Editor, Cultic Studies Review
In the summer of 2006 British counterterrorism officials foiled a plot to blow up airliners. Among the many news stories was that of a British Muslim woman who planned to use her baby to get by security and blow up an airliner with liquid explosive in her baby’s bottle. Newscasters and viewers were shocked and bewildered. How could any mother do such a thing?
People asked the same question in 1978 after the mass suicides/murders in Jonestown, Guyana of People’s Temple members, led by Jim Jones. Among the nearly 1,000 bodies authorities found in the jungle of Guyana were more than 276 children (Singer, 2003). Many of these children died from poison that their own mothers administered. “I can’t believe they poisoned their own babies!” was an anguished cry heard again and again.
Twenty-eight years separate these two events. During this time period the world has witnessed many horribly destructive events perpetrated by terrorists and cultists, including but by no means limited to the Jonestown suicide/murders; Aum Shinrikyo’s gas attack on the Tokyo subway; the Solar Temple murders; the Salmonella poisoning of residents of Antelope, Oregon by members of the Rajneesh group; the first World Trade Center bombing; the terror attacks in Bali, Madrid, and London; and, of course, 9/11.
When people try to understand the motives for such seemingly incomprehensible violence, they usually begin, as Gomez (2006) says about terrorist violence, “with our reaction to the terrorist act itself.” Parents tend to do the same when confronted with a child’s cult involvement, especially one that includes sudden changes of behavior. In such circumstances, parents of cultists and observers of “unbelievable” terrorist acts will often use the term “brainwashing” in their attempts to understand events that seem to defy explanation. Mutch (2006), for example, cites Muslim parents and officials who use “brainwashing” in reference to certain Muslim extremists. In the popular mind “brainwashing” is seen as a powerful and mysterious process or “force” that moves people out of the zone of the understandable into the zone of the inexplicable. But when used in this way, the term merely restates our lack of understanding in a way that comforts us with the illusion of an explanation. Other cognitively comforting labels can provide a similar illusion. Some individuals, for example, have said that terrorists commit barbaric acts of violence because they are “evil.” They may indeed be construed as evil, but tagging that label on them provides no more explanatory power than saying, “Cancer kills people because it is a horrible disease.” Labels used in this way function as “thought-terminating clichés” (Lifton, 1961) that provide the illusion of understanding when one is confronted by a mystifying phenomenon.
By no means does this suggest that concepts such as “brainwashing” are meaningless or irrelevant to understanding how seemingly normal people can change in ways that lead them to commit unspeakable acts of violence. However, such concepts are misused when they function as labels designed to lock people into their own worldviews instead of helping them understand how other individuals can live according to very different and sometimes incompatible worldviews. Such understanding requires that we see the world as others see it, even though their worldview may be alien, even repugnant, to us. Seeing the world through “alien” eyes, however, requires a temporary suspension of belief in our own fundamental assumptions about life, an action that can be frightening as well as cognitively challenging. If we lack the courage and skill to penetrate into these “alien” systems of thought and value, we cannot understand them and, as a consequence, our responses to them will forever remain uninformed.
Such courage and skill is required to understand the seemingly inexplicable acts of violence associated with the Jihadist terrorism that so preoccupies us today. Although “jihad” can refer to “an individual’s striving for spiritual self-perfection,” in the context of violence and terrorism, the term refers to a “Muslim holy war or spiritual struggle against infidels” (answers.com definition), the definition used in this paper.
Cultic studies experts can contribute to the international conversation about Jihadism because they have experience in understanding and responding constructively to the large variety of “alien” systems of thought and value observed in cultic organizations. Although much ambiguity surrounds the term “cult” (see Rosedale & Langone, Internet; Langone, Internet), it is frequently associated with those groups that appear to exercise high levels of influence and control over their followers in order to induce them to serve the goals and needs of the groups’ leaders. Certainly, some terrorist groups exhibit such dynamics of influence and control.
In this essay I will apply a cultic studies perspective to the phenomena of Jihadism. I will examine the following questions:
This essay makes no claim to be the definitive analysis of the subject. It is one of a number of articles on terrorism that this journal has published (Centner, 2002; Centner, 2003; Dole, 2006; Gomez, 2006; Mansfield, 2003; Micewski, 2006; Morehead, 2002; Mutch, 2006; Stahelski, 2005). The essay will clarify the points of intersection of Jihadist terrorism and cultic studies so as to make future research and action endeavors more meaningful to experts outside the cultic studies field than has been the case thus far. In so doing, I hope to enhance dialogue among experts in terrorism, Islamic studies, and cultic studies.
Elsewhere (Langone, 1996) I have discussed three models of conversion to cultic groups:
Although I separate these models for purposes of explanation, in practice probably all three models are relevant to varying degrees for almost all conversions. Those observers who are rigidly partial to one or another of the models will, in my opinion, have difficulty gaining a well-rounded picture of a particular conversion.
I think it is useful to divide the conversion process into three phases, each of which involves the interaction of variables within the person and within the environment:
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, many college-age youth were attracted to cultic groups. The highly manipulative Moonie (i.e., Unification Church) recruitment of college students was especially noteworthy because nearly one-half of the people entering the cult-watch network were concerned about the Moonies (Conway, Siegelman, Carmichael, & Coggins, 1986). For this reason, many cult critics tended at that time to emphasize the role of deceptive, manipulative, even orchestrated recruitment tactics, which were so conspicuous at Moonie recruitment centers in the United States. However, as time passed and Moonie recruitment slowed to a trickle, workers in the field began to appreciate more that there were many paths into cultic groups, some more dependent upon environmental pressures, others more dependent upon personal needs or interests of the recruits. As Zablocki (1998) pointed out, the “brainwashing” frequently associated with cultic groups refers more to the difficulty in getting out (what Zablocki calls “exit costs”) than to the manner in which people get in.
Although highly manipulative recruitment into cultic groups certainly still occurs, the interaction of cultural factors with personal needs, interests, and goals of potential recruits must be examined to understand the attraction phase of cult conversion. This interaction is important, for example, in some conversions to cultic Christian groups, which appear to attract people already operating within a Christian worldview. I suspect that a similar attraction exists in the movement of some Muslim youth from mainstream to extremist groups.
