There have been few reports of growth and conflicts over “cults” or new religious movements in the Islamic world, but these groups are present in the region and even seem to be tolerated more than might be expected.
In Nova Religio (Spring), a journal on new religious movements (NRMs), Mark Sedwick writes that just as most Western new religions take their cues from the surrounding Christian culture, new religious movements in Islamic countries draw from the Muslim context. When a group or inspired leader proposes a new variety of Islam it often results in a military conflict; those groups that are victorious are the ones that survive and grow.
These “new Islamic” groups are often far less organized than (NRMs) in the West and are often centered around a Mahdi or divinely appointed leader to announce the end-times. The Malaysian Arqam movement, with over 10,000 followers, is one such group, currently in conflict with government forces
Although no Western new religious movements have grown significantly in Islamic societies, an Egyptian group known as the Direct Path presents itself as an Islamic body to gain a hearing, but actually has Western esoteric overtones. Followers of a “Shayke Silver Birch” representing American Indian spirituality is another movement with an Egyptian following.
Sedgwick finds that these unconventional religious groups have been generally tolerated by officials, mainly because they keep a low profiles and don’t threaten Islamic power and identity. Those that openly preach a “post-Muhammadan” message, such as the Ahmadiyya movement, run into more repression. Sedgwick sees the “unexpected tolerance” in the Islamic world as stemming from Muslims’ non-denominational structure. Thus, other religions are not seen as posing a threat or usurping the functions of an established institutional Islamic body as might be the case in the West.
(Nova Religio, Seven Bridges Press, 135 Fifth Ave., 9th Fl., New York, NY 10010-7101).