I’m a Sunni Muslim, and that’s as small a group as I wish to join. When I took my first tentative steps on the path towards my Creator I was bewildered by the sheer number of Muslim sub-groups out there, all busy bashing each other while claiming to have exclusive access to The Truth of Islam.
As a newbie it was truly frustrating trying to learn the basics whilst dodging the odd obsessions of each sub-group. Having been blessed with a suspicious and independent mind I decided not to take anything at face value or on hearsay, and resolved to have a rummage through them all. And so began a merry trip through Salafi conferences, Sufi dhikrs, Tablighi taleems, ISB picnics and Hizb-ut-Tahrir and Al Muhajiroun lectures. I wasn’t looking for a sense of belonging, a substitute family, a leader, a cause or even a new identity so I didn’t sign up to any of them. (Drat…I could have made a fortune with an I-was-a-Fundi-and-now-I’m-a-Government-Stooge expose.)
As Groucho Marx said, I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member. Basically, I cannot hand over control of my relationship with God to any other human being or collective. I’m more than willing to be educated but I wish to retain my questioning fitrah – it’s what brought me to faith in the first place. Of course, I’m honest enough to acknowledge that I might have gained a better Islamic education if I had joined up. It’s true that it’s easier to learn when you enrol in a single ‘school’. But to do so I would have had to relinquish something precious – the clarity of sight attained from being on the fringes looking in. You glimpse a bigger picture than if you were tucked behind your barbed wire fence, trading insults with the deviant Others next door. It might be considered fence-sitting – but I prefer to see it as hovering over all of the fences, getting a good eyeful of their backyards. And what an eyeful it is! I could share my take on the quirks of each group, which might prove mildly amusing, but it wouldn’t be terribly constructive so I’ll resist.
Instead I’d like to comment generally on wierd group dynamics that can develop within a collective. Strange behaviours become normalised when your entire peer group is practising them. Conformity and obedience are prized beyond their fair due, and shame and guilt are invoked to attain them. If you don’t use your critical faculties, they atrophy. Within the group individuality, difference and dissent is threatening – for ‘we are Borg’. Questioning or criticism of the group, its leader or its beliefs and practices is not tolerated, no matter how constructive. How dare you say the Emperor has no clothes – off with your head! (not literally of course). Speaking of clothes, groups often enforce a uniform to encourage conformity and to facilitate group identification and it is more fiercely policed amongst women than men. People keep their doubts to themselves, afraid of being condemned (‘Astagfirullah, sister!’) or worse, exposed before the others as a dissenter. If that is how internal criticism is viewed, imagine how external scrutiny is received.
Every outsider critic is an enemy (driven by shaytan of course) intent on the destruction of the group and ultimately the Truth that only they preserve. And this paranoia is sometimes cultivated and used by the power elites within these groups, to isolate their members even further from any challenge posed by family, friends, or the rest of the world.
Inevitably, people leave the group. Burn-out rates are often quite high, but this doesn’t ring the alarm bells it should amongst remaining members. Instead it validates their high opinion of themselves as steadfast upon a path that is too pure, too taxing for just anyone to tread. To prevent possibility of contamination, ex-members are excommunicated and shunned, and in the worst cases slandered as crazy, unstable liars, with a bitter axe to grind. Some of which might well be true, in part at least– but it’s still slander intended to destroy credibility. Mental health can be a delicate thing, and these pressure-cooker groups are no places for fragile souls. Is it any surprise that damaged people are drawn to religion for its healing potential? Or that they are further fractured under the pressures of the Borg collective? There is no accountability for the harm caused to these people. Neither the leadership nor the elites are answerable to anyone (except their Lord) for the fall-out from their action or lack of it.
Bullying, power politics, oppressive hierarchies, kow-towing to privileged elites and cliques, misogyny, racism/tribalism, and the crushing of dissent, all manifest unchallenged within closed groups. You will find traces of them (to some extent) in any place where more than a handful of humans are thrown together – whether in an extended family, school, workplace, government or desert-island-after-a-plane-crash.
The Muslim Ummah is itself a huge collective, and it is beautifully diverse and dissenting – sometimes frustratingly so. But anyone who has experienced Hajj will know that within that diversity there is also inspiration and grounding perspective. If you fence yourself off within a group, that fence also serves to divide you from other Muslims, from the safety of the ever-challenging Ummah, and beyond that humanity itself.
I’ve deliberately avoided using the word ‘cult’, because it is an over-used accusation flung against whichever group you don’t happen to agree with, whilst ignoring the cultishness of your own group. All closed groups display cult-like characteristics, and we should be honest enough to acknowledge the symptoms, and tackle them when they raise their ugly heads. Left to thrive, they breed and create a strange oppressive culture that is as far from Islam and the beautiful teachings of the merciful Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) as it is possible to get.