New BBC Documentary on Scientology

John Sweeney has produced a second BBC Panorama documentary on the Church of Scientology, following his 2007 investigation into the subject which I blogged on here. After the earlier piece, Sweeney won plaudits for standing up to the Church’s aggressive and repellent attempts to harass and discredit him as he spoke to ex-members and other critics, but I wasn’t very impressed with the programme itself: Sweeney seemed out of his depth, and the superficial “exposé” relied to much on sensationalised confrontations (albeit handed to Sweeney on a plate by the church) rather than in-depth research.

The new documentary has little that is new – once again, ex-members relate familiar stories of intimidation after leaving a coercive and abusive environment, and once again, Sweeney is shadowed by passive-aggressive surveillance operatives. It was interesting, though, to see the interview with Mike Rinder, who was one of those who orchestrated the attempt to derail Sweeney’s 2007 investigation. Rinder has now left the Church, although he is part of a “reform” movement which still subscribes to Scientologist beliefs. This “reform” movement does not itself come under any critical scrutiny, and Sweeney even allows to Rinder to demonstrate the “e-meter” device on him without any questions about the science behind it. Of course, one wouldn’t want to alienate a high-profile defector willing to unload the goods to a journalist.

Sweeney and Rinder discussed the notorious “exploding tomato” interview, in which Sweeney was goaded into yelling at Scientology spokeman Tommy Davis; at the time, I was particularly scathing that Sweeney had been unable to control himself. However, perhaps I was too harsh: Rinder explained the strategy of finding something that would “press buttons” and then cutting off any response; in Sweeney’s case, Davis referred to Sweeney as a “bigot” over and over while interrupting his reply, until Sweeney’s frustration boiled over. Afterwards, Davis had reportedly bragged that he could drive Sweeney “psychotic.”

The new programme has prompted the Church to attempt to discredit Sweeney once again – Sweeney spoke with Amy Scobee, whose sexual history was made public by the Church after she had left the organisation. After the interview, which was in a public location, Sweeney hugged her, and the hug was photographed by Church. The Church then sent the photograph to the BBC as evidence of Sweeney’s bias (the photo was sent via Carter-Ruck, the UK’s most notorious and aggressive libel lawyers).

It seems to me that the Church’s PR strategy – if it can be called that – is a kind of institutionalised sociopathy: confidences are broken and information made public in a distorted way (along with outright lies); critics are goaded and manipulated in ways that are sophisticated; ethical qualms are completely absent; and there’s a lack of self-awareness about how unattractive such methods appear to outside observers. Certainly, that’s a cluster of characteristics I’ve encountered in other contexts…

Another review of the programme can be found on the Jack of Kent blog, in a guest posting by John Dixon; Dixon is a town councillor in Cardiff, and on Tuesday a formal complaint made against him by a Scientologist was dismissed.

Nadine Dorries Smears Critic as “Stalker”, then Expresses Mirth at “Nutter” Jibe

Nadine Dorries MP, in May:

MP Nadine Dorries has taken her blog down and closed her Twitter account claiming she has been advised to do so by the police.

Ms Dorries… says she has been having “problems” with political blogger Tim Ireland.

Ms Dorries said: “I have been in consultation regarding his behaviour with the Westminster division of the Metropolitan Police, and the House of Commons police, for more than a year.

“Their advice was to close down my blog and Twitter account and thereby remove the ‘oxygen’ upon which he fed. As an election was imminent, I ignored this advice.

Dorries also claimed that the stabbing of Stephen Timms contributed to her decision, even though the stabbing occurred a week after she closed her blog. It is far more likely that, following the Conservative election victory, Dorries decided it was best to start in government with a clean slate of opinions. Bringing Tim into it was a just spiteful bonus – Tim’s blog has satirised her mercilessly, and he has persistently called her to account on various matters. He has never, though, either threatened her or crossed the line into anything that could be regarded as invasive of her as a private person.

