The Oracle of Ifa and the Verdict of the Court
A failed attempt to deprogram from the African "Ifa" religion
By Wim Haan
"New religious movements", generally called cults, often make the headlines in a negative way. Like the siege of the farm owned by the David Koresh movement in Waco, Texas, where in April 1993 some 100 people lost their lives. Or more recently an international congress where a representative of a "suspect cult", New Acropolis, would deliver a paper. In several countries newspapers mention naive academics that let themselves be let astray by mysterious cults. The dangers of these movements are extensively elaborated upon. This negative image forming never seems to end, although exaggerated negativity serves no useful purpose in general, and especially not the people who join such a movement.
The fact that there are many wild but unfounded stories about "cults" does not diminish the fact that problems can and do develop, when people join a religious movement and seem to undergo some "personality change". There are several possible reactions to such a change. Between the extremes of "simply let it happen" and "the ultimate attempt to save the victim from the cult" lie many intermediate possibilities. But in the perceived experience of the directly involved, often only the two extremes seem to be realistic options.
In November 1996 and March 1997 in The Hague (The Netherlands) a court case took place, where not less than 16 suspects were tried for unlawful detention of a 27 years old woman. Twelve of the suspects were close relatives of the "victim", among which her parents and her brother.
In this article I will first outline both backgrounds and progress of this bizarre case*. This will show that the impact of this legal case extends far beyond the case itself. Not only because this was the first legal prosecution of a deprogramming case in The Netherlands, whose verdict will set a certain precedent. Apart from the legal aspect theres also relevant aspects like the relationship between parents and children, and the effects the joining of a new religious movement may have on mental health. In this context the term "personality change" is often mentioned. We will take a close look at this expression. Is it realistic to use this term in the context of new religious movements? And what does it really mean, the conclusion that a "personality change" has taken place?
The group concerned, the so-called Ifa religion, will be extensively covered in the second part of this article. Ifa has its roots in Africa. The unfamiliarity in the West with African religions is a factor that may obscure the discussion about the membership of this kind of groups. When describing an African religious group in The Netherlands we encounter many problems. It does not really make sense to confine oneself to the "roots" of a movement. In a different time and a different culture its manifestation changes. In the paragraph about Ifa we will pay attention to the source in Nigeria, "psychosocial aspects" of the membership of such a religion, and finally the Dutch situation.
Part 1. The background, deprogramming, court case and the verdict of the court
Account of the events
On 23 February 1996 Esther (27) and her three months old daughter Yemisi are abducted from home by Esthers brother and several relatives, shoved into a car and taken to a weekend house in the village of Nieuw Haamstede. Several other relatives are waiting there, along with two so called deprogrammers. Esther is detained against her will, and during several days submitted to deprogramming sessions, with the purpose of liberating her from her dependence of the "cult" she is said to be a member of. This "cult membership" has, in the opinion of her family, brought Esther to the brink of pyschological and physical collapse.
A young neighbor witnessing the abduction, notices Esther calling for help: "Call the police, I am being abducted!" Marcel, Esthers partner, comes home a few minutes later and reports the abduction to the police. The police takes the case very serious, especially because Marcel informs them that this is not the first time his partner is being worked over by her parents. A missing notice is put out by the police, and mustering every force the search for Esthers wherebouts begins. Finally the weekend house is located. On February 28, at 1.30 AM, a SWAT team enters the house and with due violence ends Esthers and Yemisis captivity. The relatives and the deprogrammers are arrested, handcuffed and led away to police cells. During the subsequent court case the prosecutor charges the "kidnappers" with inflicting grievous bodily harm and unlawful detention. Finally she requests prison sentences varying from 12 months (6 of which suspended) to 8 months (4 of which suspended).
Conflicting views on the backgrounds
The above described events are the grand finale of a period where in more than one sense a family and personal tragedy had developed. A tragedy for Esthers parents and her brother, who have noticed a behavioral change in Esther since she entered her relationship with Marcel in 1993. When later on she came in contact with the Rotterdam Ifa priest Amancio Batta and his small religious movement, this altered behavior deteriorated, according to the parents, into a real "personality change".
Parents and family established the following facts: Esther retracts more and more, it is impossible to talk to her, she behaves in a childish and puberal way. The idea that she is caught in a dangerous cult is becoming more and more concrete. Through the organization for social assistence Correlatie they are brought into contact with the Foundation Terug naar Af (TNA). One of its experts draws from the "symptoms" the conclusion that they are dealing with a satanic group, where dangerous rituals are taking place. In the files we read that the parents are talked into believing in the spectre that Esther in the seventh month of her pregnancy would abort her child, in order to sacrifice it in a satanic ritual. In satanic cults drugs are supposed to be used, and child abuse is supposed to be the rule. Although after some time TNA tempers its original analysis, the damage has been done: the parents are becoming increasingly desperate. After a major disagreement with TNA, that due to a personal meeting with Esther and Marcel draws the conclusion that "nothing is the matter", the parents turn to assistants from the Stichting Sirenen (in this article called Sirenen, a small group of social assistents originally founded as Stichting Ouders Sekteleden), that after an investigation of a month confirm the ideas of the parents.
After a stay in Curacao, together with Marcel and Amancio, Esther comes home totally upset. But this does not result in a lasting reconciliation with her parents. After a while Esther returns to her relationship with Marcel.
The birth of grandchild Yemisi speeds things up. Based on the "experiences" of Esthers kid niece Lotte, that tells strange stories after a visit to Esther and Marcel, the parents fear for Yemisis life. Together with Sirenen the parents decide to "save Esther from the cult". A date is established, and a deprogrammer is called in from the United States to do the deprogramming.
But the deprogramming doesnt go according to plan: the police do not stand aside, there is no tolerance or closing an eye to the abduction and deprogramming of the "cult members". With great zest the kidnappers are tracked down, resulting in the familys traumatic experiences of 28 February 1996 and their aftermaths: the raid by the SWAT team, the treatment as criminals, several days of solitary confinement, and finally a year of incertainty about the verdict the court will deliver.
