The French Parliamentary Commission on the Influence of Cults and the Consequence of their Activities on the Physical and Mental Health of Minors has published its report (see full text in French in PDF) on December 19, 2006. The list of witnesses heard by the Commission and the fact that what they said has been published as well is a welcome departure from the practice of the original 1996 French Report on Cults, where even the names of the witnesses were kept secret. The list of witnesses is uneven (the controversial psychiatrist Jean-Marie Abgrall has been excluded, although other radical anti-cultists have testified), and once again academic scholars, particularly sociologists, have not been heard. On the other hand, the groups accused of being “cults” and a number of other entities have had their chance to be heard, at least through a questionnaire. Although the absence of academics confirms that there is a problem perhaps both on the side of the governments and of the academics themselves which is peculiar to France (other commissions on “cults”, including in Germany, have heard a number of sociologists), the methodology appears to be more transparent than in the past.
There is a controversy about the number of children involved in “cults” (a word CESNUR and most academics prefer not to use, adopting rather the value-free “new religious movements”), but it all depends on how you define “cults”. Certainly Jehovah’s Witnesses are included in the Report, and that shows another difference between France and other countries (in Italy, the then Prime Minister, now Minister of Foreign Affairs, Massimo D’Alema signed a concordat with the Witnesses in 2000, which would make them one of the elite group of denominations supported by taxpayers, although the Parliament has not yet ratified the corresponding treaty). Many comments of the new French Report, particularly about “wild” therapeutic groups which operate out of the normal controls of “official” psychotherapy, make sense. And certainly the Report is right that no mistreatment of children should be tolerated under the pretext of religious liberty. Others seem to be heavily influenced by the anti-cult organizations.
In this report, however, the problem goes beyond the definition of “cult” and concerns education in general. Although their case is discussed quite shortly, and their reply is also mentioned, the inclusion of one branch of the Plymouth Brethren (the so called “Brethren IV” or Raven-Taylor Brethren) has raised eyebrows among Italian Evangelicals. In fact, they note that although the Brethren IV are more exclusivist than other groups (and indeed other Exclusive Brethren), what the report seems to call into question (the refusal of television, radio, non-Brethren Web sites, and other forms of entertainment but not sport , home schooling and the “teaching of doctrines contrary to official science, e.g. contrary to evolutionism”) is common to dozen of Evangelical Fundamentalist groups throughout Europe. Perhaps it is only because there is an active association of ex-members and “victims” of them in France (called AVIFE) that Brethren IV have been targeted while many similar groups have escaped.
Here, precisely, lies the problem. We do agree that the State has the right to impose a minimal level of schooling and proficiency in the major fields of education (including history and science), and to control that such minimum level is achieved by all private schools. However, should this control extend to the values taught? The question of teaching creationism rather than evolutionism is of course a controversial one throughout the world, including in the United States. In Europe, however, forbidding teaching of anti-evolutionism would involve a real problem with a number of fundamentalist Muslim establishments, which have a larger enrolment than any private or correspondence school operated by “cults”, are strongly backed by Arab countries (in Italy a very controversial Muslim school has now found recognition as a foreign school certified by Egypt, and another is operated directly by the Saudi government), and certainly teach (inter alia) anti-evolutionism.
Another implication of the report is that schools should create good citizens loyal to the values of the French Constitution. This may seem obvious as a general principle, but there are a number of problems in practice. For example, while both the French and the Italian Constitution do not declare marriage as indissoluble, a Catholic school loyal to the Vatican would teach that the only “real” marriage is indissoluble and that a second marriage by a divorcee is a sin. Should the Constitutions be amended to make room for gay marriage, most Muslims, Catholics, Orthodox Jews and Evangelical Protestants all of whom operate private schools in many European countries will surely teach that this Constitutional provision is an abomination. Should the State revoke their licenses to such private schools?
Nobody seems to have a clear-cut solution for such problems. Speaking from personal experience (I was asked to moderate and introduce the open session of the Milan City Council commission on that issue), even when a private Muslim school (such as the one operating in Via Quaranta in Milan) has teachers glorifying Hamas and the Hezbollah in the classroom, not everybody agrees that it should not be authorized to operate (the matter was settled with the majority of students transferred to a new school, which has agreed to be more sedate on politics although not on other matters such as creationism or the veil). I personally believe that the apology of terrorism and violence should not be condoned, but this case showed that, at least occasionally, one person’s terrorist is the next person’s freedom fighter. A country where religion has a strong public influence like Italy has never really discussed the right of private Catholic, Evangelical and Orthodox Jewish schools to teach values which may contradict the laws of the land and “official science” on issues such as abortion, homosexuality, and yes even creationism, although after 9/11 Muslim schools have created much more controversy. France, with its politics of “active secularism”, clearly has a very different tradition. But the jury is still out on where the limit is. Hailing Osama bin Laden or Adolf Hitler in the classroom is probably forbidden everywhere, and rightly so, while hailing or deprecating figures such as Mao Tse-tung or Robespierre is probably allowed. Criticizing the Big Bang theory is allowed, but teaching that the Earth is flat probably is not. But Hamas and creationism are somewhere in the middle, and if parents send their children to a private, religious school of a particular brand, they probably know what to expect. If the discussion on the French Report may be moved from the business as usual of anti-cultists vs. “cult apologists” (of which everybody seems to be a bit tired) towards a larger conversation about the limits of religious liberty, of freedom of education, and of the French laïcité itself, the debate may suddenly become much more interesting and academics will perhaps, at last, be included.