September 25, 2006
A New Use for "Cults"?
— Martin E. Marty
I spotted a new idea, or at least a new idea to me, for approaching terrorism, a phenomenon fraught with religious significance, or at least significance that scholars of religion might probe. This one comes from psychologist Marc Sageman, whose Understanding Terror Networks I must now read, and which was commented on by columnist David Ignatius in the Washington Post Weekly (September 18-24). Some may find Sageman and Ignatius wildly optimistic because, unlike so many administration and military leaders, they do not think we have to talk about the "dangerous killers" in the Muslim world as agents of a "permanent war, much less a clash of civilizations," or as the "21st century" struggle, a century being a long time. We do not need to think and talk in those terms "unless we make big mistakes" or choose to "go to war with Iran," and thus help give those terms new life.
Sageman does not believe we have to be "less aggressive in defending against terrorism," a threat which does invoke "horror," but we should "choose our offensive battles wisely and avoid glamorizing the jihadist network further through our rhetoric or actions." Psychologist Sageman's specialty is, of course, psychology, not religion. He interviewed and analyzed 400 jihadists, who "weren't poor, desperate sociopaths but restless young men who found identity by joining the terrorist underground." Most came from intact families, had gone to college, were professionals, and were married. Of whom does that remind anyone old enough to remember "the cults" — which scholars came to call NRMs, New Religious Movements — which flourished and terrified middle-class American families three decades ago? They are still more or less here — but mainly less; most are half-spent, exhausted, dwindling, unthreatening.
If Sageman is right, as Ignatius summarizes, "we are facing something closer to a cult network than an organized global adversary." The thugs who attract, gather, and send them forth "thrive by channeling and perverting the idealism of young people." Thus — my illustration, not his — the Branch Davidians at Waco were not Seventh-Day Adventists but "perverted idealist" spinners-off of Adventism. The late unlamented Divine Light Mission was not Hindu but an agency that was "channeling and perverting the idealism of young people." Are the ranters and demonstrators and extremists who make headlines and prime time now the poor of the earth? So far as I can tell, many of them match Sageman's picture, and bear resemblances to the "cults."
Scholars are uneasy with that word, but it might be useful to resurrect it and apply what we learned in the seventies to what is going on now. Al Qaeda and its almost as murderous kin are inspired by a version of Islam that unrepresentatively "perverts the idealism" of the young, gives them identity, buddy- and pack-mentality and inspiration, and the like. Sageman and Ignatius do not foresee easy times in any immediate future, but they study and comment on how old and spent the Iranian Revolution people from 1979-1980 have become, how movements like cults can move on and lose much of their appeal as time passes.
They are not proposing a cure-all; there is none. But they offer a clue worth following up on, if we have time and don't make mistakes.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.