As a former Islamist who was recruited as a teenager, Ahmad Mansour makes the argument that Islamist groups function as cults with the Imam as guru, recruiting the disaffected and using group bonding to insure affiliation. It’s not a new argument and it undersells the extent to which this is Islam, rather than a fringe element, but his story is nevertheless interesting in some ways.
At 13-years of age, I was a shy boy with wild curly hair. I was keen on playing football and I would regularly quarrel with my grandparents. Until then, the world I knew reached the end of our dusty Arab village near Tel Aviv.
There’s an idea that some people have that this isn’t going on within Israel. That Israel 48 is somehow different than Israel 67. It’s not. The Muslim Brotherhood is active everywhere.
I was a good pupil, but had difficulties finding friends, because my shyness often got in the way. So I felt flattered when one day our local imam took an interest in me. He stopped me on my way to school telling me he wanted to talk to me.
After telling me I was a good boy, he said he saw potential in me for bigger things. When he proclaimed: “Islam needs you, my son!” I listened to him with wide eyes and open ears…
To hear that I belonged to a people that had once been great and powerful filled me with exhilaration. But the best thing was I had finally found friends and we were united by a common purpose.
The Islamic school helped broaden my horizons. For the first time I could imagine a world beyond the edge of our village. In a ramshackle bus we would travel to seminars on Islam in other cities. There we saw imams who had attained superstar status. We accompanied our imam to weddings or excursions to lakes or sacred sites. Excitement had come into my once dreary life.
People often forget that a large part of the appeal of Islam is that it exists with few alternatives. The less the argument against Islam is made, the more it thrives.
And there is a reason why Islamists try to outlaw everything that is not Islam. Because it leaves their followers with no alternatives and no other action.
Our imam was verbose on the matter. Women were particularly dangerous; looking at them was forbidden, holding hands was forbidden and unveiled women were doomed to hell.
From that moment we weren’t allowed to feel affection for our female classmates. Instead they became enemies; creatures intended to lead us astray.
Destroying and undermining family life is key to Islam. Family life is at the center of individuality. And individuality is the enemy. You don’t want people breaking off and starting a new life, you want them bringing in ‘property’ into the cult.
Arab girls, Jews and drinking villagers were the prime enemies in our midst, but the imam disclosed that in the outside world there were more foes: Christians, Americans, Europeans, Nationalists and Communists. They were all our enemies and aligned with the Devil. Our imam preached that a cruel and agonizing death was in store for them.
And the Imam used cult-like rituals to impose that sense of commitment.
Late in the evening we went to our village cemetery in our imam’s old car. As we got out, we recognised the cemetery’s little wall in the darkness. The whole group followed the imam who was muttering surahs. Around us there was nothing but the silver moonlight lighting our path between the graves. Finally we stood at the front of an open, freshly excavated grave. There the imam commanded us to stand around in a semicircle.
With sudden and loud exclamations he said: “Think of your death! Think of your encounter with Allah! Bear in mind that you are all going to end here! Maybe tomorrow or in a month!” Then we were told to each climb down into the hole and lie flat one by one. It was a test of courage, but also a bizarre initiation ceremony. As we descended into the dugout one after another, the imam kept calling: “For all the people who didn’t follow Allah in their lives, snakes and demons are waiting in their graves to beat and torture them for all eternity!”
For me it was a traumatic experience, but none of us broke away; we remained faithful to the imam.
Such symbolic acts are meant to encourage followers to ‘kill themselves’ by separating from their life and embracing their life in the cult instead. It enables them to think of life as death and of death as life.
Once adolescents come under the spell of Salafist preachers they begin to act as cult members: limp marionettes held by an iron hand. Critical thinking is not tolerated