The Lotte mystery
Because of the great impact the events around little niece Lotte turns out to have on subsequent developments, some elaboration is called for. Especially since the story around Lotte shows interesting parallels with another discussion, namely that about ritual (or "satanic") abuse, which in the nineteen eighties spread over the United States in a veritable flood of what some called mass hysteria. The Netherlands too have been inundated by this flood of rumors about alleged ritual abuse. The investigating committee has not succeeded in producing any proof, or even traces, of ritual abuse.
The court files contain several documents that refer to the events around Lotte. The short holiday spent by Lotte with Esther and Marcel resulted in the young girl having vague complaints (stomach ache and later on sleeping problems), and making remarks about "a big black man", "circle of candles", and "can you drink blood?" From that moment on Lotte plays a pivoting role in the unfolding of events. Both family and Sirenen consider "Lotte" the confirmation of the destructive road that Esther and Marcel have set out on. Although no official complaint was filed with the police, the family seems to be certain that "weird things have been done to Lotte". And finally the "Lotte case" is used to legitimize the severe actions of abducting and deprogramming Esther. For "what has happened to Lotte, could also happen to Esthers children".
We already referred to the parallel discussion about ritual abuse that, like a present day witch hunt, raged in the United States during the nineteen eighties. Very disturbing stories about ritual abuse of children circulated, up to and including rape and murder. The estimates vary between 10.000 to 50.000 cases. Dozens of filed complaints against "satanists" who had abused their victims, resulted in convictions and (sometimes long) prison sentences. Very mysterious however is that never, not even in one single case, concrete proof has been produced to back up the accusations. Only and solely the "witness" testimonials of those who in their early youth had experienced ritual abuse, have led to the convictions. Where in the seventies the cults" were the culprit for all and sundry evils, "satanists" seem to have inherited this position for the eighties.
However, the discussions in the United States about "ritual abuse" give us an interesting handle on the discussions about the case in question. We will get back to this subject in another paragraph, where we will talk about "selection and construction of facts".
Esthers view on the events
The flip side of the tragedy is of course Esther. We pick up the thread again with her story about the deprogramming and its backgrounds. The view she gives us is utterly different from the one her parents produce. She tells a story about deep conflicts and increasing alienation between parents and daughter. A daughter who, on her way to adulthood, increasingly experiences the suffocating bonds of her parents. Parents who, according to Esther, are unable and unwilling to accept her as an independent mature woman, who makes her own choices and has her own norms and values. Especially her feelings of "not being accepted" and her experiences of the suffocating bonds lead to the alienation between daughter and parents. Esther believes that especially her parents dissatisfaction with her choosing Marcel plays an important role in later happenings. The problems existed long before she met Amancio Batta.
When the attempts to make her walk the line again fail, the (in Esthers opinion) final measures are about to be taken: kidnapping and deprogramming. A kidnapping that is made worse by the involvement of her three months old daughter. And a deprogramming that is experienced by Esther as a humiliation and an invasion of her integrity. The events of February 1996 have had a profound impact on her. The traumatic experiences have caused mistrust, suspicion and a nervous behavior, that have not worn off yet.
The minefield of the "new religious movements"
The researcher of the phenomenon "new religious movements" sometimes feels like entering a minefield. The very complexity of the issue is not only caused by the many aspects connected with the membership of said movements, but especially by the fact that positions and judgements towards the case are diametrically opposed. There seem to be three different worlds: firstly the world of the movements themselves and the way membership is experienced by their members, secondly the world of the "anti cult movement" where a prominent place is occupied by people who have had very negative experiences with "sectarian streams" (among them "ex cult members"), and finally the world of researchers who have studied the multiple aspects of the issue. Roughly spoken the opinions vary from "heaven on earth" (first group), via "life threatening manipulation" (second group) to "no problem to speak of" (third group). These qualifications are sometimes used by the one group to describe the other. Nuances hardly come into play.
In the beginning of this article we already pointed out that the image forming around new religious movements persistently produces negative associations with dangerous "sectarian splinter groups". Often the applied terminology is characteristic for the image of groups. The word "cult" by itself carries a loaded image.
Within the scope of this article it would lead us too far to pay extensive attention to the "history" of the phenomenon. Yet for a basic understanding of the case a short, fragmentary summing up is necessary.
A short "sectarian" history
Whats labeled with the term "cult" nowadays is strongly related to the rise of what in academic circles are called "new religious movements". This refers to a development that started in the nineteen sixties. Until the late seventies the media hardly paid critical attention to this phenomenon. This changed through the collective suicide on 18 November 1978 in French Guyana of the movement around the American preacher Jim Jones, that spectacularly made the headlines and even today is referred to as a frightening example of what can happen within cults. During a relatively short period afterwards the image forming around "cults" was dominated by the high profile "anti cult movement", that gave a (semi-?) scientific foundation to the pathological aspects of cult membership with the metaphors brain washing and "snapping".
Only in the eighties the theme "new religious movements" became interesting to a wider range of researchers. Sociologists, psychologists and theologists entered into the interpretation of the issue with great zeal.
In The Netherlands especially Van der Lans (Nijmegen, religious psychology), Kranenborg (Amsterdam, divinity), Schnabel (Utrecht, sociology/ public mental health) and Witteveen (Groningen, relationship government new religious movements) became the trendsetters in the discussion.
The results were, to put it mildly, sobering when juxtaposed against the "dangers" that figured so (over)prominently in the media after the events in "Jonestown": there is no disturbing problem. Only individually, mainly between parents and children, many problems exist in relationship to the "personality change" that people seem to undergo.
