Hello, welcome to my guide on how to not join a cult accidentally. If you are looking to join a cult on purpose, then maybe read this, and do the opposite of what I recommend. And if you’re aspiring to start your own cult, then I guess this is also a great how-to, instead of a how-not-to.
I may be joking now, but things might (read: will) get serious. I’m generally (read: specifically) going to get into how I accidentally joined a cult, and unfortunately, it involves spiritual abuse and maybe also (read: definitely) grooming. Yes, I really would have preferred that I had joined a Polly Pocket cult or something of that sort, but no, this is a good old religious cult.
I’m already immediately running out of jokes because this is not hilarious. I was maybe like 15 going on 16 when I first started to accidentally join this cult. I was in youth group and really excited to transform it from a sexy teenage hookah lounge to a wholesome non-sexy bake sale type of joint. That part is hilarious.
At some point, I’m not sure through whom or how, we had a youthful (read: not 100 years old) speaker come talk to our members. For the purpose of this guide, let’s call him… Demetri? Dementor? Dimitov. Dude. Let’s go with Dude. No. Man, I really can not land on a name because I am still triggered by this person’s existence. Umm, what’s something that’s like, almost non-existent…. Vacuum. Vacuum. Yes, let’s go with Vacuum!
Vacuum seemed to know everyone. He was friends with all the local and national Imams, he was well-known in the community with many leadership positions, etc. etc. Cool beans. Vacuum took an interest in our youth group and started to come around more, and we welcomed it. I welcomed it! Why the hell not. It was volunteering and mentorship.
Then, at some point, Vacuum had an idea to start a halaqa (like a Bible study). The idea was for it to be exclusive, with hand-picked members chosen by Vacuum. His reasoning was that he wanted to make sure that the members were really serious and committed.
Vacuum consulted with me on who was “serious” enough to be a part of the halaqa, and from there, the members were chosen. The closed halaqa began to meet on the weekend inside the youth group office, which was awkward because other youth group members could obviously see they were not invited.
Which brings me to – idk, let’s pick a color, blue, yes, let’s go with blue – Blue Flag #1. Exclusivity. There’s really nothing all that serious that needs such exclusive membership that isn’t obviously a cult. It’s either a self-aware cult, like, idk, Hydroflask owners, or it has no idea it’s a cult. A clueless cult, but not in the 90’s movie kind of way.
We met and read verses and what not and really contemplated the world. That’s fine. Now where the hell did things start to get weird?
That’s the thing… they didn’t. Or… it happened so gradually, that nothing appeared weird, even it it felt weird. I could never put my finger on it, even though I had the heebie jeebies most of the time.
I’ll try to dissect it.
Vacuum got more and more involved with the members of the halaqa. He super befriended the guys in the group, taking them to the beach and on adventures. And he also formed one on one connections with each of the women, as a “brother.” He came to know our families. He started speaking at my high school MSA. He was everywhere I went. He became a fixture in my life.
There was a verse that Vacuum was obsessed with. “Let there arise out of you a band of people inviting to all that is good, enjoining what is right, and forbidding what is wrong: They are the ones to attain felicity.” (3:104)
Vacuum believed we could be that group, not like, metaphorically, but literally, like THE group referred to in this verse, but only if we really, really worked on changing ourselves for the better. (ARE YOU? CAN YOU EVEN!) And that my friends, is Blue Flag #2. The belief that it’s possible to be like, you know, morally superior to others and guide them. YIKES. I mean.
In order to become this group of people, we had things we were supposed to learn, like when he printed this very large pdf for each of us that proved that the Quran is without a doubt really the word of God. I can proudly say I never read the pdf and I’m pretty certain I left it on the youth group table and he was offended by this.
Wow, and now the culty things I really wanted to forget are coming back to me, like how he was enamored by the former glory of the Islamic empire. Personally, I found it really exciting, too, (at least from the partial information I was receiving) because I particularly liked the aspects of universal healthcare and education. I really believe in that to this day, but I could not give less of a sh*t about empires of any sort. But he was really into that, and we go into it, too.
And Blue Flag #3 is that halaqa started turning into group conference calls, and sometimes these calls would go into odd hours of the night. Things were blurring, blurring, blurring.
And then here’s the parts I really struggle with because as I mentioned earlier, grooming.
F*cking Vacuum had some boundary issues when it came to the general presence of a certain someone that is in the general direction of where I am. Like, Vacuum once told someone I know that I wore the headscarf incorrectly, so that they could encourage me to stop wearing it that way. This really bothered me because I really liked how I wore my scarf and it was weird that a man was telling another man to tell me how to wear something on my body. But I was so shamed and horrified that I actually did stop.
Vacuum also watched me and would point out when my clothing was… see through or form fitting. This really bothered me, because I became totally f*cking sickened when I realized he was physically watching me with his eyeballs. And also because I already wore XL (4 sizes off) clothing from the American Eagle hippie collection which was already in the flared and bell bottomy direction. I felt so uncomfortable and became extremely self-conscious, eventually changing the way I dressed.
