CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne


The Provisions Against Religious Extremism as an Instrument of Outlawing Religious Minorities in Russia (the Cases of Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Scientology)

A paper presented at the conference Religion(s) and Power(s), Vytautas Magnus University, Kaunas, Lithuania, 5–6 October 2017 - Preliminary version
by Boris Falikov

1. In November of 2015 the Moscow city court banned the activities of the Moscow branch of the Church of Scientology. In June of 2016 the Supreme Court dismissed the Church’s appeal and supported the decision. The Russian ministry of justice won the case after many years of fighting with Scientology. What are the reasons of this prolonged battle? Basically, there are two of them. The first is the position of the Russian Orthodox Church, which considers Scientology to be a “destructive organization”. Inside the ROC there are two conflicting opinions: some of its experts argue that Scientology is a dangerous heretical sect, the others say it has nothing to do with religion and is a way of psychological manipulation with purely commercial goals. The ministry of justice seemed to like the second version and its experts argued that as the Church of Scientology registered its name as a US Trademark it can’t call itself a religious organization. The Moscow city court and the Russian Supreme Court both accepted this argument and mentioned it in their decisions.

2. The opinion of the ROC played the major role in court decisions because of its close ties with the present Russian regime. Putin’s Kremlin carries on the conservative policy of traditional values and considers the ROC its close ally. The Constitution clause of State/Church separation stays intact but in reality it’s violated all the time. The State subsides the Church the latter gives it full ideological support. A kind of informal concordat is played out between the two actors. The second reason of outlawing Scientology is secular in nature. The anti - Western and in particular anti – American mood prevails in Russian foreign policy nowadays and all NGOs financed by foreign sources are being outlawed lately. The Scientology was founded in the USA and obviously plays into its hands, according to the logic of Russian security agencies like FSB.

3.This logic is openly shared and supported by the ROC. The chairman of the orthodox rights committee of the All-Russia People’s Council headed by patriarch Kirill Roman Silantiev has told recently RIA News Agency: “When Americans declare Russia to be its major enemy and do it regularly, the attitude towards religious organization, which are based on the territory of the potential or rather real enemy now, somehow changes”. And added that the further measures towards NRMs of foreign origin would be justified.

4. However, denying religious nature of Scientology met with indignation of practically all Russian experts in the field of religious studies. They argued that the world scientific community recognizes the religious status of Scientology, mentioning such names as Bryan Wilson, Gordon Melton and Massimo Introvigne. I also participated in this discussion. My argument ran like this. According to widely spread opinion we live in post-secular time when the rebirth of religion goes side by side with the process of secularization. That’s why the border between secular and religious is not rigid anymore. It’s on this border that new religious movements appear and this is why in some of them the religious goals are reached by rational means. Scientology is one of the best examples of such NRMs. And that’s why it meets with misunderstanding of older religions, which are very much indignant it doesn’t obey traditional rules. For example, it is using a mechanical device E-meter for its practice reminiscent of confession. On the other hand, the authorities are afraid of the religion that steps over a secular territory and registers its name as a trademark. All these fears and misunderstandings make a public enemy out of such NRM. But if the State bases its religious policy on expert opinions it can avoid this danger. Such arguments didn’t influence the court decisions but the Russian authorities obviously didn’t like the fact that the majority of religious scholars objected to them so strongly. I don’t want to exaggerate the influence of my professional community, it’s not big at all and it didn’t help to change the strategy of the State but might have contributed to changing its tactics. At least, the outlawing of another religious minority was implemented based on different legal instruments. I mean the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which were banned in Russia on accusations of extremist activity in April of this year. The Supreme Court dismissed the appeal already in July of 2017 and since that time JWs are out of law in Russia as an extremist organization.

5. The determining factor in qualifying an activity as extremist is the suspect’s motivation. Crimes motivated by prejudice or, as stated in Russian law, “ideological, political, racial, national or religious enmity, as well as hatred or enmity towards a social group,” are classified as extremist crimes under the article 282.1 of the Criminal Code. The stress on motivation puts the article in the field of subjectivity but the authorities didn’t take it into consideration. According to official statements, the necessity to fight terrorism was the main reason for developing anti-extremist legislation. However, Russian legal observers state that it cannot meet this purpose and that the expansion of acts that can be considered extremist crimes, and the doubling of the number of materials recognized as extremist and included in the list of banned publications, led to a situation where “anything from a criminal fiction to a postmodernist painting can be viewed as extremist.” . Because of the nature of the legislation and problems with its enforcement, “public trust in anti-extremist legislation and the government’s ability to fight extremism through the existing legal arsenal was lost completely.”

6. However the skepticism of legal observers didn’t stop the ministry of justice from using the article 282 against Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia. The religious group was completely banned in Russia and its 396 branches were liquidated. This decision was accompanied by an international outcry about the violation of religious freedom but inside of Russia it didn’t meet with many objections.

Fifty-one percent of respondents to a survey from Russia’s leading independent polling agency, the Levada Center, said that they “definitely” approved of the banning of Jehovah’s Witnesses activities. A further 28 percent said they were at least somewhat supportive. Meanwhile, just three percent said they were definitely opposed to the decision, which was initially made by Russia’s justice ministry in April.

