Small Wars Journal

The Left and Right are Both Wrong When it Comes to Religious Groups: Lessons from a Death Cult

Sat, 03/26/2022 - 9:42pm

The Left and Right are Both Wrong When it Comes to Religious Groups: Lessons from a Death Cult

By Jesse Humpal

In a mostly symbolic bill, Representative Mooney from West Virginia introduced a resolution arguing the United States Government should not infringe upon the ability of American citizens to act in accordance with their sincerely held religious beliefs. It already doesn’t. The opposite is actually true, but this bill would force states to allow churches to become pseudo sovereign entities. The left also wants this, albeit for different reasons. Religious freedom, not religious autonomy, should be the actual goal as this is in fact uniquely American. The United States, contrary to most other liberal democracies, maintains a very symbiotic relationship between the state and religious groups, keeping religious organizations very public and very protected. The American way for publicly supported religion should be maintained because the alternative–either the right or left ideal–promotes an environment ripe for extreme indoctrination.


Throughout northern Europe and east Asia, countries have become increasingly secular with the accompanying laws pushing churches out of typical public discourse. The logic behind these tolerance laws argues that churches should be out of sight and out of mind. Tolerance is not the same as acceptance and with it liberal states inadvertently become safe havens for violence. Religiously focused countries have a similar issue. Giving elevated status to clerics, Mosques in Syria or Cathedrals in the Vatican have different laws and standards than typical organizations, providing outlets to groom and normalize fundamentalism which can become uncontrollable if left unchecked. Both sides separate rather than embed religious groups.


The observed extremes of religiously focused countries are well documented from the Rise of Islamic State across the Middle East and North Africa or the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland. The secular country examples are less visible. Some attention in secular Europe came during the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in how the marginalized mosques housed many foreign fighters who later joined the fight with ISIS in Syria. However, one case that has been overlooked, and acts as a shining example, comes from a Japanese Cult who, protected by religious tolerance laws, wreaked havoc around the globe in the 1990s.


Aum Shinrikyo (AUM), or “Supreme Truth,” was a millenarian cult based in Japan and headquartered in Tokyo. Famous for its 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system, the group infiltrated the highest levels of the Russian government and accumulated billions of dollars and territory in several countries. AUM started as a 15-person Buddhist meditation group in 1984, led by a blind, “levitating” yoga instructor turned religious guru, Chizuo Matsumoto, who later changed his name to Shoko Asahara. AUM began with a creed of non-violence.AUM initially recruited members committed to non-violence who sought personal fulfillment. Two years after its peaceful start, AUM began using violence, torturing and murdering members who questioned the leader.


Gaining official religious status in 1989, AUM was part of a wave of religious movements that emerged in Japan during the 1980s. Originally Buddhist, Asahara became infatuated with Christian biblical philosophy, Hinduism, and the writings of Nostradamus.Accordingly, AUM took the end-of-times vision from each, and Asahara ultimately created his own. Asahara claimed that he sought to restore "original Buddhism" but employed Christian millenarian rhetoric. After a pilgrimage to the Himalayas, Asahara wrote The Destruction of the World, which laid out his doctrine. He declared himself Christ and proclaimed he was the world's only fully enlightened master. Following this revelation, Asahara and AUM began preparing for the Armageddon, which he predicted would happen in 1997. A war in which Japan and the United States fought against divergent powers would allegedly trigger this event, he believed, ultimately leading to AUM’s control of a world government. While these goals and visions seem outlandish, the organization aggressively prepared, culminating in 60,000 members worldwide and $2 billion in assets by 1995. The group also had access to conventional, chemical, and biological weapons and its members allegedly included senior cabinet members of the Russian Federation. It was reported that AUM came close to acquiring nuclear weapons. This combination made the group especially dangerous in its pursuit of goals. In just six years, AUM went from special religious protections under Japanese law to global terrorist organization with a footprint in more than seven countries.


AUM’s religious status in a liberal democracy and its proven ability to develop weapons of mass destruction would logistically make it an ideal suiter for a state patron. Despite this allure, AUM stayed independent. This was likely due to it developing in the era of democratization dominated by the unipolar United States. AUM chose its talents instead of seeking outside expertise, leading it to make several avoidable mistakes in weapons development. This vulnerability was revealed when AUM developed a batch of botulism to be weaponized. As it turned out, the product was not effective; rather, AUM had only created a partial formula. AUM members discovered this error when a member slipped and fell into a fermenting tank of the product, where he nearly drowned but showed no signs of the disease.


In 1989, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government granted AUM official religious corporation status.This status gave AUM tax immunity and protection from government oversight. While the United States would have likely offered the tax incentive, it would not have granted protection from oversight. Japanese religious cooperation law states that once a group receives this status, authorities are not permitted to investigate its religious activities or doctrine. With this protection, AUM was able to grow membership and funds without monitoring or taxes. From 1989 until 1995, AUM was able to exponentially raise its net worth from 430 million yen (approximately $4.3 million USD) when recognized in 1989 to more than 200 billion yen ($1 billion USD). AUM showed that it could work within the confines of the state system to earn revenue while it grew from hundreds of members to 60,000 members worldwide in 1995.


While it’s true that real estate property does not directly translate to the truly autonomous zone that vast land can provide, AUM used its land and property purchases around the world as a sovereignty that gave the group greater autonomy to pursue its increasingly counter-systemic vision. Since AUM was a legally protected religious organization, Japanese authorities were forbidden to enter, govern, or monitor its property. This gave AUM’s buildings the exclusivity of control somewhat akin to the territorial dimensions of ISIS in Raqqa, Syria in 2014. For instance, in June 1993, residents of the Kameido district of Tokyo smelled a pungent odor coming from an AUM-owned building. After notifying city authorities that the smell was coming from AUM headquarters, Tokyo police and federal officers were unable to investigate the odor, which later turned out to be Bacillus anthracis, a deadly agent of anthrax. This example shows that, despite the authorities’ knowledge of a potential mass casualty event in a major city, AUM was able to leverage legal protections to act autonomously in the space it held.


After its failed mass casualty sarin gas attack, Japan was forced to act and arrested most of AUM’s leaders and members. Stripped of most of its resources and having its leaders arrested, AUM attempted to rapidly reinvent itself. In addition to changing its name to Aleph, the group worked to quickly divest the assets it still had. Trying to channel the techniques the group formerly used to thrive proved unfruitful. Be it coercion, business ventures, racketeering, or international networks, previous methods no longer served the group, and once AUM was stripped of its power, it stayed defeated. Still maintaining a small contingent in Japan, AUM, now Aleph, is a shell of its former self, and the group is under constant surveillance. Trying to reinvent itself in the modern era has proven difficult. It has failed to recruit and extend its reach despite an early technological advantage. It is too soon to know if it can reascend, but for now, Aleph is simply a systemic, fringe religious group in Japan.


The United States should use Japan as a cautionary tale for how it enacts religious liberty laws. Both the Left and Right should be wary of sponsoring bills that drastically change the way religious organizations are treated within its borders. Religious groups are embedded within American culture and that is the way it should stay.


The views expressed do not reflect the Air Force, Joint Special Operations Command or the Department or Defense. 

About the Author(s)

Major Jesse Humpal, PhD is an active-duty Air Force officer currently assigned to Joint Special Operations Command in the Center for Lessons Learned. Jesse earned his doctorate from Northwestern University in 2018 where he studied millenarian groups and global norms.