Monday, July 11, 2005

A Cult Called al-Qaeda

In November of 2001, I was in Toronto, Canada eating lunch with a Muslim friend of mine, and talking about the terrorist attacks of 9/11. At the time, my friend was still in denial over these attacks: he could not accept that a fellow Muslim could have possibly carried out such a heinous crime and murdered so many innocent people. Many other Muslims went through similar periods of denial, latching onto conspiracy theories and the like, because they simply could not understand how someone who really believed in the teachings of their religion could do something so evil in its name. Of course, my friend has since come to realize that Muslims did perpetrate 9/11, but that did not make it any less puzzling for him to understand.

Last week's bombings in London were equally perplexing, with bombs on three subway trains and a bus wounding hundreds and killing dozens of innocent people whose only crime was to be on a train going to work. What is particularly perplexing is that these attacks were not done despite the teachings of Islam (like someone might want to sneak off to a bar for a beer, hoping nobody from the mosque sees them drinking it): no, these evil acts were done in the name of Islam. The "snuff" videos coming out of Iraq have been even more explicit about this, with hooded men shouting "Allahu Akbar" (God is Great) while severing the head of innocent and unarmed hostages.

I personally am a Christian, but I have spent a lot of time around Muslims and find it very difficult to reconcile the religion of my Muslim friends with the religion that has led so many of these terrorists to commit acts of evil in God's name. Muslims are generally among the most respectful, honest, generous, and peace-loving people you will ever meet, and it is very perplexing for me to try to understand how this same set of teachings could become so warped as to be used to justify cold-blooded murder. For the Muslim friends I have spoken to about this topic, the quandary is even deeper - they find it even harder to understand.

In Christianity, we have a word to describe a splinter-group with dangerous and destructive ideology: a cult. In Christianity, however, it is a bit easier to categorize a group as being a cult because we tend to operate in well-defined denominations (Catholics, Baptists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Mormons, etc.), and the border-lines around a cult are much better defined. With Islam, however, there are a lot more gray fuzzy boundaries than there are lines: Islam has two main branches (Shia and Sunni), but beyond that, there isn't a well defined hierarchy of leadership or division of sects. So, a cult can operate within Islam, and you cannot easily discern where normal Islam stops and the cult begins.

Kevin Crawley of the University of Iowa defines a cult as follows:

An organization that uses intensive indoctrination techniques to recruit and maintain members into a totalist ideology.

Intensive indoctrination techniques include:
1) Subjection to stress and fatigue
2) Social disruption, isolation and pressure
3) Self criticism and humiliation
4) Fear, anxiety and paranoia
5) Control of information
6) Escalating commitment
7) Use of auto-hypnosis to induce 'peak' experiences

Totalism is defined by psychiatrist Robert Lifton as the tendency to view the world in terms of 'all or nothing' alignments. Lifton details 8 'psychological themes' that can be found in totalist groups:
-- A 'sacred science' -- an ideology that is held to be true for all people at all times. This ideology generally claims to be inspired and scientific at the same time.
-- 'Milieu control,' the control of human communication, not only over our communications with others, but also with ourselves.
-- 'Mystical manipulation' -- including deception and 'planned spontaneity' which seeks limit self-expression and independent action.
-- The demand for purity, the notion that absolute purity exists, and that anything done in the name of this purity is ultimately moral.
-- 'The cult of confession' -- "There is the demand that one confess to crimes one has not committed, to sinfulness that artificially induced, in the name of a cure that arbitrarily imposed." (Lifton, _Thought_ Reform_and_the_Psychology_of_Totalism")
-- 'Loading the language' -- redefinition of language, with an emphasis on moral polarization, and thought terminating cliches.
-- 'Doctrine over person' -- the subordination of personal experiences to the doctrines of the sacred science.
-- 'Dispensing of existance' -- the doctrine that the group can decide who has the right to exist, and who does not.In other words, the cult manipulates the environment to 'set up' the recruit to trap him or herself in a black and white mindset

This description does not sound much like the Islam I am familiar with, but does sound remarkably like al-Qaeda and other "Islamic" terrorist groups.

Let's start calling a spade a spade, and a cult a cult. al-Qaeda is not an Islamic group, it is a dangerous and violent cult operating under the label of "Islam". And, while its members may profess to be Muslims, they have warped the teachings of their religion to the point it can be used to justify cold-blooded murder and do evil in God's name.

al-Qaeda, like some other dangerous cults, is a cancer. A malignant tumor growing within mainstream Islam, sapping Islam's resources, and denigrating the reputation of all Muslims by the evil acts it carries out in their names. Its members may start out as regular Muslims, but when they join the cult of al-Qaeda, they join the cancerous tumor, and start to act against the interest of the host (Islam).

Like other cancerous tumors, the cult of al-Qaeda needs to be surgically removed from the host or otherwise eliminated, or the damage it will cause to the host will continue to escalate.