Two news stories are given prominence today which are both of relevance to this blog. The first is the story of the Maoist cult and the way that a man, Balakrishnan, was able to control a group of women to do whatever he wanted. The second is the story of a British Muslim woman, Tareena Shakil, who went to Syria with her small child and then returned to Britain. She has now been tried and sent to prison for membership of ISIS.
The first story in many ways is richer for our purposes because it explores the depth of influence and control that a single person can exert over others. Also it is interesting that the Maoist leader was declared to have a narcissistic personality disorder as well as delusions of grandeur. We have discussed such personality defects as occasionally applying to religious leaders in many settings. No doubt we will return to the story but for today I want to speak about the second story, the British mother Tareena. Her story will allow me to focus particularly on my own feelings which are aroused by a story of religious abuse.
The narrative that is set out about Tareena and her infant son arouses in me a whole variety of feelings. No doubt these reactions are shared by other people. I want to look at these feelings because what is evoked in me is similar to the way I always feel when I am confronted with the actions and attitudes of people who are in thrall to extremist religious leaders. The first feeling, which I experience, is, as here, one of anger. The act of taking a young child into a war zone goes right against what we feel to be the act of a responsible parent. How could anybody endanger a child’s life or be so stupid as to think that this was a good environment in which to bring a child up? One’s sense of appropriateness and the protective instinct that one has for every small child is outraged. The anger one feels is also directed beyond the mother to the ideology that taught her to think in this way. There is a kind of rage inside one that is directed to anyone who exalts a cult of death and danger in preference to the normal human instinct to nurture and preserve life. This is even more true when it is the life of the helpless individual who has been entrusted to our personal care.
Having first felt a visceral sense of anger against the mother and her teachers, one then moves into a different stage, the stage of feeling profound sorrow and compassion for her situation. Her crazy perspective on life was probably made inevitable by the circumstances of her upbringing from childhood onwards. Her education was in all likelihood extremely poor, with little to protect her from the persuasive arguments of powerful individuals, particularly the men in her life. What chance does a woman in her situation have in resisting such powerful blandishments to think and feel in a particular way?
A sense of compassion for Tareena gives way to another feeling. I suspect that this third feeling is the one which is most typical in our society. It is a feeling of condescension mixed with contempt. What can be expected of this poor woman, brought up in ignorance? Most people, who have not tried to understand the influence of extreme religious groups, will be unable to experience the anger and the compassion which I have outlined above. They will bypass those stages and go straight to the uncomprehending condescension that seems to be the default mode among most people in our society. It is an attitude that completely fails to engage with the victims of religious extremism, of whatever kind. The vast swathes of the population cannot comprehend the results of extreme abusive religious doctrines, whether on the victims of such thinking or the perpetrators. This, sadly, would be true of people who attend many of our churches as well as those who are outside the influence of religious ideas.
It would be true to say that every time I meet someone who has been caught up in a religious group which makes them think and act in ways that go against their best interests, that I pass through all three of these feelings. I would like to think that I do not dwell on the third stage of condescension, maybe tinged with pity, for very long. I have nevertheless to admit that this is, or can be, the easy default option. No, I want to remain at the level of compassion for the victim’s plight and be able to use the anger I feel at the whole situation to give me energy to do something within my power to help. Opting for condescending pity would be a way of passing by on the other side of the road.
In our society there are hundreds of thousands of victims of religious and spiritual abuse of all kinds. There are many women trapped in abusive marriages which are reinforced by church teachings. Men are encouraged to exert their physical power over their wives and children because they have been told that the Bible condones such behaviour. Children submit to beatings and other harassment because of some verses in the book of Proverbs. Still more people live in environments of fear, unable to explore their individual personalities and creativity, because they believe that they must follow the will of a minister whom they believe holds the keys of heaven and hell. Our political leaders make a lot of noise about the Muslim treatment of women and children and no doubt many terrible things are done among these groups, hidden away from public scrutiny. But our society is still unable to comprehend the power of other religious groups, including the Christian, to commit or condone barbarities in the name of a holy book. This blog receives its energy from the anger felt at the existence of cruelty and abuse which are meted out in some dark places, even within our churches.
In this blog post I have identified within myself a trinity of feelings, anger, compassion and condescending pity. I am hoping that the first two of these feelings will always be the ones that predominate. I trust that when faced by religious abuse I can resist a slide into a condescension which so easily will turn into indifference. Sadly I fear that these first two feelings will always be those of a small minority. But I have the hope that those who read this blog will be among those who cultivate the capacity to feel anger and compassion in the face of spiritual abuse. It is from such feelings that comes the power to enable something to be done. The task before us is massive and may not be achievable in our lifetimes but we need to struggle to do what we can to confront it and maybe push it back just a little.