Dossier Silvia/ Religious fundamentalism and democracy, contradiction in terms


Special for Africa ExPress
Emanuela Provera
May 2020

The opposite of fundamentalism is not atheism but faith; therefore, Silvia’s conversion is welcome, but having matured in a condition of imprisonment and in a state of fear, can it be authentic?

It is difficult to pronounce a definitive word about Silvia Romano because we still have little information and some of it is unheard of or imagined. The media unveiling of her “conversion” has raised some interesting questions: is the phenomenon of conversion limited to a subjective individual dimension or does it lead back to a planetary space that links the economic-religious East to the business West? And what is the role of politics with respect to religious fundamentalism? Let us try to answer.

The profession of faith

Our juridical system allows the exercise of the profession of a religious faith, as well as its propaganda with the only limit of being contrary to morality. On the other hand, it does not provide any protection for individuals who have converted to a religious faith or creed, as a result of conditioning that has compromised their freedom of thought. Like love, faith is also political.

The crime of plagiarism no longer exists. If Silvia discovers that her conversion was not sincere, she will also discover that there is no punishment in any way compensatory for those who have induced her religious choice by manipulating or forcing her thought.

When, in Italy, news of cases of psychological abuse arrive in court, there is nothing to be done; the public prosecutor can eventually conduct the investigation to identify a circumvention of incapacity, private violence, episodes of stalking, the presence of a fraud; but no case of spiritual abuse or mental manipulation can be prosecuted, because it has no criminal relevance, even if it is the antechamber of cruel behavior.

Psychological conditions

This situation of impossibility (present in some states) has never prevented newspapers all over the world and the more attentive, informed and sensitive public opinion from taking a stand in defence of those who have suffered psychological conditioning or abuse of power, even in the absence of crimes against property. The resulting outrage not only produces words of indignation but also the emergence of associations or groups fighting to stem the activities of organizations, which through proselytizing and recruitment campaigns continue to attract young followers, and they do so by replacing spiritual authority with the exercise of [spiritual] power.

But here comes the good news: they are not terrorist groups of Islamist matrix, they are for example the members of the “Church of Jesus Christ of the saints of the last days” commonly known as Mormons, who in order to contain the contagion from covid-19 have invited believers and non-believers to make two world fastings on March 29 and April 10, or are religious confessions that sign agreements with the State such as, for example, the Assemblies of God in Italy (ADI) or the Italian Buddhist Institute Soka Gakkai (IBISG) and this is done in accordance with the constitutionally guaranteed religious freedom.

Comunione e Liberazione (Communion and Liberation) and Opus Dei

Christians then, and Buddhists. And among the Christians there are the ecclesial movements coming from the Catholic world, such as Communion and Liberation, Opus Dei, the Focolare Movement, the Neocatechumenals, the Legionaries of Christ, each of which has obtained, in the Church, its own juridical configuration and a not marginal presence within the political and financial world. Each group believes they are the authentic manifestation of Jesus Christ: “This is not the Church of Joseph Smith (the founder of the Mormons, ed.) nor is it the Church of Mormon. This is the Church of Jesus Christ. But if it happens that the leader of a group is tried and found guilty, the defenders of freedom of worship swear that the conviction of just one “does not make his faithful a mass of criminals like him.

It is on this ground of strong divergence of opinion on the subject of coercive persuasion that politics intervenes or should intervene: on the one hand, scholars in favour of penalizing mental manipulation, on the other, those who fight it strenuously. It is a battle that only apparently has philanthropic or ideological aims, because it involves the electoral favour of important organizations.

Those who approach the abusing movements with scepticism happen to be apostrophetized even as Nazis who accused the Jews of being a sect; it is even hoped that they will be tried: “…we hope that one day they will have to answer for it in some way”, replied one of my interlocutors, who is peace ambassador of an association of the Reverend Moon’s Church.

They are the apologists of cults, who believe that the new movements contribute to religious integration in democratic societies and that the methods used in the formation of their members are only lawful instruments of persuasion; plagiarism simply does not exist because any situation of psychic and emotional dependence, such as the relationship between two lovers, or between parents and children, is in itself a bit manipulative and provides a state of emotional subordination, acceptable.

Coercive persuasion

The sociologist of religions Massimo Introvigne reports that he shares Robert Jay Lifton’s position that “coercive persuasion works if it is accompanied by imprisonment, i.e. it is practiced in a context where there are physical and not only mental barriers preventing escape, of which a Chinese re-education camp is a good example”. Introvigne agrees in particular with Lifton in the “distinction between mental imprisonment (which can be discussed on a theoretical level but which cannot be criminally sanctioned because the difficulty of proving its existence opens up to referees) and physical imprisonment, with very material bars. The case of Silvia Romano is the second”.

