva, who within the 1980s was one of many founders of the influential and radical feminist group the Cicip & Ciciap membership, for instance, in a Fb publish referred to Romano as “a smiling girl in a inexperienced recycling bag”. Claiming Romano’s jilbab is an emblem of male oppression fairly than an expression of her spiritual id, she defined that she couldn’t consider a lady would select to decorate that manner willingly.

Many Italian feminists got here to Romano’s defence and distanced themselves from Riva’s controversial feedback. Nevertheless, the truth that some distinguished Italian feminists discovered it applicable to assault a fellow girl due to what she chooses to consider in and the best way she chooses to decorate demonstrated how embedded is the thought of ethical superiority in components of the Italian and Western feminist motion.

Reproducing ‘white saviour myths’

Italian liberals and the left wing overtly condemned the hate Romano obtained for changing to Islam and celebrated her return residence. Their response to the hateful right-wing rhetoric surrounding the help employee’s liberation, nonetheless, was equally problematic, albeit for various causes. 

Of their response to the entire Romano saga, Italy’s liberal media organisations and public figures tried to spotlight the human facet of the story, and celebrated her protected return residence with none reservations. However of their undoubtedly well-intentioned celebration, they promoted deep-rooted and extremely damaging stereotypes about Africa. They not solely portrayed the continent as a savage and deserted place, however they additionally implied Africans are in want of “white saviours”.

Liberal newspapers revealed numerous photographs displaying Romano surrounded by Kenyan youngsters, however didn’t try and protect the privateness of those youngsters as they’d usually do with European ones. These photographs, and articles that accompanied them, have been excellent replica of a long time of “white saviour” myths, which talked of selfless Western women and men who travelled to Africa to “save” African youngsters with no company.

Italy’s main centre-left every day La Repubblica even revealed an article claiming Romano “was betrayed by the identical village she needed to save lots of” – a declare that reaffirms baseless and damaging tropes in regards to the ungratefulness of African folks within the face of Western makes an attempt to “save” them. 

One of the crucial apparent reproductions of the “white saviour delusion” got here from best-selling creator and vocal anti-fascist Roberto Saviano. In an article revealed in La Repubblica, and on his Fb web page, Saviano portrayed Africans – maybe unintentionally – as folks dwelling in a desolated place who’re in want of assist and steering from the West.

In his article welcoming Romano again to Italy, Saviano described the Kenyan youngsters she labored with as “forgotten and deserted” and claimed they may doubtless grow to be al-Shabab fighters themselves within the absence of Western “saviours” like Romano. Ignoring Kenya’s personal combat in opposition to the armed group, he even went as far to say “a younger European girl who arrives unarmed to remain subsequent to the kids” like Romano is the “nice enemy” of such terrorist organisations.  

This narrative isn’t solely problematic and simplistic, but in addition deceptive and paternalistic. It presents a decontextualised picture of the area and ignores the function Europeans themselves performed, and proceed to play, within the ongoing calamity within the Horn of Africa.  

Certainly, in line with a research launched in 2018, lots of the orphaned youngsters in Kenyan cities like Chakama won’t go to Somalia to combat for al-Shabab, however will likely transfer to close by worldwide vacationer spots like Malindi, Mtwapa or Mombasa to try to make a dwelling. There, the most important risk going through them wouldn’t be the opportunity of radicalisation, however being pushed into the intercourse commerce. In these areas, it must be famous, the principle clientele of intercourse staff are primarily European intercourse vacationers, together with Italians. 

The Italian media’s protection additionally ignored Italy’s previous crimes in Africa. As newspapers and TV channels mentioned the function Turkey performed within the liberation of Romano, and claimed the nation is now “the brand new grasp of the Horn of Africa”, their nostalgia for these occasions when Italy had energy over these components of Africa was obvious. In these suppose items, in fact, there was no point out of the catastrophe Italy’s colonial enterprise induced within the Horn of Africa within the final century.

Within the scarcity of related ideas and demanding commentaries, one of many few voices out of the refrain was that of Somali-Italian author Igiaba Scego, who took the chance to remind folks, “Italians have to be decolonised from their very own colonial creativeness. Even in language we supply too many legacies, not solely of fascism, however of the everyday rhetoric of the nineteenth century.”

There may be not a lot to be gained from questioning Romano’s motivations for embarking on a volunteer help mission to Kenya after her 18-month ordeal and protected return residence. We should always do all the pieces we will to protect this younger girl from the assaults of Italian right-wing media and politicians, who goal her solely as a result of she selected to transform to a faith that they see as “the enemy”.  

However, we must also not ignore the damaging narratives that some liberal media organisations and figures utilise of their defence of the help employee. 

Whereas we must always reject Islamophobia – whether or not it comes from right-wing figures or famend feminists – we must also problem discourses that current tens of millions of Africans as savages who must be saved by altruistic Westerners. 

The views expressed on this article are the creator’s personal and don’t essentially mirror Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.



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