CESNUR - center for studies on new religions


June 17-20, 2004 - Baylor University, Waco, Texas

Of "Cultists" and "Martyrs": The Study of New Religious Movements and the Study of Suicide Terrorism in Conversation

by Massimo Introvigne
A paper presented at CESNUR 2004 international conference, Baylor University, Waco (Texas,) June 18-20, 2004. Preliminary version. Do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author.

imgIn 1999, I started a study of Hamas by interviewing religious militants (and extremists) of various persuasions, police and intelligence officers, and scholars in Israel, the West Bank, and Europe. My conclusions were later published as a book (Introvigne 2003.) Contrary to many reports in the news media, I did not find Hamas militants to be “brainwashed zombies,” nor there was any evidence that most of them were mentally disturbed, poorly educated, or desperately poor. Some who declared their willingness to become “martyrs” certainly had better schooling, and came from more affluent families, than the average Palestinian. There were sons of doctors, lawyers, and government bureaucrats. They looked, if anything, embarrassingly normal. Some even passed my favourite test for normalcy (at least one I can apply outside the U.S.,) i.e. were familiar with the latest events in Italian major league soccer.

My results were by no means unique. Nasra Hassan (2001, 39,) a relief worker who wrote an important article in The New Yorker, wrote that “none of the suicide bombers — they ranged in age from eighteen to thirty-eight — conformed to the typical profile of the suicidal personality. None of them were uneducated, desperately poor, simple-minded, or depressed. Many were middle class and, unless they were fugitives, held paying jobs. More than half of them were refugees from what is now Israel. Two were the sons of millionaires. They all seemed to be entirely normal members of their families. They were polite and serious, and in their communities they were considered to be model youths.” A study by Berrebi (2003) confirmed that, by Palestinian standards, a large majority of suicide bombers have a better than average level of schooling and of income. In 2003 Alan Krueger and Jitka Maleckova (2003, 144) broadened their analysis to include suicide bombers from Islamic groups other than Hamas, and found “little direct connection between poverty or [poor] education and participation in terrorism.”

Of course, the observations made about Hamas are even more true for Al Qa’ida and some other groups engaged in suicide terrorism. Not only is Osama bin Laden’s background obviously not rooted in poverty; his deputy, the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, is a medical doctor whose two grandfathers were presidents of the two main Cairo universities. Mohammed Atta, the leading figure in the September 11 attack, was the son of a rich Egyptian lawyer and had just earned a degree in urban studies at the German University of Hamburg. Terrorists from Chechnya, most of them female, are often mentioned as exceptions. According to a certain Russian propaganda, they are poor peasants often raped as teenagers: hence, they are excluded from the conservative local matrimonial market, and find their only alternative in suicide terrorism. Yet, one of the few biographies we know of these female terrorists refers to Zarina Alikhanova (1976-2003,) who on May 12, 2003 took with her sixty people in a suicide bombing in Znamenskoye. As reconstructed by two well-respected Russian journalists (Shermatova and Teit, 2003,) her biography fails to conform to the “raped peasant” stereotype. Alikhanova was born in Kazakhstan from a Chechen father who had become a Kazakh government officer, and an Ingush mother who owned department stores in the Kazakh capital Almati. She attended an exclusive German school, developed a passion for ballet, and starred as Juliet in a production of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet at Almati’s Opera Theater. She also developed a militant interest for the Chechen Islamist cause, and married a Chechen guerrilla leader who was killed in 1999, prompting her to become one of the “black widows” candidates to martyrdom through suicide bombing. We may say that themes of romantic love and vendetta interacted here with Islamism; but a marginal peasant Zarina Alikhanova was not.

In discussing these findings with colleagues such as Larry Iannaccone, who offered similar conclusions in a paper presented at the 2004 Meeting of the American Economic Association in San Diego, and later co-authored with me a small book published in Italy on this issue (Iannaccone and Introvigne 2004,) we had a clear impression of déjà vu. Where did we see all this before? The answer what obvious. During the “cult wars,” “cultists,” particularly these associated with instances of mass suicide and homicide, had been invariably depicted as “brainwashed zombies,” and their deeds were explained as arising from extreme poverty, mental illness, or cultural deprivation. “Cultism” in general was seen as a phenomenon best explained with deprivation, ignorance, or brainwashing. But academic criticism made these explanations untenable. Empirical data showed that in most cases “cultists,” including those involved in some of the most notorious incidents of “mass suicide” or homicide, were no more poor, ignorant, or mentally unstable than demographically comparable samples of the general population. The first “cult wars” of the 1970s and 1980s generated a large amount of empirical studies, nearly all coming to these same conclusions. A seminal work, which debunked such mythologies about the followers of Reverend Moon, was Eileen Barker’s 1984 The Making of a Moonie.