Whether persons are recruited into or attracted to a particular group, they may still undergo a profound change in worldview. “Conversion” refers to the process—sometimes sudden, sometimes gradual—whereby persons come to accept a worldview different in fundamental ways from that which they formerly held. Conversion is often associated with, if not dependent upon, a powerful inner experience, which is typically given a spiritual interpretation (Langone, 2003). Sometimes these experiences may arise spontaneously. For example, a meditator in a monistic Hindu tradition may suddenly experience a shift to a particular alternate state of consciousness, which he/she interprets—sometimes under the manipulative guidance of group members or a guru—as a mystical experience of the godhead to which the tradition refers. Another example: A disconsolate Christian, Muslim, or Jew who seeks comfort by reading Holy Scripture may stumble upon a verse that dispels the confusion in his or her troubled soul, an experience that engenders a sense of special destiny and connection to God. Sometimes powerful inner experiences can be engineered. The magician James Randi (1987), for example, has exposed a number of faith-healing charlatans who have succeeded in tricking thousands of people into feeling a powerful “presence of God” as they witness what they falsely believe to be “miracles.” Stories of lecherous “perfect masters” supposedly leading their disciples to advanced states of spiritual experience in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions are common (Garden, 2003). And the large group awareness training (LGAT) movement (Langone, 1989) has given millions of persons a powerful “spiritual” high during an expensive weekend of “consciousness raising” exercises.
The world’s mainstream religious traditions have long recognized the existence of charlatans, manipulated conversions, and private “revelations”—that is, the need to separate the “wheat from the tares” (e.g., Vere, 2005). Because people can be fooled, responsible religious authorities seek ways to sharpen their respective flock’s capacity to discern wisely, to see the “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” to use a Christian metaphor. Most religions over the centuries have developed an institutional wisdom—perhaps expressed more in tradition and unwritten “rules” than in explicit warnings—regarding the lure of “false prophets” and spiritual arrogance. This institutional wisdom, which is woven into the authority structure of religious traditions, provides a safe zone for spiritual seekers.
When a powerful inner experience or other factor leads seekers away from the safety of a tradition’s mainstream authorities, seekers might (a) come under the sway of a cult or sect, which may or may not be harmful to them; (b) enter a private, idiosyncratic spiritual world, which may be merely different or may be delusional; or (c) view their tradition from a vantage point that enriches the tradition (e.g., people recognized as saints who have retreated so as to explore their inner vision, but who return with a mission or message that enlivens their tradition). The third option is quite rare, so movement away from the religious mainstream may entail an element of personal risk and may sometimes be personally destructive. This risk is probably magnified in modern, pluralistic societies because the mainstream religions have not had time to develop and teach discernment skills appropriate to the deep and rapid cultural changes that have occurred during the past few decades.
One might argue that the term “conversion” doesn’t apply to movement from the mainstream to the extreme within a worldview—for example, within a particular religious tradition. Such change reflects, perhaps, a “diversion” within a tradition, rather than a “conversion,” which involves a fundamental shift in one’s outlook on self, world, and other. However, I believe that the incredulous, fearful reactions of parents, such as those Muslim and Christian parents alluded to above, testify to the radical nature and depth of change they observe in their children. Moreover, the benign “born again” experience of evangelical Christianity is often viewed as a genuine conversion, a radical shift in one’s perceived relationship to God, even though the born-again individual may remain in the same religious tradition or even the same church.
The worldview shift of a conversion that occurs within a tradition may be overlooked (except perhaps by family and other intimates of the convert) because the person still uses the same language and the same scripture. The meanings associated with the tradition’s terminology and concepts, however, may change radically for the convert and may become intertwined with his or her psychological needs. Thus, a genuine worldview shift, a conversion, can occur even though on a superficial level little seems to have changed. For example, before being “born again” a member of a Christian church might say, “Jesus is my savior,” many times. But after the “born-again” experience that same statement is pregnant with a depth and breadth of meaning and feeling that are completely new to the person. Such a born-again experience can occur within a mainstream Christian church or within a deviant, possibly harmful, sect or cult.
When conversion occurs across religious traditions, the depth and breadth of change is more conspicuous than conversion within a tradition because the convert typically takes on a new language and new rituals (e.g., a person raised Christian who converts to Vedanta, a monistic Hindu tradition). Because they are more conspicuous and deviate more from the norm, such cross-tradition conversions are probably more likely to elicit social concern, especially from religious authorities. Unfortunately, religious authorities might be less likely to recognize and become concerned about within-tradition conversions to extreme or potentially violent variants of the mainstream tradition. Or, if the religious authorities do recognize the risk, they may not know how to deal with it effectively.
After people experience the fundamental worldview shift of conversion, their behavior, thinking, and feelings will tend to accommodate to the fundamental assumptions of the new worldview because of the normal human tendency to seek consonance among one’s behaviors, thoughts, and feelings (see Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance—Festinger & Carlsmith, 1959). Moreover, as time passes and they experience daily life within their new worldview the converted become more comfortable in it (i.e., “practice makes perfect”). Other group members, sometimes without realizing it, provide rewards and punishments that tend to strengthen new converts' loyalty to the group. This is the “acculturation” phase of conversion.
Of course, the process of conversion and acculturation may occur with or without the manipulative, directive presence of a cultic group.
The term “backsliding” attests to the fact that conversions do not necessarily last, nor do they maintain their initial level of intensity. The seeker who fervently commits to a religious system might over time watch the fire within him turn to an ember or die. That is perhaps the reason why so many religions are social affairs. Seekers need the reinforcement of their fellows to maintain commitment as the fire of conversion cools. Moreover, the social bonds people form within an ashram, church, mosque, synagogue, temple, or other group over time provide new incentives to maintain the seeker’s commitment to the group, incentives that may come to be more important than the conversion experience. For people who are born into a religious tradition and do not have the deepening experience of conversion, social bonds are probably the primary affiliation motive.
