Fall 2001, Vol. 4, No. 3

Table of Contents
Fall 2001

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From the Editor: The Civil Religion Goes to War

Religion After 9-11:

Good for What Ails Us

Falwell and Robertson Stumble

Islam is Everywhere

Pacifism on the Record

When Our Allies Persecute

The Stem Cell Conundrum

Gain, No Pain

On the Beat: Covering Religion in Hard Times

Letter to the Editor and Reply


No Bad Sects in France
by Benjamin-Hugo LeBlanc

On May 30, the French National Assembly passed a new law for the "Prevention and Repression of Cultic Movements." The law permits the French judiciary to dissolve a religious organization when one of its leaders, or the movement itself, is convicted of crimes. It also makes a crime out of "the deceptive abuse of the state of ignorance or weakness"—i.e. psychological manipulation.

For journalists, religion scholars, and civil libertarians outside of France, it was only the latest reason to worry about rising religious intolerance in the birthplace of liberty, equality, and fraternity. As the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights declared in its 2001 report, "While the State is obliged to protect its citizens against abuse by members of any groups or associations, this should not be done through the creation of discrimination, which is the case with [this new] law. Such abuses should be dealt with under the Criminal Code and other legislation and not through adopting a separate law targeted at religious minority groups."

Such outside concern dates back to 1994, when French government initiatives against Scientologists and Jehovah's Witnesses received unfavourable notice in the U.S. State Department’s annual country-by-country human rights reports. A 1996 French parliamentary report identifying 172 religious groups as dangerous "sects" drew widespread criticism.

But what really attracted international attention to the French "anti-sect" campaign have been the annual reports that the State Department began submitting to Congress in compliance with the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). These country-by-country surveys of religious policies and practices have embarrassed the French activists and lawmakers who are attempting to legitimize—at home as well as abroad—the use of new legal weapons against "sects." The 1999 IRFA report asserts, for example, that the list of dangerous cults had been prepared without proper hearings and "contributed to an atmosphere of intolerance and bias against minority religions."

French media reaction was defensive, to say the least. How could France, a bastion of Western democratic thought and a strong advocate of human rights, be accused of violating something as fundamental as freedom of religion? Citing the Internal Revenue Service’s 1994 grant of tax-exempt status to the Church of Scientology, the national daily Le Monde declared after the release of the initial report that freedom of religion "is so deeply prevalent" in the United States that "authorities have neither the power nor the will to regulate."

Le Monde went on to say that France was among many other European countries targeted by Washington’s criticism, implicitly suggesting that this was some kind of an American assault on Europe. Similarly, another major newspaper, Libération, claimed that the reproach of France was "nothing compared to Washington’s attack on Germany" for its campaign against Scientology. The business-oriented newspaper Le Figaro described the United States as a "paradise for the cults" that protected religious practice "with excess."

Following the release of the 2000 IRFA report—which was no less critical of France—the satirical weekly paper Charlie Hebdo published an article entitled "American elections: the cults have already won." Reporting on President Bush’s trip to Europe last June, Le Monde snorted, "Europeans’ hostility to the death penalty is too deep to be put on the same level as the arguments some American politicians and congregations raise against French and German anti-cult policies."

The mildest criticism probably came from the Catholic daily La Croix, which acknowledged the deep cultural and historical differences at the core of this Franco-American disagreement even as it strongly disagreed with the United States’ inclination to impose its own conception of religious freedom on other countries. Such cultural relativism did not, however, sit well with those officially engaged in justifying the legal initiatives directed against "sects." They were anxious to prove that their views were not only viable in France, but also exportable to other countries.

The first strike came from Alain Vivien, head of the government’s Interministerial Mission to Fight Sects, in his own first annual report, issued on Feb. 7, 2000. Calling the United States a "sanctuary" for sects, Vivien argued that Washington’s concerns were essentially the result of the sects’ intense lobbying and disinformation. He described the actions of the America-based Church of Scientology—which in France is generally considered a moneymaking scam—as "clandestine operations launched against France from a foreign nation."

In its next report, issued in December 2000, the Interministerial Mission went further, insisting that France’s Declaration of Human Rights ("voted on two years prior to the adoption of the First Amendment in the American Constitution") is clearly superior to the First Amendment since it truly "protects human rights which are threatened by modern forms of obscurantism."