In 1990, the Fishman decision, which dealt with accusations of brainwashing allegedly practised by the Church of Scientology, stated that in the United States brainwashing theories were not legally part of generally-accepted science, and (although not unanimously confirmed by subsequent decisions) marked a more than symbolic defeat for the brainwashing theorists. What happened in Waco, in 1993, did not significantly change the situation, because a significant proportion of scholars, politicians and the media tended to blame the ATF and the FBI for the ill-advised management of the incident. Additional and equally tragic events occurred after Waco, however, and they eventually determined what have become known as the “second cult wars” in the second half of the 1990s. These included the suicides and homicides of the Order of the Solar Temple in 1994, 1995, and 1997; the gas attack perpetrated by Aum Shinri-kyo in 1995 in the Tokyo subway; the suicides of Heaven’s Gate in Rancho Santa Fe, California, in 1997; and the homicides and suicides of the Ugandan fringe Catholic movement known as the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God in 2000 (see Introvigne 2002.) Re-energized by these incidents, anti-cult movements again proposed as an explanation brainwashing by “gurus” who preyed on the mentally instable, the marginal, and the poor.

Once again, however, facts refused to co-operate. Biographies of members of the Solar Temple, Aum Shinri-kyo, and Heaven’s Gate were duly examined, and revealed that they were mostly middle class, reasonably well schooled, and apparently “normal” in all respects. In the case of the Solar Temple, members included millionaires, well-known Swiss socialites and prominent businesspeople, popular doctors, a respected economic journalist, and the mayor of the Canadian city of Richelieu. They did not even live communally: they took care of their respective businesses during the day, and participated in long sessions about hidden Masters, extraterrestrials, and the coming Apocalypse in the evening. Those who met them during their daily business activities did not suspect this other side of their otherwise normal and productive lives (see Introvigne and Mayer 2002.) Aum Shinri-kyo recruited many of its followers among middle class Japanese students and young professionals, including some with respected credentials in the field of science (see Reader 2000.) The founder of Heaven’s Gate, Marshall Applewhite (1931-1997,) had once been a university professor. Most of the members were middle class and well educated; one, David Cabot Van Sinderen (1939-1997,) was a millionaire and the son of the former CEO of Southern New England Telephone. Although we do not have enough information about the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God to profile its average member, it would be a mistake to blame the tragedy on the backward cultural level of the Ugandan Catholic clergy and laity. The most prominent lay member, Joseph Kibwetere (1931-2000,) who claimed to have received himself apparitions since 1984, was a solid member of the Catholic community in Uganda, who had been a politician and a local leader of the Catholic-based Democratic Party in the 1970s. The movement’s ideologue and leader, Father Dominic Kataribaabo (1967-2000,) was one the few Ugandan Catholic priests who had been educated in a U.S. college (Mayer 2001.)

When, eventually, the dust of these tragic incidents settled, the academic community recognized once again that poverty, schizophrenia, or brainwashing were not sensible explanations for tragedies, whose origins were rather to be found both in external pressure experienced by the movements, and in internal dynamics rooted in certain specific kind of millenarian ideologies (Bromley and Melton 2002; Wessinger 2000.) It is indeed unfortunate that most political scientists who deals with suicide terrorism ignore the debates which took place during the first and the second “cult wars.” Possibly, they could learn from previous mistakes made by colleagues in other fields, and benefit from a large amount of empirical research on “cults,” including those involved in “mass suicides” and other violent incidents.

This is not to say that movements such as Hamas or Al Qaida are similar to the Solar Temple or Aum Shinri-kyo. They are different in a crucial respect. “Cults” in general, and “cults” involved in violent deeds in particular, are extremely unpopular, and generally not very successful. They may have grandiose plans of converting the millions and influencing world history: but these are never achieved, unless the movement (in this case a “sect” rather than a “cult”) evolves “from sect to church” and moves into the mainstream of religion, a process which may require decades if not centuries. Hamas commands the respect of a large segment of the Palestinian population, and the Palestinian mainline media routinely depict Hamas’ suicide bombers as martyrs and heroes. Several Palestinian public schools are named after one of these “martyrs.” A Saudi poll, conducted in 2003 but released in 2004, revealed that almost half of Saudi Arabia’s population had a favourable view of Osama bin Laden, although only 5% would like to see him ruling the Arabian peninsula (Schuster 2004.) In early 2002, the BBC reported that, in mainly Muslim northern Nigeria, “there has been a massive increase in the number of baby boys called Osama - after Bin Laden. In one hospital in Kano, where there were celebrations after the 11 September attacks, seven out of 10 babies are said to be being given the name Osama” (“Osama Baby Craze Hits Nigeria” 2002.) By contrast, nobody but their own followers admires the leaders of the Solar Temple or Aum Shinri-kyo. No schools are named after them. If anything, their deeds revived a widespread anti-cult sentiment among the general population. When the leader of Aum Shinri-kyo, Shoko Asahara, was sentenced to death in February 2004, virtually all Japanese mainline media applauded the decision, indicating strong popular support.