Backsliding, paradoxically, is probably more of a problem in high-control cultic groups than in mainstream traditions. Research (Barker, 1984; Wright, 1987) indicates that high turnover characterizes cultic groups. Actually, this is not surprising, given the tensions and conflicts that cultic groups tend to elicit. Because cultic groups are leader-centered and exist essentially to fulfill the goals of the leader, they tend to place high demands on members’ time and energy. The group’s idealistic ideology and a collection of manipulative techniques (e.g., guilt induction to persuade people to work harder) are used to manage the interpersonal conflicts that arise in the demanding environment (e.g., “God wants you to do this. Don’t undermine the Body of Christ by being a factious man.”). Because the group’s ideology may have elements of magical thinking or may be based on an at best weakly coherent worldview (e.g., Christian white supremacists whose racial views rest on a twisted interpretation of the Bible), the leader must make sure that members are not exposed to outside criticism of the group’s worldview and do not have the time or mental energy to think independently and critically about inconsistencies that they might observe, especially inconsistencies concerning the leader’s behavior. Hence, leaders tend to make sure that their followers are hyperbusy, obsessed with completing projects vital to the salvation of the world or some such cosmically important goal (Singer, 2003). Their exhausting participation in the group’s “noble” efforts makes them feel part of an elite. The price they pay for the feeling of elitism is the suppression of their individuality, independence, and critical thinking.
The conflict between elitism and self-suppression led one ex-member of a group to call his cult a “prison of specialness.” This conflict also helps explain why the concept of dissociation, of internal “splitting” of the self, resonates with so many ex-cult members. A high-demand, high-control group puts members at war with themselves. Eventually, this enduring inner conflict takes its toll and people leave their groups. Some leave feeling that they are failures for not having had the strength to endure. Others might defect because they are exposed to outside critical information, or they may share forbidden thoughts with an intimate, or they may no longer be able to overlook the leader’s inconsistencies (Wright, 1987). As one ex-member put it: “The shelf on which I placed my rationalizations collapsed.”
The preceding exposition sheds light, I hope, on the conversion process. It suggests that conversion to extremist or destructive groups is not that much different from conversion to benign or mainstream groups. Why, then, do some join benign groups while others join destructive groups, such as Aum Shinrikyo, which released sarin gas in the Tokyo subway in 1994?
Bad luck, in my opinion, has more to do with destructive conversions than is at first apparent. Many people, especially adolescents and young adults, go through life transitions or other difficulties that cause them to question the adequacy of the worldview that has steered their lives and conclude that their lives aren’t working for them. Such distressed people may turn toward religion or some other cause as they seek a way out of their difficulties. Chance factors may determine which of the myriad of available groups gets their attention. One group member told me that he was browsing through the religion section of a library when a book fell off the shelf and hit him in the head. He began reading it, liked what the author said, and was captured by the idea that the book had fallen on his head because God wanted him to follow this particular guru (which he later did). Other people have joined groups because of chance encounters with recruiters on the street, or because a friend in a group said “come and check us out,” or because of a book, article, or Web site they stumbled across. Rarely is the choice of a group affiliation the result of diligent research and informed consideration of many alternatives. Since few groups present a negative face to prospective members, luck may determine whether or not a seeker enters a conversion pathway into a benign or a destructive group.
Cultural factors and trends might influence which groups or which types of groups a seeker is most likely to encounter. In the 1960s and early 1970s, for example, many young Americans searching for purpose and meaning were swept up in the revolutionary political fervor of the time, a fervor that was religious in form, even though it may have been secular in content. Most became involved in relatively benign organizations, while others got caught up in violent groups, such as the Symbionese Liberation Army, which kidnapped and indoctrinated heiress Patty Hearst. With the end of the Vietnam War, alternative political groups lost their appeal and spiritual groups became more prominent (Kent, 2001). Social commentators talked about the “Jesus Revolution” and young people “turning East” to refer to conversions to Christian and Hindu/Buddhist groups, respectively. Although the cultural climate does not determine what group a person will join, it can alter the probabilities with regard to the kind of group he or she is likely to encounter and, hence, consider.
The personality, values, needs, and goals of seekers can also narrow the range of options to which seekers might remain open. Thus, a practicing Christian youth going through a troubled time may be open to groups that claim to be more “authentic” Christians than mainstream churches but be uninterested in guru or New Age groups. Similarly, a scientifically inclined atheist whose hallucinogenic drug experimentation opens him up to the existence of what D. H. Lawrence called “vast ranges of experience, like the humming of unseen harps, we know nothing of, within us” (from “Terra Incognita”) may sneer at Christian proselytizers but listen attentively to people advocating a mystical Buddhism or monistic Hinduism.
The range of options to which people remain open can further narrow as a result of pathological psychological needs; for example, when “anger issues” incline seekers toward violence or paranoia concerning racial or ethnic minorities or nations. Using the psychodynamic model alluded to earlier, one could hypothesize that such individuals, by joining a violent group, receive not only social support for violent acts but religious meaning and approbation, as well. For example, the Christian Identity follower can reframe beating up “niggers” from an antisocial emotional release that society frowns upon to a sacred duty that pleases God. The Islamic terrorist who kills “infidels” might employ a similar rationalization, but one that twists the Koran instead of the Bible.
Thus, the pathway into a group that advocates a violent worldview depends upon many variables within the person, the group, and the culture that encompasses them both. There is no simple explanation, no “equation,” that can predict who will join what violent group. Each case must be analyzed individually and in context.
Luck, as noted above, may determine whether or not a seeker encounters a benign or a destructive group. The tendency of groups to present a benign face can prevent recruits from seeing the end of the trail, so to speak, should they join certain groups. Although psychodynamic analyses might help explain why some individuals are especially attracted to violent groups, there are many cases of individuals who participate in group violence even though they have no history of violence proneness or psychological difficulty. Why, one may ask, do not such seemingly normal persons leave when they begin to see the group for what it is?
First of all, many people do leave, even in groups that are thought to be highly controlling. In Barker’s study of Moonie recruitment in England, for example, 10 percent of those who attended an introductory Unification Church workshop ended up joining the group, while only 50 percent of joiners were still members two years later (Barker, 1984). The loss of new members through attrition should not surprise us, for people are very different and will respond differently even in powerful environments. Sometimes minor events determine whether a particular prospect leaves a group. One person who attended a Moonie workshop in California maintains that smokers were probably less likely to move on to the next step because they snuck out of the dormitory late at night to smoke and, in so doing, met up with other smokers, with whom they shared their doubts about the high-pressure weekend workshop (Dubrow-Eichel, 1989).