And Vacuum would… without warning, start dropping completely inappropriate gifts off at my house. Like, an entire box of abayahs? I.e. overcoats so that I could start covering my figure. This is way before oversized trench coats were in at Zara. And, last I checked, I don’t think one’s male halaqa leader dropping off a gift of hundreds of dollars of clothes has become in as of yet.
And this line between this person being like a teacher, but then also inserting himself into my life was constantly, constantly bothering me. I felt like, I guess there’s something wrong with me, that I’m like, not a good Muslim that I keep trying to kind of, resist his presence in my life. Like, I’m trying to be a good Muslim and listen to all these things I’m supposed to be, but like, can you not like, come to my house and bring me gifts? And when I would say that, he would get so hurt and offended and make me out to be the bad guy.
And all along, halaqa topics were really pushing and encouraging us to think differently about ourselves, how we carry ourselves. We were encouraged to see our own feelings, inclinations, intuition, ideas as humanly flawed, and to turn to (Vacuum’s supposedly unbiased and curated) interpretations of faith being presented to us as The Right Way. If discourse was encouraged, it was only to funnel us towards The Right Answers. We were really, really discouraged to use our own reasoning, to abandon our own critical thinking, and that was one of the really, really Blue Flags, like #4,308 through 5 million.
I learned that everything about how I carry myself was immodest. That I was loud and brash, that I was attracting attention. And I really started to take that in. So I wore the g*ddamn abayahs because well, it was the Right thing to do. And as I was learning, there was only one Right way to do things. And since everything about how I thought about things and did things was Wrong and I needed to do the Right thing because what kind of person would I be if I didn’t, I was going to wear the abayahs everyday now for the rest of my life, because I’m being pushed to see that there’s only one Right way to dress and this is it.
And everytime I tried to kind of resist Vacuum’s presence, he found more ways to press himself into my life.
Like Vacuum would go on my blog and read my poetry and reach out to me about it.
And Vacuum would be at any event I was at, with his eyes on me.
And Vacuum would be interacting with my family members.
And Vacuum would use people in my life to constantly be near me when I continually resisted his presence and he would act very hurt when I was doing so.
And eventually, I found out, Vacuum was intercepting people who were interested in me, you know, romantically. Telling them that I was not available, implying that I was kind of spoken for by him. I found out about this way, way, later, (towards or even after the end) when I also found out that him and the guys in the halaqa had kind of like, talked about which girls in the halaqa they would marry. And Vacuum had… chosen… me.
Did I mention that I was like, 16, maybe turning 17 soon by this point. And that Vacuum was about 10 years older than I was? That’s Blue Flag #10,719,372. What is this guy doing with all these kids? Why isn’t he hanging around people his own age? Why is he so enamored and obsessed with us?
It turns out, those are things people actually did start to notice. Because they were like, umm this seems to have evolved past him being a halaqa leader and into some weird, weird, weird thing.
I wish I could tell you what led to me realizing I had accidentally joined a cult. I’ve really blocked out a lot of things to the point where I genuinely can’t and don’t want to access them. I just know that one day, I snapped. And I was alone in that.
You see, by this time, I had – Blue Flag #8,956 – completely changed as a person beyond recognition of my former self. I dressed differently, I walked differently, I spoke differently. I was quieter, and truthfully, I was completely dead inside. My friends at school noticed this change over the course of the year(s). They were gentle and loving back to me, never really pushed me away, though tbh, I was probably one of the worst people to be around. Because I was so goddamn self-righteous and judgmental all the damn time. Even if I didn’t say it, it was how I carried myself. I was like that to my own family.
So here I was, sitting inside myself, seeing how hollow I was, disgusted and hateful of this weird ass dude that keeps trying to press up into every aspect of my life, and my absolute f*cking disgust of him helped me snap. And I revolted.
I called him out on it. I don’t know what I said anymore. I just know that I launched a bunch of accurate accusations against him about him brainwashing us. And then the whole halaqa turned on me.
There was this one horrid day where I was like, in court. We met in the youth group office, and there was like a tribunal where everyone stared at me and defended Vacuum and outlined how I was wrong. And I sat on the floor, clutching my legs, hearing them, but knowing I was right. And I left. I was done.
And then there was all this community fallout because it turns out other people/groups (within which Vacuum was also deeply enmeshed) had been struggling with Vacuum’s presence and there was a reckoning.
I think the worst of it was there were some rumors that we were romantically involved. I can’t express what is more vile to a person than being accused of being in any sort of relationship with someone who has continually ignored your boundaries and pressed themselves into your life when you wanted nothing to do with them in that way. That was the worst of it.
All of this, it had a real toll on my life, everything.
