Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Jalaluddin Rakhmat on Sectarian Movement: Leave it to the Mechanism of Free Market of Ideas!

Imam Ali understood that Khawarij people (who rebelled against him) were seeking for the truth. This fourth Rightly Guided Caliph said that the truth seekers who did not find truth, is better than the evil seeker who find evil. We must respect their serious attempt instead of criminalizing them.

There must be no discrimination against sectarian movement. History will tell whether they are true or false. Mechanism of free market of idea will determine their existence. That is what Jalaluddin Rakhmat has believed in an interview with Kajian Islam Utan Kayu (KIUK), Thursday (8/11).

In 1992, Martin van Bruinessen had written about sectarian movement in Indonesia, in which he included Shiah. Why do sectarian movements emerge and how do they get many followers?

First, I think we must redefine the sectarian movement. It is inappropriate to compare al-Qiyadah al-Islamiyah (a new sect which leader claimed to be the messiah) with Shiah. We have to make classification and categorization. The sociologist calls a group that deviated from the mainstream and developed with particular psychological characteristics as a cult. The cult or sectarian movement is either based on religious ground, or economic ground such as multi level marketing, or political ground such as Nazism. Nazism was initially a sectarian movement before turning into a leading political party.

However, the most discussed cult is the one that based on religious ground. A cult has strict definition and one cannot determine a sectarian movement only based on its deviation from the mainstream belief. Otherwise, Sunni will be regarded as cult from Shiite perspective. Furthermore, both Sunni and Shiah will be regarded as sectarian movement in the United States, since both are minorities there.

There are several other determinant factors such as the existence of charismatic and authoritarian leader who requires absolute loyalty from the followers. The leader used to be presumed of having extraordinary knowledge or power. This is the main characteristic of the sectarian movement.

What is the position of bai’at (oath of allegiance)?

Bai’at has psychological function to guarantee one’s loyalty. The leader used to depose the follower’s dignity and even remove his or her identity. We often find a ritual of identity removal in these sectarian groups. usually, the follower change his or her name after giving bai’at or commitment of giving absolute loyalty or surrender to the leader’s authority.

What is other characteristic?

Martin Campbell, author of When Religion Become Evil, said that religion can become evil, when there is requirement of blind obedience. In order to bind this blind obedience the leader use some rituals such as baiat and, sometimes, bloodshed. The follower’s obedience must be supported by his or her sacrifice. Generally, the follower of sectarian movement is required to offer financial sacrifice. 

I think the followers of sectarian movement wanted to escape from the established religious authority, although they eventually trapped in other kind of authority. Do you think so?

Once, a hypothesis says that the followers of sectarian movement were mentally disturbed. In fact, there are thousands of cult in the United States and 96% of the followers were mentally healthy. Many of them are smart and having good social and financial condition. Although they tend to be religious, they were confused in determining their belief. 

What about the secular people?

Various research on sectarian movement proved that the secular or liberal person are likely to refuse joining a cult, furthermore to obey a charismatic leader. While the adherent of sectarian movement used to be religious people who do not find satisfying answer for their problem.

Although they were mentally healthy, certain psychological condition such as loneliness makes them vulnerable and susceptible to the influence of the cult. An interesting research on cult indicates that they tend to recruit woman.

Lonely and depressed individual tend to be quite persuadable. While they who see that the future is uncertain and think that life is getting worse, tend to seek for instant solution, a supernatural one. For individual who is confused to determine his or her spirituality will find that a cult provide him or her instant answer for this restlessness.

One associates the raise of sectarian movement with the liberal religious thought. What do you think?

Some researches indicated that the liberals, seculars and unbelievers are likely to refuse joining sectarian movement. However, there could be liberals who eventually become confused and turned toward spirituality. They blamed their reasons as the source of their perplexity and eventually decided to abandon it. The philosophers call it ennui. 

Martin van Bruinessen said that the relationship and solidarity among members of a cult is well-built. This makes them forget their own families and even regard them infidel or heretic. What about that?

