History of the Phenomenon

So far, we have portrayed the methods of enforcing orthodoxy which are typical of religious extremists as a new phenomenon, arising in the second half of the twentieth century. While these methods involved some innovations and a revival of the phenomenon, the methods are actually much older and have been an important part of the history of religion. This history is long, rich, and far from bloodless.

The medieval atrocities of the Catholic Church were inspired or justified in similar ways. The Crusades, for example, were on one level a project of using dogma and force to capture territories and markets, to rob or eliminate rivals, and to run particular areas in protectionist ways, to the benefit of a small group. This was accomplished under the guise of pursuing beautiful religious and spiritual ideas, such as protecting the Holy Sepulcher and engaging in chivalrous combat in defense of the faith. Organizations like the Templars and Hospitallers became the first multinational corporations, using their militarily-based monopoly wealth to extend their power throughout Europe. City-states like Genoa and Venice were able to loot cities, control trade routes, and create settlements of their own along the coasts of the Mediterranean and the Black and Azov Seas. This process continued for centuries: crusades began in the eleventh century and continued until the fifteenth, by which time the religious authorities could no longer contain the rival power of city-states or of great princes.

Meanwhile, within Europe, the Church established the Inquisition, a special office to uncover and stamp out heresy. The Inquisition was more active, and more vicious, in some times and places than others; a great many heterodox formations were absorbed into the Church as monastic orders. The Free Spirit brotherhoods, however, were stamped-out so thoroughly that even their doctrines are now obscured; all we know about them comes from the accusations of prosecutors. The Albigensian Crusade functioned both as a witch-hunt and an immense land grab, transferring the lands of the southern French nobility to rivals in a context of murder and excommunication. The Inquisition then came to territories captured from the Muslim empires in Spain. After some time, widespread suspicion of covert heresy led to the expulsion of Jews and Muslims, accompanied by violence and dispossession (again to the benefit of group insiders). The Church’s association with intolerance and terror in Spain was to continue until the time of Franco. Later, witch-hunters set out to destroy supposed conspiracies of Satanists and pagans by burning thousands of people as witches. This purge targeted the village elders, wise-women, and shamans who offered an uncontrolled, grassroots alternative in spheres controlled by the Church. The process of enforcing orthodoxy was to culminate in the devastating wars of religion, in which two religious orthodoxies sought to exterminate each other as heretics. This was to culminate in the Treaty of Westphalia, which restrained the use of religious extremist methods by protecting freedom of religion. The legacies of this conflict continue today, in places like Northern Ireland and the Balkans. It might also be argued that the European colonization of the rest of the world was a similar instance of religiously-justified anticompetitive control, although in this case, the relationship between the Church, the emerging states, and various military adventurers is more complex.

The power of orthodoxy was somewhat tamed in Europe, but only because this was in the interests of all the competing sects. By the nineteenth century, religious extremists in the Catholic, Protestant, and Russian Orthodox Churches were cooperating to enforce a combined domination, to the exclusion of secular groups such as liberals, socialists, republicans, nationalists, and anarchists. The Holy Alliance was based on a common interest of the Establishment or ancien regime across Europe in suppressing attempts at change in order to preserve the wealth, status, and power of the existing elites. Colonialism was used as a supplement to this strategy, buying-off domestic populations with vicarious glory or the profits of plunder. Still today, religious figures from the established churches are able to capture wealth and status by means of their religious position. In Ukraine, the Orthodox Church’s abbot of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra has received the nickname “Pasha-Mercedes” as a mark of his notoriety for driving expensive cars, violating traffic regulations, and insulting journalists and traffic police.

