Mapping the Cult Landscape with a New Lexicon

Why Words Matter: An Activist/Campaigner’s Perspective

ICSA Conference 2019, Manchester, UK

Presentation by Anne Khodabandeh

Over the past forty years many things have changed in the field of cults. For an activist and campaigner, it is important to periodically create a new map to explain the changed cult landscape and to think how we can navigate it with some new vocabulary. I have developed a working definition of cultic abuse along with some of the words and phrases I use to explain it as a starting point for moving this forward. Mapping the Cult Landscape with a New Lexicon

While I do not have academic expertise or research interest in cults, I have two qualifications for my campaign work. I graduated in English Language, Literature and Creative Writing. Also, I spent twenty years involved with the Iranian Mojahedin Khalq terrorist cult (MEK).

Since leaving this notoriously dangerous FTO, I have spent two decades trying to persuade people in power and in the media to recognise the MEK as a cult and to reject the group on the basis of its human rights abuses and criminal activities. Central to my work is the ability to build bridges between the experts’ knowledge and public understanding. (By public I mean anyone and everyone who is not in this field.) This needs careful communication. How can complex ideas be expressed in engaging and understandable ways without dumbing down.

The starting point has to be ‘what do the public already know or understand about cults’? As we know, many people use the word cult as a label, but very few actually understand what it means.

Public use of the cult label focuses on external characteristics – what the cult looks like from the outside. This is generally a reflection of the stated beliefs of the group. But, as we know, this is very different from the dynamic governing internal relations. As victims we want people to understand how the abuses that take place behind this façade of alternative beliefs are inflicted on us.

Certainly, we can be confident that there is already wide public recognition that cults are secretive and mysterious groups that use brainwashing or mind control and are generally perceived to be a bad thing to be avoided. This sense of cults being dangerous and harmful is amplified by prosecutions of cult leaders.

The most recent example is the Nxivm (pronounced Nexium) sex cult. Keith Raniere was charged with seven offences including racketeering, forced labour, fraud and various sex offences. Similarly, in 2016 Aravindan Balakrishnan was found guilty of rape, child cruelty, false imprisonment, indecent assault and assault in his Maoist cult.

Significantly, the label given to the cult in media coverage was irrelevant to the criminal prosecution. So, although the media was happy to use the cult label when describing how both the groups were run, focusing on the sensational elements of slavery and sexual exploitation, just labelling them as cults doesn’t explain the specific ways these groups are criminally different from other cases involving these same crimes.

Additionally, when we look at the Wikipedia page ‘List of religious leaders convicted of crimes’, we see straight away that none of them were convicted for cult activity. Which is odd because I think anyone who has been the victim of a cult will be able to identify specifically cult related experiences which would be considered harmful in and of themselves. Just the experience of brainwashing is hugely damaging on many levels. Like coercive control in domestic violence, we don’t need to have been physically assaulted to have suffered abuse.

ICSA helpfully advises focusing on harmful practices when making judgements about any group membership.

By moving away from the need to explain why any particular group can be described as a cult, we can begin to piece together wording that would make cultic activity a crime. When looked at from the victim’s point of view it is obvious that the outcome of being in a cult is harm and that the harmful activities were specific to cultic behaviour not the organisation or structure of the group or even its stated belief system. Cult victims clearly suffered abuse so when explaining to people what happens to them, I use the term cultic abuse.

The question is, can we bring cult leaders to court for cultic abuse? The argument that the behaviours exhibited by cults cannot be brought into a legislative framework is patently false when we consider that similar ‘psychological’ behaviours have been written into law. Examples are the Coercive Control Act of 2015, the Modern Slavery Act of 2015, prosecutions for child sexual exploitation involving grooming. And of course, the civil law of undue influence which protects categories of vulnerable people from coercive persuasion.

Mapping the Cult Landscape with a New Lexicon
Mapping the Cult Landscape With a New Lexicon – Why Words Matter

So why does government continue to ignore this issue? The simple answer is that we need to draw a line somewhere that separates cultic abuse from other forms of psychological persuasion. We need to ringfence exactly what abuse is taking place. Assuming that we can piggyback cultic abuse onto any of these laws misunderstands the government position. For example, removing wording ‘in an intimate or family relationship’ in the Coercive Control Act to extend it to cultic groups would also lay those who can be argued to have a devotional following open to malicious allegations. In this scenario, team leaders like Pep Guardiola and Michel Roux Jr. might have a lot to answer for!

Similarly, although cultic abuse shares a lot of characteristics with modern slavery, most active cult members do not regard themselves as victims and will implacably resist attempts to rescue and rehabilitate them. And unfortunately, the law of undue influence does not allow for criminal prosecution.

In essence, we need to convince government that we are referring only to a narrowly drawn, specific set of behaviours the result of which is abuse. Any definition must separate it from advertising, hard sales, political persuasion and all the other means that government uses to exert control over the social, economic and moral fabric of the country.