There are clues to identify if one has been involved in a sectarian movement. One of them is one’s rejection to family activities. He or she hates his or her family based on the assumption that the rest of the family member were still in the period of Jahiliyah (age of ignorance) and that their Islamic belief and practice are not perfect.

The leader of al-Qiyadah, a sectarian group, declared himself as ‘the Promised Messiah’ (al-Masih al-Mau’ud). Do you think that it is due to the messianic doctrine existed in both Sunni and Shiite Islamic literatures which provide anyone a chance to do so?

Please note that each of the world’s major religions contains Messianic prophecies. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and even the native religions all foretell the coming of a Promised One. Muslim is anticipating the appearance of Imam Mahdi (al-Maseeh). Hinduism awaits Kalki Avatar, a reincarnation of Krishna. Christians await the return of Christ in the end of the day. The Javanese designate their saviors as Ratu Adil (Queen of Justice). Each religion, in its own way, has foretold the coming of a great savior, ‘religion restoring’ or ‘peace bringing’ Messiah.

Wilhem C. Smith said that the messianic doctrine is derived from the ancient religion. And I believe that this doctrine is one of the universal teachings of all religions. In this point, sectarian movement exploited this belief and attributed it to their leaders.

Why do people desire a savior?

Psychologically, this belief is necessary as the answer for their social problem. For instance, Indonesian people were frustrated since poverty prevailed and their economic condition declined. The great answer for them is that the savior is nearly coming. The Javanese is waiting for the appearance of Satria Piningit, the ‘Hidden Knight’ who will save them from such disaster.  At first, the leader of sectarian movement foretell about the coming Messiah. But later on, he declared himself as the promised Messiah.

In this case, people need a real solution instead of an abstract promises. What does the leader promise them?

It is nothing but hope, because everyone is on the edge of expectancy. There is a specific discipline called as psychology of hope. Hope strengthens us no matter how big our misery is. We can survive because of hope out there. Hope is an incredible source of energy. Every sectarian movement or cult promised paradise in the world. They used to foretell about the judgment day, catastrophe or natural disaster.

Even the Prophet Muhammad remind Muslims about the nearly coming judgment day…

Every religion reminds the adherent about the coming doomsday. The difference is that the leader of sectarian movement claims as the savior himself, unlike the prophet who did not claim likewise.

Once in Bandung, West Java, hundreds of followers of a Christian sect had gathered at a church since the leader persuaded them that the world is about to end. Another example is Lia Eden, who declared as the Archangel Gabriel, who once told me that a big flood is coming and she invited me to move to the Puncak hill. In fact, the flood had not come and Lia Eden said that God save Jakarta away from flood due to her prayers. 

It seems that there is always such mechanism: revising the wrong prophecies…

Exactly! It is unbelievable that the followers tend to be more loyal afterward. David Coresh for instance, foretell about the coming alien to save them from disaster. When it eventually did not take place, he revised his prophecy and made a new interpretation. So however false those prophecies are, the follower will still respect the leader.

History shows that many sects are eventually becoming mainstream. What do you think?

Yes, sectarian movement can become social movement. When this movement is widely accepted by society, it will become mainstream religion. However, there is fundamental distinction between the sectarian movement with the prophets’ movement for instance the psychological characteristic of the sect followers, which is totally different from the first generation of Islam or any other established religion.

How is the best way to deal with the sectarian movement?

Personally, although my belief is different to them, I shall respect their belief and do not criminalize them. I shall not regard them heretic or committed religious blasphemy. Those people are hungry of spirituality, therefore if they eventually deviate in the middle of the way, that is not our business. I must respect them because they are eager to seek for the truth.

Imam Ali understood that Khawarij people (who rebelled against him) were seeking for the truth. This fourth Rightly Guided Caliph said that the truth seekers who did not find truth, is better than the evil seeker who find evil. We must respect their serious attempt instead of criminalizing them. Leave this matter to the mechanism of free market of ideas. [Novriantoni]

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