Shocking revelations about Maoist cult leader Aravindan Balakrishnan and his female victims in a suburb of London shone a light on the normally hidden phenomenon of cultic abuse which pervades society. The danger now will be that this is treated as just another sensational story before being placed on a journalistic ‘bizarre incident’ list along with Jonestown, Wako and Heaven’s Gate, as a freak occurrence.
Sadly, practitioners in the field of cult awareness know of thousands of lonely families suffering the loss of loved ones to cultic abuse with little recourse to help or even acknowledgement.
As a former member of the political cult Mojahedin Khalq, I am intimately familiar with the methods which Balakrishnan used to control and exploit his victims. As this case has highlighted, for a person caught up in cultic abuse there is no exit, they are in fact modern slaves. Indeed, the 2005 report on the MEK by Human Rights Watch was named ‘No Exit’.
If the experience of the daughter and the other victims in the Balakrishnan case are to teach us anything, it is that this is more common than we’d like to believe and that such ghastly behaviour – much like child abuse – thrives on secrecy and collusion; that is, the unwillingness of successive governments to acknowledge this as a widespread problem. More than anything we need to explode the myth that cults are about religion. They are not. The illusion that ‘new religious movements’ are relatively harmless belongs thirty years in the past. But for years, families and former cult members have been dismissed, even denigrated, as hysterical, malicious or delusional or have been exploited for entertainment by the media. No wonder they are reluctant to speak out.
Even when families do bravely confront the cults which have enslaved their loved ones, they find themselves battling litigation, intimidation and disbelief.
Government failure to engage with this phenomenon has left the public unprotected. While civil law protects a designated group of vulnerable people from undue influence, cult experts argue that anyone can be susceptible to deceptive cult recruitment at some point in their lives; people are usually in a state of transitioning when they get involved in cults. This emphasis on susceptibility not vulnerability is an important distinction because it places culpability directly on the intention and activities of the perpetrator rather than looking for deficiencies in the victims. The Balakrishnan cult case is unusual because the leader was prosecuted, not just because the victims were rescued.
Interestingly, techniques for deceptive psychological manipulation are already acknowledged and understood in various modern contexts where coercive persuasion is used for cynical exploitation and enslavement. These include partner abuse, grooming for sex, spiritual abuse, abusive therapy, extremist violence and terrorism. All these are regarded as morally repugnant. But as yet we lack a law which covers the activity which underlies them all.
In the modern vernacular, the term brainwashing is used by ordinary people exactly to describe an unaccountable change of mind and/or personality in an otherwise normal person. Bewildered families of young people travelling to Syria say their children have been brainwashed. The government needs to catch up with scientific and social understanding of this phenomenon if we are to be protected. Are MPs aware, for example, not whether, but how many fully brainwashed cult members are working in sensitive national security roles? We know they exist because as cult counsellors we talk with their families. Yet the phenomenon is glossed over as almost immaterial.
Cultic abuse – known in the vernacular as brainwashing – has a very precise definition. It is not about ‘using advertising to brainwash us into buying things’ or ‘brainwashing us into becoming docile citizens under government dictates’. These are false and unhelpful myths. Neuropsychology explains that ‘changing your mind’ is a physical experience which can be scientifically identified. Brainwashing is not about doctrine, it is about the psychologically manipulative techniques used to literally ‘change’ our minds.
In more legalistic terms it is ‘the deliberate and systematic application of an array of recognised techniques for psychological manipulation without the knowledge or informed consent of the victim in order to effect a breach of a person’s mental, emotional, intellectual and social integrity for the purposes of abuse, exploitation, slavery and/or pecuniary gain, and to so inhibit their critical faculties that they do not recognise their own predicament so that they may act in ways harmful to their best interests and the interests of society on instruction or by command or by neglect.
The advantage of criminalising cultic abuse in this way is that it is ideologically neutral and does not reflect any particular belief system but straightforwardly describes harmful behaviour. This would protect all our citizens and an obvious place would be an amendment to the new Modern Slavery Bill passed in March.
Prime Minister David Cameron has already uttered the word brainwashing in speeches about Radicalisation. There was no public outcry or panic. Ordinary people know what he means. What a law would do is to give a precise definition which would allow us to ‘join the dots’ between seemingly disparate events like the Balakrishnan cult, the Rotherham grooming for sex scandal and terrorist recruitment.
Indeed, public apprehension over the war on terrorism in Syria and the perceived threat of blowback, is the perfect opportunity for the government to introduce and explain the phenomenon of brainwashing in this narrowly defined sense as an element of the Prevent Strategy. The introduction of a criminal offence which allows the detection, prosecution and punishment of this abhorrent behaviour will aid public understanding and allay fears.
Anne Khodabandeh @AnneKhodabandeh
Anne Khodabandeh, a leading authority on cultic abuse and terrorism, works as a consultant within the remit of the UK Prevent Duty. After twenty years in the MEK, a dangerous, destructive mind control cult, she helps families through Iran-Interlink.
Anne Khodabandeh (Singleton), Iranian.com,