The anti-cult movement, in which a prominent role is played by (often deprogrammed) ex-cult members, has always set its own course. This course was mainly determined by (negative) experiences, a limited number of American psychiatrists that maintained their positions on the destructive effects of cult membership, and in The Netherlands the television minister Sipke van der Land, who in his book "De Hersenspoelers" ("The Brain Washers", 1981) gave a legitimate base to the practice of deprogramming.
In the nineties the interest in the issue is only revived in case of "derailments" connected with new religious movements in general. These cases (like the alleged fraudulous activities of the Scientology Church; the alleged collective suicide in Waco, Texas; the movement of the Temple of the Sun, and more recently the American "internet cult" Heavens Gate) often incite disturbed reactions from press, public opinion and politicians. Often an overkill of reactions is the result. A "cult investigation" initiated by the Belgian government and the far reaching legal measures against the Scientology Church in Germany can serve as examples here.
In The Netherlands the relationship between researchers and the anti-cult movement has never been warm. According to the first group it is really the anti-cult movement that shows "sectarian" characteristics, and according to the second group the researchers are simply blind to the tragic problems that they repeatedly experience. Recently academics were criticized for immersing themselves so much in the way of thinking of the new religious movements, that they simply do not want to see the negative aspects anymore. Possibly the reaction to the unfounded negative image forming has contributed to an overreaction of extreme benevolence.
In the media both groups dont really go any further than drawing a caricature of each others points of view. These tensions have led to an extremely confused situation for those who turn to "experts" for help. The one, of course, will never refer to the other.
Said tensions seem to be connected with Schnabels final remarks in his dissertation: "Where an absolute truth comes into play, good manners deteriorate. This goes for both the owners and the opponents of this truth Tolerance, the ability to relativate and solidarity have, in the light of that absolute truth, become invisible qualities".
Deprogramming: facts and fiction
The reasoning is: "In case of brainwashing, the only real method to regain the former personality is deprogramming". There are many misunderstandings about the practice of deprogramming. This is specifically caused by thoughts immediately going back to the early years of deprogramming, when the American Ted Patrick applied the "treatment" in a rabid and aggressive manner. In the course of time a certain "evolution" took place in the way this "therapy" is executed.
In fact traditional deprogramming boils down to making a fake appointment with the "cult member", in order to take this person against their will to an isolated place where during a period of days (as long as it takes for the "cult member to snap out of its cult personality") an intensive therapy is administered. Using videotaped material, books and especially the persuasive force of the deprogrammer the "client" must be convinced that he or she has become the victim of a manipulative sectarian movement. Goal is the "winning back of free choice".
Especially for the parents the goal is also for the person to turn their back on the "cult", although the deprogrammers emphasize that this too is a matter of free choice. A deprogramming however is only considered really successful if the result is reached that the person turns his back on the "cult" and becomes "normal" again.
This last fact shows an extremely debatable aspect of deprogramming: the "freedom of choice" mentioned by deprogrammers and their sympathizers could just as easily be interpreted as "getting the person back in line".
The violent deprogramming in the early years has slowly evolved into a more cautious approach. I many countries no deprogramming against the clients will takes place anymore. A new way of practice, where the group member is willing to speak with therapists/critics, has come into being. This approach is generally called "exit-counseling".
The image forming and misunderstandings around deprogramming practice are being fed by publications in academic circles. Wed like to especially point out "Nieuwe religieuze bewegingen" (E. Barker, R. Singelenberg, 1996) where we read on page 97: "Because the womans relatives considered her religious beliefs highly unacceptable, they finally took these drastic measures", and somewhat further: "sometimes professional deprogrammers contact the parents directly, playing on their fears. Thus they try to convince them that if they really care about their child and want to save it, theres only one choice left: hire me and Ill save your child". Deprogramming of course is about much more than "considering religious beliefs highly unacceptable". Sure, in the past there have been several cases like that in the United States, but fortunately The Netherlands have been spared this kind of thing. So it really doesnt do to depict deprogrammers as money grabbers that take advantage of the difficult position of the parents These are simplifications that draw a caricature of those who practice , or have practiced, deprogramming. The picture of deprogrammers going from door to door with their objectionable product, does not do justice to those who incidentally are confronted with real excesses on the "cult front". In the court files we read that deprogrammings in the eighties were concerned with issues like financial fraud, extortion and child abuse. In the file we also find information about a case where the leader of a religious movement was later on convicted for child abuse.
Mind, this author is not sympathetic towards deprogramming "per se". But we dont do the deprogrammers and the people who seek their help justice by ridiculing deprogramming, for instance by narrowing the issue to religious intolerance. This only leads to a hardening of positions, and it is the main cause of alienation between researchers and "cult care providers".
The course of the case
After this short "history" and concise description of deprogramming, we go back to the court case.
A summary of three long days in court unfortunately cannot be complete. Yet it is important to get as clear as possible a view on the perception of especially the parents, who after all played a crucial role in the case.
In the statements of the parents and the brother an almost ideal picture is painted of the family situation. For the parents as well as the other relatives there never was a particularly problematic relationship between Esther and her parents. The problems only started after Esther came into contact with her friend (later husband) Marcel, and the religious movement around Amancio Batta. These problems are extensively detailed in the court files with the various reports of the police interrogations, as well as in the interrogation by the court president during the court hearing itself.
In the description of the problems both the parents and Sirenen refer regularly to literature about the effect of cult membership. The American psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton is often mentioned. Lifton has researched Chinese brainwashing techniques during the Korean war. Base on this research he has devised a theory of "ideological totalitarianism": the attempt to make reality utterly subordinate to an ideology. The anti-cult movement gratefully used his experiences by applying his theory to cults c.q. new religious movements.
During the court case many referrals were made to the dangers of "sectarian movements", often associated with Liftons theories. High scorers are: inordinate influence, isolation and alienation, absolute attachment to the leader, neglection of the future, physical and mental deterioration, manipulation and deceit, and finally religion as a disguise.
