With school out and kids on the internet more than ever, parents especially want to know how to tell the difference between a harmless organization and a dangerous, extremist movement.
While it’s important for young people to be able to branch out, try new things and connect with people during our lockdown times, what seems at a glance like an innocuous book club may not be that at all.
An extremist movement which knows how to operate effectively will try to hide its extremism.
However, being paranoid or even always suspicious is no way to engage with the world. And we certainly don’t want to teach that approach to our children. So, the question is, how do you know if a group is safe or if it is extreme?
Fortunately, once you know what to look for, extremist groups are easy to spot. Here are three major warning signs to look out for.
1. Extremist means being against the state itself
Extremists don’t simply disagree on policy. Extremists believe that the state itself is evil and has to be abolished.
Different groups have different visions for what to replace it with: White Supremacists want to expel or subjugate anyone who doesn’t fit their narrow ethnic preferences. Islamists want sharia to be the law of the land.
What’s the difference between opposing policy and the existence of the state? Policy is what the state does. Existence is what the state is. Someone who disagrees with the policy will say something like, “America is a corrupt plutocracy run for the benefit of rich elites! We need campaign finance reform and to abolish the Electoral College now!”
That person still believes that America is a good idea, just that it needs some adjustments. Compare those sentiments to “America is a corrupt plutocracy run for the benefit of rich elites! What can you expect from a country that puts popular opinion above the law of God.”
This is a direct rejection of the idea of a democracy country in favor of a theocracy. One is about action, the other is existential.
If a group rejects the foundational principles of democratic countries, it’s an extremist movement.
2. Extremists don’t want you to question
A normal political or religious group will let (and hopefully encourage) you to read criticism about it. Someone that is confident in their ideology and wants to see you grow as a person will be perfectly comfortable with holding their ideas up to scrutiny.
A cult or an extremist movement will not.
Extremist groups typically separate in-group knowledge and out-group knowledge. They will disparage any information that does not come from inside the group as “less than,” or “tainted.”
If the group is hierarchical and thus has more control over the individual, they may well prohibit the recruit from accessing any information that isn’t controlled by the group.
Dr. Alexandra Stein, herself a former cult member and now a leading academic on cults, says the fact that a group wants to control the entire worldview of their members is what distinguishes dangerous extremist organizations from religions.
“The fundamental aspect is isolation from the outside world,” she said, speaking to The Independent. “There needs to be charismatic authoritarian leadership, the structure must be isolating and the belief system total. You have to believe that system and nothing else. They say ‘you don’t need anything else because we cover everything in the universe, and everything that will ever happen.’”
If the group is disparaging any other information source as illegitimate, this is a major red flag.
3. Extremist groups won’t let you leave
Any extremist movement, from the early underground socialists to radical jihadists will always ask recruits to place the needs of the group first, above anything else. This may not come initially when the recruit is still fresh. But the group will be interested in prioritizing what the group needs from the recruit, not the other way around.
Dangerous groups will start to restrict the movements of the recruit almost immediately. If you go to a seminar, they won’t let you leave to think about what you’ve learned.
They will tell you that your family and friends aren’t worth keeping in your life if they can’t support your decision to join this noble cause. They may say they are tricked by the Satan or that they are unenlightened. Or, they may try any number of other tactics to drive a wedge between the recruit and their life outside the group.
The goal is the same as with information control: to isolate the recruit from the world so that only the cult has power over the individual. If a group won’t let the recruit leave or spend time with non-group members, they are not to be trusted.
In contrast, a healthy religious or political organization will be about benefiting the lives of its members. It will not be about using people. That means giving people the time and space they need to make their own decisions.