What Makes Al-Arqam Tick?
Members of the revived Al-Arqam movement were led to believe that they could possess powers that would bring down aeroplanes by simply pointing at them. They were also told that they could only fight the Jews effectively if they were members of this sect.
These "teachings" at a shoplot in Shah Alam were recorded by undercover officers fromthe Selangor Islamic Religious Department (Jais) who infiltrated this group several months ago. The undercover officers had mingled with the members and attended sermons at their regular meetings which were usually attended by about 100 members.
The officers reported that the members were made up of families who came from Kelantan, Terengganu, Johor, Negri Sembilan, Pahang and as far as Sabah. They were said to be educated, drove posh cars and also spoke fluent English.
New recruits were taken to Nilai to receive "blessings" from Ashaari Muhammad, the former leader of the sect. The whereabouts of Ashaari, also known as Abuya to his followers, are still unclear. For the past three years, the sect used a different name to recruit members. The sect is now called Zikir Agung.
Most of the leaders and followers are ex-members of Al-Arqam from 10 years ago. Even their chants and prayers are similar to what was used then.
One of the prayers was: Ahli yang berjuang dalam perjuangan ini akan mendapat power daripada Allah seperti mana yang diberikan kepada Rasulullah. Kemuncak kematangan Karomah atau power inilah apabila tunjuk kapal terbang dengan jari dan niat jatuh, maka jatuhlah.
(Those who fight in this battle will receive the same power bestowed upon the Prophet by Allah. The pinnacle of this miracle is when you point a finger towards an aeroplane intending it to fall, and it will fall.) (NST)
***** What struck me was the fact that sane, educated people could simply be taken in by claims of being bestowed with super powers! I therefore did a little 'Googleing' and came up with some interesting info on religious cults not unlike Al-Arqam.
"People who end up in cults are normal people. They are usually intelligent, open-minded and honest. They're willing to make sacrifices for the greater good of the group. They're interested in self-improvement and in the improvement of the world. The best kinds of people, in a way, are targeted by cults. Their very decency makes them desirable as cult members."
--Dr J W West, Professor of Psychiatry, University of California.
DEFINITION OF A RELIGIOUS CULT.
The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines a cult as "a system of religious worship; devotion, homage to person or thing". Nowadays, in the public mind, the word "cult" is more likely to be associated with brain-washing, manipulation of followers, public scandals over cult leaders' sex lives, murder and mass suicide, rather than religious worship.
One of the difficulties of defining a religious cult is that it is an organization in a condition of gradual change. A religious cult may be encountered in its early, middle or late stages of evolution. At its beginning the cult consists of a small group of people focused around a benign leader to whom individuals are attracted. At its end, it can become a manipulative, exploitative, multi-national organization. What most people mean when they speak of a cult, is a New Religious Group (NRG) which has acquired the characteristics of mid-late stage evolution.
It is possible, by using an evolutionary line, to identify at which point the group you are in or are considering joining, has evolved to, and how it might be expected to develop.
There are approximately 40 characteristics of cult life. However, in identifying a NRG which has evolved into a dangerous cult, it is really only necessary to observe the lifestyle of the leader and the attitude of members to the leader, to make a diagnosis. By the time a NRG has evolved to its mid-late stage, the leader is authoritarian, declaring herself or himself to be divine and is considered to be so by many of the members. Following the leader is believed to be the only route to enlightenment or salvation - as defined by the cult. The leader lives in luxurious circumstances at the members' expense, removed from the main body of the group. The leader is largely inaccessible except to a privileged few. The leader makes prophecies of future events which the group prepares to encounter. The members manifest almost unquestioning submission to the leader treating him or her like a celebrity or saint.
THE EVOLUTION OF RELIGIOUS CULTS.
