Radicalisation Awareness Network – RAN

Exit work helping people leave an extremist movement, stop their use of violence and change their
opinions has only emerged fairly recently as a field of work. Programmes first came into existence in the
Western world at the end of the last century. The number of radicalised persons as such is rather limited in
size and heterogenous when it comes to kind of extremist ideology, background and motivations that make
them to leave the radical environment in the end. The approach adopted by the various existing exit
programmes differs. Some tend to put more emphasis on behavioural aspects (disengagement), others on
the ideology (deradicalisation). Some programmes are based on therapeutic psychologic insights, others on
youth-work methods. There are no standards in exit work when it comes to assessment, treatment and
registering casesThis range of methodologies and the limited number of cases make it interesting to look at
adjacent fields.
One field that is similar in terms of the process of leaving a group observed is that of cults or sects. Here,
there is a longer tradition of trying to help people get out, as well as a longer history of academic research
on both the cultic environment and leaving mechanisms. When scholar Tore Bjørgo designed one of the
first European exit programmes (in Norway, later implemented in Sweden and Germany), he found his
inspiration in Cultic Studies.
Providing a platform for an exchange of views on what exit work can learn from cults – and vice versa – the
RAN EXIT working group organised a meeting in close cooperation with the International Cultic Studies
Association (ICSA). It took place on 27-28 June in Bordeaux, France.
To a certain extent, it is difficult to distinguish between cults and extremist or radical groups Some cults do
commit violent acts that can be considered as disruptive for society, like the sarin attack on a Tokyo metro
station in 1995 by members of the cult movement Aum Shinrikyo.
Like cults, many extremist or radical groups also have strong internal control mechanisms, create
psychological changes in their members (such as a dependence and a strong degree of identification) and
have a ‘guru’ personality as leader, just like the invisible but always present figure of Al-Baghdadi in Daesh.
So there is no clear-cut line between the two, and there is rather a continuum on which groups can be
placed. For both cults and extremist or radical groups, the groups concerned will sometimes categorise
themselves in that way, but most are more likely to reject the label they are given by the outside world as
either prejudiced or pejorative.
Bringing two fields together also implies bringing together two vocabularies, both of which have their own
rich history of debate when it comes to definitions. To leapfrog this and keep the paper understandable, we
note the differing history of work on ‘cults’ and ‘recovery’ (leaving it) and ‘extremist groups’ and ‘exit’
(leaving it), whilst also noting the overlaps between the two, including with definitions1
This paper zooms in on the similarities and differences in terms of leaving cultic and radical groups. Before
concentrating on exit work / recovery, this paper will first look at the group mechanisms that are typical for
both extremist groups and cults, and the variations that can be found here. In the final section, challenges
and opportunities for further cross fertilisation will be explored.

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