Since the publication of the above, Tim has asked Dorries for details about her contact with the police (as have I) – the police have not spoken to Tim. The accusation is not just annoying: last year Tim’s home address was posted on-line by a cyber-thug named Charlie Flowers, who disliked our investigations into on-line “anti-jihad” pseudo-activism. Flowers and his accomplices stated that their aim was to force Tim to “go back to Australia”, and Flowers later claimed that he enjoyed the support of Dorries and had been in contact with her; while this is unlikely to have to been true, smears by an MP helped to create a climate in which lies and threats could be made with impunity. More recently, an anonymous and sinister site was created containing lies about members of Tim’s family.

Dorries hasn’t responded to Tim’s request for information, or acknowledged that the threats he has faced from someone who claims to have links with her go beyond “flame war” acrimony into more sinister territory (and she does know the situation). So, Tim contacted Andy Rayment, who chairs the Conservative Party in Dorries’ constituency. Rayment also refused to explain anything, but he found time to send an abusive response. Bedfordshire on Sunday reported that

…The Tory chief has a clear opinion on Mr Ireland’s email replying: “I do not waste my time communicating with nutters so do not expect me to respond to any of your communications, electronic or otherwise.”

Dorries, meanwhile, sees no more need to continue to pretend that Tim has ever really made her feel afraid:

…when a ‘nutter’ began bombarding my association with telephone calls and emails, this made me laugh out loud http://www.bedfordshire-news.co.uk/Blogs/John-Balls-Diary/Monday-September-20.htm

I have heard that when a copy of this was leaked to my local newspapers, in indignation, it caused much mirth in the newspaper offices too.

How can anyone take seriously anything this person says?

Jeff Sharlet’s C Street is Out

Although the official publication date for Jeff Sharlet’s new book is tomorrow, it’s actually been available a week or so now, and a copy has already made its way to me across the Atlantic. The book is a sequel to The Family,  which I wrote a review of here.

The generic tagline understates the importance and uniqueness of Jeff’s contribution: this isn’t the familiar story of Tea Partiers and televangelists, but of a significant yet overlooked long-term religious factor in US politics. And with influence in Uganda and elsewhere, there’s more at stake than just “American democracy” . As Jeff himself puts it (page 89)

The fundamentalist threat of this book’s subtitle isn’t a barbarian at the gate. Nor is it an ideology that erects statues, a theology in jackboots. It’s far more practical than that… We’ve reached a point where piety and corruption aren’t at odds but are one and the same.

New Lawsuit against Eddie Long

From Bishop Eddie Long’s New Birth magazine, 2005:

When it comes to Africa, Bishop Long has a fervent mission: to challenge and mobilize African- American resources in the Motherland—beginning with Kenya in particular. Great strides took place during his latest trip to this East African country in July 2005. Read these reports and see why there is no doubt that Bishop Eddie L. Long’s divine vision to change a nation will find favor with the people of God everywhere.

There follow gushing accounts of Long’s charity, development, and missionary work in the country (there’s a maternity hospital named after him), a “breakfast meeting” with former President Daniel arap Moi, and a business banquet:

Hundreds of businesspersons came to hear Bishop Long at a formal banquet, in which he challenged them to understand and respond to their role as “kings” and to support the vision of the “priests.” In a “what would it be like” moment, Bishop Long postured the possibility of a coordinated effort between African-American and Kenyan businesspersons in manufacturing, retailing and economic development.

However, a new allegation claims that Long’s “divine vision” wasn’t the only thing on his mind that July:

A fourth lawsuit has been filed against Atlanta-area pastor Eddie Long, alleging he coerced a 17-year-old into a sexual relationship during a 2005 trip the two took to Africa.

…On the first night in Nairobi… the youth told the pastor he was having difficulty going to sleep, the suit states. Long provided Ambien, a sleep aid, and they both took the drug, according to the suit.

Long then gave [the youth] a hug, kissed and licked the youth’s lips and rubbed the teen’s chest, according to the lawsuit. They slept in bed together that evening and during the rest of the Kenya trip, the lawsuit states, adding they went on shopping sprees.

As has been widely reported, photos have emerged of Long standing in his bathroom wearing spandex, taken on his mobile phone and sent to some of the young men who are now suing. Another unfortunate impression, whatever the truth my turn out to be.

