Marc Sageman, a CIA case officer who went on to become a psychiatrist, makes an unusual argument in his book Leaderless Jihad: Understanding Terror Networks. Back in 2004, he analyzed 400 jihadists and their backgrounds and sketched out the personal and psychological journeys that people make on their path to radicalization.
Sageman’s conclusion was assessed by David Ignatius of The Washington Post as: “We are facing something closer to a cult network than an organized global adversary. Like many cults through history, the Muslim terrorists thrive by channeling and perverting the idealism of young people.”
What is a Cult?
A cult provides answers to the problems of meaning and alienation by offering a clear and utopian vision of a better future, in this case the vision of a powerful and unitary Muslim state which implements divine law and is thus the perfect society.
Other cults portray the perfect vision of a socialist utopia or a secret, superior way of life learnt from aliens or present a leader who thinks he (or she) is Christ returned to create the kingdom of heaven on earth.
It then asserts that the only way to achieve this perfect goal is to submit oneself totally to the cult. Various techniques are used to ensure loyalty once the member has been recruited, including brainwashing techniques and abuse.
This same technique is used in Islamism with the notion of submitting oneself to the will of Allah (a core part of Islam), together with the concept of ba’yah (pledge of allegiance) as a religious duty (in the case of ISIS, bayah to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi).
Cults normally require a member to sever all relationships with ones friends and family, pledging loyalty only to the cult leader and totally forgetting their past life. In this way, the cult gains sole influence over its adherents and stifles dissent.
Islamism does this through the notion of al wala wal bara (loyalty and disavowal), the notion that the individual is enjoined to love Allah and those within the Islamist movement and to hate outsiders as people who have fallen under the control of Satan and are evil.
How do Cults Recruit?
People who are vulnerable to cults include “someone is in a transitional phase in life: moved to a new city or country, lost a job, dropped out of school, parents divorced, romantic relationship broken, gave up traditional religion as personally irrelevant,” writes Dr. Philip Zimbardo for the International Cultic Studies Association. “Add to the recipe, all those who find their work tedious and trivial, education abstractly meaningless, social life absent or inconsistent, family remote or dysfunctional, friends too busy to find time for you and trust in government eroded.”
Compare this to ex-extremist Maajid Nawaz describing his initial recruitment into the Islamist movement Hizb ut-Tahrir:
“…as a British-Asian teenager growing up in Essex, I always had a sense of being different. In fairness, this was not due to the majority of people around me, but the actions of a minority of organised racists who made life exceptionally difficult for all around me.
“By the age of 15, I found myself having to flee random and unprovoked knife attacks, and witness friends being stabbed before my eyes.
“It was during this period of my life that a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a young medical student from my hometown who had been recruited while studying medicine at a university in London, started explaining Hizb ut-Tahrir ideas to me. My premature politicised mind was ripe to receive an ideology that advocated a black-and-white solution to the problems I had grown up with.”
Are All Islamists Cultists?
Different sects of Islamism are cult-like to varying degrees, some more (such as ISIS) and some less (such as some of the Muslim Brotherhood political parties). In all cases, the ideology provides the framework and the goal. Cult-like phenomena exist across political and religious ideologies of all stripes and no two cults are exactly the same. However common themes can be charted and shown up as warning signs.
Examining how cults operate can tell us a lot about how Islamist extremist movements work.
Watch an ex-cult member describe her experiences: