Fighting the Master Cult of Jihad

02/24/2015 03:30 pm ET | Updated Apr 25, 2015

The latest reports from Europe about ordinary, normal young men suddenly shifting to become jihadis -- throat cutters, suicide bombers, assassins of children and women -- reminds me of the way cultish holy men formed their slavish followings in the 1960s, '70s and '80s.

"You are nothing, you know nothing, you have all the wealth of the world at your fingertips, yet you are still unhappy," intoned more than one of these fake gurus.

"I will show you real happiness. Come and sit at my feet, contribute your salaries and let me take control over your lives."

The cult leader -- be he a Hindu yogi, a Scientologist recruiter, an Islamic fundamentalist organizer or a Christian David Koresh and Jim Jones -- all begin with the same approach.

Find the disaffected, the lonely, the insecure, the bullied, the nerds, the losers.

Persuade them that they are in true misery. Rip open the scabs and drench the prospective recruit in shame, humiliation, misery.

I saw this in New Mexico when several thousand of us involved in what was called the counter-culture assembled to celebrate the summer solstice at Tesuque Meadows in the high mountains near Santa Fe.

We set up teepees, and tents, we collected and chopped firewood, we set up communal kitchens for all to eat and a clinic to care for cuts and scrapes of outdoor camping.

Then came the guru. Some swami from the suburbs of Albuquerque bounced across the meadow in a convoy of suburban station-wagons, accompanied by well-dressed middle aged women, ignoring the parking area to desecrate our natural space.

They set up a stage for their mini-god and he proceeded to berate, belittle and humiliate the 30 or so hippies fallen under his spell.

"You know nothing, you are helpless, you have wealth but I know how to reach the inner spirit."

And these strong, young men and women who had taken the world into their own strong hands by leaving the mainstream, now laid down their independence and insight into the hands of a faker. Not a fakir.

Some of these recruits would remain in intellectual bondage -- they would call it devotion -- for decades.

Hare Krishna also recruited many people that day, especially those having bad LSD experiences, and were glad to accept any helping hand in moments of fear and madness.

How is this different from the jihadi recruiters who carefully target loners and the despondent in Muslim communities worldwide?

"I will make you powerful and strong," they tell the confused young men. "You are disrespected and humiliated by the others but in reality you are holier than they are. Your parents (yes, the parents above all) are zombies under control of capitalism and Western secular ideas. Break with them permanently."

One of these rapacious gurus was expelled from the United States after sending his devotees to try to take over a small Oregon town and, reportedly, to assassinate local public officials.

Sent back to India, the guru set up his ashram anew, in Puna, near Bombay. I went there to try and interview him for an article. When his people found I was a reporter they barred me from attending the daily assembly.

The ones I interviewed outside the ashram fit the profile: young, insecure, wealthy Europeans and Americans, expecting to find truth through the fake holy man.

So I sat outside the ashram and listened to his daily teaching the speech which was broadcast on loudspeakers. It fit the pattern.

First, denigrate and humiliate. You know nothing. I am here to show you your path. You are incapable of finding happiness. Not your parents, not your teachers not your wives and husbands or children can help you.

He played these people like a violin. Reminding them of the depression, alcoholism, rejection, divorce and uncertainty they had faced on the outside.

If the guru had studied psychology, I was not aware. But he was brilliant in his control of people's emotions and thoughts.

So now we face the real test -- derailing the Islamic fundamentalists who use the same technique. And not just to create mental slaves, rob their family bank accounts through "donations" and remove all traces of independent thinking. No. For the jihadists they want the recruits to kill and be killed.

If the gurus, scientologists, Hare Krishnas, skinheads and the other cults of recent decades were frightening -- and led to enormous pain in families of those absorbed by the cults -- these jihadis are seeking to inspire a global religious war between Islam and the West.

We must recruit on our side the psychologists who understand how to block recruitment of vulnerable young men and women. The jihadis take a small, perceived offense or anger in a community -- it could be unemployment or racist remarks -- and turn it into a recruitment tool for the dissolute and the unhinged.

Perhaps the way to win is to meet with the millions of decent, hard-working Muslims in Western societies and ask them how they dealt, psychologically, with the trauma of racism and unemployment. What are the deeply hidden buttons inside their minds that make them proud of their own resilience?

Ben Barber is a journalist who has covered the Middle East and Asia for the Baltimore Sun, Washington Times, Toronto Globe and Mail, USA Today and other publications. His recently published book of photojournalism -- GROUNDTRUTH: Work, Play and Conflict in the Third World -- is available on Amazon and at benabarber.com.