In a way, however, this very difference confirms both several elements of the prevailing academic view of new religious movements, and its usefulness for scholars of contemporary suicide terrorism. In terms of the sociological theory known as religious economy, which interprets religion through the metaphor of a market where religious firms compete for the allegiance of religious consumers (Starke and Finke 2000,) the key distinction is between religious demand and religious offer. Religious demand, the theory suggests, is comparatively stable over time and space. Rodney Stark (2001, 119) argued that “religious diversity is rooted in social niches, groups of people sharing particular preferences concerning religious intensity (…) These niches are quite stable over time and quite similar in their fundamental outlook across societies and history.” The different niches are not of equal dimensions. Most religious consumers, absent exceptional circumstances, position themselves in the central, moderately conservative niche (see Introvigne 2004.) There is however a small but not insignificant number of people who seek extreme religious experiences, and are ready either to cut themselves off completely from the larger society, or to express their refusal of the social order through violence, terrorism, or suicide. The latter attitude is, of course, significantly different from mere social separatism, and much more dangerous.

From this small, extreme niche of religious consumers seeking ultra-intense experiences arise both members of extremist new religious movements such as Aum Shinri-kyo, Heaven’s Gate, or the Solar Temple, and candidates to suicide terrorism joining Hamas or Al Qa’ida. They have a lot in common from the point of view of religious demand: they belong to the same niche, and share a willingness to seek a kind of religion so extreme that they are ready to die and kill for it. Whether or not this readiness translates into actual incidents may depend from societal reactions to the existence of such individuals and groups.

When, on the other hand, we observe that Islamic ultra-fundamentalist suicide terrorists are much more easily recruited than extreme “cultists,” and meet with an incomparably larger success and social approval, we are shifting our analysis from religious demand to religious offer. If religious niches are comparatively stable over time and history, one should conclude that in many religious cultures and subcultures there is a small number of individuals potentially recruitable into extreme groups (Iannaccone and Introvigne 2004.) Not everywhere, however, does this recruitment in fact take place with the same success and extension. If this difference is not explained from the side of demand, it should be explained supply-side, as indeed the religious economy theory would suggest. The religious offer by the ultra-fundamentalist segment of Islamic fundamentalism is rooted in specific local (Hamas) or global (Al Qa’ida) grievances, is part of a century-old pervasive fundamentalist subculture, and is very different from the offer proposed by the new religious movements in the West. It would seem that in this respect the scholarly study of new religious movements has less to offer to those trying to understand Islamic ultra-fundamentalist suicide terrorism. But, at the very least, it has to offer the suggestion to look, for explanations, to religious offer rather than only to religious demand. That suicide terrorists are all poor, mentally unstable, or ignorant is a wrong answer, but the answer also comes from asking the wrong question. The question is not why in a given Islamic country there is a unique poll of recruitable religious extremists. In all probability, such polls exist everywhere. One should rather ask why the potential extremists become actual extremists in some contexts only, and not in others (see Iannaccone 2004.) Poverty, again, is a truly poor explanation. Rich Saudi Arabia produces more suicide terrorists than poor Mauritania or Niger.

Searching for answers supply-side suggests to look, rather than at the individuals and their real or alleged personal, psychological or social problems, at the organizations, and how they operate. The experience of the study of extreme new religious movements may offer here yet another suggestion for the study of suicide terrorism. What makes an organization extreme is not simply the use of strong (or “totalistic”) indoctrination techniques, nor the creation of a closed environment which it may be psychologically difficult to leave. This is common to several thousand “cults” throughout the word, yet only a handful of them end up resorting to violence, terrorism, and suicide. The problem with functionalist interpretations is that they try to understand religious movements by declaring religion irrelevant, and by looking only at how the groups are structured and operate.

In fact, there is no easy way to predict which religious movements may become involved in terrorism, violence, or suicide. All models are purely tentative, and human behaviour is often unpredictable. On the other hand, a comparative study of a number of tragic incidents which took place among new religious movements, may support the conclusion that trying to predict violence on the basis of purely content-neutral models, focusing only on the persuasion and influence techniques, or the psychological (if not psychopathological) state of the leaders and followers, will probably not lead to any fruitful conclusion. While the study of influence techniques is important, what makes a religious group likely to behave in a certain way is also the content of its teachings, and not simply how these teachings are imparted to its followers. Social scientists who specialize in new religious movements and cult critics are currently finding new ground for dialogue in the United States by focusing, inter alia, more on the content of each movement’s teachings rather than concentrating solely on their persuasion and socialization techniques. Obviously, the aim of considering the teachings would not be to produce a theological or philosophical evaluation of whether these teachings are true or false, an aim foreign to any value-free scholarly enterprise. However, that certain doctrines, or interpretations of doctrines, are more likely than others to lead to self-destruction and violence is a conclusion reached by many scholars of extreme new religious movements. It may perhaps help scholars of Islamic ultra-fundamentalism as they try to distinguish between different groups and trends, and to explain why only some of these, by no means all, resort to suicide terrorism and other forms of violence.


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