What's been particularly interesting is to watch the reaction of the media and scientists, and even more so, those willing to stand up and call the FLDS a cult. Why? Because of the definition of "cult" they give.
Some choice quotes from the article above, though it's a good reflection of other things I've been hearing:
While the media and some sociologists call the group a religious sect, other experts see it as a clear-cut cult, defined by charismatic leadership and abuse.
"In the case of the FLDS, we're talking about basically believing that women are there to be baby factories, and you have extreme patriarchal control of that group," said Janja Lalich, a sociologist at California State University, Chico.
Lalich told LiveScience she definitely thinks the Texas compound should be called a cult. "If you've got a group that's abusing hundreds and hundreds of women and children, let's call it what it is," she said.
Beginning in the 1970s, around the time of the UFO-spawned Reälians and Charles Manson's "Family," cults were associated with "a repressive, exclusive group of people whose members are held emotionally, if not physically, against their wills, led by usually a megalomaniacal leader," Stevens said.
Charisma is in some ways what gives cult leaders such power.
Once they become members of a cult, individuals become more and more isolated from society and from reality-checks found in a diverse world.
"You take on new reality, this new interpretation of the world," Lalich said. "It doesn’t mean you have to live in a compound in the middle of Texas. But you've closed your world view. Everything you're interpreting, you're interpreting through the cultic belief system."
One reason for the seeming lifelong loyalty, Lalich suspects, is fear.
So, let's see... charismatic leaders, fear, abuse of women and children, patriarchal, isolation, closed worldview... now change our focus a little, and let's look at Islam.
Okay, sure, Islam's got "the book", the Koran. But seriously, look more closely. There is no religious hierarchy in Islam, not really. Look at al Sadr in Iraq. Do you see any other Muslim leaders capable of doing more than using rhetoric against him? Anyone who can actually stop him within the religion? I don't. And he's not the only one. Charismatic imam's all over the place issue fatwas without so much as a by-your-leave from anyone else, and induce their followers to commit acts of mass murder through suicide. Take one imam away from the context of Islam and how does he look any different than a Koresh or Warren Jeffs?
No one will argue with me, I think, about a lot of the rest. In the extreme wing of Islam, you certainly have fear, abuse of women and children (female circumcision or stoning for minor offenses, marriage at a very young age to strange older men), patriarchal (women can't be see in public or drive cars), isolation (opposition of all things western, close communities even when living abroad), closed worldview (avoidance of science education, or for women, education at all).
One more quuote from the article: "In a healthy or legitimate religion or sect, you are presumably worshiping some higher principle or some higher authority," Lalich said, "whereas in a cult people tend to end up worshipping that living human leader."
I think even Catholic-haters can see how the Islamic system is different than what Catholics do with the Pope. (Most Catholics can revere the Pope without agreeing with everything he says.) And of course, Muslims will insist they worship god rather than the imam, but their actions speak a little louder than their words, don't they? I'm sure that the followers of the FLDS will insist that they worship god as well, and that Warren Jeffs was merely his prophet.... how is that any different?
For charisma to work, it must be personal. You have to see the person in action. Charisma really doesn't translate well into text. So a belief system with as many followers as Islam has can't be run on the charisma of one man alone. And yes, there are milder versions of Islam, just as there are milder versions of Christianity. But there is a vast network of cultlike, conservative Islam out there. And they are as cultlike as you can get.
(Of course, I also think a lot of Christian megachurches are rather cultlike, and certainly have the charismatic leaders, isolation, fear, closed-worldview, treating women like baby-factories, patriarchal, etc. But they just want to take over the government, not kill me, not yet. The choice is only between a militant cult vs. one that isn't yet, though, occasionally, the Christians do step up their rhetoric.)