Step Together recently looked at the push and pull factors that influence an individual’s interest in using violence for social, political or religious change (also known as Violent Extremism). When examining these drivers, researchers found many commonalities with other types of organised groups, such as cults or gangs. This month we take a look at cults – in particular what drives people to join, and also to leave, these groups and the common links to extremist involvement.
A cult can be described as a small group of people who have extreme religious beliefs, but are not part of any established religion, or a group who commit themselves to certain extreme ways of life or doctrine. Violent extremist groups are likewise committed to all encompassing, rigid, overvalued beliefs. The main difference with violent extremists groups is that they justify or use violence to achieve ideological, political or social change.
Types of violent extremist groups include ethno-nationalist or separatist groups (those involved in violent political struggles based on race, culture or ethnic background), ideological/religious groups (such as far right, far left, Islamist or Christian fundamentalist extremists), and issues based extremists (such as animal liberation or environmental activism).
There are many different types of cults including religious cults, where groups reinterpret and reimagine traditional scripture – usually lead by someone who sees themselves as a type of prophet (such as The Children of God), occult or satanic cults (such as the Church of Satan), “family” cults (such as The Family in Australia or The Communities in the USA), and new age cults, often founded on beliefs that its members are the spiritual leaders, and who rely on new age attachments such as shamanic links and spirit beings.
Social health issues and individual vulnerabilities are at the core of involvement in both cult and extremist groups. People often become involved as a perceived solution to problems in their own life – they could be feeling isolated or lack a sense of belonging, or they may feel marginalised, or worried about political or social injustices (perceived or real). Cults and extremist groups pray on these vulnerabilities and offer a perception that a “simple” solution can be found in the dogma and rules of their organisation.
As Author James Fry wrote, involvement in a violent group meant “I didn’t need to look at my part in my own downward spiral… All life’s troubles, it seemed, were the doing of non-whites. It was a relief to no longer feel responsible for my own – and others’ – suffering, but better than that, I was now being called upon to be a vital part of “the solution”.
Other similarities between cults and extremists groups include:
A literature review by Chapman University in 2016 looked at the main reasons that people disengaged from ideologically based or violent organisations, and again the findings show many similarities between cults and terrorist groups. The only major difference was that the research found that not being comfortable with the use of violence was an additional (and main) reason for people leaving extremist groups.
Disillusionment, which the review describes as a “disjunction between expectations and reality” was a key reason for people leaving both types of groups. In other words, the promises used in during the recruitment processes did not live up the reality. Likewise, social relationships and the influence of third party outsiders, in particular family and friends, were significant throughout the process of disengagement.
So, knowing that the influence of those around you is key to disengagement (and also in early intervention), how can you help if you are worried that someone you know is showing an interest in violent extremism, or cult involvement?
It can be hard to know how to tackle these issues at an individual level, but there are many things we can do to look out for, and support, those we care about:
If you need advice on how best to help someone you care about, call our Step Together helpline workers on 1800 875 204, 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.