Commitment is not automatic, so groups must work at developing commitment among new members, and that takes time. Zablocki says:
Zablocki’s (2001) sociological theory of brainwashing builds upon the pioneering work of Lifton (1961), who studied thought reform among U.S. POWs in Korea and Chinese students and intellectuals on the mainland. Zablocki’s theory is not about how people enter charismatic groups, or cults, but “the process of inducing ideological obedience in charismatic groups” (p. 160). He describes in detail the complex process that enables cultic groups to build commitment and loyalty among members and, when it serves the leader’s interests, to devote enough resources to selected members so as to turn them into what he calls “deployable agents”—that is, members who are uncritically obedient to leaders even in the absence of external controls. Zablocki’s “economic” perspective implies that members will vary in their commitment to the group/leader because leadership must make resource-allocation decisions concerning the building of commitment among different members. Leaders, then, will not put effort into developing a deployable agent, unless such a person can deliver an objective that is worth the resources that the leader expends. Hence, Zablocki says that there “is no reason to believe that all cults practice brainwashing any more than that all cults are violent or that all cults make their members wear saffron robes” (p. 196).
Zablocki’s (2001) theory presumes that a necessary but not sufficient condition for brainwashing to occur is ideological totalism, “a sociocultural system that places high valuation on total control over all aspects of the outer and inner lives of participants for the purpose of achieving the goals of an ideology defined as all important” (p. 183). Although the resocialization process differs among groups, common elements include “a stripping away of the vestiges of an old identity, the requirement that repeated confessions be made either orally or in writing, and a somewhat random and ultimately debilitating alternation of the giving and the withholding of ‘unconditional’ love and approval” (p. 187). The resocialization process affects cognitive functioning and emotional networking, which in turn lead “to the attainment of states of hyper-credulity and relational enhancement, respectively” (p. 187). Because convictions function more as valued possessions than as a means of testing reality, “a frontal attack on convictions, without first undermining the self-image foundation of these convictions, is doomed to failure” (p. 188). The assault on members’ identity is compensated by the payoff of feeling more “connected with the charismatic relational network” (p. 188), which ultimately brings about an identification with the group, an “imitative search for conviction” (p. 189), and “the erosion of the habit of incredulity” (p. 189). A symbolic death and rebirth marks the completion of the brainwashing process as “the cognitive and emotional tracks come together and mutually support each other” (p. 189). With the brainwashing process complete, the individual perceives the cost of exit to be sufficiently high that compliance with group demands becomes a rational choice.
Lalich (2004) complements Zablocki’s Lifton-based process model. Although she too is most concerned with the deployability associated with the brainwashing concept, Lalich approaches the brainwashing phenomenon by examining the complex interaction of the processes of conversion and commitment. She views conversion, as does this paper, as a worldview shift that usually occurs within a social context, which can enable converts to sustain and strengthen their worldview shift. Lalich discusses four interlocking structural dimensions that underpin the social dynamics of cultic groups:
“The relational aspect of charisma is the hook that links a follower or devotee to a leader and/or his or her ideas” (Lalich, 2004, p. 17). The transcendental belief system “binds adherents to the group and keeps them behaving according to the group’s rules and norms” (p. 17). Systems of control are “overt rules, regulations, and procedures that guide and control group members’ behavior” (p. 17), while the systems of influence reside in the group culture “from which members learn to adapt their thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors in relation to their new beliefs” (p. 17). These four factors working together can lead to a “self-sealing system that exacts a high degree of commitment (as well as expressions of that commitment) from its core members” (p. 17) and that is “closed in on itself, allowing no consideration of disconfirming evidence or alternative points of view” (p. 17). The self-sealing system forms a bounded reality. Within that frame of mind the person's choices become constrained because of the external sanctions of the social system and the person's own internalized sanctions. This places members in “a narrow realm of constraint and control, of dedication and duty”—what Lalich appropriately calls “bounded choice.”
The notion of bounded choice is consistent with this essay’s depiction of a conversion pathway of ever narrowing options. The elucidation of the brainwashing process can help explain how a formerly nonviolent person can become committed to a group that perpetrates violence. If individuals do not see the end to which they will be led, and if they do not drop out of the group’s system before the commitment process gathers steam, they may reach a point where, as Zablocki puts it, the exit costs become so great that conformity and even identification with a system that might have once been viewed as repugnant become less difficult than departure from the system. Brainwashing, then, is not an “either-or” concept. It is a process that might have varying degrees of success. Although the “Manchurian-Candidate” level of control may be mythical, astounding levels of control can be achieved. Nevertheless, a leader’s control is never absolute, so leaders must always factor members’ individual psychologies into their plans.
In some cases, the violence at the end of the road might be radically out of (pre-group) character for particular members. It seems beyond coincidence, for example, that nearly 1,000 suicidal/homicidal people just happened to come together in the jungles of Jonestown, Guyana in 1978. A powerful process of influence and control that took place over a period of years steered the majority of followers to a collective suicide and directed others to follow Jones’s command to murder those who resisted the suicide order. Like Jim Jones, Shoko Asahara, head of Aum Shinrikyo, enhanced the brainwashing process by carefully selecting from the membership individuals who would be least likely to resist his demands for violence, specifically the murder of opponents and the release of lethal gas in the Tokyo subway. It seems unlikely to me that either he or Jones chose their killers at random, nor did they need “born killers.” Because their members had gone through a process of intense socialization into a totalistic system, the leaders might have been able to push selected members above a critical threshold of killing potential, a threshold that the members would never have even approached in ordinary life had they not committed themselves to the group.
In other cases, as noted earlier, an individual’s psychological needs might incline him or her toward violence even before the person encounters a group that advocates violence; indeed, the preexisting inclination toward violence may cause a person to seek out or at least to choose a violent group from among those available to him or her. However, even in these situations, some process of influence and control will usually operate. When the violently inclined gather in a group, somebody comes to be in charge. A leader who understands the art of brainwashing may be more successful in directing his violent followers toward the fulfillment of the leader’s goals than one who lacks that understanding. Some youth gangs and some terrorist groups might fall in this category.
