February 8th 2021 | Redaction of Rebelle(s) | BitterWinter

Massimo Introvigne is a sociologist of religions. An attorney and former professor, he has written more than seventy books on new religious movements, “cults,” Islam and radicalization, the Catholic Church, and Satanism, and has held several official positions related to the defense of freedom of conscience and religion, both with the Italian government and with international institutions. In October 2020, he co-authored with other academics a White Paper on the draft law on separatism (as it was then called) entitled “‘Separatism,’ Religion, and ‘Cults’: Religious Liberty Issues.” More recently, with the co-founder of Human Rights Without Frontiers. Willy Fautré, and law professor Frédéric-Jérôme Pansier, he co-authored another White Paper “Laïcité, How to Preserve It,” which included an in-depth study of the French notion of laïcité, and suggestions for improving the draft law, now renamed “Law to Strengthen the Respect of Republican Principles.”

You co-authored two White Papers on the proposed Law to Strengthen the Respect of Republican Principles. What motivated you to work on the subject?

I am above all a scholar of new religious movements, and I have followed the French controversies on les sectes for the past 25 years, including by establishing a dialogue with the MIVILUDES, the governmental mission against “cultic deviance,” when I was, in 2011, the Representative of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) for combating racism, xenophobia, and religious discrimination. I have also been interested in terrorism and radicalization in Islamic milieus, a subject on which I have published several books, and I was also appointed a member of the “Commission for an Italian Islam” by the Italian Ministry of the Interior. These are therefore issues of great interest to me, and once again what is being done in France is being observed with attention on an international scale.

In the White Paper “Laïcité, how to preserve it,” you argued that the 1905 French law on religious associations can be modernized to better correspond to today’s reality. Can you tell us how it can be changed, and what do you think would motivate this change?

I have shared some concerns with several French and European colleagues about the bill, and its possible dangers to religious freedom. But this does not mean that I am in principle hostile to the idea of a revision of the French system of religious associations. First of all, having worked myself on the idea of an “Italian Islam” with our authorities in Italy (in a commission where half of the members were Muslims, by the way), I am sensitive to the fight against extremist trends within French Islam—trends that also exist in other European countries—provided, of course, that we do not demonize Islam as a whole.

Moreover, I have studied French laïcité for decades. It is a fascinating subject. It would not be part of the national ethos in the United States or in Italy, but in France it is a tradition that has been established and accepted as a rule of the game by the main players, including the major churches. I am not proposing to abandon this model, nor the system of the 1905 law. What I am proposing is to modernize it. Everyone knows that these models were based on a notion of religion that had the Judeo-Christian religions as its reference. The situation of religious pluralism in 2021 is not that of 1905. The very notion of religion has evolved.

Changing their laws on religion is not something that democratic states do every year. It is a delicate exercise, but also a great opportunity. If you really want Muslim associations and others to use the 1905 law rather than the law of 1901, you have to make the former attractive. For example, there is a need to limit the power of prefects when they decide which groups can join the system of the 1905 law, and benefit from its advantages. The authorities should avoid value judgments on beliefs and on how different groups express themselves through “rituals” or “rites” (a notion that has also evolved in scholarly discourse since 1905), and in general, adopt non-restrictive and non-discriminatory criteria, thus respecting religious diversity, and listen to the way in which religions define themselves and manage their own peculiarities.

Before the details of the bill were known, and before it was submitted to the State Council, you had co-authored a cautionary White Paper. What were the risks that you and your co-authors had identified, and do you think that the State Council, in its opinion of December 7, responded correctly to them?

Yes, on several specific points, our concerns were the same as those that emerged from the opinion of the State Council. We asked for a wider range of cases in which homeschooling will remain possible. The literature on this phenomenon shows that in most cases, parents who prefer homeschooling are by no means “extremist,” and that Muslim parents who could be called “radicalized” represent a tiny percentage of them.

We were also critical of a security and police-oriented approach to religion in general. Above all, we were absolutely opposed to the introduction of the possibility of a rapid administrative dissolution of religious associations which, without having incited to hatred or violence, would have been accused of acts contrary to “human dignity” or of exerting “psychological pressure” on their members. Of course, we all deeply care about human dignity. But, as German sociologist Hans Joas has pointed out in his seminal works on this subject, notions such as “human dignity” or “human rights” are today subjected to several conflicting interpretations.

In the United States, Secretary of State Pompeo even appointed a commission of scholars to clarify for the benefit of the U.S. government what the concept of “human rights” means today, an initiative that was criticized, but confirmed that the notion is far from consensual. Is the right to abortion, or the right to same-sex marriage, part of human rights? If the answer is yes, does a Catholic hospital that refuses abortion, or churches that only celebrate marriages between a man and a woman, deny the human dignity of women and homosexuals? If the answer is still yes, what about their religious freedom? By denying them the priesthood, does the Catholic Church violate the human dignity of women?

Our idea was not to provide answers to these difficult questions but to show that allowing the administrative dissolution of religious associations on the basis of the vaguely defined notion of human dignity was dangerous. The same problem applies to “psychological pressures,” a notion that hides the theory that certain religious movements practice “brainwashing,” a theory rejected as pseudo-scientific by the vast majority of those who study contemporary religions—and which the minority who accept it finds exceedingly difficult to define. Here again, the administrative authority would have been given the possibility of dissolving religious associations on the basis of a vague and controversial notion.

Do you believe there are still dangers in the law, after the government amended it following the comments by the State Council?

Fortunately, after the intervention of the State Council, the government removed the most criticized provisions. But it is still possible that these provisions that went out through the door will come back through the window in Parliament, in the form of amendments.

Moreover, what is dangerous is that in public discourse, in such a delicate matter as religion, one sometimes has the impression that there are politicians speaking carelessly, and ignoring the risk of offending entire religious communities. Recently Minister Delegate Marlène Schiappa accused “Evangelicals from the United States” of asking women for virginity certificates before marriage. This is a well-known phenomenon in some Islamic circles, but completely unknown among Evangelical Protestants. There are no certificates of virginity among Evangelicals, and it would be good if representatives of the government who speak out on the subject of religions would be better informed, if not better trained. For our part, we are doing our best to help them in this task.