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May 9, 2018


Professor Massimo Introvigne is one of the leading scholars of the so called “anti-cult movement” (ACM). In this interview, he answers some questions on how the ACM is changing.

You have written that the original ACM had three main components, in addition to the relatives of the “cult” members: lawyers, psychologist, and deprogrammers. Is this still true today?

Lawyers and psychologists are still there. They can pick up interesting clients. I am not suggesting that this is unethical, only that their activity in the ACM is not completely humanitarian. Deprogramming has been declared a criminal activity almost everywhere. Japanese courts were among the slowest in reaching this conclusion, but now have aligned themselves with the rest of democratic countries. As a consequence, today very few deprogrammers, if any, would call themselves “deprogrammers.” What you still find are “exit counselors” or “victims therapists” but this name covers a variety of practices. Some exit counselors really propose a dialogue between “cultists” and families, without any violence. Others are simply deprogrammers hiding their illegal activities under the mask of a seemingly inoffensive name.

Steve Hassan, who is or was a deprogrammers himself, seems to imply, in an old conference, that deprogramming runs the risk of inducing false memories. What is your opinion on this issue?

As I mentioned, old-style deprogramming is very rare today. It is too dangerous for the deprogrammers. But false memories are a real problem, on which there is a rich literature. A number of therapies may induce false memories. By the way, on this issue some anti-cultists would agree with their critics. They have also warned against certain therapies easily inducing false memories, particularly in the field of sexual abuse.

Some ACMs no longer use the word “brainwashing.” Why?

Brainwashing as a concept has been debunked and rejected by a large majority of scholars of new religious movements, but the ACMs normally do not agree with this criticism. But some have abandoned the word “brainwashing” because in more than one country, including the United States, courts of law have declared that it is not a valid scientific concept. Some in the ACM have simply changed the word, and they would speak of mind control, mental manipulation, or mental slavery. It is just a word game and legal strategy. The concept remains the same.

Is there a business aspect in anti-cultism?

I published myself on the Web site of CESNUR a study by the late professor Andy Shupe that became quite famous, on the business of deprogramming, exposing both the huge sums involved, how certain ACMs referred parents to deprogrammers and received a percentages of their fees, and how some deprogrammers gave drugs to their victims, tortured and even raped them. Shupe’s article is now regarded as a classic and greatly contributed to making deprogramming illegal in most democratic countries. While deprogramming is a criminal activity (this is not my opinion, it is the opinion of a number of courts of law throughout the world), specialized lawyers and therapists may see the ACM as a vehicle for expanding their business, which is certainly not illegal but is part of the picture one should consider when studying the ACM.

In their 28th October 2011 letter to French Prime Minister, two Congressmen describe a penetration of the FECRIS branches into the law system, the welfare system, the police and the media. Is this true?

In France, there is a governmental anti-cult mission called MIVILUDES, which openly cooperates with the ACM. It is an open secret. Only in a handful of countries - France, Russia, and China - this cooperation is institutional. But certainly there are sustained efforts by FECRIS affiliates to accredit themselves with governments everywhere as “experts” on the issue of “cults.” I would say they are advocates rather than experts, and most of their leaders would not qualify as experts in the academic sense of the world.

What about the FBI?

As some recent TV series in the U.S. evidenced, in the tragedy of the Branch Davidians in Waco superficial and inaccurate information supplied by the ACM misled the FBI and mistakes were made resulting in the unnecessary loss of human lives. After Waco, the FBI started a program of regularly consult with academic scholars of new religious movements, who offer a more balanced perspectives. I was involved in this program since the beginning. Of course the FBI makes its own assessments in all specific cases, but certainly the situation has very much evolved with respect to the years of Waco.

Is the ACM propaganda connected with fake news?

There is a growing academic literature on fake news, too. They are not simply false news, they are false news spread continuously and systematically not only through the mainline media (this would be called “disinformation”) but through social media. Fake news are false news believed to be true because they are reported by seemingly independent private citizens in addition to the professional media. The ACM has often disseminated what today would be called fake news. The problem is that today we not only deal with private organizations but also with governments. The Russian and Chinese governments massively disseminate fake news to justify their persecution of certain new religious movements. Obviously, these government have much more powerful resources than the private organizations.

FECRIS seeks official status. Is this important?

FECRIS managed to achieve consultative status at ECOSOC, the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. The United Nations do not “recognize” anybody but ECOSOC consultative status offers certain advantages. It is obtained through bargains between various governments. No doubt certain important governments supported FECRIS. It is however interesting to note that almost at the same time ECOSOC consultative status was also granted to CAP-LC (Coordination des associations et des particuliers pour la liberté de conscience), an NGO that is very active on exposing the wrongdoing and the human rights violations perpetrated by FECRIS branches.

Some argue that Freemasonry is historically connected with the ACM. What is your opinion?

In a period of its history, the ACM in France was dominated by secular humanists, people who did not like religion in general. Some of them were Freemasons, and Freemasonry in France has a tradition of anticlericalism and hostility to religion. However, the main difference in the European ACM now with respect to, say, five or ten years ago is that France is less important. The French ACM receives less money from the government, also because of the pressures of human rights organizations that have criticized the ACM and FECRIS. This may seem, and was, a positive development, but it had an unintended effect. Within FECRIS, the most confortable branch in term of governmental support and financial resources is now the Russian one. This means that the Russian branch can help other branches of FECRIS but this comes with a Russian agenda. The Russian branch is not secular but is connected with a radical faction of the Russian Orthodox Church. We are witnessing a paradox. ACMs that were originally secular and even atheistic dance to the tune of a reactionary fraction of the Russian Orthodox Church (I say a faction because within the Russian Orthodox Church not everybody agrees with them), because this is where the main resources come from.