CESNUR - center for studies on new religions


organized by CESNUR, Center for Religious Studies and Research at Vilnius University, and New Religions Research and Information Center
Vilnius, Lithuania, April 9-12 2003  

Extremism in New Religious Movements: A Russian Perspective

by Veronica Kravchouk
A paper presented at the CESNUR 2003 Conference, Vilnius, Lithuania. Preliminary version. Do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author.

Extremism and terrorism have been high on the agenda not only since the 1990s. Today the problem gains new aspects and colouring. Chechen guerillas who seized a Moscow theatre in November 2002 are sure to have been motivated not only politically but religiously too. Attacks on U.S. landmarks on September 11, 2001, a range of mass suicides among believers all over the world: 500 victims who self-sacrificed by burning themselves in March 2000 in Uganda and claimed to affiliate with a Marian sect of the Roman-Catholic Church, 39 victims as a result of suicides within the religious community Heaven’s Gate in 1997 in the U.S., in 1994-1995 suicides in the Solar Temple, in 1995 a gas attack in Tokyo Underground on behalf of Shoko Asahara's sect. These are examples of religious extremism and terrorism highlighting the most urgent problems of today.

To be accurate, we should start with the terms employed -"extremism, religious extremism, religion-based terrorism". Extremism is the kind of mentality in politics which attains the topmost radicalism, maxims in behaviour and religious bigotry and suggests personal worldviews and goals deviating from those accepted in society. Extremist actions reveal tly uttermost social protest which is expressed in unlawful marginal antisocial forms. The above terms cover the whole range of certain actions employed to destabilize society by wording and implementing threats, by unlawful and violent acts which have proved to be ready to deform society and please one's personal or corporate goals. Reasons for extremism and terrorism can be classified into several sources -- political, economic, ethnic, psychological ( fits of uncontrolled passion, revenge, temporary insanity or inadequacy) and religious ones. But as experience shows they would never appear separately but are bound to spring out in a cluster. It is no use trying to show which of them is prior or superior to another, or rather dominates over the rest.

The widows of Chechen guerilla officers who captured a Moscow theatre put forward nationalistic and political demands, the latter being motivated both by their religious bigotry and economic factors, as well as revenge-seeking ambitions.

In this respect, it is worthwhile to back government officials and experts' common opinion that it is impossible to state religious extremism as a separate and reliable factor within the framework. Religion-based factor should be envisaged in framing the motivational network of extremism and terrorism. Thus, one should note at least two fundamental considerations:

1. religion-based motivation brings out the most dangerous aspect in extremism, being irrational by nature,

2. religion-based extremism is to be found within any religion, traditional "peace-loving" religions as well, but may acquire specific features in every case. The above holds true for the NRM as they form a separate group among the other religions and bear some peculiar features.

The majour feature for the NRM, especially in the initial stages of their existence, is to be unpredictable in the course of the further development. Statistical data show only 10 percent of NRM unlawful actions, the rest being thousands of foreign and hundreds of Russian loyal religious organizations and groups which could hardly be accused of bringing social chaos and unrest even by their most ardent opponents.

The usual procedure to state the prerequisites for terrorist or extremist deviations in any religion (Islam, Protestantism, etc.) holds valid for the NRM and involves the study of religious activity liable to antisocial behaviour. The latter includes the following:


1. Historical background.

The older the religious community and the longer its existence in society are, the more knowledge the society gets about the basics of a religious thought, its rituals and forms of social adaptation. For example, the Bahai faith is a NRM which has existed for about 150 years and proven to be developing in the way secure for society. On the contrary, the younger religious community and its age are, the less facts we can list in analyzing its social status. The problem is aggravated by specific historical environment: the recent decade in Russia showed poor executive performance - no governmental feedback with socially unsafe practices. Thus, the younger a new religious community is, the more extravagant it appears in the eyes of the society, the more violent is its appeal for the better world and society, the stronger is its destructive opposition to the existing order, the more frequent the breaches of the peace. The arising social threat is fraught with extremist religious actions. The lack of information about the religious background of a new group can be the basis for spreading grapevine and myths across the social environment causing misunderstanding and trouble in the standoff.


2. Tendencies to preserve territorial and \ or group isolation.

The NRM should be open and transparent to society, it should gain easy access to its inner structure, otherwise the religious activity could be fraught with unlawful behaviour. It is unacceptable to lead the policy of double standards, the one valid for the believers and the other for the outer world. Transparency, openness is the factor decreasing the danger of extremism. On the opposite, when the NRM are engaged into secret rituals, into secret multi-level initiations and some special rules and information are invented for authorized use only, when special codes are devised for its members , the society reacts vigorously and the standoff is violent.


3. Financing sources and expenses.

The majority of the NRM are generated spontaneously as a community of followers of a belief, as an amateur group in which any financing is irrelevant. They usually gather in private houses and flats which is free, they organize into clubs, go on picnics and don't need any financial support from the outside. Originally they are nor supposed to be a source for financial benefit of a leader and the retinue, social and financial blunders are non-existent at this stage of their existence. Still, there are other forms of the inner structure: if material and private values are laid as the foundation stone, private property would pass from the hands of its members to those at the top, special fees and unpaid labour would be flourishing. There emerges a risk of antisocial passions and financial trouble.


