Cults, Terrorists and Religious Privilege

Tougher Measures against misuse of religious freedom

Berlin, Germany
January 18, 2002

by Hans-Peter Bartels*

In the fight for stronger internal security, measures in Germany have included revision of association law. It was only a tiny revision, but it was, so to speak, the kernel of the German security packet against terrorism. Paragraph 3, which circumscribed religious privilege, was quite simply deleted. Until then it determined that religious communities that maintained and implemented a philosophy were not associations in the sense of association law, and therefore could not be prohibited.

Manifold moments of risk

More than others, it was cults prone to conflict that were actually protected by this little loophole in the German law from intervention by the state. Although the elementary basic rights of their own adherents - health, life, freedom of will, family and possessions - were being violated by a sectarian organization, the organization had previously been unassailable. Now, however, that is going to change, because in addition to the conventionally known risks associated with psycho-cults like Scientology, VPM and doomsday sects like Fiat Lux and Metharia, a new set of dangers have entered into the public consciousness, fundamentalist Islamic terrorism against non-believers.

Until September 11, Islamic extremism was a specialized topic in Germany relegated to Orient experts in Constitutional Security. At first, these imported sects did not even appear in the official cult reports and printed material because nobody knew enough about them. Cult experts happen to be familiar with that sort of fundamentalist range, where religion, politics, business and salvation all come together. Revision of the association law is now reaffirming this connection. Whatever else they may be, Islamists, with their numerous, aggressive, mutually exclusive, militant groups and splinter organization, are not infrequently dangerous cultists.

One reason people can do horrible things to themselves and to others is that inside of the cult the rules are radically different than on the outside. The group extensively encapsulates itself and its activities off from its environment. It dissolves its adherents' social connections and binds them increasingly tighter to the group. The promises of salvation in the master's teachings represent an absolute claim to exclusivity by which the adherents belong to humanity's elite. Peer pressure, reciprocal monitoring, efforts to control thought, group jargon and an authoritarian leadership often describe the "true" thinkings of the community implemented in miniature. Contrary to pluralistic society, conspiracy theories are pursued to the point of paranoia. Apostates are archenemies.

Terrorism always starts in the mind

The Bolsheviks and their worldwide epigones were also organized in this totalitarian fashion; it is often used to describe Nazi ideology and Nazi cults. The external sect structure is not always recognized at first glance. On the Gaza Strip, some children were born into fanatical terrorist groups, some tape bombs to their bodies at six years of age. The Hamburg student, Mohammad Atta, one of the Al Qaida pilots in New York, he must have been subjected to brainwashing to do what he did.

Terrorism always starts in the mind, but especially in the minds of cultists who are as united together as much as they are separated geographically, historically and ideologically from others in their more or less unconditional battle against pluralism and freedom. These terrorists have a hermetic worldview; they perceive themselves as superhumans. But they are people, and they can be beaten. As the new German association law took effect and the religious privilege clause was removed, the Interior Ministry immediately took action. It banned the nationwide "Caliphate State" cult of the "Caliph of Cologne." The Caliph himself is presently serving four years in the penitentiary for incitement to commit murder.

*The author is a federal SPD representative. He was sect commissioner in Schleswig-Holstein from 1995 to 1998.

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