Caught up in the cult of cults

The Star, Malaysia/July 15, 2012

Its connection to any deviant sects has been cleared, but the Putrajaya amok is a reminder of the danger of cults, especially religious cults.

IT is the stuff of nightmare for parents. Unfortunately for a retired civil servant who only wants to be known as Mohamad, the nightmare became a reality.

Mohamad digs up the painful memory of losing his daughter to a deviant religious sect in 1983: "My eldest daughter was outgoing and very ambitious. After her first year in university, she was completely transformed. She started wearing only the black jubah and tudung labuh, and she kept her eyes down and voice low. In her second year, she dropped out and we heard she had married one of her religious brothers'."

In the 1980s, he says in an interview, the fear of religious cults was strong, especially with many young Muslims fired up by the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran.

"My daughter was the hope of the family so we were very disappointed that she just abandoned her studies. But what hurt most then was that she had cut off all ties with us," he adds.

Caught blindsided by his daughter's "conversion", Ahmad could sympathise with nasi lemak seller Ahmad Adam's shock at his daughter Mudalina's "samurai rampage" with self-proclaimed Imam Mahadi (or Last Messiah) Khalil Afandi Abdul Hamid at the Prime Minister's Department in Putrajaya last Monday.

Police later confirmed that the two had no connection with any deviant religious groups, but some might insist that their actions bore the markings of a religious cult, at least in the damage and destruction it can wreak.

Crucially, the Putrajaya amok incident highlights how the cult of cults is still potent in the world.

On Friday, there was the shocking news of the arrest of 29 members of a cannibal cult in Papua New Guinea. The cult is said to have 1,000 members, and has already killed and eaten the brains and penis soups of seven people.

Just a month ago, the last member of the Aum Shinkrukyo (or Aum Supreme Truth) cult, which had terrorised Japan in the 1980s and 1990s, was arrested. Police have been hunting down the cult members since they launched synchronised nerve gas attacks on Tokyo's subway system in 1995, killing 13 people and injuring thousands.

Then we had the biggest religious cult or not, depending on how you see it expos of all: the divorce of actress Katie Holmes from her Scientology faithful husband Tom Cruise. The jury on whether the Church of Scientology is a cult or real religion is still out but many see Holmes' divorce as a narrow escape from a cult.

As Hollywood Reporter editorial director Janice Min reportedly told The New York Times, the popular narrative surrounding the former Mrs Cruise was "She's been brainwashed and lobotomised. She's a zombie for Scientology'."

So what makes a cult?

Some would call the Star Trek-obsessed geeks and more recently, the Twilight-crazy, screaming mums and tweens, cultists, but many would loath to put them in the same league as the Aum Shinkrukyo disciples or Tom Cruise.

The meaning of the Latin root of the word, cultus, probably says it all: "adoration". As the Interfaith Coalition of Concern About Cults in New York describes it, a cult is a movement or group with a self-appointed, messianic, usually charismatic, leader who uses followers' veneration upon him or her to coerce, indoctrinate and control members.

Other characteristics include the formation of an elitist society; use of psychological techniques to deceive and manipulate members and the belief that "the end justifies the means," especially in raising funds and recruitment. Worst of all, once joined, it is near impossible to leave.

Based on the etymological definition, some might call k-pop fandom a cult. After all, many think that the fans are being mind-controlled by the k-pop management companies to give their eternal adoration to their pop idols, or in cult-speak, "charismatic leaders".

Perhaps then it is best to heed how Malaysia Crime Prevention Foundation chairman Tan Sri Lee Lam Thye sees it: although there are many types of cults, not all are destructive. Most cults are harmless as long as they do not encourage crime, violence and terrorism.

Dr Goh Chee Leong, dean of HELP University's Behavioural Sciences, takes another view: the very nature of cults, especially religious cults, is unhealthy, he opines.

"It becomes unhealthy the moment a cult leader takes control of the members' lives, no matter if they are adults or minors.

"Or, when a religious leader takes away the decision-making power of a person, and controls how they live their lives, or the cults encourage them to cut their ties with their families, then it is an unhealthy threat," says Dr Goh.

Today, while cults range from commercial and social to political, it is said that the term "cult" is mainly used to refer to new religious movements and groups with "deviant" or bizarre religious practices. (Under Malaysian law, Muslim sects not approved by the Islamic authority here are considered deviant and also regarded as cults.)

