Jul 31, 2014

The trap: Cult thinking and conflict in the Middle East

July 29, 2014
The Nation
John Bell

In mid-June, I wrote an article about the attachment to identity in the Middle East and its deadliness in our times. Since then, a caliphate was announced from Aleppo to Tikrit, the situation in Israel and Palestine slid into war, and conflicts in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere are inflamed. The article argued that, due to an excessive attachment to identity, pluralism and allegiance to the state receive short shrift in the region.

The Second Arab Awakening and The Battle for Pluralism graphicMarwan Muasher, former foreign minister of Jordan, today Vice President for Studies at Carnegie International Endowment for Peace, recently published a book called The Second Arab Awakening and The Battle for Pluralism, where he puts forward strong suggestions to meet this challenge. Muasher argues that strengthening citizenship in the Arab world and encouraging tolerance, among other steps, are critical in moving towards pluralistic societies, and away from today’s churning chaos.

His proposals are on the right track, and their effect will be in the long run - if there is a long run. However, an additional step may also be needed in this pursuit: recognition of a trap that trumps tolerance every time, unless it is recognised.

In 2003, Dr Arthur Deikman, an American psychiatrist, wrote Them and Us: Cult Thinking and the Terrorist Threat in which he describes ‘cult behaviour’, a way of being that creates group cohesion but at a heavy price. The nature of cult thinking is as follows: compliance with a group; dependence on a leader; avoiding dissent; and devaluing the outsider.

The very word cult can put people off; who wants to think that they are part of a cult? If we examine these traits, they seem like they apply to extremists but they are applicable to behaviour in corporations, nations, and even friendships. We are social beings, instantly attracted to belonging, but, in that process, the above tendencies also come along for the ride. Imagine a world where we look up to a grand leader who knows best, and group cohesion negates all outside its silo. Superiority of the insider ensues with potentially deadly consequences. Indeed, ‘cult behaviour’ can explain much in Middle East politics.

Cult behaviour in the Middle East

Egyptians made a U-turn back to authoritarianism under General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi: Dependence on a leader seems preferable to other options. Leader worship continues among many in Turkey: Once it was Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, today, it is Recep Erdogan.

The intense cohesion of an ideological group such as Hezbollah requires compliance and avoidance of dissent. Devaluation of outsiders is found in extremist Jewish settlers, as in other groups in the region. Devaluing the other is a crucial dimension. Once outsiders are seen as less, or non-human, this is the first step towards violence against them. In the Middle East, where group identity is often intense and sacrosanct, these risks of are high.

Throughout the region, groups and sects are set upon each other, Sunni vs Shia, Israeli vs Palestinian, Muslim Brother vs liberal. In the vicious and unforgiving cycles of violence in the region, someone at some point has devalued the other and contributed to inflammation. The Middle East is a region with ancient cultures that will not easily entertain the idea of falling into ‘cult behaviour’. Cults are unacceptable, while cultures derive from respected traditions and define us. The reality, however, is that, under certain conditions, cultures that perpetuate dependence on a leader and lack of dissent will lead to distrust and conflict.

In the region today, national, religious and sectarian ideologies that sharpen the difference between them and us are rampant. Whether inspired by outside manipulators or not, the trap exists. As long as any group or nation perceives itself as fundamentally superior, they will wish for advantage over others. As long as they are compliant on the inside, they will distrust what is outside.

Most importantly, a cult mentality explains why many in the region enact the most grotesque acts against their enemy, ‘they are not us, they are not even them - they are nothing’. The overwhelming trend is to prevail rather than cooperate. As someone from the Middle East told me recently, ‘when the wolf lies down with the lamb, we want to make sure we are the wolf.’

Criticism and pluralism

The development of a citizen in Iraq or Syria, or any country, requires the rule of law but that, in turn, needs a diminishing of the cult outlook so diverse groups perceive each other at ‘eye level’. We keep our identities, but would neither look up to our leaders nor down on outsiders. There is no inherent reason why the various sects cannot live together in Lebanon, or Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land - cult thinking creates the exclusive mind, and its violent consequence.

Such shifts in perception need to pervade policy and politics, otherwise there will be no sustainable political agreements. Politicians may try to manipulate our cult instincts to gain power, but, at the end of the day, it is the citizen who must avoid the trap, and put a limit to allegiance. Pluralism is a key objective but it will need to be buttressed by education about cult behaviour.

Without mastering this very human tendency, we will remain in turmoil, hoping for a rare leader to save us, or wishing for common ground without knowing why we are unable to reach it. Or, we will simply fight it out to the end of days, as is happening throughout the Middle East. Voltaire said, ‘to learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticise’. As Muasher suggests, learning critical thinking is crucial. Observing ourselves instead of others is also a necessary but difficult step, especially in a region where critiquing one’s own group is a taboo, and blaming outside conspiracy is a common habit.

Furthermore, the well-developed reflex in the region and elsewhere is to bind more strongly to one’s group under threat. It happens when the Alawite is scared of Sunni revenge, the Sunni is terrified of Shia hegemony, or the Kurd is fighting the Turk. However, intense clinging to our groups can lead to a distortion of reality to make it fit into national or sectarian silos. Deikman calls this ‘diminished realism’, a world of illusions and high emotion, where we receive less necessary information. Contrary to instincts, exiting cults into the eye-level world provides a more realistic view of rivals, and permits us to deal more effectively with them.

What drives people towards cult behaviour are the natural and universal desires to feel secure and have a meaningful life, including through our group and traditions. Indeed, there is much that is beautiful in culture and history. We can be proud of our groups and depend on them, but there must be a limit to their influence, a place where identity stops, and another aspect of being human begins. Whether victim or oppressor, we need to depart from the prison of violence that cults proffer, and become masters of our own house. Then, another reality may appear. As Deikman succinctly states, ‘there is no Them, there is only Us.’

John Bell is Director of the Middle East Programme at the Toledo International Centre for Peace in Madrid. He is a former UN and Canadian diplomat, and served as Political Adviser to the Personal Representative of the UN Secretary-General for southern Lebanon and adviser to the Canadian government.–Aljazeera