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Can we reassert the right to scientific and scholarly criticism of ANY religion?

Reader comment on item: Denying Islam's Role in Terror: Explaining the Denial

Submitted by Martin H. Katchen (United States), Mar 15, 2013 at 20:49

Gaetano Ilardi knew very well to caution his police against mentioning Islam in connection with terrorism in the Australian state of Victoria. The State of Victoria has a law against "religious vilification

"(www.austlii.edu.au/au/legis/vic/consol_act/rarta2001265/, www.police.vic.gov.au/content.asp?Document_ID=23370, www.abc.net.au/.../religionreport/...religious-vilification...victoria/3442496 and he and his officers could be charged under that law by the Crown Prosecutors and lose their jobs if they are accused of saying the wrong things--especially since he is charged with enforcing that law. I know about it because a friend of mine who ran a Christian mission got convicted under that law for charging that the local Ordo Templi Orientis chapter sexually abused children and had to move to the Northern Territory.

While the Victoria law is admittedly extreme, these laws are the result of a concerted lobbying campaign by religious groups that began in the late 1970s. At that time, we had a framework for discussing religious extremism; that of cult brainwashing--remember Jonestown? Admittedly the theory left a lot to be desired but unfortunately, because this theory became identified with upper middle class parents attempting to recover young adult offspring by "deprogramming" temporary guardianships or abductions, it sparked a backlash on the American Religious Right and among American and European academics in the field of sociology of religion and religious studies that marked the beginning of the successful effort to create a taboo against criticism of religious belief and the effect of religious belief on it's adherents.

Sociologists of religion such as James T. Richardson, G. Gordon Melton, Anson Shupe, David Bromley,Yet Richard Anthony, John R. Lewis, Thomas Robbins and Massamino Introvigne actually brought religious groups together that had nothing in common doctrinally such as Church of Scientology, the Unification Church (which turned out to be far better connected in the American Conservative movement than its critics gave it credit for being), Children of God, Church Universal and Triumphant, Hare Krishnas and a number of others (Jehovah's Witnesses apparently joined later) around a common legal defense strategy of attacking it's critics as anti-religion and attacking the idea of brainwashing as wrong and a violation of human rights. The academics drew from historical research observations that most established religious denominations had gone through periods in their beginnings, like the Mormon Church, in which they had been persecuted by the State.

So these so called "cults" were simply new religious movements going through this phase of persecution that would be followed by inevitable (andl legally required under the 1st Amendment) acceptance.

(see www.rci.rutgers.edu/~zablocki/.../ZablockiScientific%20Theory%20of%20Brainwashing.pdf )

See also Brainwashing: Blacklisting of a concept found at Benjamin Zablocki's home page www.rci.rutgers.edu/~zablocki/ .

This was a way to turn sociological theory into aggressive legal strategy and academics into in some cases well paid consultants to the very groups they were studying. These academics organized themselves into an organization called CESNUR Center for Study of New Religious Movements a group tied to Alleanza Catolica.

During the 1990s, this approach yielded dividends for cult groups. After an unsuccessful attempt at deprogramming a member of an evangelical Christian group got linked to the major anti cult group, Cult Awareness Network, was successfully sued under civil RICO, bankrupted and bought out at auction by Church of Scientology in 1995. The more scholarly cult-critical organization American Family Foundation embarked on an ultimately fruitless flirtation with the False Memory Syndrome Foundation during the 1990s which it gave up on after the passing away of it's dean, Margaret Singer and two other board members. American Family Foundation selected Alan Scheflin as it's new President for a l year term, chaned it's name to International Cultic Studies Association where it exixts to this day, trying to claw back credibility for the field of cultic studies.

It has not been easy in the current academic climate. And one of the reasons for this, and perhaps the biggest reason why this climate has persisted in the US is that evangelical Christians have benefited from this taboo against criticism of religious authoritarianism too. The taboo, and the discrediting of the brainwashing-PTSD model of religious recruitment or retention has given space for a number of Christian organizations from Focus on the Family to Exodus Ministries to more extreme groups like Quiverfull-- members of which would rather see Islamists continue to be immune to criticism on the basis of brainwashing than risk themselves coming under criticism. Such is the power of "scratch one, we all bleed".

Yet without a well defined set of criteria for what separates open religious tradition from destructive cultisim we are probably going to lose the argument with the Islamists --or with other absolutists such as militant Hindus, who endorse many of the same things Islamists do such as honor killings. It is very easy to get caught up fighting one enemy and wind up endorsing something worse if that is possible, much as we did allying with Stalin to fight Hitler--without a clearly defined set of principles that separate us from them.

And because we know a lot more about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder now than we did in the early 1980s it will not be difficult to come up with an updated brainwashing definition of destructive cultism that would be a yardstick to separate "moderate Islam from Islamism. And a lot less of Islam would fall on the moderate side than people realize, I suspect. Because the real issue with Islam is not the doctrine but the attraction of the Islamic doctrine for and it's interaction with people with PTSD. Islam, with it's doctrine of retribution, standing up for Allah, jihad (both with self and in physical war) and ultimately vindication holds an appeal for anyone who has grown up bullied and abused. That is it's seduction and that is why in this country, it appeals so much to prisoners. Phyllis Chesler and Nancy Kobrin have done some work in this area and this work needs to be supported and brought to publication.

But to do this we need to start challenging this taboo against talking about religion, brainwashing and abuse in the same breath--even if doing so does discomfit many conservative Christians. Because there is a need for standards that all can live with.


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