Saturday, April 12, 2003

On Cults, Saddam and Judaism

In the opening days of the war against Iraq, coalition forces - and international media pundits - were surprised by the degree of resistance shown by Iraqi forces. And they were left somewhat dumbstruck by the fact that Iraqi civilians didn’t rise up against the Iraqi regime in greater numbers.

While this seems now like so much ancient history since the regime has finally crumbled, the intensity of exuberance displayed by Iraqis celebrating in the streets, toppling statues and shooting holes in larger than life Saddam portraits as US Marines entered Baghdad points to a complex dynamic built up over many years of dictatorial rule.

The expression “cult of Saddam,” it seems, may be more than just a figure of speech.

Over the years, I’ve had an unfortunate amount of experience with cults that may help to illuminate this point. The first was in 1979 when I was traveling the U.S. by Greyhound bus at the tender age of 19 and staying in downtown youth hostels and YMCAs (more on that another time).

I met an attractive young Scandinavian woman at Library of Congress in Washington D.C. She invited me to come back to her house for dinner. She said she was living with a number of other international students. Always open to new experiences, I readily agreed.

Did I mention that she was an attractive young Scandinavian woman?

About half an hour into dinner, I began to realize that something wasn’t quite right. My concerns intensified during the after-dinner "talk" and slide show. When the name Reverend Moon was finally used, it confirmed my worst suspicions.

Flash forward ten years. Jody and I have just landed in New York after spending three years in Israel studying and working. A friend invited us to an informational meeting of a group called Lifespring. It sounded interesting: a Large Group Awareness Training self-help group that promised to help transform us into better, happier, more productive human beings. Who could argue with that?

But, again, at the meeting there was something lo beseder, something not quite right. The participants were too enthusiastic. The pressure too strong to sign up...tonight. They separated Jody and I for one-on-one sessions with a personal counselor.

The whole experience reminded me too much of a time in college when I thought I might make some money selling bibles door-to-door in the Deep South (boy how things have changed over the years!). The company representative pushed me to sign on the dotted line without thinking it over.

“If you talk to your friends and family you’ll never do it,” he explained. “And then you’ll miss out on an amazing and highly lucrative experience.”

After enough of these encounters, I was motivated to research the subject of cults in general. It turns out there are two main types: religious cults like the Moonies and "business" cults including organizations such as est and the Landmark Forum.

The religious ones are easier to spot: their members can be seen handing out flowers and flyers in airports, getting married by the thousands to complete strangers in steamy Asian stadiums.

The business cults, however, are more insidious. They have seemingly legitimate aims. There may or may not be a single charismatic head of the organization. They give out real tax receipts. Many people are truly helped. But their main goal is to keep you signing up for more and more courses.

My research showed a common denominator, however: the cult process invariably starts by banging down one’s self-esteem. The group leader calls you names, makes you feel bad, worthless, lower than a slug. Often times, the participants are encouraged to gang up on you. Then as you are feeling your absolute worst, the leader lets you share in a bit of power. Maybe even put down someone else.

This surge is incredibly powerful. And if it’s timed right, at the moment when you’re passionately urged to commit to the next step – to sign up for the advanced class series or turn over control of your 401K - chances are much greater that you'll do as instructed.

"Trainers" in these types of programs, writes Robert Carroll in the Skeptic’s Dictionary, “are not just teachers; they are sellers. Their main job is to motivate participants to buy more services, i.e., sign up for more courses.”

One other common element: a secret, almost coded language full of expressions only other members of the group share. Scientology, which counts among its members celebrities such as John Travolta, Lisa Marie Presley and Tom Cruise, goes the farthest in this area, promulgating a variety of cryptic terms like “auditing,” “raw meat,” “Sea Org,” “engram” and “pre-clear” that mean nothing to non-practicioners.

Advanced students also gain access to a mystical and outrageous “back story” involving symbiotic alien beings called Thetans, a bad guy named Xenu who lived some 75 million years ago, and an ancient plot to blow up the earth’s volcanoes with nuclear weapons.

Scientology founder, L.R. Hubbard, by the way, got his start as a science fiction writer. Coincidence? I think not.

What about Judaism? When I was a student at Pardes, studying for the first time in a more observant environment than the one I'd grown up in, I had my own concerns that traditional Judaism was itself a sort of cult. So did my parents and friends back home. After all, there were all kinds of strange rituals and coded expressions. A powerful feeling of group identity.

But there are some differences: Judaism doesn’t make you feel like crap and then build you back up in order to keep you in. And the rules are open, out there for anyone to read (with translations into every imaginable language freely available). Yes, one is certainly discouraged from leaving the fold and speaking out, but it is possible and done, quite easily, and more often than expected. No, Judaism, thank God, doesn't qualify for cult status as far as I'm concerned.

So what does all this have to do with Iraq? Not having been there, it’s not really possible for me to say how much of a cult mentality is present there and whether it’s more of a business cult (the business of ruthlessly running a country) or a religious cult of personality.

But clearly there was a strong leader who regularly beat down the citizens of his country with messages of extreme fear and worthlessness and made sure it was impossible to speak out, since someone was watching you, always. This was directly juxtaposed with the all-powerful army and security squads which were granted nearly unlimited power and prestige. Is there any wonder there was such loyalty to the leader? And such a sense of freedom when the icons come crashing down?

What worries me more than the cult-like aspects of Saddam's reign of terror is a growing realization that many of these same elements are present throughout the Middle East. We see it quite clearly in countries like Syria, as well as with the suicide bombers closer to home. Is there something inherent in the region that necessarily requires regimes to operate in cult fashion?

And more important: what will happen now that one of the worst has been taken down?

The phenomenon of cults is a powerful one, and one that deserves more attention than I can give in a single column. Click the Comments button on the website to join in the discussion.

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