Selection and construction of facts?
Because of Esthers "changed personality" being so much compliant with the literature about cult membership, one could ask to what extend the parents observation might be (unconsciously) influenced by the token position that Esther would be a member of a dangerous cult. Only after the cult metaphor is applied to the interpretation of the problems, the initial puzzle seems to be relatively easy to solve. Schnabel in this context concludes that in the cult issue the stand taken not only determines the selection of facts, but also the construction of facts. The question to be asked then, is whether or not the parents themselves havent created a reality that inevitably would lead to the decision to deprogram Esther. Put in a slightly different way: havent they come to believe in a reality thats only very partially founded in what afterwards were produced as "real facts"?
A vicious circle seems to have been created: the experiences of the parents are interpreted by Sirenen as inherent to the membership of a destructive cult. The stereotype "cult" is then applied to the experiences, which leads to a selective observation and a selection of facts that strengthen this opinion.
The reaction to the expert witnesses that were subpoenaed by the court seems to confirm this conclusion. Both parents and Sirenen are of the opinion that the Ifa religion of Amancio is a sectarian splinter group, with the leader figure engaging in debatable practices. His rituals would have little connection with the religious tradition of Ifa. The expert Ter Haar, a specialist on African religions, established that this is a movement that in all ways fits within the Yoruba tradition. And the way Amancio Batta fills in his beliefs, of which the defense says that it has little connection with the "real" Ifa, by the expert is called "common" within the tradition of the African religion that Batta is part of.
The naming of Esthers daughter (Ifa-Yemisi), although telling about the sympathy Esther and Marcel feel for the Ifa religion, of course is not necessarily the result of Esther having been "brainwashed" by Amancio.
Sipke van der Land, the second expert witness subpoenaed by the court, explains that in his opinion there is no dangerous situation for Esther. Especially not any danger that would warrant strong measures like deprogramming. His impression of Esther (after several talks with her) is that she talks rather airily about her connections with the Ifa religion.
Finally the defense fail in their attempts to bring Batta, who was heard as a witness in the case, down from his pedestal. The questions are so clumsily formulated that the court president is forced to intervene three times and instruct the lawyers to ask decent questions. Batta seems to react more to the tone of the questions than to their contents. The opinion of the defense lawyers that Batta only produces evasive answers and lies, says more about the dilettantism of the lawyers that about the truthfulness of Battas answers.
All facts that might indicate that the parents are mistaken are either received with disapproval or, like we noticed before, explained away within the "cult stereotype".
According to adherents of the brainwashing theory a cult member has two personalities: the cult personality that is strongly influenced by the cult ideology, and a seemingly stable (the "old") personality. Within this perspective a psychiatric report on Esther is interpreted, in which she is referred to as a stable personality. The reasoning of course is that a psychiatrist without expertise of the mechanisms used by cults and the resulting changed personality, is unable to produce a correct opinion about the "cult member".
The impression Esther gave of the problematic relationship with her parens is contributed to a mechanism that is called "re-writing of history", again under the influence of the "cult membership". The "brainwashing" influences people to interpret their past completely differently.
That a religious leader uses certain practices that are common within his tradition doesnt say a thing about the manipulation Amancio applies toward the cult member, is the opinion of the defense lawyers.
And the ignoring of the warning Sipke van der Land wrote in a letter to the parents, strongly discouraging them from deprogramming their daughter, is explained from the background that Van der Land is not familiar with the specific situation after the birth of Yemisi.
Although one of the suspects lawyers tries to put the positions of both parents and experts in a more relative light by saying that the truth must lie "somewhere in the middle", this does not completely take away the above mentioned impression: the taken positions determine the selection and the construction of facts.
The addresses for the defense and the verdict of the court.
In the addresses for the defense firstly the deployment of a SWAT team by the police in order to end the unlawful detention, is heavily criticized.
Most attention however goes to the position of force majeur the suspects are said to have found themselves in. Based on the available information as well as their own experiences, they could not come to any other conclusion than that there was an "acute and concrete emergency".
This emergency produces a conflict between two obligations. Firstly the obligation to respect an adults freedom of religion and to respect the experiencing of this religion, and secondly the obligation to come to assistance when somebody is involved in a life threating situation. After all, refusing help to anybody who is in a life threatening situation, might in Dutch law lead to criminal prosecution.
Where parents and children are concerned it is also a fact that, however old and mature these children are, the parents consider themselves obliged to assist them whenever they need help.
An important detail should be pointed out here: whenever they need help. In Esthers case this help was definitely not asked for by the child, and apart from that during the court case it has often been discussed whether there was really a threatening situation here.
A last aspect that the defense lawyers pointed out, is that there was much reason to expect a "policy of tolerance". After all, in The Netherlands there has never before been a criminal prosecution for deprogramming, in several cases of which there had been "unlawful detainment". Apparently in the past the police felt more sympathy toward the backgrounds of these "abductions". The point, of course, is that the "kidnapping victims" after the deprogramming had a totally different view on the "unlawful detainment". History is re-written. The court president pointed out that one of the most important requirements for a "policy of tolerance" is, that criteria and conditions have been formulated under which certain practices are acceptable. With deprogramming this is not the case.
The court was faced with a double dilemma: firstly it was clear to all parties concerned that there had been no criminal intend. The family was utterly convinced that they were performing a "rescue operation", and a number of relatives have participated in the deprogramming out of solidarity and loyalty to those they considered the "victims": Esthers parents and her brother. Observing the personal circumstances we may subsequently establish that the relationship with the daughter, after all that happened, now has entered a total impasse.
Also the raid by a SWAT team and the great uncertainty the family found itself in during a year, have undoubtedly contributed to determining the sentence.
The other side of the case is that the court has realized that its verdict would be used as a precedent in possible future cases. A total acquittal would undoubtedly have been interpreted as a legitimation of unlawful detention under certain circumstances.
