Sep 29, 2017

Cults on campus: UK students being targeted by dangerous groups

Moving targets: Students are considered ideal candidates for cult recruiters
John Shaw
University Paper
September 1,2017

You probably don’t think of yourself as being a target for cults. No one does.

That type of paranoia is normally reserved for conspiracy theorists and those who wear tin foil hats to stop the government hacking their thoughts.

You probably could, however, describe yourself as intelligent, idealistic, well educated or intellectually curious.

According to the Cult Information Centre, a charity which fights against cultic groups, that is exactly the type of person recruiters target.

The CIC’s founder Ian Haworth, a cult escapee himself, estimates there are around 1,000 movements trying to enroll people of all ages – many of those setting up near campuses. Typically, cults fall into two categories. The first are groups basing themselves around religion.

They create the illusion they are making the world a better place, the average age of a new member is in the 20s and communal living is common.

Isis and Al-Qaeda have both been accused of being cultic in nature.

The second are therapy cults, which promise to make their members better people through self improvement.

They might claim to be able to rid you of that smoking habit you picked up while skipping games at school or better yourself through meditation.

Both use psychological coercion to recruit and retain their members and will have a dogmatic and charismatic member at the helm – think Charles Manson or Osama Bin Laden.

And both are looking to engage and enlist students.

‘Cults tend to make life easier for themselves and they go to areas when they’re soliciting funds where you’ve got a high density of pedestrian traffic,’ Mr Haworth told me.

‘And if you’re recruiting people why not go to a campus?

‘And if you’re turfed off campus then fine you’ll recruit just off campus. And they do.’ He added: ‘The easiest person to recruit is somebody who comes from an economically advantaged family background.

‘It’s someone with average to above average intelligence, it’s someone with a good education and it’s someone who’s often described as caring or idealistic and simply want to make the world a better place and have walked through the wrong door.

‘It’s smart people who are particularly easy to recruit. Certainly if cults are going after people who are intelligent and well-educated, well, why leave out university students? I would have thought they would be a key target group. And they are.

‘Students should be aware that cults are here and sadly here to stay.’

Joining him on the frontline in the war against cults is Birkbeck lecturer and former cult member Dr Alexandra Stein, an expert on social psychology of ideological extremism and other dangerous social relationships.

As a 26-year-old she was ‘captured and held’ (as she puts it) in a Marxist-Leninist group, in which she was told what to wear, when she could marry and whether she could have children.

She was put to work in a rather odd mixture of making bread and writing business computer programs with the promise of creating a utopian world.

After eight years, she escaped and penned a memoir of her time, Inside Out. She describes her book as ‘a cautionary tale for those not yet tempted by such a fate to beware of isolating groups with persuasive ideologies and threatening bass notes.’

As a former cult member, she is well versed in the recruitment methods of these groups. ‘You meet someone who invites you to yoga and they say “to really get the best of this you need to come at least three times a week”,’ she explained.

‘And then slowly it’s ramped up, “you need to come to a ten day retreat”, “you need to not hang out with those friends anymore”.

‘That’s the key. The starting to move you away from your friends and family.’

Dr Stein is desperate to see universities do more to protect students, who she says are in a vulnerable time of their lives.

‘I very, very strongly believe that the way to protect people is through education,’ she told me.

‘I would like to see programmes about what cultic relationships look like and how to keep yourself safe from them and there certainly isn’t anything like that.

‘I have tried to bend the ear of various officials and departments and not had a lot of response.

‘What I’d like to see is university courses that teach the stuff in depth. Generally this is not taught and it’s not rocket science, it’s not that hard to explain to people.

‘If I was the [head] of a university I would introduce this education on multiple levels.

‘I would have an introduction, some basic stuff. There are a list of warning signs all over the internet but we’re not using them at universities.

‘I would have courses at all levels – because it’s really interesting apart from anything else, it’s gripping stuff – that should be taught as full courses in psychology, sociology or political science.

‘And then you can also, if you train your professors, bring this into all kinds of other courses and you can also – in student services – train up some people to understand this and give talks or do film series.

‘If you took it seriously as an administration there’s many ways to begin sharing this information so it’s in the public domain.’

Dr Stein is also very clear students are at a sensitive time in their development. They are in a time of experimenting, pushing boundaries and accepting new friends and groups into their lives – that’s what university is about, right?

She said: ‘[Universities] have an obligation [to protect students] because, first of all, the stereotype of cult membership is weak, needy people who are vulnerable and want someone to tell them what to do, but that’s not borne out by reality.

‘People who are vulnerable are people who are in a normal life transition like leaving home or going to university.

‘That’s why students are vulnerable, because they’re in a new environment.

‘They’re quite rightly trying different things – we want people to try different things at that stage of life – but if you are unlucky enough during that period to bump into a clever and seductive recruiter you could be in trouble.

‘Instead of focussing on the false stereotype of a cult member, we need to focus on what the cults look like, what do the recruits looks like? What do their methods look like? ‘Because that we do know – because it’s a predictable phenomena – and then teach people about that so they can protect themselves.’

She added: ‘We don’t know the prevalence but we do know there’s a lot of [recruitment on campus].

‘There are a load of cults and a load of people affected but it’s very hard, no one’s doing that research and it would be hard to do anyway because a lot of these groups are secret. Every time I speak to anyone about cults, within 15 minutes they’re like “oh yeh, funnily enough I once went to a meeting of such and such” or “yeh, my sister joined” or “yeh, my uncle was in some weird Christian thing”.

‘Everybody knows somebody who’s been affected by this but we don’t talk about it because we don’t have a language because we’re not educated about it.’

So how do we tackle the issue?

‘It’s a question of activism and politics,’ Dr Stein said. ‘Look at the history of domestic violence awareness. When I was in my 20s no one really talked about that.

‘Now, forty years later, The Archers talks about it and if you’re a woman and you go to your doctor they ask you if you feel safe at home. It’s become, through activism and public health efforts, a normal part of our discourse. I think in a way we are in the cult awareness field where the domestic violence field was forty years ago.

‘We need to keep on pushing and pushing. Eventually it’s going to become, I hope, understood as being a public health problem that needs to be addressed.’

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