BBC “Today Programme” ignores the cult-like nature of ISIS recruitment of young women in the UK
I should begin, perhaps, by declaring my own stance on this. From my professional experience, and given its behaviour towards others, even fellow-Muslims, I believe that ISIS bears all the first-order markers of a malignant, destructive cult. Consequently it is very worrisome that neither governments nor media have courage enough to name that aspect, let alone to act in an intelligent way to combat it. By failing to spell out the cult-like nature of ISIS and other similar closed-off Islamist organisations, media and governments are endangering their people, including the Muslims in the West who want nothing to do with ISIS.
On 30th December 2015, on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Mishal Husain interviewed a young Muslim woman who had been targeted for recruitment on Twitter by ISIS but who had been rescued by an all faith group which appealed to her interest in football. As the interview unfolded it became clear that the BBC’s questions were selective, and not once did Husain probe or ask questions of the woman which might indicate why she thought she might have been targeted. Also significant by its absence was any acknowledgement by Husain of the sense of alienation of such young Muslim women because of their inferior status in comparison to males among other things, accorded them by Islamic teaching.
I take most of my source material below from the excellent book by Steven Hassan, “Combatting Cult Mind Control”  which I have found useful to inform my work with people whose families approached me for help. Although one cannot map completely the effects of cult membership in general onto such a widespread belief system as Islam, I would argue that once Islam shades into Islamism, it takes on many of the psychological characteristics of other closed destructive cults.
Hassan says that cult recruiters are powerfully persuasive and seductive to newcomers. The BBC interview threw up one important nugget of information from the young woman Husain interviewed – about the pleasantness of the approach from the ISIS member. Hassan tell us that recruiters are taught to size up the newcomer, and to package the group in a way which will appeal. The young interviewee told us that ISIS promised to care for her and protect her, which of course begs the question of why this sense of being cared for and protected was missing in the life she already had.
Hassan points up the difference between mind control (for our purposes as exerted by ISIS) and brainwashing. The latter is coercive from the beginning, rather than seductive. We are told that mind control as practised by destructive cults is a social process, enforced by large groups of people, in which the recruit is totally immersed in the cult environment and where, in order to function, he must shed his old identity and adopt the new identity desired by the group. Hassan tells us that hypnotic processes are combined with group dynamics to create a potent indoctrination effect. Destructive cults like ISIS also instil fears and phobias into their recruits in order to control them utterly.
ISIS manages the recruit’s physical reality by behaviour control and the induction of phobias about the punishments meted out to transgressors against the group’s norms beds this in effectively. Individualism is discouraged, if not punished. Ritual behaviours are also employed alongside lengthy sermons from the group’s religious leaders about the necessity to spread Islam by violent means and to obliterate kufr.
Alongside that comes thought control, by which the members of the groups are so thoroughly indoctrinated with the group’s doctrine that they internalise it. This may or may not put a slightly different slant on the mantra usually offered by the families of particularly sociopathic ISIS members such as Jihadi John – that these were good young people, non-violent, etc etc – but it certainly illustrates the success of ISIS indoctrination and those parents’ own failure to form sufficiently strong attachments with their children to confer the necessary emotional resilience for them to be able to withstand such approaches or resist seeking them out.
In addition, there is the accompanying doctrine of absolutist, black and white thinking. There are no shades of grey, no nuanced approaches. Hassan says that destructive cults also employ “loaded language” of words and expressions. Certain words trigger emotional and cognitive responses and complex situations are condensed into cult clichés, all of which influence thought and behaviour.
ISIS probably inculcates thought stopping rituals so that its members can be taught to block out any information which is critical of it and/or does not tie in with its leaders’ teachings. However, whereas in most destructive cults simple denial then kicks in when their beliefs are contradicted, ISIS and Islamist groups in general tend to ratchet up their violent reactions.
ISIS also controls its members by fear, of its own violence towards anyone who does not conform to its rigid teachings, including its own members. Islam in general is inclined towards a fortress mentality which, along the same lines as I have already described above, thrives in the rigid, dichotomous, black and white thinking which typifies Islamic teaching in general. Such a mentality predisposes to suspicion about outsiders and also makes reality testing difficult generally, but for an ISIS follower that becomes impossible, which means that ISIS leaders exercise information control too:
The controlling of information by leaders is the last component of mind control, according to Hassan. Deny a person the information s/he needs and you paralyse the ability to make decisions. It is likely that ISIS’ behaviour is similar to that of other destructive cults in that it either actively lies to its followers and/ or withholds information. That it does lie is evidenced in the accounts of Muslims who have fled from it, particularly the women, who had joined because their recruiters had promised to take care of and protect them but then relegated them to slavery to the ISIS males.
The young Muslima interviewed by Husain was rescued by the interfaith group, and this indicates that ISIS’ hold over her was minimal at the time of that intervention. However, rather than posit intelligent, analytical reasons for the success of online recruitment to ISIS, Husain could offer nothing beyond the usual “alienation from wider society” excuse for the young woman having been such a ready target for them. Instead we got the usual BBC default value – the implication that “alienation” was, as always, the fault of non-Muslims was allowed to continue unchallenged.
From my own literature searches, very few have addressed even in a rudimentary way, the ongoing emotional alienation of the young within Muslim families and Muslim societies. One thought-provoking article by Mohammed Ilyas in the Journal of Terrorism Research – whilst it does attempt psychological analysis – at times comes close to the usual excuse making and fails completely to address what may well be one of the root causes of the radicalisation of Muslim young – the effects of emotional attachment difficulties on the young in the Muslim family and their possible role in radicalisation. All attachment difficulties, in all cultural groups, stem from negative childhood experiences and these may well be the drivers which predispose such youngsters from Muslim families to seek out ISIS or make them ideal targets for online recruitment. I single out ISIS simply because at present no other entity is as dangerous, as open in its aims or has gained so much publicity or is as sophisticated in its recruitment techniques.
The BBC, by failing to apprehend or address this at all, let alone honestly and in depth, has let its audience down yet again.
Postscript: In response to a friend to whom I sent this to be critiqued, I searched out the relevant BBC podcast on its webpage. I, of course, heard the entire original interview, but the podcast gave us something from the young Muslima, but nothing at all of the questions asked her by Husain.
 Hassan, Steven, Combatting Cult Mind Control Rochester, Vermont 05767, 1990
 Ilyas, Mohammed, Islamist groups in the UK and recruitment. Journal of Terrorism Research, St Andrew's University Vol 4 Issue 2, September, 2013.