Eddie Long’s Unfortunate Impressions

2008:

Media-based televangelists benefiting from tax code exemptions are warned — Sen. Chuck Grassley is a terrier-like congressional inquisitor with time and a big stick on his side.

“I am not threatening them, at this point,” the Iowa Republican said.

Grassley, since late 2007, has sought financial information from six televangelist ministries that watchdog sources told the senator may be enjoying lavish benefits not allowed under their tax-exempt status.

…Eddie Long of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church/Eddie L. Long Ministries offered general but incomplete information.

2010:

In two explosive lawsuits filed yesterday in DeKalb County, Georgia, two members of televangelist [Bishop] Eddie Long’s New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Georgia, charge that as teenagers and participants in the church-sponsored Longfellows Church Academy, Long coerced them into sexual relationships with him.

…They allege that Long, while sexually pursuing them, put them on the church payroll, and used church funds to buy them gifts and take them on lavish trips. Long used his position of spiritual authority to coerce the young men into sexual relationships with him, they charge, relationships that Long insisted were sanctioned by God.

Of course, the the former doesn’t mean that the latter is true, but it does give an unfortunate impression.

The second quote above was taken from Sarah Posner’s overview on Religion Dispatches; Sarah also tells us that Long’s self-described “spiritual father” was none other than the late Earl Paulk, who died mired in multiple sexual abuse scandals (I blogged him here). Sarah gives us an extract from her own book, God’s Profits:

Through the 1980s and 1990s and into the first years of the twenty-first century, Paulk continued to be exalted as a spiritual leader, as evidenced by visits by [T.D.] Jakes, [Carlton] Pearson, [Mark] Hanby, and others, and by offering spiritual guidance to Long, who went on to launch his own church, New Birth Missionary Baptist. “There is a network of these guys that support each other, look out for each other, now something is wrong with each other to some extent, and they cover for each other,” said Johnny Enlow, who was a member of Paulk’s church form 1987 until 1992, and even became part of the church leadership. Enlow wouldn’t name names, but he said, “They threaten, through spiritual tones, people who would tell on them. And it’s part of the overall effect, the effectiveness of them. Staying in power, and keeping people quiet, and keeping their own members believing them.”

Again, this doesn’t prove anything – but did Long push for a healthier attitude to leadership accountability in Charismatic churches in the wake of the Paulk scandal? It doesn’t look like it.

Sarah also draws attention to this sermon, in which Long compares the word of God, as preached by him, to “fresh sperm”:

The job of the preacher is to bring fresh sperm! And when he speaks it, the womb, the church, is to take it in!

And yet again… but oh dear.

Meanwhile, I’m sure that Long will be particularly grateful for some words of support he’s received:

Disgraced pastor Ted Haggard cautioned today that no one should rush to judge…

“Nobody’s guilty until the court says he’s guilty,” Haggard, the former head of a 14,000-member congregation in Colorado, told AOL News today in a phone interview.

…Haggard said that Long deserves a fair hearing and that if the accusations are false, he will survive the ordeal. “The bishop is surrounded by people that will counsel him well,” he said.

Haggard continues to complain that his massage sessions with a male prostitute while using methamphetamine have been misreported:

“I didn’t do what I was accused of, but what I did do was bad enough,” he said today.

Don’t Eat, Pray, Act

Charisma reports:

More than 80 prominent Christian leaders are endorsing a 40-day fast leading up to the midterm elections that kicks off Sunday with a simulcast event from Washington, D.C.

Organized by California pastor Jim Garlow and Prison Fellowship founder Chuck Colson, Pray & Act has gained support from a cross-section of Christians, including Bible teacher Kenneth Copeland, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Generals International co-founder Cindy Jacobs, Southern Baptist Convention leader Richard Land, Atlanta pastor Creflo Dollar and Campus Crusade for Christ co-founder Vonette Bright.

…participants are being asked to fast and pray from Monday at 7:14 a.m. Eastern until Oct. 30 at 7:14 a.m.

…Conservative Christians for months have lamented the state of the nation, pointing to mounting national debt, the controversial health care overhaul and most recently a federal judge’s decision to overturn California’s gay marriage ban.

However, we’re assured – with a straight face – that this is not about getting the Republican vote out in November:

But noting that Republican leaders did not plan to include family values in their legislative blueprint, Pray & Act supporters insist neither political party can save the day.

“We’re not seeking a political party,” Colson said last Sunday at a preliminary Pray & Act event in Washington. “We’re not taking a partisan position. We are seeking God’s intervention in the affairs of our state and to give us hope that comes only from God.”

“I don’t put my faith in political parties,” he added. “I have one King.”

Jim Garlow is also Chairman of Renewing American Leadership (ReAL), which exists to facilitate the preposterous and shameless sanctification of Newt Gingrich. Right Wing Watch recently reviewed a Pray & Act event broadcast on GodTV:

Most of event was standard Religious Right fare, with leaders discussing the paramount importance of fighting abortion and saving marriage as people like Colson marveled at that we are now celebrating homosexuality which, just a few decades ago, was “shameful and embarrassing”…

(A bit like Colson himself, then)

…And then, of course, there was Lou Engle just being Lou Engle as he got revved up about how fasting and prayer can finally reverse the forty year rebellion set off in 1969 with the release of “the Stonewall homosexual movement”

According to Engle:

Moses fasted forty days and the law of God was released into the Earth.

Elijah fasted forty days at a time when they had legalized child sacrifice and homosexual and heterosexual prostitution in the days of Ahab and Jezebel.

And just last March, a woman from Polk County fasted for more than three weeks… and was found dead. However, I doubt that is what Pray & Act have in mind – rather, according to a supportive notice on Gingrich’s ReAL site, “persons can fast as God directs them during this 40-day span”, and “a liquid diet” is suggested. We are also cautioned that “If needed, consult a physician before fasting”.

Meanwhile, Gingrich will be speaking at a special dinner at the Convocation on Critical Issues at Missouri Western State University on 6 October. Presumably, since ReAL is endorsing the fast, Gingrich’s own plate will remain empty…

Governor of Akwa Ibom Threatens NGOs Protecting “Child Witches” with Arrest

Embarrassed by reports of the continuing problem of children being stigmatised as witches in Akwa Ibom state in Nigeria, Governor Godswill Akpabio has decided to act: by going after the charities that have been caring for abandoned children and highlighting the problem. The Pioneer reports:

Weekend Pioneer recalls Chief Akpabio in his reaction to a news report on Cable News Network (CNN) which portrays the state in bad light to the international community.

Chief Akpabio maintained that the operators of the CRARN and Stepping Stones were blowing the issue out of proportion for monetary gains.

…Chief Akpabio had accused officials of the NGO of fraud and promised to effect their arrest in a radio and television phone-in- programme in the Akwa Ibom Broadcasting Corporation (AKBC).

I blogged on the CNN reports here, here, and here, and on Akpabio’s response here. Akpabio’s attack on the charity is based on a newspaper report which I discussed here.

Stepping Stones has released a statement on the accusation:

…Speaking at a recent press conference held by the organisations and the Bar Human Rights Committee Child Rights Unit in Abuja, the Programme Director of Stepping Stones Nigeria, Gary Foxcroft, said: “Stepping Stones Nigeria refutes these false allegations in the strongest possible terms. As a registered charity in England and Wales we are accountable to the Charity Commission and publish our accounts on their website and ours annually. Stepping Stones Nigeria and our partners are committed to upholding the highest standards in transparency and accountability. We have absolutely nothing to hide. Unfortunately it appears that the Governor of Akwa Ibom State, Godswill Akpabio, has been given misleading information on this issue by those with a commercial interest in seeking to discredit our work. We therefore wish to request a formal meeting with the Governor to help address this misunderstanding. Under the leadership of Governor Godswill Akpabio the Akwa Ibom State Government has made some significant progress in improving the lives of children accused of witchcraft in Akwa Ibom State. This has included enacting the Child Rights Act and transforming the educational landscape in the state. Stepping Stones Nigeria and its partners remain committed to working with the Akwa Ibom State Government to stamp out this evil practice once and for all”.