To satisfy this remit I began to develop a quasi-legal description of the specific ways that cults operate which encompasses deceptive recruitment, psychological manipulation, enthrallment and ultimately exploitation. One element kept coming up as the differentiating factor for all other kinds of psychological abuse – ideology or beliefs.

The distinguishing factor around cults that differentiate them from other forms of harm is this reliance on adherence to a belief system. I would even suggest that without the involvement of a supremacist ideology it is not cultic abuse. Supremacist in this case means not just ‘us and them’ as in ‘our tribe and the outsiders’, but ‘us and them’ as in ‘we are superior to all others’.

There are some who may say, what does it matter if there is no specific law against cultic abuse. As long as the cult leaders are brought to justice, what difference does it make how and under what charges. But let’s reframe the argument in a different context, a different landscape. One which some might regard as more urgent.

In the UK, when it was introduced, it soon became apparent to the affected authorities that work to fulfil the Prevent Duty obligations fell within the remit of Safeguarding – for both adults and children.

The greatest emphasis was placed on the education sector and schools in particular. The thinking behind this was perhaps based on how the Prevent Duty was rolled out. Certainly this allowed maximum contact with a captive audience. In any case, those tasked to prevent radicalisation were encouraged to believe that they were protecting vulnerable people and who more vulnerable than children? In the beginning, some training was nothing more than crude tick box ‘how to spot the terrorist’ profiling.

The only hint as to what radicalisation actually is came in a simple, easily overlooked phrase in the twenty-page document. “Radicalisation is a process that takes place in a relationship.” This was picked up on by many in the field of cult awareness, particularly those who had been involved in political cults.

As a former member of a terrorist cult it was self-evident to me that the process of deceptive recruitment and psychological manipulation which I underwent, and which is used by other cultic groups, is what the government meant by Radicalisation.

I developed a model for describing the process of radicalisation from a cultic perspective and took it into training sessions and conferences with a grand title: “From Attraction to Action – Understanding Radicalisation as Cultic Abuse to support Prevent and Channel”.

Mapping the Cult Landscape with a New Lexicon
From Attraction to Action – processes involved in Cultic Abuse

It turned out that what was self-evident to cult specialists, was not easliy comprehensible to others. Although some of the audience appeared to understand, the explanation of how victims are abused by radicalisation was mostly greeted by blank, uncomprehending faces and sometimes actual fear. Nothing had prepared those responsible for preventing radicalisation for an actual terrorist to explain how to recruit and create a terrorist

Among those Safeguarding experts who did ‘get it’ is consultant Abigail Clay who works with the Radicalisation Awareness Network in the EU. In an academic paper with Dr Al Baker titled ‘What is harmful about radicalisation?’ she identifies the problem. Government guidance lacks an explanation of what is to be avoided. In the context of Safeguarding, here is what she says:

“To say that radicalisation is systematically harmful to children is to say that radicalisation is a form of abuse. Abuse is defined in existing guidance as “a form of maltreatment of a child…by inflicting harm, or by failing to act to prevent harm.”  Radicalisation is not currently written of in UK safeguarding guidance as a form of abuse, but merely as a thing to be avoided; a choice clearly related to the avoidance of spelling out specific harms that radicalisation entails (once we say that radicalisation is harmful, given our definition of abuse, we must say that it is abusive).”

In the context of both Prevent and criminal prosecutions, the phrase ‘a process that takes place in a relationship’ can be explained by using a definition of cultic abuse as the map for the new landscape that we are in. I have a definition which is a starting point for development by anyone interested in this issue. Some will agree, some will not agree. I treat it as a work in progress.

My central argument is that if we use this definition or something like it to frame the processes involved in cultic harm as a map of the new landscape, then the paths and landmarks that we use to set our compasses and navigate it are the words we use. We can push for legislation based on this map and we can use it for prevention education.

In my work to explain to the public the complexities of cultic abuse, I use words and phrases that I have eclectically borrowed from experts and explainers. As a campaigner who uses words to explain and persuade, how these words are used are as important as their meanings. In my presentation I have used a narrative structure to explain the process of cultic abuse – with beginning, middle and end, characters and plot, motives and outcomes?

From my perspective, we need words that encapsulate and express the specific complexity of the cultic world but that don’t rely on expert knowledge. Words that engage the audience. For example, can we find a better way to talk about ‘cognitive dissonance’ for public consumption? Certainly we can borrow from other fields, like coercive control, grooming and modern slavery. As an example, ‘gaslighting’ is now a widely understood concept – critics spotted it being used in the TV series Love Island. Can we explain the particular aspect of cultic abuse we know as cognitive dissonance using this term? By building up a new lexicon specific to our experiences, the changed cultic landscape can be redrawn.