Conservative group or cult?

Ki sarita—I guess it’s a question of degree.

A commenter (Ki sarita) asks: Why do I call a highly conservative, insular, patriarchal Muslim group that I was involved in a cult? And, how is the group that I was in different from other conservative, neo-traditionalist Muslim groups out there?

Well, first of all, it took me a long time to be able to call the group that I used to be in a cult. Naming that is part of my recovery process.

And second, I guess it’s a question of degree as to whether a group is just hyper-conservative and inward-looking or a full-blown cult. The group I was in didn’t start out as a full-blown cult, and a lot of its teachings weren’t all that different from other very conservative groups or leaders that I had encountered before.

The group I was in was a cult, for several reasons:

  • The leaders interpreted Islam for the members.
  • You couldn’t question the leaders or you would be publicly humiliated or pushed out of the group.
  • No one could question the amount of knowledge that the leaders had, or suggest that there were others in the wider Muslim community who might be more qualified in some ways.
  • There was a lot of pressure to conform, and those who didn’t were made examples of.
  • Being part of the group meant adopting its worldview, and seeing everything through that filter, all the time.
  • The group demanded a large time-committment from the members.
  • There wasn’t much privacy in the group. A lot of decisions that would ordinarily be up to individuals or families were seen as the business of the group (and especially, of its leaders).
  • We weren’t supposed to attend other Muslim groups’ events or even have friends outside the group unless our intention was to recruit them to join our group.
  • We lived inside our group’s bubble as far as possible, and kept our children inside it too. They did not really have friends from outside it. We weren’t supposed to send them to public schools, or even to other Muslim schools.
  • We believed that only us (and a few highly conservative, hierarchical groups similar to ours) were rightly guided, and every other Muslim or Muslim group was varying degrees of lost.
  • We believed that our leaders had unique spiritual powers.
  • There were teachings that wouldn’t be made known to outsiders, or even to members of the group who hadn’t been in it long enough or who weren’t seen as sufficiently committed.
  • The group would fund-raise from the wider Muslim community for projects and programs that were intended to primarily benefit our group’s members, but would-be donors would be led to believe that this was for the benefit of the wider Muslim community.
  • State or local laws were ignored and treated as irrelevant as much as possible. We weren’t supposed to vote, or have any stake in the social or political system of “the kuffar.”

There are other things as well, but this will do….


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  1. #1 by ki sarita on December 29, 2012 - 8:35 am

    wow a whole post in resppnse! thnks!

  2. #2 by ki sarita on January 1, 2013 - 11:27 am

    Do you think your experience would have been different had you been part of a regular conservative patriarchal community that wasn’t a cult?

  3. #3 by mary on January 3, 2013 - 12:34 pm

    The cult is in many ways a microcosm of a closed society. I have been reading this blog for a few months and I can relate so well to it even though I have spent most of my time as a Muslim outside of any Muslim society (when I came to Islam, I did so as a result of my own studies and had never been acquainted with any Muslims personally). A closed social system that promotes very narrow and constrictive views, has no tolerance for dissent and punishes its members’ unacceptable behavior is a cult. Usually a cult has a figurehead, but in place of that, a rigid ideology will do just fine. Fundamentalist Christian groups can also be cults (there is an excellent book entitled God’s Profits which discusses this, as well as how these cults bilk their followers of their money) especially when led by charismatic leaders.

    The intolerance for differing views, the rigid social roles, and the patriarchy are present in Muslim societies worldwide. The attributes of a cult are also the attributes of rigid traditional societies here in the middle east, definitely, and from what I’m reading in the news lately, of places such as India and Pakistan.

    • #4 by xcwn on January 5, 2013 - 3:33 am

      Mary—Yes and no. The Cult did its best to create a closed society, but it went way beyond that. Because even in a very conservative society, there is more wiggle room than we had, partly because (extended) families have so much power over individuals. More than religious leaders have, often.
      But yes, I agree that especially nowadays due to the wonders of modern communication technology, Muslim governments and would-be charismatic leaders can have a frightening degree of influence over people. And cultish ways of thinking are sometimes promoted by Muslim groups that are not cults (or at least, not yet). It’s sad to see how critical questioning is systematically discouraged in conservative groups.

  4. #5 by anonymous on January 4, 2013 - 5:23 pm

    fundamentalism is fundamentalism worldwide, i am now completely convinced of that. thank you for sharing: i have learned and been able to open my eyes to more of my own background (fundamentalist homeschooling baptistic religion) through your posts. may we all continue to heal.

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