By the twentieth century, the ability to dominate European societies using religious doctrine had declined somewhat, but similar methods were adopted by political sects which modified the religious extremist toolkit for use alongside secular doctrines. A secularist cannot establish supernatural doctrines as axioms in the same manner as a religious extremist, but they can create equivalent axioms by converting scientific or speculative claims, findings, or axioms into items of Sacred Science, which are excluded from ordinary scientific scrutiny and protected by the usual orthodoxy-policing methods of silencing opponents or destroying their reputations. In the Soviet Union and its satellites, and later in China, the political rulers would establish their chosen interpretations of Marxism and of modern science as quasi-religious doctrines, towards which public devotion was demanded in forms such as massive public displays. A powerful official like Lysenko could establish their own pseudoscientific beliefs as absolute dogma, defined as the ultimate scientific truth in their field. Opponents of imposed beliefs could be deemed counterrevolutionary, denied employment in their field, or even shipped to the gulags. 

The fascist regimes used similar methods, even though the contents of their doctrine were radically different from the contents of the Soviet doctrine. One of their arbitrary axioms in the German case, established as a quasi-religious dogma, was racial purity. Under this doctrine, Jews were excluded from most forms of social membership, exiled to ghettos, forced to wear a yellow Star of David to denote their outgroup status, and gradually dispossessed of their property and social positions. This was to culminate in the Holocaust, which is an unprecedented extreme of industrial mass killing. Amidst the irrational hatred, however, was a core of economic rationality. The dispossession of the Jews served to enrich Nazi officials, and the concentration camps were also used as sources of slave labour. Huge profits were made by contractors providing the infrastructure and means of mass murder. This is even more obvious in the case of the Armenian genocide and the corresponding dispossession of Armenians, Greeks, and Jews in Turkey during and after World War 1. Under the cover of doctrines of national purity, a new Turkish capitalist class was created through the systematic destruction and dispossession of the existing mercantile elite. A group which was otherwise unlikely to gain a competitive position was able to muscle its way into primacy through the use of quasi-religious national/racial doctrines as a means of unfair competition, and to bring about as a result the destruction or expulsion of entire ethnic groups, well beyond the scope of the elite. Political use of religious extremist methods has continued on all sides in Turkey: secularists formerly used fear of religion to maintain a monopoly on political and economic power, the AKP used Islamic discourse and the activities of Islamic brotherhoods to funnel state resources to a different group of businesses, and the Gulen movement organized yet another business cluster into a network able to launch an unsuccessful coup. One can clearly see in the Turkish context how the definitions of “extremist” and “terrorist” are manipulated by people using extremist means themselves, as ways to dispossess and destroy their business and political adversaries and monopolize political and economic space.

Similar processes periodically repeat. The US Bush administration was close to a political sect known as the Project for a New American Century, a group which sought to preserve American unipolar power by claiming to provide protection to the rest of the world from emerging threats. Bush and his closest associates had links to Evangelical conservatives such as Erik Prince, a former US Marine and head of the private military company (PMC) Blackwater, as well as to the Halliburton business empire and the oil industry. In 2003, their “war on terror” was extended with an invasion of Iraq. For two years, the US administration had been feeding the national and international media with claims that the Iraqi regime was particularly noxious, a “rogue state” which promoted international terrorism and was rapidly building weapons of mass destruction (WMD’s). At the time of the war, it was claimed that Iraq had WMD’s which could be launched within 45 minutes, as well as a secret nuclear program. The evidence for all of this was tenuous at best: supposed noncooperation with UN inspections, purchases of innocuous items such as aluminium tubing, statements attributed to regime defectors with incentives to act as mouthpieces. These claims were rapidly falsified once Iraq was occupied. The real reasons for the invasion were to capture the world’s fourth largest oil reserves and take out one of the main players in the vital Middle East security system, to the advantage of US oil partners such as Saudi Arabia. Had the war succeeded in bringing Iraq under permanent US control, the US would effectively have positioned itself as the protector of oil supplies in the era of peak oil, and thus, the maker and breaker of other states’ economies. In fact, the US struggled to hold onto Iraq and the medium-term result has been an unstable Iraq and a bipolar Middle Eastern system in which Saudi Arabia and Iran are the main powers. Nonetheless, this devastating war – which has killed hundreds of thousands directly or indirectly – has been a great source of insider profits for people close to the Bush regime and Evangelical business circles. PMC’s like Blackwater made fortunes from a war which was widely contracted-out to them, while companies like Halliburton made enormous profits from US-funded reconstruction projects. Oil companies got rich from the increased oil prices resulting from the war. The Iraq war thus served as a massive wealth transfer to cronies of the administration, and paid for itself in terms of the profits made by oil companies. Some of these economic gains were recycled as donations to the Republican Party. This is a classic case of religious extremist methods used as means of political marketing, and as an underlying basis for unfair competition.

