Paramilitary Raids and the Social Control of “Deviant” Religious Movements


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By Justin Van Ness

Over the past 30 years, police forces have become militarized both culturally and materially (see Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop). While much attention has been given to the roots in the “war on drugs” and the “war on terror,” there is less research on the implications of police militarization for social movements, particularly religious movements. In Storming Zion, Stuart Wright and Susan Palmer provide a thorough study of the ways in which religious minorities are subjected to paramilitary raids, often solely on the basis of accusations from apostates and counter-movement organizations. By focusing on the often excessive use of force on religious minorities, this book fills an important yet understudied gap in the literature and is a particularly good resource for anyone interested in religious movements, counter-movements, social control and repression, and trans-national movements.

Wright and Palmer combine their extensive history researching minority religions to compile a novel dataset which records 116 state raids across 17 different countries. They choose to emphasize raids because they are an extreme and high-risk form of law enforcement which, in theory, would be used only in situations where targets pose an imminent danger or when the element of surprise is vital to success. However, despite the expectation that such heavy-handed forms of social control are used as a last-resort option, their research finds frequent use of such tactics on religious minorities. Through their analyses they report three major findings: (1) the surprising number raids on religious minorities; (2) a sharp rise in raids which began in the 1990s; and (3) an uneven distribution of cases across nations. In total, they recorded 116 raids of which 77% of the cases came after 1990. In the 1990s, there were 54 cases and the 2000s recorded 35 cases. Nearly half of the 116 raids were in France (N=57), followed by the United States (N=14), Australia (N=9), and Canada (N=8). Prior to the 1990s, there were only an average 6.5 raids per decade.

To explain the dramatic rise in government raids on religious minorities, Wright and Palmer draw on McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly’s contention politics model to explain the counter-mobilization of the “anti-cult movement” (ACM). Over the past forty years, the movement has built an oppositional coalition between apostates, secular anti-cult organizations, academics, media, majority religions (e.g., Catholic Church), and state agents. Crises, such as highly publicized mass religious suicides, created political opportunities which the counter-movement capitalized upon in a way which secured new resources and access to elites. As the state became more responsive to counter-movement framing, police agencies were also increasingly taking on a “war mentality” which socialized officers to think of themselves as soldiers. As Wright and Palmer illustrate, state agents would deploy often with little to no evidence at all and with a disproportionate use of force. In a cruel irony, these case studies show how militarized raids often created more damage to the lives of the children and groups they sought to save than the perceived sense of harm entailed in the accusations.

The ACM began in the 1970s as a reaction to the success of emerging new religious movements. ACM leaders drew on post-Korean War research on “brainwashing” or “thought reform” and believed that American youth were being convinced to join unconventional religious groups because cult leaders had supposedly learned to apply the techniques of thought reform without the use of torture or physical coercion. They believed such manipulation is achieved through “trace induction techniques” such as chanting, meditation, and prayer and through heightened group pressures such as “love bombing,” dieting, confession, and social isolation. In 1972, the first ACM organization introduced the practice of “deprogramming” which consisted of forced abduction and detention of members in new religions in order to execute “involuntary deconversion”. In 1974, a national meeting was organized to align methods, goals, and tactics between anti-cult organizations. Between 1974 and 1976, the growing grassroots organizations began to coalesce into a more centralized structure. By 1978, one of the most effective organizations obtained tax-exempt status and began operating as a think tank which integrated academics and began publishing periodicals, newsletters, and journals in an effort to legitimize the brainwashing model. By the early 1980s, the movement manufactured legitimacy for ACM theories and expanded access to resources. During the 1980s, there was a surging national movement as the two major organizations collaborated on projects, sought common targets, shared information, and mobilized with a united front. Shortly after, the ACM began the “white hot mobilization phase” which began in the 1980s and continued through the millennium; in this stage, North American ACM leaders began “missionizing efforts” and expanded into Europe to export the ACM ideology and tactics.

The counter-movement was particularly successful in France where activists cast les sects as threats to society while successfully building coalitions with Catholic priests and state agents. Between 1994 and 1997, there were three mass religious suicides which functioned as a moral shock that compelled the French government to take action. Political elites responded to this perceived crisis by coalescing with the ACM to fight religious sects and even incorporated ACM organizations into the structure of government. Training programs were established for police, prosecutors, judges, and teachers to combat the sects. In the early 2000s, the French government introduced a new criminal category, “abuse of weakness” (abus da faiblesse) which penalized the actions of charismatic leaders towards vulnerable followers. This legislation also integrated the concept of brainwashing (manipulation mentale) which was vaguely defined but could be used by prosecutors to target sects.

In the United States, the brainwashing model and “forced deconversion” tactics faced legal challenges during the 1980s. In 1983, ACM leaders began formulating a change in tactics away from accusations of brainwashing and towards claims of child abuse and neglect. This new project, which was referred to as the “Kelly Plan”, involved collaborations with government agencies, the active recruitment of disgruntled apostates to gather damaging information, fomenting exaggerated media accounts, and manipulating public opinion to leverage pressure on authorities. The Kelly Plan’s shift towards child abuse was successful because of the “Child Abuse Revolution” of the late 1980s and the moral panic which it incited. At the same time, new religions became especially vulnerable to claims of child abuse because many organizations were expanding with a second generation and most in the public sphere operated with little information other than a loosely construed schema of a deviant group. Thus, the increase in state repression on religious minorities can be attributed to the mixture of a shift in counter-movement framing which resonated with a broader moral panic surrounding child abuse, highly responsive and even openly hostile state agents, the strategic building of coalitions, and journalists amplifying ACM activist claims.

Wright and Palmer argue the use of paramilitary raids on religious communities becomes particularly concerning when one looks at the unequal treatment between religions. They argue that in many instances, it appears that religious minorities are targeted simply because they are new or nontraditional. For instance, both religious minorities and the Catholic Church may make intensive commitment demands and have regimented structures, but only the minorities are accused of “brainwashing”. Religious minorities are raided when an apostate airs an accusation of a case of child abuse, while the Catholic Church gets a pass even through there are over 17,000 documented complaints of sexual abuse filed against more than 4,000 priests. Other causes of concern stem from the harm which the raids create. For example, state agents raided the Branch Davidian because of accusations of child abuse. Despite knowing there were children on the premise, control agents opened gunfire on the community and fired gas canisters which set ablaze buildings, resulting in the death of 76 people, 21 which were children. Many other cases are described in this book that left children traumatized from raids which were supposed to be raids to secure their safety. Finally, the use of paramilitary raids can have debilitating effects on the communities because of the sensational news coverage, costly legal fees, and hostile climate which makes existing without public abuse difficult.

I found this book to be a useful resource in multiple ways. Storming Zion clearly describes the consequences of being on the receiving end of a skillful counter-movement which has access to resources, legitimacy, and elites. It is also revealing in regards to groups which are stigmatized as a deviant as the book describes how both control agents and journalists skew their judgments of religious minorities when they draw on low information deviance schemas. As a teaching resource, this book would do well for a variety of courses related to social control/deviance, social movements, and religion. Because Storming Zion’s universe of cases included North America, South America, Australia, Israel, and Western Europe, I found myself thinking about how these cases could make for comparisons with Asian and Eastern European case studies. One book which comes to mind is Paul Froese’s The Plot to Kill God on social control and religion in the Soviet Union. Together, these two books would couple well for reading on social control and religious movements. In regards to research, Wright and Palmer draw on McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly’s contentious politics model which left me wondering how this case would be explained through alternative theoretical frameworks, such my own previous research on institutional entrepreneurs and cultural change.

All said, I highly suggest adding this book to your summer reading.

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