What is the difference between a religion and a cult? It is not always so easy to say. Prof. Sam Fleischacker, a professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago-Illinois wrote:
“if your definition of ‘cult’ is a group with a charismatic and very odd leader who thinks he or she has direct access to the divine and spreads a theology that seems both heretical and confused to the established religions around it, then Christianity and Islam and Buddhism were certainly cults when they began — and no doubt the Jews were as well”
The professor goes on to list those qualities of a cult that lead it to disappear after one or two generations versus a religion that thrives generation after generation
1. Self-destructive, oppressive or anti-social behavior.
2. Unhealthy behaviors, or to the extreme, suicide.
3. Consistently draws upon itself harsh attention by the political authorities around it.
4. Oppresses its members or engages in attacks on outsiders.
5. Develops a shared vision that is different from and hostile to that of the society around it.
Islam is clearly a religion. It has survived well over a thousand years. The followers of Baghdadi, however, meet all the criteria for being a cult. Knowing the difference helps predict their behavior and how best to confront them.
Who is Baghdadi?
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was born in 1971 as Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali Muhammad al-Badri al-Samarrai near Samarra, Iraq. Contemporaries describe him as a shy, unimpressive religious scholar. From 1994 to 2004, he lived in a room attached to a small mosque in Tobchi, a poor neighborhood in Baghdad. He is said to have obtained a BA, MA and PhD in Islamic studies from the Islamic University of Baghdad. In 2003, al-Baghdadi helped found the Iraqi militant group Jamaat Jaysh Ahl al-Sunnah wa-l-Jamaah (JJASJ).In February 2004, al-Baghdadi was arrested by US Forces-Iraq near Fallujah and detained at Camp Bucca detention center. He was released later in 2004 as a “low level prisoner.” In 2006, his militant group joined the Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC) to form Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), also known as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).. Al-Baghdadi became a member of the senior council and the head of the sharia committee, becoming the leader of the group on May 16, 2010.
Al-Baghdadi was responsible for managing and directing the August 28, 2011 attack on the Umm al-Qura mosque in Baghdad, which killed prominent Sunni lawmaker Khalid al-Fahdawi. AQI claimed 23 other attacks south of Baghdad between March and April 2011; all of under al-Baghdadi’s guidance. On October 4, 2011, the U.S. Department of State designated al-Baghdadi a Specially Designated Global Terrorist, prohibiting providing material support or engaging in other transactions with him, and the freezing of assets. The Department’s Rewards for Justice program offered a $10 million reward for information leading to his location.
In 2013, ISI/AQI formally expanded into Syria and changed it name to Islamiic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The leader of the Syrian jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra, disputed this merging of the two groups and appealed to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Al-Zawahiri stated that ISIL should be abolished and that al-Baghdadi should stay in Iraq. Al-Baghdadi dismissed this ruling and expelled Jabhat al-Nusra from the Syrian city of Ar-Raqqah. In February 2014, al-Qaeda disavowed any relations with ISIL. The Nigerian jihadist rebel group Boko Haram split to al-Qaeda affiliated Ansaru and the Shakau’s faction which became allied under al-Baghdadi.
On June 29, 2014, ISIL announced the establishment of a worldwide caliphate with Al-Baghdadi as caliph, the leader of all Muslims in the world. This declaration was disavowed by Middle Eastern governments, other militant Islamic groups, Muslim theologians and historians. Al-Baghdadi joined the ranks of Jim Jones and Charles Manson, believing himself to be the divinely chosen master of all mankind.
Just as Jim Jones quoted the Christian Bible, and Charles Manson the lyrics to Beatles songs, al-Baghdadi relies on a fundamentalist, apocalyptic, reading of the Islamic texts. The prophecies foretell a great war with “Rome” where the vast majority of Muslims would be killed. The small dedicated remainder, with the help of Allah, would come back to glorious victory.
What motivates the al-Baghdadi cult? Why do they kill and what are their goals?
1. To build credibility as the leader of all the world’s Muslims. This is necessary to attract recruits and maintain his leadership.
2. To gain and hold territory. A caliph is not a spiritual leader, but a divinely chosen monarch over a great land. Deny him territory and he loses credibiltiy.
3. To start a war between Islam and the West, with al-Baghdadi as the recognized leader. This is why talk of a “War on ISIS” is terribly wrong. We fight terrorism, oppression, and violence. This is not a war on the people of the Islamic religion, or a military conflict between nations. It is an international effort against a criminal cult.
I recommend dropping their preferred name “Islamic State” and instead focus on the truth and their vulnerability as “the al-Baghdadi cult.” This also dramatically decreases their incentive to murderous violence. The threat of war is no disincentive. In fact, it is one of the things that al-Baghdadi desperately wants. What he fears is loss of credibilty. When viewed as a cult, every murderous act reinforces their appearance as criminals cultists. If we promote the paradigm of a war against the “Islamic State” then every death becomes a successful military operation. In the wake of the murders by the al-Baghdadi Cult in France, too many organizations have found it to their benefit to claim that they join the “war on Islamic State.” This includes Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, the hacker group Anonymous, the terrorist group al-Qaeda, and even the New York City Mafia. They are not helping.
How to fight the al-Baghdadi cult
1. Attack their credibility. Do not refer to them as “Islamic State” but as who they are, the al-Baghdadi Cult.
2. Recognize that the murderous acts are neither military nor religious, they are criminal. The motivation of al-Baghdadi is to gain power, not to promote Islam. Do not speak of war, but of international police actions to fight criminal violence and oppression.
3. Withdraw Western forces and provide diplomatic assistance to neighboring countries to defend themselves and fight aggression from the Cult. The efforts must primarily come from Islamic states in the Middle East, so that the fight for territory cannot be viewed as Western invasion.
The success of the al-Baghdadi Cult is self-limited. The damage that they will do is only increased by providing them with the credibility that Western military attacks provide.