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Autopsy of a Cult Leader

Autopsy of a Cult Leader (Massoud Rajavi leader of Mojahedin Khalq)

Most cults promulgate stories and legends concerning the cult leader. Research into the dynamics of persuasion has long established that the credibility and attractiveness of a message’s source are vital ingredients in determining its overall impact. Accordingly, cults credit their leaders with superhuman qualities. Lenin on the left and Hitler on the right are viewed in a semi-divine light by their followers. They are regarded as possessing uncommon insight into society’s problems, and with personal characteristics such as honesty, genius, and compassion which it is assumed will be attractive to prospective recruits. If such founders are dead then the present leaders, in effect, present themselves as the reincarnation of Lenin, Trotsky, Mao, Hitler or whoever. Often, the real problems of the leaders (such as alcoholism and drug dependency) are concealed from both prospective and current members.

– Tourish & Dennis, On the edge, 2000

It is meaningless to talk of a cult in the absence of its leader because formation of a cult depends on the outstanding ability of the founder termed as the leader or guru who charms and wins over followers. In fact, the life and survival of a cult is strongly tied to the leader that steers it. That is mostly because the purpose of a cultic group is to serve the emotional, financial, political, and in general power ambitions of the leader. Thus, the most important thing that obsesses a leader is power. The dynamic around which cults are formed is similar to that of other power relationships and is essentially ultra-authoritarian, based on a power imbalance.

Formation of cults has a history as long as man’s history; from the very days he lived in the caves until there emerged protestants to challenge pre-historic religions and beliefs. In all these instances, cults have called to change for the better; they have claimed to have attained, and of course are ready to share, occult knowledge and secretes beyond current human understanding. Therefore, every cult has something to offer and they exploit the weaknesses of individuals. They typically offer knowledge or wisdom that the individuals think they need to achieve an end. Often it is knowledge of eternal life, schism from a religion, techniques for enlightenment and happiness, or even achieving a political ambition.

In general, a cult cannot be truly explored or understood without understanding its leader. No follower is to attain what is he or she looking for unless through a leader who is believed to be endowed with magical powers or has connection to God or whatever higher power or belief system he is espousing. Some are so strongly possessed by megalomania that they publicize to be anointed to rule the world. A cult’s formation, proselytizing methods, and means of control "are determined by certain salient personality characteristics of [the] cult leader….Such individuals are authoritarian personalities who attempt to compensate for their deep, intense feelings of inferiority, insecurity, and hostility by forming cultic groups primarily to attract those whom they can psychologically coerce into and keep in a passive-submissive state, and secondarily to use them to increase their income." 1

Unfortunately, leaders often have beliefs which are very far from matching reality and which can become more extreme as they are encouraged by their followers. The predilection of many cult leaders for abstract, ambiguous, and therefore unchallengeable ideas reduce the likelihood of reality testing and hardly any follower dares to question or challenge the accuracy of the leaders’ status and the ideology they preach; “Gradually, the leader inculcates the group with his own private ideology (or craziness!), then creates conditions so that his victims cannot or dare not test his claims. How can you prove someone is not the Messiah? That the world won’t end tomorrow? That humans are not possessed by aliens from another world or dimension? Through psychological manipulation and control, cult leaders trick their followers into believing in something and then prevent them from testing and disproving that mythology or belief system”. 2

Although not all cults springing up like mushrooms in today’s’ modern society are destructive and malignant, however, most of them exercise extraordinary control over followers’ lives and use thought-reform processes to influence and control them and induce whole hearted devotion. Of course, this induction of devotion does not happen spontaneously but is the result of the cult leader’s skillful use of thought-reform techniques. Thaler Singer believes that “While the conduct of certain cults causes nonmembers to criticize them, the term cult is not in itself pejorative but simply descriptive. It denotes a group that forms around a person who claims he or she has a special mission or knowledge, which will be shared with those who turn over most of their decision making to that self-‘appointed leader”. 3

The power and hold of most cults depend on the particular environment shaped by the thought-reform program and control mechanisms that are usually conceptualized and put in practice by the leaders. Thus, it is the psychopathology of the leader that causes the systematic manipulative abuse and exploitation found in cults; “I prefer to use the phrase "cultic relationships" to signify more precisely the processes and interactions that go on in a cult. A cultic relationship is one in which a person intentionally induces others to become totally or nearly totally dependent on him or her for almost all major life decisions, and inculcates in these followers a belief that he or she has some special talent, gift, or knowledge”. 4

Hence, cultic groups and relationships are formed primarily to meet specific demands of the leaders, many of whom suffer from one or another form of character disorder. Some of them are even described as neurotic, psychotic individuals or suffering from a diagnosed personality disorder. We can conclude, and we intend to discuss it further, that before engaging to describe a certain cult, it is necessary to conduct a thorough study of its leader whose personal, behavioral features foster his followers’ belief in his special qualities.

To be continued




Thaler Singer, Margaret; Cults in Our Midst: The Continuing Fight Against Their Hidden Menace, introduction.

Ibid, p. 7.

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