By now you must have heard it – Putin is “persecuting the Jehovah’s Witnesses” in Russia. Alas, this one is true. Well, this is maybe not nearly as terrible as the Ziomedia makes it sound, but still, a pretty bad and fundamentally misguided policy.
Why did the Russian government take such a drastic decision?
The Russian Justice Department has banned the JW as an organization on the grounds that the JW were a “”totalitarian sect of an anti-Christian orientation, the teachings of which contains teachings and practices which can damage the personality and health of the adept, his family, as well as traditional national spirituality and public interests” (source). Another source report that: “The Supreme Court of Russia stated that the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ church organization has systematically and through central governance infringed on human rights and trampled the freedoms of those belonging to the denomination. The sect forbids restricts families, bans many types of education and restricts medical treatments”. The same author then concludes that “So, in principle it is about protecting the rights and freedoms of Russians and on the other hand about breaking the laws governing churches’ activities. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have been given warnings and notices demanding that they reform, but without results. Therefore, do as the Romans do, or get out of Rome.”
Does that make sense to you?
To me it makes no sense whatsoever.
First and foremost, if the JW are really guilty of damaging personalities or health of people, or if they systematically infringe on human rights – then take them to court for these crimes and punish them. Why should one association/organization like the JW be singled out for committing crimes when every one of these crimes can be prosecuted in court? If the JW break the law, they ought to be punished according to the law, but why banning them? Why seize their assets?
I have heard the argument that the JW are probably run by the US CIA and the rest of them “democracy-bearers”. They probably are. So what? Then force them to register as the “agent of a foreign power” and, again, if they break the law then punish them according to the law.
Then comes the killer argument: JH do not accept blood transfusions. I don’t see what the problem is here either: let adults accept or reject whatever medical procedure they want, as for the children you can easily pass a law saying that in case of severe trauma, or of an acute need for a transfusion children can be transfused without the agreement of the parents. Does that violate parental right or the freedom of religion? Well, yes, of course it does, but each society has the right to impose minimal norms of civil and human rights which trump parental or religious rights. After all, by the logic of those who say that parental rights are above all female genital mutilations should also be accepted as long as the parents agree. And yet in reality, each society draws the line somewhere, and this is why in almost all countries circumcisions are allowed but female genital mutilations are banned. Ditto for polygamy which some religions allow but which most countries ban. At the end of the day, religious groups also need to obey the law of the land where they exist and there can be no absolute and unconditional religious freedom anywhere. All the Russian government had to do in this case was to contact the main JW organizations and tell them that their kids will be given transfusions even if their parents disagree. This would give each member of the JW the time and opportunity to decide what they will do in this context.
The most important argument is, I believe, the allegation that the JW “ damage (…) the traditional national spirituality and public interests. What this argument affirms that Russia has a “traditional national spirituality” and that that which runs contrary to it must be curtailed, limited or somehow inhibited. I actually largely agree with this argument, but the devil is in the details. Let me explain.
At this moment in history Russia is primarily an agnostic country. While a majority of Russians do claim some kind of religious affiliation, only a small minority is truly religious. Officially, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism are considered as the “historical” religions of Russia and Orthodox Christianity is singled out for the special contribution it had in Russian history. Seems pretty straightforward and reasonable to me: even if most Russians are not very religious, their worldview and values have been largely formed by the influence of the traditional religions of Russia. Russian literature, for example, is filled with ethical debates which clearly originate in the Orthodox faith. Another example of this religion-inspired worldview is the rejection by a vast majority of Russians of homosexuality as a “normal and healthy variation of human sexuality”: most Russians consider homosexuality to be a sexual pathology which ought not to be legally restricted, but which should not be given a “equal” status to what Russians call “natural” sexual orientations. One does not have to agree with the Russian majority view on this, or any other issue, but I submit that the Russians have the right to define what is right and wrong, healthy or sick, in their own country. Just as western nations currently have laws banning sexual intercourse with children, Russia has the right to pass laws banning the adoption of children by homosexuals. Unless one advocates the merciless “squeezing” of all of mankind into one single Procrustean cultural mold, it is rather obvious that it ought to be right of each sovereign nation to uphold whatever values it wants.
Russia has decided that Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism are the traditional religions of Russia which play a central role in the “traditional national spirituality”. Fine. But at the same time, there still remains a formal separation of religion and state in Russia and the Russian Constitution even bans the adoption of some kind of official state ideology. Furthermore, the Constitution also proclaims the freedom of religion. How do you combine such apparently completely contradictory laws?
In truth, you can’t. Russia is stuck with laws which she inherited from the “democratic” 1990s and the gradually formulating modern social consensus. Religion is hardly the only example. Take, for instance, the death penalty which Russia suspended to be accepted in the Council of Europe. Problem: most Russians favor the death penalty, especially if used against corrupt individuals, like they do in China. I could multiply examples of contradictions between the legacy of the 1990s and today’s Russia.