Several workshops at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Toronto, held Nov. 23-26, dealt with the changing relationship between scholars and law-enforcement.officials on new religious movements after Sept. 11.
Only a decade ago, the threat level from new religious movements (NRMs) was perceived as so low that actions committed in the 1980s by followers of Rajneesh in Oregon were dealt with just as criminal cases, according to Jeff Kaplan (University of Wisconsin). Waco changed that situation. Similarly, in Europe, security agencies became interested in NRMs after the case of Aum Shinrikyo in Japan (1995). The coming of year 2000 and alleged millenial threats associated with it contributed to a new relationship between law-enforcement officials and scholars. [See September RW for more on this topic].
Now 9/11 marks a new turning point. Other topics have now replaced NRMs and millenial groups. Massimo Introvigne (Center for Studies on New Religions) confirmed that trend in Italy: security agencies there are no longer asking questions about NRMs, but about radical Muslim groups. Michael Barkun (Syracuse University) reported that regular private meetings have taken place between scholars working on NRMs or millenialism and the FBI at the AAR since 1999; in 2001, the meetings included scholars of Islam for the first time.
Barkun listed some problems with this shift, beginning with the lack of an historical relationship between religious studies and law-enforcement. There are no guidelines established regarding confidentiality and ethical issues. The fact that the FBI now has the prevention of terrorism as a priority task also has consequences: it is difficult for scholars to predict violence. The shift from the investigation of prosecutable crimes to prevention of attacks changes the balance between preservation of freedom and security interests, posing new questions for scholars, said Barkun.
The sessions also offered opportunities to reflect about past efforts at risk-assessment. Eugene Gallagher (Connecticut College) stated there had been an overemphasis on dates, well illustrated by the reactions to the year 2000, while the millenial calendar of groups is unlikely to coincide with the secular calendar. By narrowing the focus on the year 2000, law-enforcement reports produced in the USA as well as in several other countries had a restrictive perspective, possbily leading to the conclusion that millenial violence now belongs to the past.
— By Jean-François Mayer, RW contributing editor who heads the Website, Religioscope at http://www.religioscope.com