“Experts” play significant role in labeling religious groups as “extremist” in Russia

The use of academic experts showing little knowledge of or sensitivity for religious peculiarities is a key factor in the classification of a number of religious groups as “extremist organizations” in Russia (such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2017), writes Dmitry Dubrovsky (Center for Independent Social Research, St. Petersburg) in Religion & Gesellschaft in Ost und West (July–August). This approach is rooted in the legacy of the Soviet period, when academic experts were used to confirm that religious dissidents presented a threat to the existing social order. Due to peculiarities of the Russian legal system, expert opinions play a disproportionate role in legal matters, according to Dubrovsky. When it comes to religious groups, not only experts in religious studies have been asked to provide assessments, but also increasingly linguists and psychologists, who mostly show little understanding of the specific nature of religious texts or behavior. Moreover, when it comes to Muslim groups, established imams are sometimes requested to evaluate non-traditional Muslim groups, which makes clear how new religious groups are assessed in comparison to what is understood as normative religion.

Among experts in religious studies themselves, Dubrovsky distinguishes three groups. The first ones—admittedly a “dying species”—are those still following the Soviet model of scientific atheism. The second are those who actually see religions through theological lenses and translate into an academic vocabulary the assumptions of their own religious traditions—and who play an active role in the drafting of expert reports on religious extremism. Finally, there are researchers approaching the issues from an anthropological and sociological angle, and who are inclined to support human rights and religious freedom. Dubrovsky also sees the difficult relations between the last two groups as part of a tension between theology and those religious studies attempting to emancipate themselves as a secular academic field rather than a branch of theology. Two state institutions are especially influential in this field. One is the agency in charge of registration (at national and federal levels), and the other comprises the departments for anti-extremist legislation, which include special departments for fighting against religious extremism. The impression conveyed by Dubrovsky’s analysis is one of heavily textual analyses of religious groups’ documents, frequently without contextualization or knowledge of the life and practices of the groups, leading to severe assessments about extremism or exclusivism. Finally, as Dubrovsky remarks, expertise in religious studies becomes replaced by expertise on extremism.

(Religion & Gesellschaft in Ost und West, Institut G2W, Birmensdorferstrasse 52, P.O. Box 9329, 8036 Zurich, Switzerland – https://www.g2w.eu/)