Dear Colleagues: Integrity and Suspicion in NRM Research - 1998-04-01
In early May 1995, as Japanese law-enforcement authorities were collecting evidence linking the Aum Shinrikyo NRM to the March 20 poison gas attack which killed 13 commuters, and preparing what they thought was a strong case, they discovered, to their utter surprise, that they were under attack from an unexpected direction. According to media reports, four Americans arrived in Tokyo to defend Aum Shinrikyo against charges of mass terrorism. Two of them were NRM scholars. According to these reports, they stated that Aum Shinrikyo could not have produced the gas used in the attack, and called on Japanese police not to "crush a religion and deny freedom" (Reid, 1995; Reader, 1995).
Reliable reports since 1995 have shown that Japanese authorities were actually not just overly cautious, but negligent and deferential, if not protective, regarding criminal activities by Aum, because of its status as an NRM. "Some observers wonder what took the Japanese authorities so long to take decisive action. It seems apparent that enough serious concerns had been raised about various Aum activities to warrant a more serious police inquiry prior to the subway gas attack" (Mullins, 1997, p. 321). The group can only be described as extremely violent and murderous. "Thirty-three Aum followers are believed to have been killed between ...1988 and ...1995...Another twenty-one followers have been reported missing [and presumed dead]" (Mullins, 1997, p. 320). Among non-members, there have been 24 murder victims. One triple murder case in 1989 and another poison gas attack in 1994 which killed seven have been committed by the group, as well as less serious crimes which the police was not too eager to investigate (Beit-Hallahmi, 1998; Haworth, 1995; Mullins, 1997). So it is safe to conclude that religious freedom was not the issue in this case. Nor is it likely, as some Aum apologists among NRM scholars have claimed, that this lethal record (77 deaths on numerous occasions over seven years) and other non-lethal criminal activities were the deeds of a few rogue leaders. Numerous individuals must have been involved in, and numerous others aware of, these activities.
Some NRM scholars have suggested that the trip to Japan, as reported in the media, caused the field an image problem (Reader, 1995). Let me make clear right away that my concern here is not with images, but with the reality of scholarship. I am afraid that in this case, as in many others, the reality may be actually worse than the image. How do we react to the Aum episode? Do we raise our eyebrows? Do we shrug our shoulders? Is it just an isolated case of bad judgment? Are we shocked by the alleged involvement of NRM researchers in this tragic story? Given the climate and culture of the NRM research community, and earlier demonstrations of support for NRMs in trouble, we are not completely surprised. Much of the discourse in NRM research over the past 20 years has been marked by a happy consensus on the question of the relations between NRMs and their social environment.