CESNUR - center for studies on new religions

The Chilean Report on Cults: French Anti-Cult Missionaries' Efforts Finally Paid Off - or Did They?

by Massimo Introvigne

See full text of the Chilean Report (in Spanish)

In a particularly silly book, Catherine Fournier (a social scientist) and Catherine Picard (former MP and co-sponsor of the French anti-cult law of 2001) – Sectes, démocratie et mondialisation (Paris: PUF, 2002) – claim that the worldwide controversy between the French anti-cult model and its opponent is part and parcel of the much larger battle between the new imperialism of the United States and those who fight American hegemony. I use the word "silly" in a technical sense (no offence intended), with particular reference to the recent bestseller by French political scientist Jean-François Revel "The Anti-American Obsession" (L'obsession anti-américaine: son fonctionnement, ses causes, ses inconséquences, Paris: Plon, 2002). Revel demonstrates there that paranoid and obsessive anti-Americanism dominates a large portion of French political thought, and causes normally intelligent persons to make nonsensical remarks when something reminds them of the U.S. It is a testament to French secularism that Revel's otherwise comprehensive assessment of French anti-Americanism completely ignores les sects, or the question of cults; whilst Fournier and (especially, one would suspect) Picard make the cults the Holy Grail of the brave, French-led opposition of the world freedom fighters inspired by the French Revolution against the nightmarish one-superpower American dystopia (one may wonder what side Saddam Hussein is counted on). Of course, Picard is also making her sales pitch as prima donna of French anti-cultism after some misadventures incurred by former MILS president Alain Vivien and psychiatrist Jean-Marie Abgrall (the latter has also published another anti-cult book: Martin et le gourou, Magnard 2001, a juvenile detective novel trying to scare French pre-teens away from evil cults – this one not silly, just plainly stupid). Apparently Picard would like to be appointed as the new president of MILS (a place vacant after Vivien resigned on June 18, 2002), an appointment which would probably not please the U.S.

Chile has emerged as a relevant battlefield. French anti-cult missionaries have focused on this country as the first one in Latin America interested in amending its laws and setting up a MILS-style anti-cult national agency after a particular incident involving a small group, the Center for Tibetan Studies. The Parliamentary mandate of the Chilean commission (created by the law of July 22, 2000) expressly mentioned "brainwashing" as allegedly taking place within the Center for Tibetan Studies. A "Commission to Investigate the Existence and Activities of Cults " was then established. Only MPs were members, but two experts worked permanently with the Commission: a lawyer who also has a sociology degree, Humberto Lagos (author of several works quite critical of "cults"), and a legal scholar, Jorge Precht. The Commission interviewed police officers, journalists (quite a few), psychiatrists, and the leading Roman Catholic counter-cult expert. It also heard the leadership of the Center for Tibetan Studies. The Commission also solicited written reports from several law enforcement and other governmental agencies, and collected press clippings and court decisions. It claims to have read both the French 1996 report and CESNUR's criticism of it (Pour en finir avec les sects, Paris: Dervy, 1996, explicitly quoted in the report).  

Particularly alarming is the written report sent to the Commission by the Carabineros, or Military Police, claiming that mind control is a key feature of "cults" and listing (among 150 religious groups reportedly active in Chile) seven as worth watching: three "pseudo-Christian" groups – the Mormons, the Jehovah's Witnesses and Rev. Moon's Unification movement -, and four "dangerous religious groups": the Pentecostal Brazilian church IURD; The Family; Scientology; and the local Theocratic Movement. Several other answers received by government departments and police and military bodies derive their approach from the French report(s), occasionally borrowing literally from them without mentioning the source. French influence in Chile is particularly relevant, and old relationships exist between both the respective Catholic Churches and the respective (secularly oriented) main Masonic bodies.

The Commission in its final report dated March 7, 2002 and now available as a book, does not entirely follow these suggestions. On the one hand, many parts of the report use a clear anti-cult language: the Commission believe that "destructive cults" do exist in Chile and that something variously called brainwashing, mind control or mental manipulation may well be taking place within them. On the other hand, examples focus on the much talked about Center for Tibetan Studies and juvenile Satanism rather than on the most usual anti-cult targets. The Commission wisely remarks the controversies raised by the publication of a list of sects in France and recommends against drafting any similar list in Chile.

Generally speaking, the Commission does not recommend any special law on cults, but a strict enforcement of the existing laws. On the French law of 2001 and anti-brainwashing provisions, the Commission remains doubtful. The report recommends that further study be conducted, but argues that such study should consider the objections against the French law and the fact that the French position on brainwashing has been criticized not only by scholars but also "by all the traditional European churches" (with objections by authoritative Catholic agencies listed in detail: apparently, they did not fail to impress the Catholic MPs in the Commission). The report remarks that anti-brainwashing provisions may endanger religious freedom and also be too vague to be really enforceable. Solutions to the alleged evil of cults may be less problematically found in making it more difficult for religious entities to achieve legal registration; creating an Observatory of Cults; spreading information (apparently, including very critical comments on specific groups); and liaising with the other Latin American parliaments.

The French impact is felt, but more in the reports the Commission received from several agencies that in the report itself (although a peculiar, non-French, Chilean approach mixes quite regularly Catholic and secular arguments – some of the "bad" cults are identified as "pseudo-Christian" by the Carabineros, and occasionally one has the impression that the Military Police is arguing about theology). The report does take into account the French diagnosis, but hesitates in recommending the same therapy and is aware that scholars and (apparently, more importantly for several Commissioners) Catholic Church authorities do not favor anti-brainwashing statutes. If Chile was regarded as a critical country in what Picard and others like to represent as a global confrontation between French secularism and the American vaguely mystical "empire of the cults", the results remain so far ambiguous. The enclosures show that an anti-cult sentiment (in part, possibly, French-inspired) is predominant in several Chilean law enforcement, military and other bodies (and may ultimately lead to anti-cult legislation), but this sentiment failed to completely inspire the report. Ultimately, the Commissioners did not entirely buy French tall tales about brainwashing, and showed a surprising awareness of how controversial the concept is, although they were not prepared to discard it entirely, either.

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