ROAR: New panel will expose extremism in religious materials

Vladimir Kremlev for RT
The council of experts created by the Justice Ministry is expected to get mixed reactions from religious and human rights groups.

The draft of the order on the creation of a council to study religious materials for the purpose of exposing signs of extremism was published on the website of the Justice Ministry on July 17, Gazeta daily wrote. The paper added that the minister Aleksandr Konovalov has not signed it yet.

Scholars, representatives of religious organizations and experts in different fields will work in the council. The subject matter to be studied is religious literature, audio and video materials published and distributed by religious organizations, as well as materials used during religious services and rituals, the media reported.

The main task of the council will be to “attract public attention to exposing and preventing the distribution of information materials which incite religious discord or debase people,” Gazeta.ru website wrote.

The council should also propose measures to “remove reasons and conditions that further the distribution of such materials,” the website added. According to this, the grounds for the beginning of expert work may have been a letter from the Justice Ministry, Prosecutor General’s Office or the Interior Ministry.

However, the council of experts has been created just to give “recommendations,” the ministry said. Vedomosti daily noted in this regard that courts will not necessarily ask this council to study any particular material they consider.

The ministry also stressed that the work of this organ will be based on the principle of freedom of conscience and religious activities.

Ravil Gainutdin, chairman of the Council of Muftis of Russia has already put forward the idea of creating a special federal body to evaluate religious materials. During a meeting of the State Council in Tula on March 11, he reminded the Russian president about the scandal over the inclusion of 17 Islamic books in the federal list of extremist literature, Gazeta.ru reported.

Gainutdin then explained that a stop should be put to the practice of banning books on the grounds of decisions of regional courts, anonymous sources in the Council of Muftis of Russia told Gazeta.ru. “At the time it was very unpleasant for us, because the books were recognized extremist on the grounds of ignorance,” they added.

The same sources said they hoped that “real professionals” will take part in the work of the new council. Analysts and media also say that the effectiveness of the council will depend on the experts who join it. The list of experts has not been concluded yet, Gazeta.ru said.

Roman Lunkin, head of the human rights organization Slavyansky Rights Center told Gazeta.ru that the list of experts will show the direction in which the council will work.

Lunkin said that he and his colleagues have been gathering signatures against experts of another council in the same ministry, one that determines if a religious organization is a sect or not.

His group says that particular council should not be headed by Aleksandr Dvorkin, a researcher who “invented the term ‘totalitarian sects’ in 1993,” Gazeta.ru wrote. “He considered at different times Russian Protestants and Krishna followers as totalitarian sects,” the website added.

Aleksey Mukhin, general director of the Center for Political Information, says that “the fact that the council will be headed by a specific person that has seen mixed reactions to his activities means the ministry takes the efforts in the field of expertise very seriously.”

“Dvorkin is known as a hyperactive person,”
he added.

The creation of the new council reflects Justice Minister Aleksandr Konovalov’s increasing influence and his attempt to boost the image of the Justice Ministry, Mukhin told RT.

He believes experts on the new panel will work as public councils that already exist under several ministries and departments of the government. The new council will “realize certain political ambitions of the minister,” Mukhin said.

“In this connection, one could expect that the decisions of this expert council will be contested both from the scientific point of view and judicial point of view,” Mukhin said. “Representatives of many alternative faiths have said that they would not recognize the decisions of this council and will contest them in court,” he added.

Mukhin believes that the activities of the new council will be widely discussed in society. He also does not rule out that there will be sensational cases. “However, the authors of the idea might have wanted the council to be a structure that prompts discussions,” Mukhin said.

“They are likely to succeed in this and the work of the council will draw the attention of many people, including representatives of alternative faiths,” he added. “However, this attention could be closer than the ministry is expecting,” Mukhin said. “And that is the other of the coin.”

Observers fear that the new council may give preference to some faiths. “This concerns, first of all, NGOs and religious structures that have to go through the process of registration in the Justice Ministry,” Mukhin said. “The opinions of experts that the minister will receive might be too selective,” he said. And this might evoke doubts in the impartiality of these opinions, he added.

Galina Kozhevnikova, deputy director of the Sova human rights center, believes the new council under the Justice Ministry is “another example of the state’s interference in religious affairs,” Gazeta wrote.

The law about extremist activities is imperfect, Kozhevtikova told the daily. “If one is to proceed from the norms of this law, then the work of this council will boil down to the persecution of believers,” she said.

“Non-traditional faiths will be jeopardized,” Kozhevnikova added. She said she did not understand why the Justice Ministry needed this council. However, she noted that more than 400 religious publications have been recognized as extremist in Russia, and 30 more might be included in this list soon.

Maksim Shevchenko, a member of the Russian Public Chamber and head of the Center of Strategic Studies of Religion and Politics of the Modern World, told Gazeta.ru that the ministry does not need “a big number of councils.”

Shevchenko believes that one should not restrict people in their choice of books. “We need a public discussion with both nationalist and radical Islamic literature,” he said.

However, Vedomosti daily noted that the draft order on the creation of the council of experts is so far itself a subject for discussion.

Sergey Borisov – RT