At the same time, religious extremist methods were normalized as part of the counterinsurgency machinery of the US and its allies. Critics of the war were marginalized, and brainwashing methods were incorporated into “deradicalization” programs. Shadowy security agencies used tools like the no-fly list and terrorism databases as ways to penalize or intimidate dissidents across the political spectrum. People and organizations which challenged the orthodox discourse were subject to a range of judicial and extrajudicial retaliations which took the form of “disrupting” their speech, lives, activities, reputation, business, etc. Muslim clerics were warned-off drawing any link between America’s aggressive foreign policy and the occurrence of terrorism; any who did so were branded terrorist sympathizers. Politicians deemed excessively critical of the war were purged from or marginalized within the major parties. Protesting was made increasingly difficult. In this way, the US security establishment was able to carry on a pointless but profitable war for almost a decade, and to avoid the kind of backlash that had affected its previous efforts in Vietnam. The neoconservatives also succeeded in another of their goals: while terrorism and massacres have become more and more common, the use of cultish counterinsurgency methods has been normalized worldwide. As a result, hardly anybody notices that the context of the “war on terror” has made things worse; people instead rally to the security services as protectors in a dangerous world.

Religious extremist methods can thus be theorized as a persistent toolkit of anticompetitive and unfair competitive practices, deployed by groups of actors seeking to capture monopoly positions in any of a range of spheres (markets, land, resources, political or military power, intellectual recognition, exclusive organization) in order to extract rents or profits without necessarily providing better goods or services or better meeting the criteria of the sector in which they operate. These methods can be used by actors within any religion and also by secular actors, and they can be wide-ranging or limited to a particular sector. It can manifest in radical oppositional forms or at the very hearts of the political, religious, or corporate mainstream. It can also disguise itself as anti-cult activity, counterextremism, or de-brainwashing. The methods involve creating a disciplined ingroup with commitment to an organization or network, and the intensification and policing of this commitment through paranoid enforcement of ideological conformity and through cultish mechanisms of thought-control, requirements of confession or self-criticism in the event of dissent or deviance, and the purging of recalcitrant opponents. Group membership is promoted through a mixture of charismatic ritual and thought-control, fraternity-terror (or fear of upsetting others in the organization), and partaking of the benefits arising from control of a sector (for example, business profits or political power). The ingroup seeks to dominate or capture a sector by using warlike methods and dirty tricks against opponents in the sector, in which information warfare and reputational damage play a central role. In some cases, the opponent is destroyed or rendered less competitive by this damage, while in other cases, such attacks provide the prelude and context for proscription, suppression, exproporiation, or even extermination. Once the targeted sector is captured, the same means of thought-control, loyalty enforcement, the same mechanisms are used to maintain control within the sector and the group using religious-extremist methods will now appear as the economic, religious, or political mainstream. Its continued reliance on the extremist toolkit can be inferred from its reactions to competition and criticism.

This toolkit has proven highly effective, and has not disappeared or fallen into disuse. The labels used and the axioms posited to define an ingroup and its doctrine have changed somewhat over time, but the functional essence of the method remains the same. To this day, religious extremist methods pose a recurring threat to anyone engaged in honest business, politics, or associational or intellectual activity. Today the extremist will rarely knock on someone’s front door; they will appear in the form of emails or messages on applications, or they will become known through their webs of influence on social media. Sometimes the first a target will know is when they suffer reputational damage or cyberattack.

The use of religious extremist methods – whether by NRM’s, large churches, business organisations, secular political groups, agencies of the state, or ruling orthodoxies within particular associational sectors – operate as a kind of business or political inquisition. This inquisition is recognizable for its witch-hunts and show-trials, its demands for absolute doctrinal orthodoxy and the sanctions it imposes on heresy, and for the extent to which it operates without any kind of due process or dialogue. Actors using these methods constantly threaten to drag the world back into the worst periods of its past, often in order to increase their own market share and profits. All too often, these uncivilized methods look civilized enough on the surface, and are difficult to distinguish from legitimate activities. It is difficult to prove that such an attack has occurred or even to understand what these actors are doing to their target and why. The phenomenon of religious extremism does not disappear, but it will ignite a fire at one moment, and smolder at another. Something smoldering at a given time could be fanned into a fire at any moment.

For a long time, academic sciences have kept themselves virtually untouched by religious extremism. This was a hard-fought victory during the Renaissance which was never fully lost, even in countries like the USSR where science was partially captured. Religious extremists struggle to capture sciences because in the sciences everything is discussed and tested. Rigid axioms are subject to discussion and proof. The doctrines of religious extremists do not lend themselves to such a climate, in which the adversary cannot be purged. However, religious extremist methods are now taking over large fields of academic research, because of the expansion into academia of business-marketing methods derived from NRM’s. Academic reputation has increasingly come to depend, not on findings validated by evidence, but on a popularity or perceived-relevance contest mediated by performance metrics. These metrics are heavily influenced by marketing, social networking, government or business priorities, and the activities of tightly-nit groups using religious extremist methods. If such a group can capture enough positions with control over appointments, publications, or quality-checks, they can use these positions to enforce orthodoxy, sanction or purge dissenters, and wage information warfare against opposing positions. They can either come to dominate an entire discipline, or emerge as a series of mutually exclusive groups competing for dominance in a discipline. At no point do the group’s claims become subject to empirical testing or rational analysis, and yet they obtain the labels of “science” or “expertise”. Scholars can also become eminent figures based on previous findings, and resist any revisions or research which will undermine their authority. The relevance of their previous work might be lost, their findings might be falsified, their research might need to be corrected. But gurus remain gurus because they are untouchable by such procedures. This is how religious extremism within science (which has nothing to do with scientific methods) emerges: through exegesis, the defense of an existing body of work, the continued dominance of research by people who have already made a career and a reputation in a given field, and who have a vested interest in keeping out competitors.

Our associate, Professor Massimo Introvigne, gave a detailed history of religious extremism in the 20th century in his lectures during his visit to Odessa and to the scientific director of Information Security Institute Dr. Oleg Maltsev. Professor Introvigne is a sociologist of religion, a practicing lawyer, a managing director and co-founder of the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR), and the executive secretary of the Association for Sociology of Religion in Piedmont (APSOR). He has also served as the Representative for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on the issue of combating racism, xenophobia, and discrimination, with a special focus on discrimination against Christians and members of other religions. From 2012 he served as the chairperson of the Observatory of Religious Liberty which is operated under the auspices of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He has also acted as a consultant on NRM’s for governments, law enforcement agencies, and churches in several European countries. As a visiting scholar, he has taught sociology of religion at the Salesian Pontifical University and religious studies at the Pontifical Athenaeum Queen of the Apostles. He is the author of 60 books and 100 scholarly articles on topics such as NRM’s, religious pluralism, and modern western esotericism. He is also the co-author of the award-winning Enciclopedia delle religioni in Italia (Encyclopedia of Religions in Italy), an editorial board member of the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion, and former editorial board member of Nova Religio(a leading academic journal for the study of NRM). He is the editor-in-chief of the book series The Unification Church: Studies in Contemporary Religion.

Unfair competition

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