Bin Laden fits the definition of a cult leader, experts say

Cleveland Plain Dealer/October 28, 2001
Michael Sangiacomo

Independence -- Osama bin Laden is a religious leader who claims his authority comes directly from God and who wants to destroy people and countries that do not share his rigid religious beliefs.

That points to him being a cult leader, concluded speakers at this weekend's Leo J. Ryan Education Foundation national conference, held at the Hilton Cleveland South Hotel in Independence. The conference ends this morning.

He can dress his sect up any way he wants, but bin Laden is just one more apocalyptic cult figurehead who cites his inside track to the almighty as justification for abhorrent acts, the speakers said.

The Ryan group normally focuses on domestic religious cults. Its members teach parents and others how to keep loved ones away from cults, loosely defined as groups that use psychological and physical manipulation to isolate people from their families and keep them slavishly loyal.

It's a logical extension for members of an extremist cult to graduate to violence and terrorism, the speakers said.

"Since Sept. 11, there have been more than 100 anthrax threats made to abortion clinics believed made by individuals or anti-abortion groups taking advantage of the chaos," said counselor David Clark, who spent two years with the Church of the Living Word.

Steven Kent, a sociologist of religion at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, warned the audience not to demonize the religion of Islam for the Islamist fundamentalism of bin Laden.

He said a religious group is propelled into violence and terrorism when its leader believes he is divinely inspired and on a mission to rescue the religion from being diluted. The fundamentalist faction wants "an unchanging, uncompromising set of beliefs and practices" that they feel is under attack by outsiders.

Such a volatile situation often leads to violence.

Kent said bin Laden's Islamist teachings found justification for violence against nonbelievers in the sacred scripture.

"They extol martyrs," he said. "They parade their bodies through the streets and praise them. They promise them rewards of 72 virgins in the afterlife. It's very difficult to reach these followers."

The dozen-plus speakers at the conference agreed that bin Laden's Islamist group was not the only dangerous religious cult in operation in the United States and the world.

Many of the speakers talked about their days as members of fanatical religious cults, days full of hard work without pay, hours of prayer, fasting, abuse and alienation from the rest of society.

They urged families not to give up on loved ones who were involved in such groups, no matter how futile their efforts seemed to be.

"Try not to argue about the belief," said Livia Bardin, author of "Coping With Cult Involvement."

"They are prepared to argue about that forever. Their leaders have prepared them for every argument you could make, and arguing only allows the cult member to reaffirm his beliefs."

Instead, she said, family members should learn everything they can about the group, its resources and jargon.

"Try to figure out what was lacking in the person's life that made them want to seek the shelter of the group," she said.

She said to keep talking to the loved one, planting seeds that can be nurtured until the point when the person is ready to leave.

"Never, never give up," she said, "especially when it seems like they are not listening. They are."

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