In the end fifteen of the sixteen suspects were convicted. The court considered the "proven" facts so serious that basically an unsuspended prison sentence would have been in order, but finally it sentenced only to suspended imprisonment from one to six months. The court determined emphatically that in this case, because of the (above mentioned) extenuating circumstances suspended sentences would be sufficient, but that in future in comparable cases undoubtedly unsuspended sentences will be given. The court did not give the care workers higher sentences than the family.
As regards contents, the court stated that respect for personal privacy weighs heavily in cases like this. Hence "heavy demands should be made in interpreting the concept of acute and concrete emergency" in order for an appeal to force majeur to have any positive effect.
By judging that in Esthers case there was no such emergency, the court did not let itself be influenced by the contradictory statements of expert witnesses and the family/Sirenen, but by a contradiction in the process files. A contradiction that during the process (in the statements and in the lawyers pleas) was reconfirmed. Sirenen appealed to the fact that till the very end they have offered the family alternative solutions. There were three options of which deprogramming was the last; the first and second were long-term solutions: trying to keep contact with the "victim" to let her in the long run choose to either indepently end the "cult membership", or enter of her own free will into a dialogue with the care assistants.
Especially by also presenting long-term solutions as realistic options, the experts on whom the family based their decision to deprogram, did not think this an acute emergency.
The most important motivation for the lawyers of Sirenen to produce the alternative options as evidence, seems to be the confirmation that the final responsibility rested with the parents. The parents lawyers on the other hand stated that the first two options in fact boiled down to "doing nothing". Which was exactly opposite to the responsibility the parents felt, and their estimate of the acute emergency.
A legal subtlety then, in order to enable the court to disregard the defendants claim to force majeur? No. The court, by pointing out this contradiction, has also exposed the weakness of the argumentation in favor of deprogramming.
In the end its almost always the "symptoms" that form the foundation from where deprogrammers and anti-cult care assistants react to the request to deprogram. The knowledge about the person concerned and his/her situation is never based on interviews with the person himself. Relatives, acquaintances, friends and "expert third parties" produce the information. The motivation of deprogrammers are more strongly founded on general judgements and estimates than on knowledge and analysis of the individual situation.
Personality change as a model for explanation
Earlier on I stated that much mores the matter than only a legal case concerned with unlawful detention. What has led to the parents intervening so drastically in their daughters life? This question still hasnt been answered, and it falls outside the standard patterns of explanation.
The term "personality change" is often referred to in order to explain what happens to a person who becomes a member of a "destructive cult". Basically it is a descriptive term, indicating how people who come into contact with a person who has enthusiastically entered a religious movement, experience this person. He/she isnt "himself/herself" anymore, shows "abnormal" behavior. This change has profound effects on communication. It suddenly seems like youre dealing with a completely different person. The result is often that people grow apart.
Where in friendship this growing apart leads to termination of the friendship, in family relations of course much more is the matter. "Its still our child", and whatever happens, this special bond will always remain.
But couldnt it be so that an important characteristic of any interaction and relation between human beings is ignored? Being a son or daughter, a brother or sister, by itself of course is sufficient to establish an unconditional bond, but it is not sufficient for the maintaining of a successful relationship. People only seek each other out when they have much in common. If this isnt the case, they grow apart. And when the will to do so isnt mutual, its hard to grow together again. That often takes a long time and sometimes it doesnt happen at all.
Yet, and this seems an important conclusion to me, "change of personality" is just a descriptive concept and thats what it should remain. In circles of deprogrammers however the concept is strongly loaded with being normative. Change of personality is equated with a pathological development. A pathological development as the result of indoctrination and manipulation. The person has not only changed, but shows the characteristics of being sickly disturbed.
Yet in practice this reasoning doesnt hold water. At least it is not confirmed by the countless investigations that in the meantime have taken place. Its also thinking in stereotypes to immediately connect a personality change with a life threatening situation.
If anything in the "Esther case" has become soundly clear, it is that the heavy demands needed to successfully appeal to force majeur, are not met in deprogramming.
Part 2. The Ifa religion
Usually it is not too difficult to obtain a picture of the beliefs of new religious movements, and often the leader figures so prominently that we also get a good picture of him. Also many streams can be traced to the religious traditions they spring from, and from which as a rule they are a branch.
With the Ifa religion, and especially with Ifa in The Netherlands, this is not so easy. It starts with the description Ifa "religion". Ter Haar in her expert witness statement to the court remarks correctly that there really cant be something like an Ifa "religion". Ifa is the divination system of the religious tradition that derives from and connects with the Yoruba people in African Nigeria. In the times of slavery many Yoruba were deported to North America and the Caribbean. New variations of the Yoruba religious culture arose, often under different names. Macumba and Candomble in Brazil, Santeria and Lucumi in Cuba and North America. All these expressions are basically oral traditions. There are now distinct dogmas that apply to every believer.
Even "Ifa in The Netherlands" is too wide a description of the phenomenon we are trying to describe. In this case we are looking for the way Esther and Marcel give shape to their commitment to the Ifa religion, and of course also their relationship with the Rotterdam Ifa priest Amancio Batta. A complicating factor is that The Netherlands know a second Ifa priest who denies Amancio Batta all legitimity.
Thus we cannot confine ourselves to a global description of the Yoruba religion and the way it is experienced in other parts of the world after the diaspora of the slave years. It is necessary to place Amancio Batta in that tradition, and if possible shed some light too on the negative judgement of his Amsterdam colleague Ifa priest Jaap Verduijn.
A good starting point seems the common denominator that we find in all Yoruba branches. This common denominator is especially the idea that God (Olodumare in the Yoruba language) has incarnated in "energy/power" (called Ashe). Ashe is a "divine stream" that pervades all that lives. The manifestations of Ashe can be divided along three lines: the concepts of norms and values that are connected with ancestor reverence (1), the optimum use of Ashe be maintaining close relationships with spiritual beings (called Orishas) (2), and finally the order and regularity that manifests in the divination system (Ifa) (3).
