In order to draw a clear picture of cultic groups, it is necessary to have a better understanding of the personality features of cult leaders due to the absolute dependence of cultic relations upon leadership. Almost all psychologists and researchers in this era are unanimous that the main part of this understanding is to be concerned with personal as well as psychological features of leaders that play a crucial role in all cults. Evidently, psychology is the science that may prepare the ground for acquiring a comprehensive knowledge of various aspects of cult leaders. In this regard, it has been written:
A cult cannot be truly explored or understood without understanding its leader. 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
Of these fundamental aspects is the leaders’ egocentric personality and unquestionable control over members. This kind of relationship is developed first as a result of leader’s charisma rather than the exercise of power and in itself requires some catalysts and incentives to convince followers of the leader’s charisma. Now the question arises, how cult leaders exercise their hegemony over followers and put them under effect. Clearly, cultic relations depend on members’ persuasion and absolute submission, however, going through this phase needs the preparation of required background, internal motives and incentives to the extent members get convinced of leader power and charisma and consent to participating in cultic activities. Most cultic groups recruit members under the disguise of educational, medicinal, and social services and then expose them to the process of persuasion yet political groups grab hold to different approaches.
In order to come to an appropriate answer, we can rely on the data and results obtained in recent studies on cults. In the book “brainwashing” the role of catalysts has been referred to but not elaborated on. Looking at the instances of political cults in the contemporary world and their cultic relations, the role of the factor of catalysts may well be clarified. Catalysts are, to a number of cult members, who play a key role in the formation and development of cults:
Cultic groups usually originate with a living leader who is believed to be "god" or godlike by a cadre of dedicated believers. Along with a dramatic and convincing talent for self expression, these leaders have an intuitive ability to sense their followers’ needs and draw them closer with promises of fulfillment. 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? 2
Organizational hierarchy present in all cults implies the presence of a minority group within cults that are of a key role in stabilizing the power of the leader to the extent that their absence in cultic relations may lead to the disintegration of cults. The function of these catalysts is different in different cults depending on the approach and policy taken by the leader.
The writer’s emphasis on the god-like status of cult leaders in the eyes of their followers is due to the fact that almost all cults have metaphysical beliefs rooted in their religious inclinations. Even the leaders of leftist groups opposed to metaphysics, in practice resort to the instrument of metaphysics as is evident in the reviewing of the last moments of the life of Stalin. There are a number of cult members who have a key role in the qualitative development of cults called catalysts and are traceable almost in all cultic groups.
In MKO, a notorious cultic group already blacklisted as a terrorist cult, a number of experienced early members play the role of catalysts. In the phase of the ideological revolution of Mojahedin, they played a key role in stabilizing the status of Rajavi as a leader. Their so-called letters of ideological revolution addressing MKO members had a dual role. On the one hand, they elaborated on the contents of the ideological revolution and Rajavi’s determining role in the history of MKO and on the other hand, they convinced members to follow the catalysts in recognizing the cultic and ideological leadership of Rajavi.
The statements of MKO’s political bureau issued and signed by these catalysts, who were in fact the speakers of the leader, implied their critical role. Mehdi Abrishamchi in his lecture on the ideological revolution which lasted several hours did nothing but honoring and praising Rajavi. He would state that the organization and its members need Rajavi’s leadership to understand the reality of the ideological revolution. Maryam Azdanlu, divorced from Mehdi Abrishamchi to remarry Rajavi, had also an effective role in raising the status of Rajavi. The main point focused by these catalysts was to make the leadership of Rajavi believable. They insisted to make members believe in the charisma and leadership of Rajavi. Their main duty, in Hoffer’s terms, was to undermine the power of thinking on the part of members and replace it with an absolute submission to cultic leadership of Rajavi. As Hoffer puts into words:
It is obvious, therefore, that in order to be effective a doctrine must not be understood, but has to be believed in. We can be absolutely certain only about things we do not understand. A doctrine that is understood is shorn of its strength. Once we understand a thing, it is as if it had originated in us. And, clearly, those who are asked to renounce the self and sacrifice it cannot see eternal certitude in anything which originates in that self. The fact lat they understand a thing fully impairs its validity and certitude in their eyes. 3
Therefore, looking at the role catalysts play in cults may clarify how leaders manage to exercise their authority over members. Reviewing the history of MKO since the execution of its early founders and intra-prison control of organization by Rajavi and his catalysts may clarify the determining role of these catalysts.
1. Madeline, Tobias and Jania Lalich, Captive hearts; Captive minds, Halter House, 1994.
3. Hoffer, Eric, the true believer, Harper & Row Publishers, New York, 1951, p.76,77.