Crucially, cults are present in all religions, and there are even inter-faith cults such as the Singapore-based Sathiyameyjeyam.

American clinical psychologist Dr Margaret Singer estimated that in the 5,000 over cults in the US, a majority are religious-based. In Britian, the Cult Information Centre puts the rough figure at 500.

In Malaysia, the Islamic Development Department (Jakim) has listed more than 55 deviant Islamic sects since 2009, but the number of deviant sects or cults from other religions is not clear.

To complicate the tracking effort further is the increased use of the Internet and social media network by cults today. In 2010, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) blocked 26 deviant religious sites after they received complaints from Jakim.

That same year, fugitive leader of the Sky Kingdom or Teapot cult in Trengganu, Ayah Pin, allegedly made an appearance on Facebook to connect with his followers.

Fingers have also been pointed to the Internet as the cultivator of narcissistic and delusional "Messiah" personalities like the Putrajaya amok blogger Khalil Afandi, who purportedly ranted about the state of religion in the country for weeks before his rampage at the PM's office. His sole follower (offline) and accomplice Mudalina was also allegedly recruited online.

Still, you don't need technology to exacerbate the god complex in cult leader candidates. Just look at psychopath Charles Manson who led the mass-murdering Helter Skelter Family in California in the 1960s. Then there was Marshall Applewhite, who led the American UFO religious cult Heaven's Gate; he founded the cult in the early 1970s after a near-death experience.

What is constant are the personal traits these cult leaders prey on, with the fear of the end of the world topping the list.

Applewhite's message to his followers was to leave Earth with the help of some aliens before our home planet is "recycled".

For many Malaysian Muslims, it is the fear of missing out on the spiritual saviour from Imam Mahadi before Judgement Day. (The story passed on from generation to generation is that only the chosen ones will recognise the true Imam Mahadi and follow his teachings while many, even the pious ones, will fall to the dark side.)

Hence, over the years, many so-called religious leaders claiming to be Imam Mahadi, including Khalil Afandi, have lured hapless followers.

That is only one aspect that cults prey on, though, warns Dr Goh.

"People are attracted to cults for various different reasons," he says.

So, who are the easy targets?

To Salleh Ahmad, former president of the Malaysian Ulama Association, likely victims of religious cults are those with a shallow understanding of religion.

What many will find worrying, however, is what information resources on cults like Britain's Cult Information Centre list as "the people most wanted by cults": intelligent, idealistic, well-educated, economically advantaged, intellectually or spiritually curious, and any age.

Anyone can be vulnerable and gullible to the lure of the cult, consultant clinical psychologist Dr Alvin Ng says.

"You don't have to be lowly educated to be gullible, you can also be highly educated," he adds, noting that even a PhD holder can be recruited into a cult.

Dr Ng refutes another notion: it is not caused by a mental illness either.

As he highlights, a majority of those who join cults are mentally normal: only roughly 20% suffer from a mental illness.

According to Dr Goh, the easy targets are those who are not independent minded and are emotionally or psychologically dependent on other people.

"It's what we call a vulnerable and dependent personality," he notes, stressing that members do not "join" a cult, but are recruited by a cult.

He cautions that different religious cults have different recruitment strategies and target different types of people.

"For example, some target people who are very lonely and looking for relationships, so the cults will use very friendly young people to attract the new recruits and give them a sense of community.

"Others recruit those who have no sense of identity and those who feel that they don't belong. The cult gives them sense of identity and family," Dr Goh theorises.

Then there are religious cults which target people who are searching for emotional experiences, he adds. "The cults provide them with very strong, intense emotional experiences."

The Young Buddhist Association of Malaysia adds another target people with problems such as illness, investment failure and marital discord. When people are desperate to find a solution to their problems, they would easily consider the comfort of the cults as the last resort, says its secretary-general Sek Chin Yong.

Dr Goh believes that most of the religious cults target young people and advises parents to constantly be on the lookout for warning signs.

"If the parents notice sudden changes in their children's behaviour such as withdrawal from their studies, their normal groups of friends and normal interests, then they should be cautious. Another sign is if their children are spending too much time with a religious group," he warns.

Ultimately, he stresses, isolation in families is a major factor driving children into the arms of religious cults.

"It is important not to put the blame on parents - there are many instances when the parents are very committed and spend a lot of time with their children but their children still end up in religious cults. But parents who don't engage with their children will increase the risk of them joining religious cults."

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