Some New Zealand religious groups fit an internationally-recognised definition of a potential terrorist organisation, according to Dr Heather Kavan, a specialist in world religions.
Dr Kavan, who lectures in the Department of Communications and Journalism, told a counter-terrorism seminar in Wellington on 16 August of the similarities between the terrorist organisation Aum Shinrikyo, responsible for the fatal nerve gas attacks on the Tokyo subway a decade ago, and the Falun Gong movement, outlawed in China despite never having engaged in terrorist activities.
In a paper entitled Dangerous organisations or dangerous situations? Comparing Aum Shinrikyo and Falun Gong, Dr Kavan cited a United States intelligence report description of the Tokyo nerve gas attack, which killed 12 and injured 5000, as a textbook case of apocalyptic religious violence.
The authors of that report, known as Project Megiddo, asserted that any religious group in which a guru induced others to be totally dependent on him and his allegedly supernatural powers, while preaching the imminent end of the world, was intrinsically violent.
This description could, of course, apply to many religious organisations that have never engaged in terrorism, including New Zealand groups, Dr Kavan says.
She says there are several triggers that could push a non-violent cult into violence, including unwelcome attention from authorities or the news media, often resulting from disgruntled former members speaking publicly.
“Leaders who profess to have an omniscient edge on the rest of us obviously have a greater potential than others to incite violence. Factors that may trigger violence (including suicides) in so-called cults are: negative publicity, impending police raids, exposes from ex-members, public humiliation of the leader, and - more importantly - likely loss of credibility.”
She says groups who perceived their enemy as the United States are more likely to turn to terrorism.
Dr Kavan agrees with the Project Megiddo definition of religious groups that were intrinsically violent.
It's difficult to say how many New Zealand groups this definition applies to because most cults keep their dangerous aspects cleverly hidden.
Even cult scholars didn't see through Aum Shinrikyo, and the cult wasn't on any intelligence agency's radar. Even so, the definition applies to a range of groups from Destiny church and the Exclusive Brethren to the former cult led by Andy Narain.