How to confront a cult of terror

Cult psychology may help explain why young men become suicide murderers.

Zealots who tend to violence are meant to be easy to spot. That is why the identities of the alleged London bombers are so arresting. All were British born and raised. Most were well educated, showing no signs of religious fervour. Only one appears to have been remotely socially dysfunctional. For those who believe in the stereotyped terrorist as either rabidly fanatical or desperate, illiterate, and oppressed, this superficial normality is mystifying. It is therefore dangerous to reduce this kind of terrorism to an inherent consequence of Islamist extremism.

Certainly it has that expression, but a suicide bomber‘s psychology is far too complex to be categorised neatly. Some may simply be suicidal, looking to give their life meaning. Like many suicide victims, they may appear normal while suffering intense feelings of social alienation and humiliation. Some might just be brainwashed. Whatever the case, it appears that the ideal candidate for a suicide bomber is not someone who is religious – but someone vulnerable to exploitation.

Without a life of utter hopelessness, it takes more to sacrifice your own life to kill innocent people than an extremist bent. It takes programming. The vague labels of “Islamism” and “extremism” do not sufficiently capture this psychology.

Behaviourally, this has all the hallmarks of a cult. It is worth considering this as the appropriate model to analyse these latest attacks.

If Osama bin Laden is any guide, terrorist demagogues, like cult leaders, are charismatic figures who espouse heretical views that stand condemned by the mainstream. Their discourse is absolute and adversarial – the cult is pure, the world is evil – and in the process, the leadership emerges as the exclusive source of authority. Thus are the followers’ critical faculties suspended. With no external, stabilising influence, any action mandated by the leadership is uncritically executed. Murder-suicide suddenly becomes “reasonable”.

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But most tellingly, it is the vulnerability of cult members that is so tragically exploited. It is no coincidence that suicide bombers are almost exclusively pawns: the young, anonymous and dispensable. Terrorist leaders may speak absurdly of heavenly virgins gained through self-inflicted “martyrdom” – but they seem incongruously unwilling to claim the prize for themselves.

A major problem is that cults are incredibly difficult to dismantle intellectually. The brainwashing is too great. Deporting the leadership is an option – but the danger is that because they are so revered within the cult, this may turn them into martyrs. Unfortunately, this leaves us with what we already have: intelligence and law enforcement with community co-operation.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and even Prince Charles, have called on Muslims to weed out the extremist element within. In Australia, this is already happening: intelligence behind recent ASIO raids reportedly came, in part, from within the Muslim community. But it can be of only limited use.

Australian Muslims are already closely monitored, particularly the congregations of those with a firebrand reputation such as Sheikh Mohammed Omran. Frankly, ASIO would know far more about any threatening elements in the Muslim community than mainstream Muslims would.

I believe Australian Muslims’ most meaningful role will necessarily be focused on preventing cult formation. Here there is hope. One feature of cult members is that they are often overcompensating for some kind of feeling of guilt. This creates a spiritual void that the cult often fills. (It comes as no surprise at all that one of the alleged London bombers, Hasib Hussain, suddenly became fervently religious 18 months ago after being a wild drinker.)

Our failure as mainstream Muslims has been our negligence in providing the alternative narrative to fill this spiritual void. Anyone familiar with the Muslim community will know stories of those who convert to, or rediscover, Islam and adopt the radical views filling the gap left by the mainstream’s relative inactivity.

Ultimately then, it is not enough, or even particularly useful, for mainstream Muslims to condemn cults within because they are already defined by their very marginality. We must forcefully provide the presently dormant alternative.

Melbourne lawyer Waleed Aly is on the executive of the Islamic Council of Victoria.


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The Age, Australia
July 16, 2005 Opinion
Waleed Aly
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Religion News Blog posted this on Friday July 15, 2005.
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