By Masoud Banisadr
December 15, 2014
We have to teach people, especially young Muslims, how to protect themselves against mind manipulation.
Why are so many well-educated young Muslims turning to terrorism, with some even becoming human bombs?
Is Islam itself the problem, a religion of 1.6 billion people, with a religious majority in 49 countries around the world?
I do not think so. In fact, I believe destructive terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and the “Islamic State” (IS) are pseudo-Islamic cults. To blame Islam for militant Wahhabism is like blaming Christianity for the Branch Davidian cult’s claim that David Koresh was God’s representative on earth — a man who used his encyclopaedic knowledge of the Bible to skilfully misrepresent the holy book and lead his followers to their fiery murder-suicide in Waco, Texas, in 1993.
While Islam is not the problem, terrorist cult leaders and their misrepresentation of Islam’s holy book, the Quran, pose a serious threat to millions of people, whether they are religious or not. In fact, these pseudo-Islamic destructive terrorist cults act much like the Ebola virus, a virulent disease that our immune system is almost powerless to stop.
As with any virus, we need to understand its characteristics and our vulnerabilities, and to immunize ourselves against it, before it strikes. The alternative is to continue to fight the symptoms with a potent medicine that may eventually harm the still healthy parts of our society.
Unfortunately, most government policies related to terrorism are tactical and shortsighted. They focus on killing terrorists, rather than addressing the causes of terrorism and de-radicalization. Such short-sighted measures include stop and search programs and proposals in the United Kingdom to criminalize returnees from Iraq and Syria.
In the same vein, the efforts of the current anti-IS coalition in Iraq and Syria will only be able to stop the group’s progress, but not completely eradicate it, especially without cooperating with Iran and the Syrian government. This approach has led to a massive increase in terrorist recruitment and a growing fear among the civilian population.
Terrorist groups, just like all viruses, have only two objectives: to survive and to reproduce in order to expand their reach. Not governed by life-affirming ethics, terrorist groups inevitably operate like destructive cults, which require the use of mind-manipulating techniques to change members’ core beliefs and personalities and severely impair their critical thinking skills.
Vaccination Is the Solution
Like any virus that attacks living cells with the intent of killing us, destructive cults attack the ethical beliefs and individuality of their members in order to kill those beliefs and the members’ ability to question or challenge the authority of their cult leaders. How should we respond to this invasion of a person by a cultic infection? Should we bomb terrorist groups and their members, who are, after all, victims themselves? Or should we isolate the virus and try to cure victims of this deadly disease?
No virus can survive without a host. Therefore, instead of focusing on killing the hosts, along with the virus, we should immunize potential hosts by vaccinating them against the virus. Without a host, the virus will eventually die out. In other words, we must immunize young Muslims from recruitment by terrorist cults, which becomes possible when we come to understand the vulnerabilities of potential recruits and the methods used to influence them.
We know that injustices are perpetrated all over the world against individuals, minorities and sometimes entire populations. Young people are particularly sensitive to these injustices and seek ways to resolve them. This is their first vulnerability, an “open gate” to their minds, which terrorist cults use to infiltrate their thought processes. Governments, the media and politicians do not often admit to the extent of these injustices — be it the occupation of Palestinian land, torture revelations as part of the War on Terror or the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Nor do they allow young people rational ways to vent their frustration and indignation. Instead, they paint a rosy picture of the world, with a bias toward their own, often ill-informed beliefs. In doing so, they simply aggravate the problem.
Public ethics, family warmth and closeness, cultural ties and benevolent religions are diminishing in importance in the lives of many young people, especially in the West. They are being replaced by celebrity worship and the assumption that to be someone, you must be talented, wealthy or beautiful. But this is not so with many young Muslims, who are turning to religion to give meaning and purpose to their lives, to feel part of a bigger cause that can help put right the injustices they see in Muslim communities around the world.
And, due to the presence of radical preachers in many Muslim communities around the world, this opens the second gate into the minds of the young seekers, allowing terrorist recruiters and Wahhabi preachers to instill their own brand of “Islam.” They teach that their interpretation alone is true and every other interpretation is false and sinful, instilling black-and-white thinking. Once they are outraged by injustice, the misinterpretation of a few sentences of the Quran about jihad and martyrdom make it relatively easy to radicalize these young people.