By this time, I was a high school senior and I had been failing in all my classes. To the point where I didn’t get into any of the colleges I applied to, even the cal states, and that was the lowest point for me. I had left the cult which I accidentally joined, but had to face the repercussions of my actions and of the traumatic experience.
Also, like very obviously, all along, especially as things in halaqa progressed, I was depressed. Very depressed. I was a zombie everywhere I went. My teachers noticed. They pulled me aside. They helped me get my grades back up. My parents noticed my behavior changes, but I completely hid everything academic from them. It’s hard to label something as not good when it’s being done in the name of religion which is supposed to be all good… it kind of masks wrong behavior and keeps our guards down so low, as we rationalize, and rationalize, and rationalize…
I went to community college and unzombied myself for a good solid year, lying around in parks staring at the sky and sh*t.
Soon after I left, the group fell apart, and my friends came to their senses and were like, WTF just happened? Were we in a cult??? Yes, yes you were. Yes, yes we were. I think they apologized to me or whatever. But I didn’t need their apology. I needed there to not be a Vacuum in the world doing Vacuum sh*t, but I sure as hell made sure he was not in my life.
I made sure I never joined a cult accidentally again.
I wasn’t really able to truly unpack all of this until almost 15 years after, when my friends told me about a notable religious figure utilizing his role to have relationships with his female students. Something about shirtless selfies or something. And as they were talking about him, I had this instant moment where I was like, oh, yeah. That’s called spiritual abuse. And in that moment I kind of realized, oh… I think that person from 10 years ago was grooming me to be his wife. I definitely went to therapy to unpack that.
I think the reason that I accidentally joined a cult – aside from being manipulated by a gaslighting spiritual abuser trying to groom me into his future wife – was really that…
I really wanted to believe, very desperately, that there was a right answer. That there was a way to do things right, and if I did that, we’d all be okay, the world would be a better place.
But as I came back into the world, slowly became myself again, I realized over time that, if there was such an easy solution, people would have figured it out and done it along time ago.
There is no easy solution. Life is in this grey zone. It’s messy. That’s what’s real. And anytime I find myself, reaching for, aching for a simple answer, I remind myself it’s a Blue Flag.
I know that I have told my story in an eerily lighthearted way. I do so because there’s no other way for me to tell it. The more I revisit it, the more I realize how truly horrible and traumatizing it all was and is. I have a right to speak about my own traumatic experience in this way, but, it is not a joke, nor a joke for anyone else to make.
Which brings me to talk about why I choose to write about this. Truthfully, I’ve tried writing about this many times over the years.
I grew up with these notions that Muslims are so infallible because we have Islam. This was ultimately one of the most detrimental ideas I’ve suffered from.
It is under this rug, under the rug of 70 excuses and under our willful ignorance of Muslim humanness, that so much terrible, terrible human behavior is swept.
All of this sh*t happened right in front of everyone who loves me to pieces. It’s because of the way we are taught to let our guard down around anything to do with religion (and manipulative people know how to abuse this). We assume that it’s something that can’t be abused, the idea of our religion, but it can, and is. We don’t even know these abuses can occur. I didn’t, until it did.
I learned a lot of painful lessons about abuse, trust, naivety, manipulated empathy, idealism, and so much more from these traumatic experiences. Though I wish it hadn’t been through this.
It’s not a wonder to me that I still love and appreciate my faith. Nor a wonder to me that other people walk away from these same types of experiences seeking to dissociate from it altogether.
Recognizing that Spiritual Abuse exists does not make Muslims look bad. It helps us be aware and to protect our community members.
And ultimately, that is why I shared this piece.
Lastly, if you’ve made it all the way down here, I’d like to close this piece with these thoughts:
I would love for you to leave this piece with a sense of empowerment. Because we can displace the imbalance of power that perpetuates and, to be frank, encourages abuse of this sort (and of much worser nature).
It does begin in how we perceive people, our religion, and the people who follow our religion. And in our spaces, it needs to translate into boundaries, bylaws, oversight, structures that institutionalize dealing with such behaviors. Amongst our family and friends, it needs to translate into a culture where we speak openly about human flaws and behaviors, shift away from pedestal culture, etc. People do exist who abuse and harm people, and we are each capable of committing such harm. We can empower ourselves by accepting this reality and creating more aware, safe environments around us.
If you’re interested in reading further:
- Check out the work of FACE (Facing Abuse in Community Environments). On why they exist, their website reads, “Members of the Muslim community are collectively coming to terms with the fact that among the people who are serving as leaders, including clergy, teachers and religious scholars, are those that abuse their positions of power and violate their ethical responsibilities.”
- “How Dr. Ingrid Mattson is Confronting Spiritual Abuse through Leadership Education” on Haute Hijab and the Hurma Project.
- This organization did a round-up of resources on Spiritual Abuse.
- “The challenges of leaving spiritually abusive groups” by In Shaykh’s Clothing.
- This piece on NPR by Leila Fadal.
- Google search how abusers groom people.