Cults, Grooming and Culpability

25th February 2019

I find the idea that Shemima Begum was groomed both intriguing and problematic. I have consistently said that IS behaves like a cult. Indeed, it conforms in many ways with a range of indicators that it operates in a cult-like manner.

  • Powerful and exclusive dedication/devotion to an explicit person or creed.
  • Their use of “thought-reform” programmes to integrate, socialise, persuade and therefore control members.
  • A well thought through recruitment, selection and socialisation process.
  • Attempts to maintain psychological and physical dependency among cult members.
  • Cults insist on reprogramming the way people see the world.
  • Consistent exploitation of group members specifically to advance the leaders goals.
  • Cults nearly always go in for milieu control signals: a different, unfamiliar setting with different rules, terms, behaviour patterns.
  • Ultimately using psychological and physical harm to cult members, their friends and relatives and possibly the community as a whole.

Typically, people join cults because they fall in love with a beautiful dream. They see something they desperately want or need. They feel like they have found “The Answer” to life’s problems.

A number of cults have ended in extreme violence. However, it is important to recognise that IS is rather different from many of those cults that terminated in bloodshed. From the outset, IS rejoiced in, glorified and publicised its violence. Even Charles Manson did not do this: he morphed into the devil, he didn’t start out like that. The Manson Family is an example of the worst and most brutal and twisted ideology.. It started out like many hippie communes did at the time, with ample hallucinogenic drugs, sex and free love. Surrounded by his misfits and drop outs and in a chemically induced psychosis Manson persuaded his followers that he was Jesus Christ: as you do. The experiment in a new way of living metamorphosed into a race war and ultimately cut open a pregnant woman. Enter ‘The Girls’: the three women who carried out this act and other atrocities. Ran away from home at 15 following ‘parental disconnect’ and were taken in – in all senses of that phrase – by Manson. He provided them with stability and security and a purpose in life they lacked. Charles Manson received a life sentence not because he committed these atrocities but because he persuaded – we might now use the word groomed – others to do it. I don’t know of anyone who has ever publicly declared there was any justification in either these beliefs or the actions that stemmed from these beliefs.

The belief in a Caliphate – or any other Utopia based on mainstream religion – is not unusual or even especially frowned upon. I know many Muslims who think it would be ‘nice’ but aren’t prepared to join a Proscribed Organisation to create it. For this reason I think that it is essential that we develop a discourse that challenges the mindset that supports the belief that the world would be a better place if we all thought, believed and acted in exactly the same way. The consequences of such a dystopian vision has been  disaster: every time and every place it has been attempted.

So why did Shemima join a Proscribed Organisation?

She has told us that ‘I wanted to get married and my parents wouldn’t let me.’ (Heard that one before). She has told us ‘I was just a housewife.’ (Heard that one before). She has told us ‘it was nice at first just like in the videos.’ (Really).

Here’s the thing. Shamima wasn’t sold a lie. She knew exactly what she thought she was getting into. The reason she wants out now isn’t because she no longer wants to live in IS’s particular Islamic State. Shamima Begum is an Islamist. She did not join IS to live quietly, minding her own business, bothering no one, living the dream life: which is what most cult members do; at least at the start. She joined a group with a clear, stated and well demonstrated mission – long before she joined it and indeed the reason she joined it – of converting the world to a particular vision of Islam. Extreme violence was always part of the deal. This is so, for her and for far too many others. Her view was that a life married to a man her parents would never have allowed her to marry was ‘agency’. She believed that the violence she witnessed was ‘Islamically allowed.’ So it ‘didn’t faze’ her.

So, back to grooming. Should we be saying that everyone who has bad or wrong thoughts and beliefs – which she does – has been groomed. I’m unconvinced. The world is full of people with bad or wrong thoughts and beliefs. Our prisons are full of people who have acted on wrong thoughts and beliefs.

Were they groomed?

Were they radicalised?

Or did they just do  what they wanted to do?

Shamima Begum wanted to live in a Caliphate. This is precisely what she did.  That is where we need to start and end this discussion.