Unfortunately, schools and universities often fail to educate young people about the dangers that terrorist cults pose to young Muslims and the ways in which these cults use mind manipulation techniques to alter young people’s personalities and turn them into virtual slaves and potential suicide bombers. Such techniques include isolating potential recruits physically and psychologically from society and stirring up emotions, such as hatred, paranoia and distrust of “outsiders,” and directing them against certain governments and people. Lack of education and awareness about the distinctions between freedom and slavery in the modern world and how the mind can be manipulated is the third vulnerability or “open gate” into young people’s mind.
What Can We Do?
How can we stop a suicide bomber? We cannot punish the potential bomber before the act is committed. This attempt to predict unethical behaviour goes against the values and principles of the modern world and will do more harm than good. It risks fatal errors and the victimization of innocent people and communities. However, as members of modern societies, we can and we must use preventative measures to stop people from being transformed into fanatical killing machines.
We should recognize, understand and admit to injustices in the global community and find ways for young people to express themselves and work toward positive change, so that they channel their indignation in a peaceful and tolerant manner. It is true that violence will always beget violence, and that violence only ends with negotiation (or genocide). We should teach young people how to best research ideas, how to formulate arguments and the best ways to bring about change by democratic means. Such education must be life-affirming rather than life-denying.
We must separate benevolent religions from ideologies that masquerade as religion, and claim that they alone are right and blessed and that everyone else is wrong and damned. For instance, there are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, who are generally tolerant of each other and other faiths such as Christianity and Judaism. They have similar or close interpretations of jihad and martyrdom; they accept defensive jihad and believe the practice of offensive jihad expired with the death of the fourth rightly guided caliph in 661 A.D. They believe that if someone is killed in a defensive jihad, he is a martyr, but that suicide, under any pretext, is an abomination to God.
Even among fundamentalist Wahhabis, only a tiny percentage — perhaps no more than 1%, so less than 0.01% of the overall Muslim population — follows this violent and intolerant interpretation of Islam. We should prevent Wahhabi preachers from recruiting and preaching violence and intolerance in mosques and religious schools, because they promote a simplistic black-and-white worldview and intolerance of other beliefs. This would entail setting rules for preachers, including ensuring that they have obtained a certain level of education, and preventing known radical preachers, for example from Saudi Arabia, from travelling to other countries.
We must understand that even an extreme ideology such as Wahhabism will not turn young people into potential suicide bombers unless a victim’s mind is manipulated by unethical persuasion. So, we have to teach people, especially young Muslims, how to protect themselves from mind manipulation. Such techniques have long been described in the psychology.
We should isolate and try to cure those infected by this virus, de-radicalize and reintegrate rather than criminalizing them. A harm reduction model will lead to success, where criminalizing those affected has simply unleashed the virus on the wider world. Al-Qaeda numbered less than 500 individuals at the time of 9/11. There are now thousands of fanatics fighting for IS. Rather than blaming the victims, we should criminalize those who use unethical influence techniques and those who advocate violence.
We must conduct more research into the psychological dynamics of destructive, terrorist cults and mind manipulation. We must help people who are in the process of damaging their individuality, just as we try to dissuade would-be suicides. We should help the families and friends of those who are enslaved in terrorist cults to rescue their loved ones and give them moral and financial support. In this way, we will save thousands of individuals from slavery and protect our contemporary, pluralistic way of life against the medieval notions of Wahhabism.
Finally, we need our schools, universities and mosques to better educate our young people about mind manipulation and the techniques that are used to recruit people into destructive, terrorist cults. My own book, Destructive and Terrorist Cults: A New Kind of Slavery, aims to help educators and the public to understand the clear and present danger of cult leaders, their victims and the techniques of mind control and brainwashing.
A curriculum should also be developed that clarifies the dangers of such influence to students throughout their education. Anyone who has learned about the techniques of influence is far less likely to submit to them. What is needed is a concerted effort by experts on mind manipulation, Islam — especially Wahhabism — and ministries of education and interior.
Gaining a better understanding of the process of radicalization and de-radicalization will inevitably lead to a safer and more tolerant society.