In recent cases, victims of religious discrimination are falsely presented as if they were the guilty parties. It is the same strategy used in 1996 against Tai Ji Men.

by Massimo Introvigne*

*A paper presented at the webinar “The Violent Crackdown on Tai Ji Men 1996–2022,” co-organized by CESNUR and Human Rights Without Frontiers on August 22, 2022, United Nations International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief.

An article already published in Bitter Winter on September 3rd, 2022.

Tai Ji Men protests in Taipei.
Tai Ji Men protests in Taipei.

In 2018, I was asked to serve as the guest editor of a special issue of the academic “Journal of Religion and Violence” on violence and new religious and spiritual movements. In my introduction to the issue, I explored what “and” meant in the title “violence and new religious movements.” There are cases of violence perpetrated “by” new religious movements. The sarin gas attack by members of the Japanese group Aum Shinrikyo against the Tokyo subway in 1995 immediately comes to mind, together with the mass suicides and homicides of  the Peoples Temple in Guyana in 1978.

Nobody can deny that there are violent new religious movements. However, two comments should be added. First, there are in the world thousands of new religious and spiritual movements, derogatorily called by their opponents “cults.” Only a tiny percentage of them is violent, with contradicts the anti-cult narrative associating “cults” and “violence” as a matter of course. Second, there is more violence in old religions than in the new movements. Networks of pedophile Catholic priests and terrorists using or misusing the name of Islam committed crimes whose magnitude certainly exceeds the wrongdoings of even the more violent new religious movements.

Recently, we saw a new and alarming phenomenon. The opponents of groups they label as “cults” are becoming skilled in playing an old confidence trick. They move the cards quickly until we lose sight of what card is on the right or on the left. When crimes that have some connection with religious movements they do not like happen, they quickly switch the cards representing the victim and the perpetrator.

In June in Korea a husband who hated a religious movement called Shincheonji and was in contact with anti-cultists and deprogrammers killed his ex-wife, a Shincheonji member, and her sister-in-law. Immediately anti-Shincheonji activists called a press conference and depicted the murderer as a victim. If the wife had not been a member of Shincheonji, they explained, the poor man should not spend now the rest of his life in jail. The cards were moved quickly, and some media bought the story that Shincheonji was the villain, while —whatever opinion you may have of it as a religion—it was in fact the victim.

Shincheonji protests against the June assassinations.
Shincheonji protests against the June assassinations.

On January 3, 2019, a teenager entered the premises of the Church of Scientology, of which his mother was a member, in Sydney, Australia, and fatally wounded a Scientologist with a knife. At trial, he was later recognized not criminally responsible as two experts pronounced him schizophrenic, but real paranoids have real enemies. Although he had quarreled with his mother for different reasons, propaganda depicting Scientology as evil may also have excited his feeble mind. Again, anti-Scientologists told the media, without shedding a tear for the victim, that Scientology was to blame for having allegedly created hostility between mother and son.

Of course, the most spectacular case of this confidence trick is the assassination of Shinzo Abe. The assassin is not a member of the Unification Church/Family Federation. On the contrary, he hates the Unification Church, of which his mother is a member, has been likely excited by the anti-Unification-Church campaigns promoted by certain greedy lawyers and media, and wanted to kill the leader of the Unification Church as well. Yet, the greedy lawyers and anti-cultists quickly switched the cards on the table.

Before somebody might accuse them of having influenced the weak mind of the killer with their hate campaigns, they called press conferences. They depicted the Unification movement, which was clearly the victim of the assassin’s, and their own, hate, as being in fact the villain of the story. Unfortunately, their trick worked in the sense that they were followed by a significant number of media, not only in Japan.

Unification Church protests in Korea against media slander in Japan after the Abe assassination.
Unification Church protests in Korea against media slander in Japan after the Abe assassination.

All this is not new. As scholars of religion, we are grateful of having had the opportunity of studying the Tai Ji Men case because as early as 1996 Prosecutor Hou Kuan-Jen played exactly the same dishonest card-switching tricks, many years before the Abe assassination and the other recent cases I mentioned.

Tai Ji Men, as the highest courts of law in Taiwan later recognized, was clearly an innocent victim of trumped-up accusations and political repression. Yet Prosecutor Hou called press conferences and manipulated the media in different ways presenting Tai Ji Men’s Shifu (Grand Master) and dizi (disciples), who were the victims, as if they were perpetrators of imaginary crimes, including “raising goblins.” As in the later cases, Prosecutor Hou unfortunately succeeded, because many Taiwanese media bought his lies and reported them without checking the facts. After all, they believed, he was a prosecutor, so by definition he told the truth.

The Tai Ji Men case is internationally important because it is a textbook example of how violence against religious and spiritual minorities is supported by campaigns of fake news, and succeeds because media tend to believe the fake news when they target movements depicted as “cults.” The only way of breaking the spiral of violence is exposing the fake news for what they are. The first step to arrest the various forms of violence targeting Tai Ji Men is reestablish the truth. And the truth is that Tai Ji Men’s Shifu and dizi were never guilty of any crime—including tax evasion. They were victims, depicted as perpetrators by the violent and fraudulent card sharpers who persecuted them.