At the same time, of the 1,600 people surveyed, just 13 percent said they knew about the case against the Jehovah’s Witnesses in detail. A further 34 percent they had heard something about it, but 50 percent replied that they didn't know anything.

In a separate question of whether people knew, who the Jehovah’s Witnesses were, 20 percent said that they heard nothing about them, with another 10 percent undecided. Forty-nine percent responded by stating that the group was a Christian sect.

Obviously, Russian religious observers were not right when they said that the public didn’t have any trust in anti-extremism law. Just the opposite proved to be true. Two things can explain it. First, the majority of the population is very much afraid of the terrorist threat. Second, the public in general is completely ignorant of who are the Jehovah’s Witnesses. People are vaguely aware that it’s something foreign and religious, which is enough for mistrust and fear.

7. Inspired by this mixture of indifference and approval the authorities decided to use the article 282 against other religious minorities. Scientology was their primary choice. Actually, this line of attack was not something completely new. Prominent anti-cultists like Alexander Dvorkin have accused scientology of extremism for many years. Its American origin made it no less suspicious than the JW. But now the ministry of justice took the affair into its hands. And it was Dvorkin again who supplied it with the information “proving”, that all the other scientological organizations in Russia like the Center of Dianetics, Narkonon, etc. are directly connected with Scientology and have to be also banned. He also hinted that they are better to be banned as extremist. “This is obvious that the founder of Scientology Ron Hubbard incited hatred to many people based on their attitude towards Scientology. According to his teaching, they are “suppressing persons”, as they don’t accept scientology and criticize it. Such people are incurable and they should be discriminated against, deprived of their property and even killed. These are his literal words <…> and they are a real demonstration of extremism, it seems to me”. The ministry of justice wholeheartedly followed the advice of the leading member of its experts’ committee.

In June of this year 5 leaders of the St. Petersburg branch of Scientology Church were arrested. They have been charged with participation in an "extremist" community, incitement of hatred, and illegal business activities. This combines the article 282 with the article 171 accusing of illegal commercial activity. In August the court dismissed the appeal of the lawyers of the arrested.

8. Is there any real basis under such arrogant accusations? Yes, we can find both notions of “suppressive person” (abbreviated “SP”) and of “potential trouble source” (abbreviated “PTS”) in scientology. As it’s defined in Scientology Handbook: “The PTS is a person who is in some way connected to and being adversely affected by a suppressive person. He is called a potential trouble source because he can be a lot of trouble to himself and to others.” The definition of Suppressive Person sounds like this: “It is a person who seeks to suppress, or squash, any betterment activity or group. A suppressive person suppresses other people in his vicinity. This is the person whose behavior is calculated to be disastrous. “Suppressive person” or a “suppressive” is another name for the “antisocial personality.” The approach to PTS is well developed in scientology. They should be disconnected from SP and persuaded to change. But all these psychological techniques of persuasion are far from being inciting hatred as anti-cultists like Dworkin try to demonstrate. The hardest disciplinary measure applied to PTS is depriving them from auditing if all the other psychological instruments don’t work. It can be compared to depriving sinners from communion in Christianity but I doubt that Dworkin and his colleagues would ever call it “inciting hatred”.

Now lets have a brief look at accusations of illegal business activities. In a scientological organization there are two branches as a rule. One is a religious community proper with no right to carry on a commercial activity and the other a commercial branch, which sells books. They are often housed in the same building and the members of a community sometimes are working in a commercial branch but in organizational aspect they are different. This double structure is well documented by scientology itself and is explained by religion experts (I have spoken about the border nature of scientology already). That’s why I suspect that the police just doesn’t want to take these documents and scholarly arguments into consideration. And the accusations of illegal business activities are used as an instrument of suppression just like the ones of extremism.

9. I should also add that the arrested leaders of St. Petersburg Scientology Church were exactly those people, who took Russia to the European Court when their branch of the church was banned and won the case. It’s obvious that the anti-extremist clause against them was used not only to take a revenge on them but also to effectively silence them. The leaders of the banned Moscow branch also took the authorities to the European Court and there are many chances they would win. That is why it’s not surprising at all that recently they were threatened with the investigation of their commercial activity and I expect that anti-extremism provision will be added to it very soon. Maybe even sooner then the case of Scientology vs. Russia in the European Court will be solved. I think we can name the instrument the article 282 has become. It’s a gag.

10. The alliance of the Kremlin and the ROC will obviously strengthen. It’s part of the long time Kremlin strategy of the right turn and isolation from the Western world. If Putin is reelected next March (and there are many indications that he will) the discriminating policy towards religious minority groups will go on. Obviously a very mighty instrument for outlawing them is found. This is a cocktail of two articles of the Criminal code – 182 and 171 – extremism plus illegal commercial activity. As the authorities found out, the public fear of religious terrorism combined with suspicions of illegal enrichment of foreign based groups make it quite safe for them to get rid of unwanted religious groups this way. The objections of a small number of defenders of religious freedom, including religious scholars inside of Russia are not taken into consideration as they can be easily dismissed. You can argue about religious nature of Scientology, as long as you want, the authorities seem to say, but you can’t put under scrutiny the issues of national security, it’s not your field of competence. As for the outcry abroad it only proves to the Kremlin that it’s on the right track making Russia an invincible fortress against the morally corrupted West.