Not all religious cults will pass through each stage and stages will overlap:
- People encounter an attractive, small group within which a leader has emerged or is self-appointed
- The leader is charismatic and people focus around him or her
- The followers gradually isolate the leader by elevating him or her
- The group enlarges and members form emotional bonds, united by common aims and activities
- The leader begins to change, flattered by the attention of the followers. Drained by the constant demands of the followers, she or he develops a distorted view of her or himself. The leader lacks peers with which to measure herself or himself against. The leader considers there is no earthly authority to which she or he is answerable
- The group continues to grow to the point where formal organization becomes necessary
- The group applies for charitable status. It runs businesses. By now, the annual financial turnover of the group is substantial
- The group is highly structured with several people in positions of power over others
- The leader begins to live away from the main body of the group
- People desiring power and control gravitate to the leader and form a clique around him or her
- The clique protects the leader in order to protect its own interests. The leader is now out of control - testing her/his autocratic powers to their limits. The power clique attempts to prevent followers from recognizing the deterioration in the leader. People on the fringes of the organization are mostly unaware of what is happening at the centre.
- News begins to leak out to the membership. The leadership comes under attack both from outside and within the group
- Law suits are served by the organization against those publicly expressing criticism of the group. Former members challenge the group with counter suits.
- The leader and power clique resort to increasingly extreme and desperate measures in order to maintain their position and silence opposition.
- The catastrophic denouément - public scandal, imprisonment, attempted murder, murder, suicide.
- The emergence of the re-formed group in a more repressive form than the original.
THE RELIGIOUS ELEMENTS IN CULTS.
Aside from fulfilling needs, a group comes to have a strong hold on followers through the religious element in the leader's teachings. Most people learn religious ideas from a young age when, because of their openness and vulnerability, the ideas penetrate deeply. Thus, the use of old religious ideas in NRGs touches an irresistible chord in many and renders members more impressionable.
-- A feeling of being chosen and therefore special.
-- Being ready to give up everything for spiritual development.
-- Ignoring warnings that you may be making a mistake.
-- Embracing the need to endure suffering and humiliation.
-- Being prepared to make sacrifices.
-- Relinquishing attachments to family and friends.
-- Becoming a more powerful person.
-- Accepting fear as a method of reinforcing teaching.
-- Giving to the group and accepting a life with few possessions.
-- Being drawn to the inner circle of a group by the possibility of miracles.
-- Not requiring proof of the leader's validity.
-- Adopting a childlike dependency on the leader.
THE NEEDS OF MEMBERS OF RELIGIOUS CULTS.
A SUMMARY OF NEEDS AND WHAT LIES BEHIND THEM
Self Improvement -- Person feels deficient compared with others.
Self knowledge -- Feel confused. Don't know themselves.
Self understanding -- Don't understand why they are as they are.
Want to make a difference in life -- Feel ineffective.
A sense of purpose -- Feel purposeless.
A sense of direction -- Feel aimless.
Meaning -- Life seems meaningless.
Answers to questions -- Why am I here?
A better way of living -- Current way of life is unsatisfactory: job, housing, relationships.
The companionship of like-minded people -- Lonely.
A structured way of life -- An unstructured life of doubt, uncertainty and insecurity
Personal guidance -- Don't know what to do with themselves and feel there is no-one they can ask who they have confidence in. Looking for someone to tell them what to do.
A sense of self worth -- Feel under-valued.
To be of service in ways which are meaningful to them -- Feel useless and unnecessary.
To feel optimistic -- Disillusioned; have suffered many setbacks.
To love and be loved -- Poor relationship experiences.
To be recognized and accepted -- Receive little attention from others. Feel rejected.
To feel special -- Feel inadequate and unacknowledged.
Power and control -- Feel powerless; at the mercy of others and circumstances.
To be influential -- Feel overlooked; nobody listens.
To travel, explore and have new experiences -- Leading a dull life with few opportunities for change.
Learn new skills -- Low self esteem.
These wide ranging needs suggest the reasons why people are attracted to a group and their reason for staying. Often it is so hard to leave because the follower is held hostage by their own needs. The follower has already learnt that outside the group their needs are not met so there is little attraction to leaving. If a person is to be encouraged to leave they have to identify their needs and know that these needs can be met, not in a way that others think they should, but in a way that feels right for them. People stay even when they begin to have an idea that all is not well, because the group has become the only place which meets their deepest needs and longings.
CAN THE RELIGIOUS CULT EXPERIENCE BE AVOIDED?
Anyone considering joining a New Religious Group would do well to first examine their personal needs one by one, as listed above. Then, explore ways in which these needs can be met which are self-empowering rather than subjecting themselves to the power of others.