Yorubas believe that people now alive should look to their ancestors as a role model on how life should be arranged from a moral point of view. Apart from many other expressions of ancestor worhsip the so called Egungun play a role: masked dancers who appear in the streets and represent the "ara orun" or "heavenly beings". They function as messengers from the world of the dead. People turn to them with questions and requests for advice. From their side the egungun criticize the behavior of the living, and encourage them to behave according to the highest moral standards.
Also connected with the ancestors is the belief that every human being is a combination of visible and invisible characteristic, that are united by a spiritual force called "Ori", the "head". All physical and mental characteristics of the individual are "chosen" before its birth. Every "Ori" chooses its own destination called "iwa". The task in life is to develop good character, in the Yoruba language called "iwa pele". One could also say: its all about staying on course, to keep following the spiritual path that has been established before birth.
Apart from the moral Ashe of the ancestors, the Yoruba find their spiritual power in the relationship with a pantheon of spiritual beings, named Orishas. The Orishas are personifications of Ashe, availabe to people who worship them. The priest in the Yoruba tradition has the important task to acitvate the Ashe of the Orishas on behalf of those who ask for help. The presence of Orishas is invoked through dance and music. Each Orisha requires a specific musical rhythm. The Orishas come down to unite with their human children, they visit human bodies to dance together with their children on this earth. People sacrifice to the Orishas in order to intensify the relationship with these spiritual beings; the Orishas in turn give humans health, wealth, children and wisdom. Without the Ashe of the sacrifices the Orishas would wither and be lost. In the vision of the Yorubas a strong interdependecy exists between man and Orisha: "If there are no humans, there are no deities".
Finally, through Ifa the Yoruba can discover Olodumares will in secular events. Ifa reveals order in chaos, and destiny in coincidence. According to Yoruba myths the founder god Olodumare gave the Orisha Orunmila a method of communication between himself and the Orishas. This method is called Ifa. People come with all kinds of questions to the babalawo, the priest who masters the divination techniques, and has great knowledge of the interpretation of the oracle. Through Ifa the babalawo gives people information on their place in the world, their destiny and what the gods expect from them.
Technically speaking an oracle tray and sixteen palm nuts are used. The nuts are "cast"; depending on the outcome one or two lines are written on the oracle tray. After eight casts a socalled odu appears that subsequently is connected with the question(s) that were asked of Ifa. An alternative method is the use of an "oracle chain", the opele. The choice wich text(s) belonging to the odu is/are relevant for the client can be determined by the casting of cowrie shells: not the whole corpus of these texts has to be read in order to answer the clients questions.
Psychosocial aspects of the Orisha religions
In an article on Internet some characteristics of the "Orisha religions" are mentioned, that might shed some light on the experiences of the parents and the impression that a "personality change" had taken place within Esther. (See literature list: Kucklick)
Many practitioners of "The Religion" as it is called in its own circles, speak of the feeling that they are being "pulled" or "pushed" into this religion by spiritual powers. They have the opinion that the life of such a person will not go well when this "call" isnt answered.
Within "The Religion" a hierarchical system exists, based on a strong bond within a small group. The group could be seen as a family, an ile in the Yoruba language. The members of the ile are more or less the spiritual children of the priest who has initiated them. Sometimes problems develop when practitioners of the religion communicate their new-found certainties to relatives and friends. Additionally the norms and values system of the Orisha religions does not relate well to that of Western oriented morals, where individual freedom and self development hold such a central position.
The Orisha tradition, as we already stated, is an oral tradition. The adherents may feel tension between whats written on paper about "The Religion", and their own belief and experience. Much information found in books is experienced as misleading, sensational or simply untrue. The priest plays an important role in passing down the tradition. The priest is consulted on a multitude of issues: relationship problems, financial problems, bringing up children etcetera. Thus the Orisha priest has a much broader function than only as a spiritual leader.
"The Religion" has a long history of secrecy. This has various backgrounds like racism, intolerance, and above all the will to keep the own tradition pure. The spiritual experiences and the rituals of the Orisha traditions lend themselves to "pathological interpretations". We mention here the belief in the influence of spiritual powers, and the possession or trance during ritual meetings. Trance, in the Orisha tradition, is seen as a valuable, positive experience, as long as it is within the context or the Orisha ritual, guided by an experienced priest.
The above offers several entrances for the "cult researcher" to discover sectarian characteristics in an Orisha religion. "Being pulled" is often seen as dubious recruiting. When people attach more value to the spiritual community than to their own family, this tends to produce bristling hairs with many critics. The central position of the Ifa priest fits seemlessly into the stereotypes about powerful cult leaders that abuse their followers. "Secrecy is only necessary when you have to hide something"; and the inducing of trance is connected with "brain washing practices".
It is not surprising then that during the court case the defense regularly referred to the practices and rituals in the "Ifa religion" to show that potentially very dangerous practices are involved.
Ifa in The Netherlands and the terminological controversy
In the above we drew a global sketch of the origins of the Ifa divination, and we mentioned some psychosocial aspects of the Orisha religions. Remains the question how the Ifa religion in The Netherlands is organized.
Starting with externals, we establish that in Rotterdam Amancio Batta has a shingle on his front door with the description "babalawo". The Amsterdam "Awolorisha" Jaap Verduijn employs the letter head "Nederlands Ifa Genootschap". The presentation then, places both in the Yoruba tradition.