In still other cases, I suspect, a seeker’s psychological needs and pre-existing belief system may so well mesh with a particular violent group that the brainwashing process is not necessary for leaders to have deployable agents. All the leader needs to do is make sure that he has a large enough supply of recruits to enable him to select those who would be willing to kill for the cause. Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations, for example, advertise themselves on the Internet and use the Internet to screen recruits:
The SITE Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based terrorism research group that monitors Al Qaeda’s Internet communications, has provided chilling details of a high-tech recruitment drive launched in 2003 to recruit fighters to travel to Iraq and attack U.S. and coalition forces there. Potential recruits are bombarded with religious decrees and anti-American propaganda, provided with training manuals on how to be a terrorist, and—as they are led through a maze of secret chat rooms—given specific instructions on how to make the journey to Iraq. (Weimann, 2004)
So long as an organization such as Al Qaeda can engage in media campaigns that bring a large flow of “applicants” to the group, it can find, select, and train those people who will be useful to the organization, including those who will kill for it. If, for some reason, the flow of “applicants” subsided significantly, the group’s leadership might then find it necessary to implement a brainwashing program to produce enough deployable agents to meet its needs. Of course, the leader might also implement a brainwashing program to enhance control over members who are favorably predisposed to the group’s violent goals.
Although there are surely a variety of pathways to violence, I believe that the flexible model described in this paper has practical utility in planning programs of prevention. It can be summarized as follows:
Samuel Huntington’s ideas about “the clash of civilizations” (Huntington, 1996) have generated controversy that has misrepresented the author’s views, particularly concerning conflict between Islam and the West. Although Huntington maintains that the possible clash of civilizations is the greatest threat to world peace, he also says that an “international order based on civilizations is the surest safeguard against world war” (p. 13). Unfortunately, extremists and misguided commentators within Islam and the West stoke passions on both sides, presenting the tensions between Islam and the West as a now-unavoidable clash of civilizations, which is bound to become much more violent and may eventually go nuclear. The advocacy of this view could become a dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy.
Political responses to this threat of spiraling conflict between Western and Islamic nations or movements must, of course, take center stage. However, violent conflicts between the West and Islam necessarily begin with the actions of individuals who have moved along a pathway to violence. Prior sections of this essay tried to explain how previously nonviolent individuals can unwittingly enter and traverse this pathway. In this section I will discuss strategies that might deter individuals from traveling all the way down the road to violence. My hope is that moderate Muslims and Westerners will recognize that families, clergy, helping professionals, local community leaders, and educators can play a vital role in preventing the escalation of social and religious conflicts by discouraging individuals from entering into and following a pathway to violence.
I will build upon the earlier depiction of the pathway to violence in order to identify constructive actions in four areas: (1) prevention, (2) assistance, (3) law enforcement, and (4) research. Before I explore these four areas, however, I want to address two broad issues. First, I will present evidence for rejecting the notion that Islam and the West are, or will soon be, locked in a war of civilizations. Next, I will elaborate upon the underlying premise of this essay; namely, that understanding and appreciating another person’s worldview is difficult, especially when that worldview is markedly different from one’s own, and I will offer some general suggestions regarding communication across worldviews. What I will discuss in the following sections has broad applicability to issues of cultism and extremism, and is by no means limited to diminishing Jihadism.
To their credit, George Bush and other world leaders after 9/11 said again and again that Islam is a peaceful religion and that the terrorists were not representative of Islam. They realized that frightened, angry citizens with no personal experience with Muslims could easily make distorted judgments of Muslims based on the violent images on their TV screens. Fortunately, these efforts appear to have been somewhat successful. Surveys of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (2006, March 22) indicate that, despite the terrorist attacks of the past two decades, a majority of Americans still view Muslims positively, not as positively as they view Jews and Catholics, but about as positively as they view Evangelicals and more positively than they view atheists. The favorability ratings were Jews, 77%; Catholics, 73%; Evangelical Christians, 57%; Muslim-Americans, 55%; Atheists, 35%. Unfavorable ratings were Jews, 7%; Catholics, 14%; Evangelical Christians, 19%; Muslim-Americans, 25%; Atheists, 50%.
Other surveys have found lower favorability ratings (ABC News Poll, 2006, September 5–7; CBS News Poll, 2006, April 6–9) for all religions, not just Islam. These discrepant findings could be due to methodological issues, such as giving respondents an “unsure” option.
The Pew survey’s results for the following questions, however, were disturbing: “Do you think that the terrorist attacks over the past few years are a part of a major conflict between the people of America and Europe versus the people of Islam, or is it only a conflict with a small, radical group? Do you think this conflict is going to grow into a major world conflict, or do you think it will remain limited to a small, radical group?” Twenty-nine percent saw it as a major conflict, and another 26 percent from among the 60 percent who saw it as a limited conflict believe that it will grow into a major conflict. Hence, according to this survey, 55 percent of the U.S. population expects the current conflict with Jihadists to turn into a violent clash of civilizations. Given the common human tendency toward confirmatory bias (Baron, 1992), these findings are troubling because they suggest that one or two major terrorist attacks in the United States could substantially strengthen the belief that we are heading toward a violent clash of civilizations, when in reality we are not. Other survey data suggest that the violence of Jihadists has only a limited appeal among the Muslim masses and may have significant appeal within only a small number of Muslim nations.
A survey of 1,276 Muslims attending Friday service at 12 mosques (out of 33) in Detroit (Bagby, 2004) reported the following findings relevant to this discussion:
Obviously, the residents of Muslim nations may hold very different views from Muslims living in Detroit. Because some of these nations are authoritarian, the reliability of surveys, if they even exist, might be called into question. However, there are indications that extremism is not as popular as the clash-of-civilizations question in the Pew survey might lead one to believe. A Pew Global Attitudes Project report (2005, July 14), for example, found the following percentages of respondents affirming that Islamic extremism was a threat to their country: Morocco, 73%; Pakistan, 52%; Turkey, 45%; Indonesia, 45%; Lebanon, 26% (53% among Christians, 4% among Muslims), Jordan, 10%. Although the lower figures among Jordanian and Lebanese Muslims might indicate that their populations are more radicalized or, conversely, that they feel more confident in the stability of their countries, the fact remains that residents in major Muslim countries share Westerners’ concerns about extremism and, consequently, shouldn’t be viewed as supporting it.
This survey also found that support for suicide bombing is not high. The disparity in the percentages of respondents saying that suicide bombing is never justified reveals major differences among Muslim nations: Jordan, 11%; Lebanon, 33%; Pakistan, 47%; Indonesia, 66%; Turkey, 66%; Morocco, 79%.
High percentages of respondents also believed that democracy could work in their countries and was not only for the West: Turkey, 48%; Pakistan, 43%; Lebanon, 80%; Jordan, 80%; Morocco, 83%; Indonesia, 77%. These figures are supported by another survey, conducted by the Institute for Social Research, which found that Muslims and Westerners differed more on their attitudes toward sex than toward democracy (Swanbrow, 2003, March 10). This survey found that
68 percent in both the West and Islamic nations strongly disagree that democracies are indecisive and have trouble keeping order, and 61 percent in both societies strongly disagree that it's best for a country to have a powerful leader who decides what to do without bothering about elections and government procedures. Fully 86 percent of those surveyed in the West, and 87 percent of those in Muslim nations, strongly agree that democracy may have problems but it's better than any other form of government.
Walker (2006), in an essay that challenges alarming portrayals of the Muslim threat to Europe (e.g., Fallaci, 2004; Bawer, 2006), says an
The Pew Global Attitudes Project (2005, July 14) also found that residents of some Muslim nations tended to have favorable attitudes toward Christians (Indonesia, 58%; Lebanon, 91%; Jordan, 58%), although in other nations the favorability ratings were low (Morocco, 33%; Turkey, 21%; Pakistan, 22%). Unfortunately, the favorability ratings of Jews in all Muslim nations in the survey were dismal (Turkey, 18%; Pakistan, 5%; Indonesia, 13%; Lebanon, 0%; Jordan, 0%; Morocco, 8%).
It appears, then, that survey data do not support the notion that Islam and the West are headed toward an inevitable war of civilizations. This does not mean that frightening problems do not exist in the relationship of Islam and the West or, more specifically, between certain Muslim nations and the West or between certain radicalized movements or mosques and the West. We should be careful, however, not to overgeneralize these problems, for doing so can contribute to a self-fulfilling alarmism that could precipitate an avoidable clash of civilizations. Unfortunately, the Jihadists, at least some of whom may welcome a clash of civilizations, probably realize that more 9/11-scale attacks on the United States could move U.S. public opinion toward this self-fulfilling alarmism. That is why the first priority of all Western and Islamic nations should be to prevent such attacks from occurring.
Those of us outside the security arena can also contribute to the reduction of self-fulfilling alarmism. All who communicate to the public—Western and Islamic—need to be precise about the sources of conflict. So much of what we think we know about the world rests upon the media’s focus on emotion and conflict. The journalistic cliché, “if it bleeds, it leads,” implies that violent extremists will get much more attention than peaceful moderates. We must all, then, constantly remind ourselves about how the media can mislead as well as inform. If, for example, certain Jihadists use an extremist interpretation of the Koran to justify their well publicized terrorism, moderate Muslims should openly challenge that interpretation and Westerners should not construe it as “the” Muslim view of what the Koran says.
Western and Islamic journalists should make an extra effort to pay more attention to these moderate Muslim voices. The “if-it-bleeds-it-leads” mentality causes journalists to become part of the causal nexus that gives rise to the phenomena they observe and on which they report. Because in free societies journalists have special status and privileges, they also ought to have, it seems to me, a special ethical obligation to resist the bottom line of ratings when rating-friendly sensationalism, simplification, or selectivity can have deleterious effects on the body politic or when journalists are obviously used by publicity-hungry extremists.
More high-quality survey research should be conducted so as to provide reliable data on the attitudes of Muslims and Westerners in various countries. Given the importance of the issues related to the clash of civilizations, the research database appears to be very inadequate.
Muslim and Western journalists, policy makers, and others should examine media reports with a critical eye for self-fulfilling alarmism and inaccuracies.
The fundamental assumptions that underlie our worldview can bias us to perceive another according to how his or her actions make sense in our, but not the other person’s, view of the world. This bias manifests whenever we take in information about the world outside ourselves, whether through interaction with others, reading, observations, or other means. Once we become aware of the unavoidability of personal bias, the question arises: “How do I find out if what I believe to be true is indeed true?”
The answer to this question is to follow an epistemology of methodological self-doubt (or, in religious terms, humility in the arena of belief and faith, not merely the arena of lifestyle, with which most religions associate “humility”). Methodological self-doubt does not mean that one rejects one’s own worldview. Within philosophy, for example, a distinction is often made between philosophical and methodological naturalism. The former is a metaphysical position that all of reality, including consciousness, can be explained as material events, as “atoms and the void.” The latter is an epistemological principle of investigation that even deeply religious scientists can follow to learn more about natural phenomena.
I believe that an epistemological principle of methodological self-doubt lies at the heart of the “deep communication” that enables two people to understand each other at a fundamental, worldview level. “Deep communication” refers to the nonjudgmental sharing of fundamental, close-to-the-heart perceptions, beliefs, values, goals, and feelings. Deep communication is perhaps most conspicuous in the psychotherapeutic process, in which therapists place their own fundamentals in “suspend mode” and nonjudgmentally open themselves up to their clients’ inner selves. Therapists show an interest in and willingness to learn from clients through the clients’ words and actions within the therapeutic relationship. Therapists do not allow their “theories” to force clients’ into categories that are inconsistent with the clients’ view of the world. Nevertheless, therapists do more than help clients see themselves in a psychological mirror. Therapists use their own understanding of the world—their own worldviews, which change constantly as a result of dialogue with their clients—to help clients learn about themselves. Thus, the methodological self-doubt of psychotherapy is not linear, as is methodological naturalism. Psychotherapy is an oscillation. Therapists temporarily suspend their own worldview to try to enter the worldview of clients, but then therapists return to their own worldview, enriched by their encounter with clients, to figure out how to help clients address the issues that generated enough conflict to bring them into therapy in the first place. During this back-and-forth process, therapists engage clients in a dialogue that opens up both to other perspectives, and gives clients the confidence to try new behaviors. In short-term psychotherapy, this process is a form of mutual problem-solving. In long-term psychotherapy, it can, for all intents and purposes, result in a conversion, a worldview shift of the client that enables him or her to lead a more rewarding life.
A successful psychotherapeutic endeavor rests on respect (Langone, 1992), which honors the client’s
A psychotherapist cannot penetrate a client’s worldview unless the client permits the therapist to enter the client’s inner sanctum. During successful therapy, clients slowly disclose beliefs, sometimes beliefs that have been “secrets” or beliefs of which clients have been previously unaware, as the therapist earns their trust over time. This trust is not likely to develop except in a context of respect. If a therapist were to demean clients’ minds, disregard their autonomy, assault their identity, and trample on their dignity, clients would not trust the therapist enough to engage in any deep communication (although there are cultic scenarios in which unscrupulous therapists can persuade vulnerable people to put up with abuse that would not normally be tolerated).
Respect is even more important to deep communication in nontherapeutic settings, for the other person is not coming to an expert for help. For example, a clergyman, a teacher, a police officer, or a parent who wants to “get through” to a youngster who is troubled or is flirting with a cultic or extremist organization must begin with respect, which, as I tried to explain above, is not the same as merely having “good intentions” toward the person. These well-intentioned people should be more ready to listen and to ask questions than to lecture and offer opinions. They should be patient and earn the right to be admitted to the youth’s inner circles; they should neither expect nor demand this right. If they can succeed in establishing a deep communication, they can understand how the youngster sees the world and might then be able to engage him or her in a dialogue that results in positive change. Like the therapist, the helpers must oscillate between methodological self-doubt and quiet deliberation as they move ever closer to deep communication and informed, authentic dialogue with the youth about whom they are concerned. Some exit counselors, for example, put much effort into helping families with a cult-involved loved one learn how to understand and appreciate their loved one’s worldview. One team even requires families to list 50 positive things about their child’s group and his or her relationship to it (Patrick Ryan and Joseph Kelly, personal communication, October 6, 2006), so as to help families learn how to suspend their worldview’s judgmental evaluations of their loved one’s situation.
Unfortunately, such “cross worldview communication” is difficult and not common. Work in the cult arena reveals that helpers in contexts that are not overtly psychotherapeutic tend to be so focused on changing a young person that they unwittingly sabotage their ability to find out what the young person really thinks, knowledge of which, ironically, would make the helpers more effective change agents. Clergy, who are well versed in theology, tend to challenge the youth’s overtly expressed belief system in terms of the clergy’s belief system (e.g., a priest who responds to a youngster’s atheism with quotations from the Bible, when the Bible has no more credibility with the young atheist than does Homer’s Iliad). Teachers, if they have experience with Socratic Method, might be a bit more inquisitive than clergy, but still tend to have a predetermined destination toward which their educational endeavors point. Parents’ alarm tends to thrust them into a caretaker mode that exacerbates the normal separation conflicts young people have with their parents. Law enforcement professionals tend to have a narrow area of concern (Were rules broken?) and think in terms of rewards and punishments to motivate the youngster to do what adults desire.
These criticisms are not meant to suggest that theological argument, education, emotional entreaty, or motivational analysis have no role in the goal of helping a youngster (or an adult) involved in or flirting with a cultic or extremist group. I do believe, however, that such actions have a better chance of success if they are based on an informed understanding of how the person in question sees the world. Such understanding requires a deep communication within a shared worldview or across different worldviews, which in turn requires the patient courtesy, the methodological self-doubt, the ongoing respect of the therapeutic process, even though the context of the communication is not overtly psychotherapeutic.
Parents, teachers, clergy, law enforcement personnel and others who seek to prevent young people or adults from following a path that leads toward cultic entanglements or extremist violence should learn and cultivate the skills of deep, respectful communication, which are so central to the process of behavioral and belief change and communication across worldviews.
Cultic studies experts should develop resources and training programs designed to teach helpers how to achieve the deep communication that underlies any attempt to understand how others see the world.
Kropveld (2004) emphasizes the importance of considering cultural, social, legal, and political differences among countries in evaluating and designing preventive education programs concerning cultic groups. Among the factors that must be considered are the following:
Cultural differences will influence governmental actions or inaction regarding the control or suppression of cultic groups, the illegality of certain actions, the penalties for violations, and the vigor with which a government may address the issue.
There are, however, certain areas in which cultural differences will play less of a role, given that the society in question respects the basic human rights that are taken for granted in most democracies. The primary area of such action is the education—inoculation, if you will—of young people so as to make them less likely to be interested in, need, examine, convert to, commit to, or become subservient to a cultic or extremist group.
There are several areas along the pathway to violence where the vulnerability of young people to cultic or extremist groups could be decreased through preventive action.
Counseling and educational services designed to help young people develop more effective coping skills to manage life challenges should receive greater attention and support from governments and private foundations.
Comment: At 16 years old, a person is still considered a minor, a child, whose life is regimented and directed by parents and other authorities. Only six years later (fewer if the person does not attend college), that person will have graduated college and may be expected to participate as an equal in the adult world of work, find a mate and get married, and begin raising a family. That so many young people suffer from feelings of inadequacy and depression is not surprising, given the stress they experience moving so quickly from childhood to adulthood. During no time in life do human beings assume so much increase in responsibility in so short a time span. And yet, society pays relatively scant attention to the psychological needs of its youth. An offering of more guidance and assistance to youth would not only reduce their vulnerability to cultic and extremist groups, but would contribute to the amelioration of many other social problems, as well.
Schools, religious institutions, and community organizations should support cultic studies experts in the development of educational programs that make young people in high school and college aware of the different types of cultic and extremist groups they will encounter in the ideological marketplace.
Comment: So many groups present themselves as the “only” pathway to God, the “only” group led by a true prophet, the “only” group that is truly doing God’s work, the “only” group that can bring social justice to the world, the “only” group that can lead you to enlightenment in this lifetime. An educational program that discusses the wide variety of groups in the marketplace and demonstrates how many of them claim to be unique in virtually the same way and how many are not what they claim to be will make youth more informed consumers, more “street-smart,” about the “idealism” market. Such an educational program should NOT develop and discuss a compendium of “bad” groups. A “black-list” approach is difficult to sustain because groups change, and they exist on a wide spectrum from benign to highly destructive. Moreover, any “list” is sure to omit the majority of the thousands of groups that exist and will become quickly out of date as new groups enter the marketplace. Instead, the focus should be on a nonjudgmental presentation of the variety of groups, movements, and organizations that young people will encounter in the “ideological marketplace.” The approach should be one of consumer education in which young consumers are given advice on how to research and evaluate groups that might capture their interest or attention. Conceptualizing the phenomenon as an “ideological marketplace” will avoid religious freedom issues, for many of the groups in this marketplace are political, educational, psychotherapeutic, or commercial.