Responding to allegations that the child witch issue in Akwa Ibom State had been “exaggerated”, the President of the Child Rights and Rehabilitation Network (CRARN), Sam Itauma, stated that: “Over the last 7 years CRARN has dealt with numerous horrific cases of child abuse linked to the belief in child witches. Recent reports by UNICEF and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child show this problem is real and that it has not been exaggerated at all. We hope that the Governor will give us the opportunity to discuss this with him as the relevant Government Ministries working on this issue have not given us the opportunity to address this issue with them”…

One particular enemy of the children’s hostel is the powerful local evangelist “Apostle” Helen Ukpabio. Ukpabio teaches through her books and films that children can cause misfortune as witches, and she tried to have the hostel shut down last year. She has denounced San Itauma as a “wizard” who has “turned those children to become witches for the sake of money”, and when Governor Akpabio visited the hostel last year she warned him – with her typical vulgarity and arrogance – to “remember what happened to Saddam Hussein”. Perhaps Akpabio is taking the threat seriously.

Meanwhile, Ukpabio’s supporters continue to leave comments on my blog, and an abusive attack website created by Ukpabio’s webmaster and endorsed by her remains in operation. Most recently, Ukpabio’s fans have been celebrating that the father of Nigerian humanist and activist Leo Igwe  lost an eye in a attack after Leo publicly supported a victim of rape in his home village.

Glen Jenvey Saga: Who is Darkwind?

One of the strangest developments in the saga of Glen Jenvey occured last summer, when the former “terror tracker” announced his sudden conversion to fundamentalist Islam and was received into the religion by members of an Al-Muhajiroun front group. This came a few weeks after the Daily Mail had referenced him as someone who had been “accused by several newspapers of fabricating stories about Islamic extremism”.

Why did Jenvey convert? Although he later claimed that it had been an undercover research project, at the time it was clear to me that Jenvey was in a vulnerable state as regards his mental health. The Mail reference had left him very depressed, and he had in fact threatened suicide. Going over to the other side would re-confirm his importance, and the establishment which had turned its back on him would be sorry.

During this period, I had some private email discussion with Glen. I urged him towards moderation and away from Al-Muhajiroun, and asked him not to conflate the Israeli right-wing with Israelis or Jews in general. In short, I decided to deal with him honestly, in the hope that he could be pulled away from the brink.

However, someone else was also watching Glen’s conversion with interest – someone who, like Jenvey, had been monitoring and leaving messages on Muslim websites to find evidence of extremism. But while I was trying to get Jenvey to extricate himself from his new friends, this person was sharing personal information about him on-line in what seems to me to have been a malicious attempt to use his sexuality to put him in danger. And typically, this person remained in the shadows, recklessly playing games with an ill man in a dangerous situation while hiding his or her own identity. Step forward “Darkwind”, writing on Ummah.com:

Jenvey lives with a man?? Is this true?

As I’ve blogged previously, I’ve had communication with Ummah about IP addresses used to post bogus messages on-line here and elsewhere. For these efforts, I’ve been smeared by a couple of people as someone who “shares information with extremists”. I suspect that “Darkwind” is one of those who would like employ this argument to discourage investigation into evidence that he or she has been doing exactly that.

UPDATE: I belatedly note that prior to Darkwind’s post, the subject was introduced by someone using the name “Angel 1-5”:

right, and what does Glen’s boyfriend has to say about all this?

The same name was used to leave a comment on my in April 2009, and the author was obviously one of the cyber-bullies calling themselves “the Cheerleaders”.

UPDATE 2: I emailed Charlie Flowers to ask him whether he denies any association with Darkwind. In the past, Flowers and the “Cheerleaders” have sent me messages bragging about their antics, but this time there was no reply. Presumably he’s too ashamed to put his name to his actions.

Photos from NY 9/11 Anti-Mosque Protest

Various sites are carrying photos from yesterday’s anti-mosque rally in New York; organiser Pamela Geller had promised to “confiscate” signs, which was always an impractical proposition, and as expected a number of messages were on display.

