Tuesday, November 28, 2006

What Makes Al-Arqam Tick?

This headline in the NST got me thinking: Al-Arqam promises members super power.

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.

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.

Not all religious cults will pass through each stage and stages will overlap:

  1. People encounter an attractive, small group within which a leader has emerged or is self-appointed
  2. The leader is charismatic and people focus around him or her
  3. The followers gradually isolate the leader by elevating him or her
  4. The group enlarges and members form emotional bonds, united by common aims and activities
  5. 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
  6. The group continues to grow to the point where formal organization becomes necessary
  7. The group applies for charitable status. It runs businesses. By now, the annual financial turnover of the group is substantial
  8. The group is highly structured with several people in positions of power over others
  9. The leader begins to live away from the main body of the group
  10. People desiring power and control gravitate to the leader and form a clique around him or her
  11. 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.
  12. News begins to leak out to the membership. The leadership comes under attack both from outside and within the group
  13. Law suits are served by the organization against those publicly expressing criticism of the group. Former members challenge the group with counter suits.
  14. The leader and power clique resort to increasingly extreme and desperate measures in order to maintain their position and silence opposition.
  15. The catastrophic denouément - public scandal, imprisonment, attempted murder, murder, suicide.
  16. The emergence of the re-formed group in a more repressive form than the original.
All along this evolutionary line people are joining and leaving the organization.

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.


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.


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.



Blogger warrior2 said...

1. I wouldnt want to pay too much attention to Dr West opinion. WHy? Well primarily because he is looking at things from the humanistic point of view.

2. Even from the religious angle, there is a big diffrence between cults on islam and cults of other religions. One must understand the mind of a moslem vis-a-vis islam.

2. in the case of alarqam with its latest incident, it is reported that those involved are educated (in what?) and rich (and i believe succesful people materialisticlly and in other wordly matters). It seems that the CLIENTS of alarqam are quite an elite group. what would be thier needs in relation to the list of needs as contained in the article? it is difficult for me to accept even one.

3. to me, just like many other members of other cults, it all boils down to IGNORANT. (Before you are elected to the senior position, you must be a member first right?) There just dont fathom and understand that "there is no god but ALLAH and that MOHAMMAD is the the messenger of ALLAH" and Mohammad is the last messenger and that ISLAM is a complete religion. They dont understand that after Mohammad died, there is no other TEACHINGS from ALLAH!

5:30 PM GMT+8  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To Warrior,
People who belong to a cult,in any deviational group of any religion are morons. and to try to justify that makes you a bigger moron.Don't blame on ignorance. For one..No religion teaches hatred and okays incest,rape and murder in order to go to heaven. Come on where is the common logic thats its ok to hurt another ? and to say Islam is the last religion is bull-shit.For you with your pea-sized brain, yes it maybe but dont look for such a poor excuse for a religion.
There are more important things in life then preaching... religion is in the actions we show our fellow humans irrespective of the color of his skin or ethnic background.
Until and unless you can see beyond these, you belong to a cult !Just don't be a hippocrite!

another pissed-off Malaysian.

2:51 PM GMT+8  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do agree with anonymous 2.51 pm MYT , but rather in a milder tone...
People like Mr.Warrior2 regard that their religion is the utmost..There's nothing over that issue..But don't simply overturn the beans to others which don't agree with you...Keep your preaching close to your heart..
I do understand, one of the qualification to be a good Muslim is to spread the words.But do it as peacefully, so people will love the religion not hate it.Do not pound your chest for your admiration for your religion, like a King Kong...Learn how to embrace it, lovely and show others how lovely is to be a Muslim..Not by scaring them half death...God had a purpose in this things...Even you deem other religions as cult in a way..
I do agree that Islam is a beautiful,peaceful and complete religion but the people who embrace them...A large portion of them are a disgrace for that complete religion...In the name of religion they perform terrorism,murders,human right abuses...and much more...For those other peace loving Muslims..and I have a lot of nice Muslim friends..Teach and show to these some barbarians on how to to practice the WORD in a way that is preferred by HIM...and still can call themselves a complete Muslim..

Totally against fanaticism....

5:01 PM GMT+8  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cult that promote super power? Zzzzzzzzz. Oh my, people, you must learn to think and believe only 50% of the story. A cult that play magic is not dangerous. Not compare to body that wielding the keris in public.

11:45 PM GMT+8  

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