Staunton, August 27 – Russia’s law on countering “religious extremism,” because it does not define that term with precision, has become the basis for increasing repression against a wide range of activities, many of which have nothing to do with religion at all, according to SOVA Center head Aleksandr Verkhovsky.
In a 6500-word article in “State, Religion and the Center in Russia and Abroad,” the Moscow expert says this law has “formed an amorphous legal field in which no one can be sure what is legal and what is not” and that both groups in society and the state itself have exploited that indefiniteness for their own ends (sova-center.ru/misuse/publications/2013/08/d27775/).
Leaders of one or another religious or social organization routinely use the law against their opponents, but the more serious “misuse” of such legislation is by Russian law enforcement bodies which can use it in conjunction with “their conspiracy theories” to justify attacks on a wide range of civil liberties.
In the 1990s, Verkhovsky points out, Russian laws frequently lacked clear definitions of the terms they employed, but it is striking that discussions about extremism rarely linked religion to that. For example, the first war in Chechnya was rarely viewed by anyone as a religious war, but the second when Vladimir Putin came to power was defined increasingly in that way.
As a result, extremism which had generally been treated in Russian law as being about politics as extend to include a religious dimension as well, even though earlier people had talked about “totalitarian sects” among what Russian researchers have come to call “new religious movements.”
Russian legislation in the early 2000s and subsequently has tended to define religious extremism not conceptually but by a list of various actions rnaging “from attempts at revolution to the drawing of swastikas.” These lists not only are not comprehensive but they have been changed regularly, introducing confusion about what is extremist and what is not.
These Russian lists which serve as the basis for legal action in this area, Verkhovsky says, are “unique within the Council of Europe” and have “not so many analogues elsewhere.” It isn’t that other democracies do not ban books. Rather it is that such lists “cannot be used in countries in which the legal system is taken seriously.”
The very extent of such lists “inevitably provokes decision which to put it mildly are not well thought out.” Some analysts say the problem lies with the experts Russian courts invariably use, but they ignore the fact that law is not supposed to be created by experts but by elected officials and court decisions
But there are other problems in this sector as well, Verkhovsky continues. On the one hand, Russia’s anti-extremism law is about more than religion and consequently there often is a bleeding together of politics and religion in its application. And on the other, routine calls by the country’s leaders for intensifying the struggle with extremism allow various groups to invoke the law in ways it was never intended.
Members of secular groups upset by the rise of religiosity around them and members of religious groups upset by the actions of others routinely talk about violations of the anti-extremism legislation. And the police are only to happy to improve their statistics by bringing charges of extremism in the most problematic of areas.
The case of “political Islam” is the most obvious, the SOVA expert continues. There really are Islamist extremist groups, but there are many others routinely characterized as such that a close examination demonstrates are not And the radicalization of Islam in Russia was promoted from abroad, but no one has figured out how to stop such “’religious imports.’”
In the name of national security, Verkhovsky concludes, many in the Russian government and Russian society are “prepared for any manipulation” of the country’s religious space, an approach that means many engaged in genuinely extremist actions are ignored and many who are not extremist in any real sense are charged with doing so.