Cultic studies experts need to further develop educational programs that help young people in high school and college understand the subtle techniques of manipulative socio-psychological influence employed by cultic and extremist groups and the normal psychological processes, such as confirmatory bias, which can hinder their capacity to make truly informed decisions.
Comment: Although some useful resources exist (e.g., Fellows, 2000), much more needs to be done. It is especially important to place manipulative influence within a broader cultural context and to link the educational efforts to social psychology research (e.g., Cialdini, 1984). Young people need to better understand the ways in which advertisers, for example, use influence techniques. They also need to better understand how certain processes, such as confirmatory bias and rhetoric (in the sense of persuasive communication), can interfere with the evaluation of information.
Mainstream religions need to develop educational programs that improve spiritual discernment among their members, particularly in regard to (a) the evaluation of powerful inner experiences and how these can sometimes be engineered; (b) the processes of religious conversion and commitment building and how unscrupulous leaders can mislead and exploit people who are experiencing religious change; (c) the recognition of arguments and appeals based on sophistry; and (d) the misinterpretation or misuse of scripture (e.g., the Bible, the Koran).
Comment: Programs that address issues of spiritual discernment will probably have to be developed and implemented within religious organizations in countries that have a sharp separation of church and state. In countries where this separation is not so stark, governmental educational institutions may be able to take on this task.
Usually the people who are most directly harmed as a result of an involvement with a cultic or extremist group are the group members and their families. Helping professionals—including mental health professionals, clergy, lawyers, and law enforcement personnel—are sometimes indirectly distressed because they don’t know what to do when families, former group members, or current group members seek their assistance. The issue is complicated by the fact that involved persons often do not conceptualize their problem as a “cult” issue, and they or their helpers may, as a consequence, neglect important dimensions of the problem. Only a small percentage of former group members come to cult experts for assistance, in part because there are so few cult experts. Therefore, the most efficient approach to assisting families and former members is to provide training and consultation to helpers. It is also important to articulate more clearly than has thus far occurred ways to help families to improve communication and decrease conflict with loved ones involved in cultic or extremist groups.
Cultic studies experts need to establish mechanisms to ensure that programs on helping former and current group members and their parents are regularly presented at conferences and meetings of the various professional associations and cult watch organizations.
Cultic studies experts need to expand the number and geographical range of workshops designed to provide concrete assistance to families and former group members.
Cultic studies experts need to develop mechanisms for providing consultation to helping professionals who provide services to families and former or current group members.
Cultic studies experts need to more clearly articulate strategies for decreasing conflict in families, most of whom, for various reasons, cannot realistically pursue a strategy of exit counseling.
Recommendations 9 through 12 call for an expansion of what the International Cultic Studies Association and other cult watch organizations have done over the years. However, with regard to Jihadism, it will be necessary to develop relationships with various Muslim community and religious organizations so that Muslim communities can develop educational and assistance mechanisms designed to help Muslim families and former group members, and Muslim community, religious, and educational institutions.
Cultic studies experts should reach out to Muslim religious and community organizations to identify the ways in which the former can work with the latter to devise strategies to protect and help Muslim youth who are or might become attracted to cultic and extremist groups.
Law enforcement traditionally has had a narrow focus on prosecuting criminals. However, the terrorism of recent years has injected elements of prevention and preemption into law enforcement, which have been a challenge to organizational cultures, such as the United States’ FBI. Cultic studies experts may be helpful to law enforcement (including homeland security) in one or more of the following ways:
Until such dialogue begins to take place and cult experts and law enforcement professionals better understand how their specialties relate to each other, I believe it is appropriate only to call for further communication at this time.
Cult experts and law enforcement personnel concerned about terrorism and other extremist groups should meet in special seminars and workshops to determine how each may benefit from the other’s expertise.
This field is so under-researched, given its importance, that research is needed in all areas. In addition to the need for more survey research, which was noted earlier, I believe that research in the following areas is particularly important:
More psychological research, which is sensitive to individual differences, on the pathway to violence must be conducted so that we can better understand what factors govern whether or not an individual continues moving along that pathway.
Intensive research of defectors from and “almost joiners” of extremist and terrorist groups should be conducted with the collaboration of Muslim researchers, helping professionals, and community organizations. Families of involved persons should also be studied in depth.
Researchers should collaborate with cultic studies helping professionals, volunteer leaders of cult watch organizations, and Muslim researchers, helping professionals, and community leaders to develop information-collection protocols that will have research and practical applications.
In this paper I have tried to identify areas in which experts in terrorism, cultic studies, and Islam might find common ground on which to build action plans to counter Jihadism at the individual, family, and community level. My suggestions are merely a starting place, not a roadmap.
Others have looked at social-psychological aspects of Jihadist terrorism. A National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) report (2005, April), for example, organizes its findings around four questions: prediction, prevention, preparation, and recovery from attacks. Prevention is the area in which cultic studies can most effectively contribute. Surprisingly, however, this important report’s prevention section addresses none of the issues discussed in or recommendations made by this paper. That is not to say that the report’s recommendations (e.g., developing bio-imaging markers, surveillance technologies, data mining) are not useful. Ultimately, however, Jihadist terrorism is about the decisions that certain individuals make to kill other individuals. These decisions are not predestined. They have cultural, interpersonal, and psychological antecedents. Changing the antecedents of violence can prevent it. The authorities responsible for homeland security and the struggle against Jihadist terrorism do not appear to have appreciated this fact as much as they should, perhaps because social and behavioral scientists are disinclined to use qualitative methods, such as case study methodology (Dole, 1995), to study the complex problem of Jihadist violence. Such methods have been essential to the cultic studies field. I hope that this paper will stimulate dialogue between researchers, helpers, community leaders, families, and affected individuals so that they can examine the problem of Jihadist violence from fresh perspectives, including those of cultic studies experts.
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Michael D. Langone, Ph.D., a counseling psychologist, is ICSA’s Executive Director. He was the founder editor of Cultic Studies Journal (CSJ), the editor of CSJ’s successor, Cultic Studies Review, and editor of Recovery from Cults. He is co-author of Cults: What Parents Should Know and Satanism and Occult-Related Violence: What You Should Know. Dr. Langone has spoken and written widely about cults. In 1995, he received the Leo J. Ryan Award from the "original" Cult Awareness network and was honored as the Albert V. Danielsen visiting Scholar at Boston University. (firstname.lastname@example.org)