NOVEMBER 28, 2016
This is Part 3 of a three-part series.
Russian authorities are attempting to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses, as well as their New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, labeling them “extremist.” The Witnesses and their literature have been subjected to court-appointed analysis by the Center for Sociocultural Expert Studies in Moscow.
While waiting for both cases to resume, exclusive interviews were conducted with several noted scholars of religion, politics, and sociology, as well as experts in Soviet and post-Soviet studies.
How would you describe Russia’s process of acquiring expert analysis to determine if something or someone is “extremist”?
“In my opinion, the observations made by the Center for Sociocultural Expert Studies in Moscow are motivated by political and not scholarly reasons.”—Dr. Gerhard Besier, professor emeritus, European studies, Technische Universität Dresden; lecturer, Stanford University; director, Sigmund Neumann Institute for the Research on Freedom and Democracy, Germany
“I do not know the names of the so-called experts who have been called upon by the State to express opinions on the Witnesses’ organization, but other genuine scholars of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia have ridiculed these ‘experts.’ I have personally never heard of the Center for Sociocultural Expert Studies, and the fact that Internet search engines can find no information on it speaks for itself. I am a regular attendee and presenter at academic conferences where new religions, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, are discussed. It is customary for attendees to indicate their institution or designation, and these so-called experts are never represented. One’s credentials as an expert are determined by academic qualifications in the relevant field, publication in peer-reviewed journals, and a willingness to subject one’s ideas to discussion in the appropriate arenas, such as academic conferences. Since the so-called experts whose opinion has been sought in Russia identify innocuous books such as My Book of Bible Stories and The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived as examples of subversive literature, this must call their expertise, as well as their motivation, into question.”—Dr. George D. Chryssides, former head of religious studies, University of Wolverhampton; honorary research fellow in contemporary religion at York St. John University and University of Birmingham, United Kingdom
“In defiance of all good sense, Russia’s law-enforcement system generates completely ridiculous expert studies (and, it appears, they encourage loyal supporters to open expert centers). Regarding the Center for Sociocultural Expert Studies commissioned to analyze the Witnesses’ Bible, not one of the experts has a degree in religious studies and they are not even familiar with the writings of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their analysis included quotes that were taken from information provided by the Irenaeus of Lyon Centre, a radical Orthodox anti-cult organization known for opposing Jehovah’s Witnesses, as well as many other religions and denominations.”—Dr. Roman Lunkin, head of the Center for Religion and Society Studies at the Institute of Europe, Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow; president of the Union of Experts on Religion and Law, Russia
“Religious scholars are very rarely involved—even in the cases clearly related to religion. There is a tradition, institutionalized in some documents, that linguistics or sociopsychology are the main sciences needed for conducting expert analysis, which is surely not true.”—Mr. Alexander Verkhovsky, director, SOVA Center for Information and Analysis (a Moscow-based Russian nonprofit organization conducting research work regarding nationalism, xenophobia, relations between the churches and secular society, and political radicalism), Russia
“State-approved ‘expert’ witnesses on religious questions, including those who disapproved Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Scriptures, typically lack expertise and credibility, as they issue ill-founded opinions on matters of faith.”—Dr. Mark R. Elliott, founding editor, East-West Church and Ministry Report, Asbury University, Kentucky, United States
“Russia’s court decisions often rely on assessments of texts or other materials by so-called experts who are paid by the state.”—Ms. Catherine Cosman, senior policy analyst (Europe and the countries of the former Soviet Union), United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), United States
“Russia has long relied on so-called expert studies for the purpose of categorizing and prosecuting certain religious groups. For example, in February 2009, the Russian Ministry of Justice established an Expert Religious Studies Council. This body had power to investigate religious organizations and reach conclusions regarding, among other things, whether the organization espoused extremist views. At the time, it was chaired by Aleksandr Dvorkin, an individual who lacked appropriate academic credentials as a religion specialist and was already known as ‘Russia’s most prominent “anti-cult” activist.’ Often, individuals appointed to such councils, or even those tapped as prosecution experts in judicial proceedings, lack necessary and even basic qualifications. These ‘expert’ bodies function simply to validate the government’s prosecution, although there has been some recent indication of certain expert bodies occasionally finding against the government’s interest. Findings from these and similar bodies should be considered with care.”—Professor Robert C. Blitt, professor of law, University of Tennessee; former international law specialist, United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), United States
“The drawn-out legal battle in the Moscow courts over citywide registration—as a Legal Religious Organization—included so-called studies of experts who concluded that Witnesses violated state law, harmed families and health, and preached animosity toward other faiths. In general, one can always find an ‘expert’ willing to vouch for the alleged dangers of the Witnesses, even if such conclusions contradict any reasonable interpretation of the available evidence.”—Dr. Emily B. Baran, assistant professor of Russian and Eastern European history, Middle Tennessee State University, United States
“For 25 years, there have been different legal, political, and intellectual conditions in Russia and Ukraine. I am told, though, that impartial theological expertise has virtually ceased to exist in Russia. The experts—as a rule, scholars—do not have the same status and are not protected by any special legislation. It is biased people who are denomination-oriented, usually toward the Orthodox religion, who are drawn to expert examination. Being Orthodox, they cannot analyze any other way of worship in a neutral and unbiased manner. Perceiving any other religion as not true, they, in their ‘righteous indignation for the purity of their faith,’ emotionally and aggressively brand all others as extremists.”—Dr. Liudmyla Fylypovych, professor, head, History of Religions and Practical Religious Studies Department, Philosophy Institute of the National Academy of Sciences; vice president, Ukrainian Association of Researchers of Religion, Ukraine
“In Russia today religious expert studies are often performed by people who are not specialists, and are ‘made-to-order’ so to speak, where an expert is not free to state his true findings. I participated in two trials in Taganrog and was present as a specialist-expert in the appellate court in Rostov-on-Don. I saw with my own eyes the video material on the basis of which Jehovah’s Witnesses were charged with extremism. Twice I gave a detailed commentary in court explaining that this was a typical Christian religious service and had nothing to do with extremism, but the court did not take the expert opinion into consideration. It is impossible not to see this as a clear and systematic trend toward religious discrimination. As long as this trend continues, there are of course no guarantees that believers will cease to be classified as ‘extremists’ because of their beliefs.”—Dr. Ekaterina Elbakyan, professor of sociology and management of social processes, Moscow Academy of Labor and Social Relations; member of European Association for the Study of Religion; chief editor of Russian edition of Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, Study of Religion, and Encyclopedia of Religions, Russia
“I have not participated in cases in which someone or something was declared ‘extremist.’ However, I have done some work on cases where similar processes were used, for example, to identify an act as motivated by religious hatred or to identify an act as intended to incite racial hatred or hostility. In these circumstances, the experts are chosen because they espouse views that agree with the state-sponsored opinion. Science and evidence are not considered persuasive or taken into account when locating experts. If the expert has conducted ‘studies’ or engaged in research, his or her conclusions are often contrary to evidence-based research and studies and may be fabricated entirely out of opinion.”—Ms. Melissa Hooper, lawyer, director, International Law Scholarship Project/Pillar Project, Human Rights First; formerly regional director for American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative in Moscow, United States