Geller’s Atlas Shrugs site presents the rally as she should like it to be portrayed, with US flags and caps predominating. The third picture suggests that the crowd was not particularly deep, although it’s difficult to judge how many were there. Geller boasts 40,000, while other media estimate “around 1,000”. Geller also complains that “The media pretends these people don’t exist. It’s criminal.” Actually, here in the UK it was the top story on the BBC rolling news channel and the World Service after coverage of the official 9/11 commemoration.

Urban Infidel has more pictures of individual participants, and Talking Points Memo has an extensive gallery. Posters include: the word “Sharia” written as if with dripping blood (also seen that the previous rally on the issue); “What God do You Kill For?”; a wounded arm having salt sprinkled on it; “Cordoba = Conquer, Not Here!”; “‘Sharia’ Pelosi – Implant a Tongue Depressor – Wire her Jaw” (held by a middle-aged woman wearing a “Waterboarding Instructor” t-shirt); “Those Who Waith on the Lord Shall Renew their Strength. They Shall Mount Up with Wings Like Eagles!! Isaiah 40:31”; “Muhummad was the First Radical Muslim: Osama bin Laden is Following Directions”; “Insult to Ground Zero = Purposeless Symbolism Causing Pain to Millions = Insult to Holy Koran. If You Love Peace, Move the Mosque”; and “Transform Islam, Not America”. Little Green Footballs, meanwhile, draws attention to a picture of a man holding a Koran taped to a piece of cardboard bearing the words “Toilet Paper”. Particularly in evidence in a number of photos is a a small flyer declaring “No Obama’s Mosque”.

A few specific groups and individuals could be identified; LGF shows a picture of several English Defence League members, and TPM picture 11 shows EDL activist Kevin Carroll (I previously blogged on Carroll here) [UPDATE: Apparently Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, who heads the EDL as “Tommy Robinson“, was refused entry at JFK Airport]. Picture 15 shows a glimpse of a banner representing the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Propery, a well-known right-wing Roman Catholic organisation (I blogged on this group here). Geller’s site shows banners from AMAC, the Association of Mature American Citizens (their founder was one of the speakers), while Urban Infidel has shots of Jose Morales and George “Tako” Maniatakos of “USAHeard” – both men, bedecked in US flag clothing, have been carrying a large cross around various cities to commemorate 9/11 victims: the cross is decorated with the sentences “In God We Trust” and “We the People”, and there is a wheel at the base to make carrying it easier (USAHeard is an anti-Obama organisation, “devoted to restoring our country to what our founding fathers had envisioned”).

Also present close by was a van carrying a number of anti-gay and anti-abortion messages, and declaring that 9/11 was the wrath of God. This van is Ronald Brock’s “Truth Truck“, which appears at various events. Brock was profiled in the Denver Post in 2008.

Some interest appears to have settled on a South Asian man named Kemal, who appears in the same picture as Carroll. He had a lengthy self-painted banner declaring that

Mohamed was No Prophet and Koran is No Holy Book: The Enire World was Deceived by Mohamed and His Stooges. I am Self Taught Spiritual Scientist. My Mission is [unclear]… This Present Human Race this Stinking Lie! I am a Real Muslim not a Half-Baked Degenerate Coward.

Free Blogger Ali Abdulemam

Global Voices reports:

Ali Abdulemam, a leading Bahraini blogger and Global Voices Advocacy author, was arrested earlier today by the Bahraini authorities for allegedly spreading “false news” on BahrainOnline.org portal, one of the most popular pro-democracy outlets in Bahrain, amidst the worst sectarian crackdown by the government in years, and accusations of a supposed “terror network” involving several political and human rights activists. The BahrainOnline portal is censored in Bahrain. He sent an email earlier today mentioning that he got a call from the Bahraini national security just before his arrest, then arrested him and alleged that he was trying to flee.

Reportedly the Bahrani government has a long track record of using torture against dissidents http://bit.ly/9kZyJQ and their TV has been broadcasting hateful sectarian messages to justify its crackdown

Ali was arrested before also for content published on his portal, and he contributes occasionally to Global Voices Advocacy and Global Voices Arabic Lingua.

There are further details at the Huffington Post, and an overview of the crackdown in Bahrain in Foreign Policy. The Campaign to Free Ali Abdulemam  has a website which can be found here.