Geopolitical planning

The theme of religious freedom always opens up a space of ambiguity where it becomes an alibi to hide geopolitical planning objectives. The West, with the support of the Catholic Church which, at the end of the last century, played an important role in the legitimation of the new movements, is a land that cultivates certain institutional fundamentalisms that produce forms of populism with a clear extremist matrix. Sacred motives, such as the defeat of atheism, but also noble, more secular demands, such as the defense of human rights are intertwined with power and its apparatuses. A history as old as man but with new configurations.

On the ashes of a Europe of peoples stands a prime minister like Viktor Mihály Orbán in Hungary or a president like Volodymyr Zelens’kyj in Ukraine.

Trapped by fear

And what about the fellowship between Donald Trump and the religious group Falun Gong? The spiritual movement formed in the 1990s which, in Italy too, conducts a severe anti-Chinese campaign; the group uses the philotrumplane newspaper The Epoch Times as its print media, which has doubled its revenue since 2017.

What might have happened to Silvia Romano is not so far removed from what happens in the West to those trapped in systems that use fear to exercise control. “Hers is not a choice of freedom”, Maryan Ismail wrote in a letter dated May 16, 2020 addressed to the young volunteer; and if Silvia/Aisha’s choice had been (only) a personal and intimate one she would have communicated it, as Cinzia Sciuto writes in her blog, calmly “first to her family, with the necessary serenity and without the favor of the cameras and photographers”. Precisely this exhibition meant that her appearance in Islamist uniform (it was not a Somali dress!) was read as a form of political-religious propaganda and was even perceived as the anticipation of a subversive program.

Fear, that’s what this is all about. Faith has nothing to do with it. The deprivation of physical freedom, as in the case of Silvia Romano and the fascination towards a religious leader, as in the case of young people recruited in sectarian groups, become the initiatory moments of an existential program that will progressively feed on fear and on which many organizations will build real structures of domination, environments where everything is allowed: from violence in its various forms, to the trafficking of human beings up to arms or ivory smuggling.

Without excluding interests “within our reach” ranging from large bank accounts to the construction of huge financial assets. This is why Silvia/Aisha is victimized twice: the first because she has been deprived of her freedom by an act of physical constraint, the second because she may have been induced to conversion in a manipulative and instrumental way, within a larger plane that goes beyond the dimension of the individual sphere.

A plethora of exorcists

Fear is fed in an instrumental way, and it is the common experience of a globalized lexicon: the fear of the different is fed by politics, the fear of the devil is used by religion (western but not only) in order to provide a remedy and to keep people who believe in it. Italy is the country with the largest number of exorcists in the world, and the headquarters of the International Association of Exorcists [A.I.E.] founded in 1992 in Italy.

Its main activities consist in the dissemination of the “official doctrine of the Catholic Church on demonic possession” and the formation of new exorcists who can exercise their ministry only through the granting of a specific mandate authorized by the bishop.

It pleases so much to free people from the devil that there are cases of “abusive exercise of “profession”. The existence of the devil (the merits of which I do not go into) would threaten the lives of the faithful by dragging them into the vortex of atheism, profanation, sin. Here the devil becomes a business: the annual courses of A.I.E. are promoted by the Regina Apostolorum University run by the Legionaries of Christ and are held in Rome at their headquarters.

Bible and Koran

The Bible and the Koran, many people in good faith who aspire to paradise: this is the reassuring scenario that leverages the good feelings of people, who in a moment of existential difficulty rely on a charismatic leader who will lead them, through an inclined plane, to do and think things that the victim would never have thought or done before. In fact, it happens that the family members of “converts” declare that they no longer recognize their son/daughter, husband/wife.

What probability is there that a girl converts to the Islamic religion, being born in Milan, raised in the structures of a western city, left for Africa maybe atheist, but having internalized the principles of a Christian Catholic education? We asked Luigi Corvaglia: “The probability would tend to zero if the reference was to an experience, even lasting, of simple immersion in the host culture. They would grow, but not too much, if this girl was subjected to an “indoctrination” by friendly or charismatic figures.

The picture would change dramatically, instead, if this persuasive work was carried out in a condition of isolation, in a gradual manner and, above all, in a psychological framework that significantly changes the value and salience of rewards and punishments, costs and benefits, as when you risk your life. Every step towards the acquisition of the new identity would probably be made in a “voluntary” way, although the final outcome would have minimal chances of being chosen at the beginning of the process”.

At the end of these thoughts, Alessandro Perduca’s words sound good, commenting on a news item about Silvia Romano, wrote “Jihad is a more western phenomenon than it appears both in its genesis and in the ways of communication, and ransoms also serve to avoid attacks at home”.

But then, won’t the media attention paid to Silvia’s clothing, her conversion, and religion be an alibi to divert our attention from other issues?

Emanuela Provera*

*Emanuela Provera was a numerary (i.e. executive) of Opus Dei.
She knows very well the practices of religious indoctrination and subjection to fundamentalist organizations
of the Catholic Church, of which she has become a scholar.
She has written for Chiare Lettere publisher two books in which she explains
abusing practices of life and the functioning of recovery centers
for priests ‘in difficulty’: “Inside Opus Dei” and “Divine Justice”.


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