Aug 6, 2016

Of cults, religions and individuals

Hurriyet Dailynews
August 6, 2016

The Turkey of today, since the failed coup attempt of July 15, is focused on one single group: The Islamic community (“cemaat”) led by Fethullah Gülen. The overwhelming majority of the nation, including myself, believe that the Gülenists, who have been in a bitter power struggle with the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) since 2012, were behind the bloody plot. This, of course, makes this particular community, or at least its dark side, the main enemy of the state. For me, however, it also reopens some of the deeper questions about cults, religions and individuals.

I noticed the fundamental differences between a cult and a religion in my late 20s, when I was personally trying to make up my mind after an experience with not the Gülenists but another, smaller Islamic community. Both cults and religions are based on similar metaphysical beliefs, I noticed, but there is a very big difference between them: A religion has a clear, open doctrine. As its believer, you are also free to choose how to understand it and how to apply it to your daily life.

A cult, however, has a secretive doctrine, and does not allow you to practice your religion in the way you understand it. It rather tells you that you can be “saved” only when you join the tight-knit community of “the chosen.” It tells you to cut yourself off from the outside world and to show full obedience to the charismatic leader who supposedly knows everything better. It destroys your individual mind and soul, making you, in other words, an apparatchik of a totalitarian whole.

Some people, especially secularists, can suggest that religion kills individuality, too. After all, religion also imposes norms on the individual and tells him how to think and live. However, the individual is still free to interpret these norms and commandments and to apply them to his life as he deems fit. (Notably, the same thing is true for secular philosophies as well, from Marxism to environmentalism. They also teach “truths,” but do not destroy your individuality, unless you make cults out of them – like, say, the Khmer Rouge.)
For an example, consider the institution of marriage. Most religions bring norms to marriage, from defining the wedding ceremony to fixing the categories of people whom you can or cannot marry. (According to traditional Islam, for example, a Muslim man can marry Muslim, Christian or Jewish women, but not idolaters or atheists.) Yet, besides archaic societal norms, it is still the individuals who meet each other, fall in love, propose and get married. In most cults, however, marriage will be regulated. The cult will tell you whom to marry, whom to divorce, or whom not to marry in the first place.

Similarly, religions will tell you to use a part of your wealth for charitable purposes. In Islam, you are called to pay the “zakat,” which is one-fortieth of your wealth. In most Christian churches, you are called to pay a “tithe,” which is 10 percent of your income. In most cults, however, your whole economy is controlled by the group, which gives the group leader the power to render you penniless if you go “astray.”

In my view, religions are here with us to stay, and there should be nothing worrying about that. But cults are threats to human freedom, and if they grow too much, even to the broader society. That is why we should strive for a post-cultish society – including a post-cultish Turkey.

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