CESNUR - center for studies on new religions

An Open Letter to M. Raymond Forni, Speaker of the French National Assembly

by Massimo Introvigne

Dear Mr. Forni:

In the last few days, you emerged as one of the most vocal critics of the Italian Prime Minister’s now well-known statement that Western values are superior to the Islamic. Yesterday, you took the unprecedented step of cancelling your meeting with Mr Pera, Speaker of the Italian Senate (a move largely criticized in Italy, including by the opposition, if anything because Mr Pera represents the Parliament, not the government, and is personally a well-respected liberal philosopher, a pupil and friend of the late Sir Karl Popper).

Had you simply criticized Mr Berlusconi’s statement (uttered in informal talks with journalists, not part of any official declaration) as generic and dangerous, and not even clear on what he means for "the West" (which is not a self-evident concept), I for one, and many in Italy, would have had nothing to object. Had you added that our states are secular, and that Prime Ministers are not supposed to talk about which theology is better or superior, I would have understood your point. However, you went on to represent Italy as a country where religious liberty and tolerance are in danger, and offered the example of France as the land of religious freedom for all. On the one hand, Mr Berlusconi explained his words to our Parliament by claiming that they had nothing to do with religion; he explained that his opinion was expressed in entirely secular terms, and that he simply thinks that as far as human rights in general and women’s rights in particular are concerned, Western democracies have a better record than most Islamic states. On the other hand, as a scholar of religion who as followed recent developments in France, I find your comments somewhat paradoxical.

On May 30, 2001 the Assembly you preside passed a law intended to deal with "cults" or "sects" in France, calling for their dissolution in case their leaders have been recognized guilty of criminal infractions (some of them admittedly quite minor), and introducing (under the guise of an amendment to Section 313 of the French Criminal Code) the same incrimination of the very vaguely defined felony of "mind control" or "mental manipulation" that in Italy the Constitutional Court got rid of in 1981, regarding it as one of the most unfortunate vestiges of the Fascist regime. Your law was denounced as dangerous for religious liberty not only by the "cults" themselves (or by international scholar, that you would probably dismiss as "cult apologists"), but in a joint declaration you are well aware of, signed by the president of the French Roman Catholic Bishops and by the President of the French Protestant Federation; it was also criticized by a number of members of the Council of Europe, by the U.S. Department of State, and by Vatican-related institutions.

Your Parliament produced in 1996 and 1999 reports on "sects" and "cults" that were widely criticized, and members of the body you preside are also members of the aptly named "Mission to Fight Cults". Based on these reports, several French citizens have lost their jobs for being members of "cults" and "sects", and groups included in the list have been denied permissions to rent public halls and otherwise restricted in their operations. These activities did not go unnoticed internationally: in 2001 France was sixth on the lists of the countries more hostile to religious liberty (and first among democratic countries) in the yearly report of Help to Church in Need (a Vatican-connected institutions whose headquarters in Rome are in the office of the Curia). The same criticism has been repeated time and again in the yearly official U.S. reports on religious liberty and by many independent international watchdog organizations.

France’s position on "sects" and "cults" has been applauded only by China. In Italy, for instance, Jehovah’s Witnesses (paramount in your list of "dangerous cults") are officially recognized as a religious body, and the Supreme Court has decided on October 8, 1997 that the Church of Scientology is also a religion (although, and I add this because your so called experts have often misquoted this second Italian decision, it has also stated on March 1, 2000 that some of its drug rehabilitation operations are not inherently religious under Italian law and not covered by the corresponding tax exemption). Soka Gakkai (another group blacklisted in France) has entered into negotiations with the government for a concordat; the concordat with the Jehovah’s Witnesses was signed on March 20, 2000 by Prime Minister Massimo D’Alema (a member of your own party at the European level) and awaits ratification by the Parliament. And so on.

Your reaction, of course, would be that "cults" or "sects" are not "genuine" religion, whilst Islam is. Unfortunately, you have never offered a definition of what a "genuine" religion is, and I wonder whether this is really in the province of a secular state (particularly, a state as secular as France claims to be). This led to some confusion; for instance in your 1996 and 1999 parliamentary reports you claimed to identify "cults" or "sects" as violent or dangerous organizations based on purely secular criteria, without any theological implications. Yet, your 1996 list of 172 "dangerous sects" did not include even one of the radical or fundamentalist Islamic organizations operating in France, obviously not less inclined to violence than many Pentecostal or other bodies listed in the Report.

French scholars have explained to me, time and again, that the list was drafted by your intelligence service, which enjoys a surprisingly good relation with a number of radically anti-American Islamic groups (and is no friend of "American" "sects" thriving on French soil). They have also suggested that Moslem voters are an important factor in French elections. Perhaps they are right.

I share your concern for religious tolerance. In my opinion, Italy fares quite well in this respect, but friendly suggestions are always welcome. But I would also suggest that you undertake a serious reflection on whether there is enough religious tolerance in your own backyard, even before looking at neighbouring countries. Some declarations may occasionally be ambiguous and unfortunate. Depriving your own citizens of their work, civil rights, or freedom of expressions because they happen to be members of a group you regard as a "cult" or a "sect" is even more unfortunate.

Yours faithfully,

Dr Massimo Introvigne*


Turin (Italy), September 29, 2001

*The opinions expressed are the writer's only, and do not represent any organization or institution

Anti-Cult Law in France - Index Page
Full text of the law in French

[Home Page] [Cos'è il CESNUR] [Biblioteca del CESNUR] [Testi e documenti] [Libri] [Convegni]
cesnur e-mail
[Home Page] [About CESNUR] [CESNUR Library] [Texts & Documents] [Book Reviews] [Conferences]