From Shamima Begum to cults: indoctrination and responsibility

Sunday 3 November, 14:0015:30, Exhibition Hall 1Moral dilemmas

Early in 2019, The Times scooped an interview with Shamima Begum, who with two school friends had left the UK in 2015, aged 15, to join the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria. She pleaded to be allowed to return to the UK because she was about to give birth, having already had two children who had died. Many commentators were scornful of her plea. But others took a more lenient view, arguing that she had been indoctrinated or even ‘groomed’ online by IS propagandists at a tender age.

Whatever our stance on this affair, it raises fascinating general questions. What is the difference between being ‘indoctrinated’ and being ‘persuaded’ to embrace a terrible or ridiculous cause? Does indoctrination lessen the moral responsibility of the indoctrinated for what they do? What exactly is indoctrination anyway, and what is its relationship to education? Moreover, since indoctrination is often associated with religious or political ‘cults’, we need to ask what the defining features of cults are and whether they differ in kind from other movements.

Some intelligent and decent people join cults and end up believing and doing things that, before becoming sucked in, they would have utterly rejected. Some people leave cults and regain their old selves. There is reason to believe that, though the term is easily misused, there is such a thing as ‘brainwashing’ and that its techniques include, for example, isolation, restriction of outside information, repetition of mantras, strenuous work, emotional manipulation and the demonisation of rival beliefs. Victims learn to shoehorn everything that happens into the favoured belief system. It is also claimed that adolescents like Begum are especially susceptible to brainwashing, since their neural circuitry is not yet fully formed.

Critics say that those who join ‘death cults’ like IS should not have excuses made for them. Even if they were brainwashed, they still chose to join such organisations and their actions under their influence were still voluntary. But even if we agree with this, it is worth investigating both the belief-forming mechanisms used by cults and the more traditional teaching methods used by mainstream organisations such as schools and universities. Are they distinct things or do they exist on the same spectrum?

The underlying issues are central to philosophy and psychology, touching as they do on the nature of rationality, character, free will and education. Although the desire for retribution for murderous cult members is understandable, and although society may not be able to function without the practice of holding people responsible for their actions, how can we treat victims of brainwashing justly? In our desire to punish those who do terrible things, are we in danger of bypassing some necessary questions about how to allocate blame?