Taking a closer look we discover vast differences. For the time being we confine ourself to the self-presentation. In an article in "Onze Wereld" (October 1995) Amancio Batta is described as a Santeria priest. Batta himself indicates that he entered into the Yoruba tradition through Cuban Santeria. His involvement in the tradition was, as he himself maintains, revealed to him. Ifa itself declares that Amancio must fulfill a role within the tradition. In Cuba he is already told that he is an Oba (= King) within the Yoruba religion, and that he must travel to Nigeria to obtain more clarity on his destiny and his involvement with "The Religion". Nigeria indeed offers him the desired clarity. There he gets the confirmation that he must see himself as an Oba within the tradition. Thus Cuba and Nigeria play an important role in his self-understanding. Amancio is a well-known professional percussionist who uses the bata drums to invoke the Orishas and to communicate with them. Also from Orunmila/Ifa Amancio receives direct messages. Amancio is dressed up exotically in a bright red gown, on his head a conspicuous red hat. The color red is abundant in his Rotterdam home. Red is the color of the Orisha Shango, a somewhat exited type in the Orisha pantheon of the Yoruba tradition. So far, for the time being, Battas self-understanding.
In the Amsterdam Awolorisha Jaap Verduijn we find a completely different expression of the Yoruba tradition. Verduijn has set his first steps in Ifa divinational practices and rituals with an American Babalawo, and later he was initiated by this Babalawo as Awolorisha and Omolawo. Where with Batta the "communication with the Orishas" plays an important role in his functioning as a priest, Verduijn stands more in the traditional (scriptural) line of Ifa divination: the ancient system of which the codes and interpretation tables through years long initiations are passed on from babalawo to babalawo. In other words: where we find in Batta a more "experiential" practitioner of the Yoruba tradition, Verduijn is more scripturally grounded.
The controversy around Batta and Verduijn seems to revolve around a terminological discussion. Especially because both use the term "Ifa priest", the discussion arises if Batta and Verduijn are in the same tradition after all. Batta understands himself as an Oba in the Nigerian Ifa tradition, and from this self-understanding he considers himself not obliged to adhere to the complex codes and rules that are connected with the Ifa divination techniques. His "pedigree" and the way he came into contact with Ifa, seem to indicate that his is more a Caribbean variation of expression, with a strong emphasis on direct communication with Orunmila/Ifa. In short: changing the shingle on his door could contribute to clarity, removing much of the need for endless discussions afterwards.
We still havent arrived at the level thats really important, namely in what way Esther and Marcel are involved with the Ifa tradition. The simple fact of their membership of Battas Ile gets us well on our way, because it leads to the conclusion that they also practice the more "experiential" version" of the tradition. However, the reference to Batta does not lead us any further. After all, Esther and Marcel behave just as "Dutch" as adherents to other religions (established churches and/or newer streams): every individual fills in their religion and belief in their own personal way. The individual experience, after al, is the pivot.
Which leads us into an area where one has to be careful with judgements, yet there should remain room for quotation marks. Ifa, and the Orisha religions in general, are not just "belief systems for the Sunday, and the rest of the week we go our own way". They require a deep commitment, and there is an elaborate and inclusive system of norms and values connected to the belief. The connection with and the dependence of an Orisha means that you have to live the way the Orisha wants you to, because disturbing that connection brings great risks to your well-being and your physical and psychological health. The question now crops up: what are the consequences of adopting an African "symbolic universe"? Is this really possible without extensive modifications caused by the fact that, in The Netherlands, we live in an utterly different context: socially, economically and religiously? Exactly here lie the risks of the more "experiential" variations" of African religions. The ecstasy of the religious experience might obscure the perception of the complexity of human life. The experience of unity might lead to rigidity, and undermine flexibility and the capacity to see things in perspective. And then theres the risk of social isolation. It is often difficult to communicate with "outsiders" about the required level of religious commitment in the Orisha religions. Many people cannot see why one should "turn to Africa", when in the West there is an overkill of spirituality and spiritual ideologies. The prejudice against everything exotic and "foreign" has not eroded yet.
Whether such a negative scenario will materialize remains, of course, to be seen. Experience teaches us that especially in cases of failed deprogramming a hardening of positions might take place. Which in turn contributes to the vicious circle the victims of deprogramming might get caught in.
Conclusion, and how to go on?
The court case has cut deep wounds. Reading the court files is not an elevating experience. The various positions have been worded so violently and negatively, that both parties must have been shocked by each other. In Esthers presence it is said that she is potentially suicidal; the parents are described as fanatics without feelings. And all was meant so positively One almost experiences a feeling of substitute shame when the most intimate details are highlighted in front of the public media.
The researcher is left with many questions. And he realizes that he remains the outsider, who is objectifying a "personal tragedy", and then gives a detached verdict. The explanation "personality change" in the end gives no relief for what people in the concrete situation experience as estrangement, pain and confrontation. The explanation does not take the sting out of the discussion.
No bridge is built between the different worlds. The academics maintain their opinion that these are individual (neglectable?) problems, the anti-cult movement again sees conformed its opinion that academia is blind to the dangers of indoctrination, individual manipulation, and group manipulation. Those immediately concerned still feel themselves misunderstood, for (and nothing can change that) personality change is a process that cuts deep wounds into relationships.
But possibly the court case might lead to a renewed effort to take the issue seriously. An effort to get all those concerned around the table, and together look and research which institutions can be created to prepare for and react to the problems that manifest around the membership of new religious groups.
Perhaps it is also the start to (again) found a platform where all sides of the coin will be done right. Without, of course, taking the problem out of proportion. To finally quote Schnabel: "All flutters, swells and bulges in the gale of thought, whose major quality seems to be windiness". But this does not diminish the fact that also from excessive windiness many individuals have foundered and drowned.
What is done cannot be undone. There seems no real perspective in sight to solve either the problems in Esthers family, or the terminological controversy between Verduijn and Batta. In order to reach the first goal all past books need to be balanced. Rapprochement is only possible when all unanswered questions are put aside, and the future is faced with an open mind.
The personalities of Batta and Verduijn are so different that the chance is that "Ifa in The Netherlands" will always be a "country between the rivers". But does it really matter? Diversity is a very important characteristic of African Traditional Religions. Both worship the Orishas in their own way. So the Orishas will keep dancing with their human children.