4. Authoritarian \ charismatic leadership.

The notion is different from traditional meaning of the term. Charisma is a Greek word for a special spiritual gift. Buddha, Muhammad, Baha'ullah, Madame Blavatsky, the Rerikhs, all of them were charismatic leaders, founders of their own religions. So, to be on the safe side, we should distinguish between the NRM according to the type leadership. In the majority of the NRM a charismatic leader is only a source of inspiration for the followers, a sort of symbol of the religious movement who marks the moral and spiritual level. Another charismatic leader would start with the inner structure of the religious group, would form a rigid hierarchy based on the need to obey, conformity to the proclaimed religious woridview and strict codes of good behaviour under the sword of extreme punishment. The first to fall victims to the extremity in the inner hierarchy would be the believers, members of the religious sect. Power and money could be stated as the dominant motives for that sort of leaders.


Extremism inspection of the NRM.

The first knot is how to gain the necessary information about the NRM. The new religion is generated spontaneously somewhere in the vast expanses of a country or penetrates unobtrusively from somewhere abroad, so it can pass unnoticed. Sometimes the public gets informed about it only as a due fact of an extremist breach of order which becomes the headlines in newspapers. Such was the case with Aldan group and several Satanist's groups. To know a possible danger of a NRM extremism in the run-up, the State should seek help from specialists and experts who are capable of covering the religious situation across the country. Unregistered religious groups are the first on the "laundry list".

The second knot is the intricacy of the legal framework which treats the legal criteria for extremist unlawful actions rather vaguely, especially the cases of religious trouble.

The third knot is the policy of double standards in wording the criteria and lawful measures acceptable for traditional religions and the NRM.

Example: Sporting clubs for youths and teenagers are widely spread as an example of humanitarian activity. Religious communities can promote their selected young believers to master the techniques of self-defense. But from another angle, shall we word it otherwise - military training?

It has always been rather a problem to find proofs for the breaches of the peace and antisocial activity. The higher are the chances for finding proofs of extremist actions, the more pains does the religious community spare to veil its activity, to conceal the witnesses and the victims.

Besides, the imminent feature for the religions bom in the New Age is their fantastic adaptation, social mimicry in the way they conform to the norms of social life which hinders the attempts to identify them and prove their authenticity. It has appeared to be a vulgar practice of forming the image of a religious movement not on theological grounds, but rather under the disguise of their cultural, educational, sporting and welfare activity. Others would prefer not to register as a legal authorized structure, thus scrambling for success from the hiding. Soon after the gas attack in Tokyo Underground, the Aum Shinrikyo religious group in Moscow lost its legal status of a religious entity in 1985, but since then it has been following its way from the hiding. Its immediate threat to society is doubtless.

To sum up the above, the NRM in Russia are legally vulnerable, apart from the existing practice of law implementation. The problem is not to be neglected and provides a vast area for improvement. Anyway it is deeply rooted in the so-called post-totalitarian mentality pervading the society and each individual when the idea that every stranger is not like me generates its after-effects - the search for the enemy. The religious minorities are also vulnerable in the everyday routine, they have been discriminated by the officials of the local authorities and the representatives of traditional religions.

The attitude of Russian society to religious minorities has been pejorative or antagonistic. To the prejudice of the society sects and cults have been brought into the public consciousness and labeled as dangerous and inhumane, anti-cult attacks have become frequent. The living detriment contradicts the statistics: only 2 or 3 out of several hundred NRM have revealed their attempts to infringe the law, the rest being oriented on liberal and democratic ideals. The latter are represented mostly by intelligentsia, the followers of Bahai, Bazhov and the Rerikhs, etc. Moreover, any social phenomenon, New Religious Feeling as well, should be analyzed dynamically in its development. The evolution of some religious groups has transformed initial antisocial doctrines, providing a peaceful way to end the society-NRM standoff.

The notorious Church of the Last Testament in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, has been strong in its apocalyptic worldview since 1991. Its progress towards the End, which, as the leader predicted is due on April 3, 2003, has alerted the local authorities and has made them seek measures to remove the danger mass suicidal attempts. But quite recently Vissarion, the leader, claimed that to save the world, mankind and themselves his flock and brethren should be insistent in praying and sweating.

What should we wish be done to prevent upcoming extremist actions in the NRM in Russia? To boost the chances for adequate follow-up we should focus our attention on the following:

- there is a need to push forward the idea of a committee on NRM which is to cover the situation across the country and analyze the data so that recommendations for local executives be proposed,

-to take steps in introducing and financing educational religion studies programs so as to immerse citizens in broad ground of new religions and possible dangerous religious ideas, to seek control over the legal zones in educational, financial, health care spheres of risky religious groups rather forestalling the situation and avoiding the late catch-up.

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