Fueled in part by longstanding anti-American sentiment, this aggressive stance led some French media to identify "sects" with the United States and its "ultraliberal" policies. One could even discover, in Le Monde’s September 9, 2000 opinion section, that America’s new "spiritual products are to religion what McDonald’s is to real food."

The most bizarre expression of this latest incarnation of anti-Americanism was a one-hour "investigative" documentary, "Sects and Big-Time Espionage," broadcast on the France 3 television channel last May. Directed by journalist Bruno Fouchereau, author of an article in Le Monde Diplomatique entitled "Sects: Trojan horse of the United States in Europe," the documentary suggested that some "new religious movements" could actually be used as front-groups for international espionage!

In the documentary, one Roger Reybaud, mayor of the tiny village of Saint-Julien-du-Verdon and a retired lieutenant colonel in the French army, reported that he had seen cable plugs and antennas in statues belonging to a local religious movement known as Mandarom. Could these be disguised transmission devices of some foreign country, spying on the acoustic detection laboratory for submarine warfare down below the mountain by Lake Castillon?

Reybaud had actually made his first appearance in the national media in a story on Mandarom that appeared in Le Monde in 1994. A fierce opponent of the movement, the mayor was not taken very seriously then, and his theory was handled tongue-in-cheek. Now he had become a worthy "witness" to the Attack of the Sects.

What has radicalized French public opinion on sects in the last few years? One can point to the mass murder-suicides by the Order of the Solar Temple in Switzerland, Canada, and France (in 1994, 1995, and 1997 respectively), the 1995 sarin gas attack by Aum Shinrikyo in the Tokyo subway, and a handful of other scandals and court cases involving religious groups.

But these events do not explain why France should have reacted more strongly than other European countries. Germany, hailed by the French as a fellow scourge of sects, has restricted its concern solely to Scientology.

To understand this French exceptionalism it is necessary to understand France’s historically tempestuous relationship with organized religion, its distinctive idea—and ideal—of "laïcity," and its distrust of group identities independent of the state.

In contrast to the pluralistic experience of the United States, whose liberal conception of religious freedom is rooted in the U.S. Constitution’s hands-off approach to religion, the French struggle for democracy positioned itself against the unwanted intrusion of the powerful Catholic Church into secular affairs.

Far removed from what Alexis de Tocqueville described as America’s harmonious combination of "the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom," French anticlericalism led to the utopian idea that the State could substitute itself for the Church, complete with a republican civil religion possessed of its own clergy, rites, and a universal and unifying "truth" based on Reason.

As a result, although separation of Church and State became effective in both the United States and France, France developed the concept of "laïcity"—an entirely secular and rational worldview bolstered by the State as a national ideological alternative to religion (read: Roman Catholicism).

Even today, while most French people hold more moderate views—some even talk about a "laïcization of laïcity"—the anticlerical tradition remains powerful. France’s refusal last year to sign the preamble of the European Rights Charter until a reference to Europe’s religious heritage was taken out is but one example of this. Indeed, there are still many hard-line proponents of an uncompromising "laïcity" who look at all forms of religion with mistrust and even contempt. Alain Vivien’s use of an archaic word like "obscurantism" to describe unconventional groups and movements bears traces of 19th-century rationalist images of religion as a force for enslaving the mind and hindering free thought.

In addition, France remains uneasy about collective identities—ethnic and linguistic as well as religious—that seem independent of the State. To be sure, asserting such an identity in private doesn’t raise concerns. But when such assertions take place in the public space, they are usually perceived as incompatible with the ideal of an indivisible nation, an interference with the citizen’s direct allegiance to the State.

Not only does this help explain France’s difficulty adapting to multiculturalism, but it points to the powerful resonance, in French anti-cult rhetoric, of words like "manipulation" (of individuals’ thoughts) and "infiltration" (of the State’s institutions, which threatens "public order"). All in all, members of "sects," like Muslim women wearing scarfs in school, call into question too many fundamentals of French culture: the limited role religion is supposed to occupy in public space; individual rationality as the path par excellence to collective "truth"; and the importance of conformity for national unity and identity.

Within this context, the French media have acted as cultural watchdogs. Weekly and monthly "infotainment" media such as the People magazine-like Quo have, not surprisingly, offered the most pejorative characterizations, the strongest imagery, and the most alarmist overtones. The "victims" of sects are "ruined," "trapped," "enslaved," "broken," "destroyed," and need to be freed from the "sects’ claws."

The legitimate press, although much more rigorous in reporting facts, has also taken sides, focusing exclusively on controversy and devoting ever increasing space to the "sect problem." In this respect, a quantitative analysis of articles on sects published in Le Monde over the past 10 years is instructive.

In 1990, the newspaper published only 11 articles on sects, most dealing with a trial involving Scientology leaders. Five years later, following Waco and the first Solar Temple murder-suicides, the number of articles had jumped to more than 75, including 39 on the sarin gas attack by Aum Shinrikyo, 13 on the second Solar Temple "transit," and seven on France’s parliamentary Enquiry Commission.

In 2000, there were 126 articles, but now the focus of attention was domestic. Only 10 concerned the deaths in Uganda of nearly 1,000 members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, certainly the year’s most significant "sect story." Sixteen dealt with the struggle between the Falun Gong and the government of China. By contrast there were 28 articles on Scientology in France, and 21 on anti-sect legal actions by the government.

A kind of "sect fever" had taken hold, intensified to no small degree by sensationalist coverage of stories like the October 1998 disappearance of a large number of court files in a lawsuit involving Scientology. Rumors abounded in the press. Was the disappearance, wondered Le Monde, connected to a burglary at Alain Vivien’s residence? Had the French judicial system been "infiltrated" by this "dangerous sect"? asked the daily L’Express. Or perhaps the magistrate on the case, Marie-Paule Moracchini, had a relationship with Scientology?

Two years later, after the government itself was found responsible for the documents’ loss, the Minister of Justice himself reprimanded Moracchini, leading her to lash out at the media for, as she put it, "staging her unproven guilt." In all, Libération, La Croix, and Le Monde devoted more than 50 articles to the story.

Through this period, the media accorded far too much credibility to the government’s 1996 list of 172 "dangerous" groups. Indeed, the list was effectively enlarged by government reports and investigative articles criticizing other so-called ‘sects’—including some groups that had been active in France for many years without causing any controversy. The best example was the Anthroposophical Society and Steiner Schools, which some newspapers, responding to a government report, uncritically connected to Scientology.

Fortunately, this led both Le Monde and Libération to question whether the "legitimate war on sects" was going too far. Both newspapers called a surprise inspection of 14 Steiner schools in December 1999 a "cult hunters’ gaffe," and greeted a second assault on the movement by Vivien with skepticism.

The more cautious media stance has been evident in the coverage of the new anti-sect law. It was a source of some embarrassment that the new law received its most enthusiastic reception from a Chinese government eager (as the Washington Post reported in July) to find allies for its own campaign against the Falun Gong. Without opposing the law directly, the press reported the worries and concerns of mainstream religious leaders and sociologists alike.

When the presidents of the French Catholic Bishops Conference and the French Protestant Federation sent a letter to Prime Minister Lionel Jospin on May 15 charging that the law posed a substantial long-term threat to fundamental human rights, it was well covered in Le Monde, Libération, and La Croix. On June 7, in a public debate organized by Le Monde and the Protestant weekly magazine Réforme, sociologists Jean-Paul Willaime and Danièle Hervieu-Léger questioned whether the privatization of religion in France had gone too far, resulting in the exclusion of all religious symbolism from public space—and both Le Monde and La Croix reported it.

There is no question that, regardless of how the law is actually applied, the future has become more problematic for non-mainstream movements in France. But at the same time a serious and painful effort now seems to be under way to reconsider the country’s unbending commitment to laïcity.

Writing in Le Monde a year ago, Henri Tincq, one of France’s leading journalists and past president of the Paris-based Religious Information Journalists Association, asked, "How can we ensure that all religious communities—numerous and diverse, old and new—get their share in the French public space? How can they be allowed to participate more regularly in social debates without violating the rules of laïcity?"

In the 21st century, these are questions that France, with a population increasingly diverse and a culture increasingly subject to global religious influences, cannot afford to ignore.

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