This article is based upon (among others) a report that I wrote shortly after the case in the magazine "In de Marge". While writing this follow-up article I had access to all court files. Between April and August 1997 I have conducted several interviews with Esther and Marcel, and with the care assistants that were concerned with the deprogramming.
I have also interviewed Esthers parents, and finally Amancio Batta and Jaap Verduijn. A concept version of this article was given to them. I owe them thanks for their extensive comments.
Ara Orun: "Heavenly beings". Yoruba ancestors or Orishas, depending on the context.
Ashe: Power, grace, growth, blood. The life force of God, the Orishas and nature.
Awolorisha: "Mystery of the Orisha". An initiate in the mysteries of an Orisha.
Babalawo: "Father of the mystery". Highest priestly level of Orunmila/Ifa; divination priest.
Bata: "Sacred" drums, used in various Yoruba rituals.
Egungun: (egun = dead person, ancestor). Ritual where masked "representatives" of the ancestors play.
Ifa: The oracle system of the Yoruba religion. Often Ifa also denotes the Orisha of the oracle.
Ile: House, commune, family. Ile-Ife = Spiritual centre of the Yoruba, centre of creation.
Iwa pele: (iwa = character). The moral responsibility of every Yoruba: good character.
Oba: "King" within the Yoruba tradition.
Odu: Individual divination code, result of divination. Also the connected myths, tales and offerings. (The oral literary sources upon which Ifa divination is based)
Olodumare: Founder-God within the Yoruba pantheon.
Omolawo: "Child of the mystery", lower level of Orunmila priest; divination priest.
Opele: Divination chain, with eight half opele nuts.
Ori: "Head", destiny of humans.
Orunmila: Orisha of wisdom and divination. See Ifa.
Santeria: "Path of the saints". A Cuban and North American variation of the Yoruba tradition.
Shango: Orisha of thunder, lightning and power.
Yoruba: The people living in that part of Africa that now is called Nigeria. Also a name for the (religious) culture from which the various Orisha religions derive.
Awolalu, Omosade, Yoruba beliefs and sacrificial rites, London 1979.
Barker, Eileen & Richard Singelenberg, Nieuwe religieuze bewegingen. Een praktische inleiding, Kampen 1996.
Bascom, William, Ifa-Divination. Communication between Gods and Men in West Africa, Bloomington 1969.
Bromley, David G., James T. Richardson (eds.) The Brainwashing/Deprogramming Controversy: Sociological, Psychological, Legal and Historical Perspectives, New York 1980.
Conway, Flo & Ron Siegelman, Knappen, Amsterdam/Brussel 1979.
González-Wippler, Migene, Powers of the Orishas. Santeria and The Worship of the Saints, New York 1992.
Haan, Wim, De vrouwen van Krishna. Een oud verhaal in een nieuw jasje, in: Denise Dijk, e.a. Vrouw, Religie, Macht, Delft 1985.
Haar, Gerrie ter, Beknopte inhoud en achtergrond Ifa-religie, deskundige-rapport voor de rechtbank, 10.10.1996, Utrecht.
Hanegraaff, Wouter J., Nieuwe Religieuze Bewegingen, in: Religieuze Bewegingen in Nederland, nr. 29 (1994), p. 1-49.
Karcher, Steven, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Divination, Shaftesbury 1997.
Kranenborg, Reender, Sekten ... Gevaarlijk of niet?, in: Religieuze Bewegingen in Nederland, nr. 31 (1996).
Kucklick, Sue, Orisha Tradition: An Overview for the Mental Health Care Practitioner, Internet: http://members.aol.com/starkana/sue.htm.
Land, Sipke van der, De Hersenspoelers, Kampen 1981.
Langendoen, Agnes, Ifa-divinatie: van de noo(t)d een deugd maken, Doktoraalskriptie Culturele Antropologie VU, Amsterdam 1986.
Lans, Jan van der, Volgelingen van de goeroe. Hedendaagse religieuze bewegingen in Nederland, Baarn 1981.
Lifton, R.J., Thougth reform and the psychology of totalism. A study of brainwashing in China, New York 1961.
Murphy, Joseph M., Santeria. African Spirits in America, Boston 1988, 1993.
Oosterhout, Marcel, Amancio Batta: De Schepper, dat is communicatie, in: Bijeen, november 1994, p. 42-43.
Reumers, Melani, De sluipgangen van de santería. Yoruba-goden in Nederland, in: Onze Wereld, oktober 1995, p.60-63.
Richardson, James T., Joel Best, David G. Bromley (eds.), The Satanism Scare, New York 1991.
Sakheim, David K., & Susan E. Devine (eds.), Exploring Satanism & Ritual Abuse, New York 1992.
Sargant, William, The Mind Possessed. A Physiology of Possession, Mysticism and Faith Healing, New York 1973.
Schnabel, Paul, Tussen stigma en charisma. Nieuwe religieuze bewegingen en geestelijke volksgezondheid, Deventer 1982.
Verduijn, Jaap, Enige informatie over het Ifa-geloof, niet gepubliceerd paper, z.p., z.d. (1996).
Witteveen, T.A.M., Overheid en nieuwe religieuze bewegingen, s-Gravenhage 1984.
Informatie op het Web over Ifa en de Orisha-godsdiensten:
http://www.angelfire.com/nv/ifadutch/ The website of Jaap Verduijn
http://www.artnet.net/~ifa Ijo Orunmila
http://www-personal.umich.edu/~airyn/spiritlinks.html Links to other information on African spirituality.
http://members.aol.com/starkana/index.htm OrishaList Index
Information on African religion: http://www.gtu.edu/library/LibraryNRMLinks.html
An other article by Wim Haan, which is recently translated: a short essay about African Music
The English pages of the Bezinningscentrum: English site
Comments are welcome: