Private Eye Review Slams OUP Book on Scientology

The perenially-acerbic “Literary Review” section of the latest Private Eye (1234, p.26) takes aim at Scientology, a new volume from the Oxford University Press edited by James R. Lewis – a scholar whose credibily was damaged in 1995 when the Aum Supreme Truth group flew him out to Japan to tell journalists that there was no way they could have been responsible for the sarin gas Tokyo subway attack. Scientology appears to be true to form:

In the opening essay…J. Gordon Melton sets out “an overview of the life of L. Ron Hubbard anchored by the generally agreed facts”. The general tone can be deduced from this conclusion: “After a suitable pause to acknowledge the founder’s life and accomplishments, the church continued its forward march. In another chapter, David G. Bromley claims that “the basic outline of L. Ron Hubbard’s life is not contested”.

In fact, of course, it very much is contested. Further:

 …Evidence of editorial mumbo-jumbo comes thick and fast. On page four, editor James R. Lewis lambasts an unnamed critic of Scientology for being a computer scientist rather than a sociologist or a religious studies scholar. Yet at the very end of the book there is an astonishingly uncritical essay…co-authored by…a senior lecturer in, er, “tourism management”.

This highlights an on-going problem with the study of certain groups – scholars naturally want to understand what makes a group tick, and that means attempting a bit of empathy that goes beyond dismissing those who hold unusual religious views as simply being manipulated or just weird. There is also an understandable wish to create distance from polemical “anti-cult” groups that sometimes have religious agendas of their own. However, it should also be noted that cooperative religious groups can provide academics with never-ending streams of data for articles and books; publish something too critical, and that research source is likely to be cut off. Also, writing critically can be problematic due to libel law: in the UK, a volume of edited essays entitled Harmful Religion was pulped by the publisher after threats from a group called the Bruderhof; in the USA, an evangelical Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions had to fend off a libel suit from the Local Church.

In the wake of the Aum fiasco, psychologist Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi spoke out:

In light of what we have witnessed we are forced to re-read, our eyes fresh with suspicion, the whole corpus of NRM [New Religious Movements] literature…Recent and less recent NRM catastrophes help us realize that in every single case allegations by hostile outsiders and detractors have been closer to reality than any other accounts. Ever since the Jonestown tragedy, statements by ex-members turned out to be more accurate than those of apologists and NRM researchers. The reality revealed in the cases of People’s Temple, Rajneesh International, Vajradhatu, the Nation of Yahweh, the Branch Davidians, the Faith Assembly, Aum Shinrykio, the Solar Temple, or Heaven’s Gate is much more than unattractive; it is positively horrifying. In every case of NRM disasters over the past 50 years, starting with Krishna Venta (Beit-Hallahmi, 1993), we encounter a hidden world of madness and exploitation in a totalitarian, psychotic, group, whose reality is actually even worse than detractors’ allegations.

The happy consensus, shared by colleagues I admire and to whom I will always be in debt, turns out to be, on closer examination, a rhetoric of advocacy, apologetics and propaganda. The advocacy and apologetics agenda creates an impoverished discourse, denying the madness, passion, and exploitation involved in NRMs, and leads to an intellectual dead end. The real issue is how a community of brilliant scholars committed itself to this kind of NRM advocacy…

Protest in Luton over St. George’s Day Event Decision

The lastest from Luton, where a protest by self-described English “patriots” took place on Bank Holiday Monday:

Police in Luton were out in the town on Easter Monday to ensure an illegal protest organised via the Internet passed peacefully.

The protest involved approximately 150 members of the public who wished to march in Luton.

None of the protesters were arrested but six people are being held in custody for causing disturbances elsewhere in the town centre.

The report – from the Luton and Dunstable Express – quotes the police as complaining that the protestors had not contacted them or the council before the event.

The only other reports on the incident appear in the Daily Star, a sensationalist tabloid which likes to whip up anti-Muslim sentiment with dubious reporting (I blogged on one story here). Alas, it’s the only source available on this particular subject. One piece  – inevitably headlined “It’s OK for Muslims to Abuse Our Troops” –  tells us that:

…While fanatical Muslims were given the green light to gather and scream insults when the Royal Anglian Regiment returned from Iraq last month, an application for a St George’s Day celebration this month was turned down.

I blogged on this decision here. The Star continues:

Approval has also been granted for events to mark the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed and the death of his grandson.

Many Luton residents complaining of “double standards” were further angered when a rally to protest at the council’s decisions two days ago was stopped and then broken up by police.

Craig McKoy, 22, claims he had two teeth smashed in by a policeman’s truncheon during the event.

He said: “I don’t have any problem at all with large-scale Muslim celebrations on the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday.

“But why can’t other people be given the same rights, especially as I don’t think Muslims would have a problem with a St George’s Day celebration either?”

Another report in the same paper adds:

POLICE broke up a march yesterday by British people wanting to “reclaim” their streets from Muslim fanatics.

Riot police with horses and dogs sealed off the town centre before scuffles broke out and several of the 200 demonstrators were arrested.

…Sean Smith, 32, said: “I saw one guy who shouted ‘let us march’ and a policeman whacked him with his truncheon and knocked two of his teeth out.”

No Youtube footage has yet appeared, but the subject of police violence is rather topical just now [UPDATE: Some footage has now been posted, although there is no evidence there of police violence; UPDATE 2: Paul Ray has now posted a photograph showing an injured mouth with missing teeth].

Plans for the St. George’s Day event developed after a proposed counter-protest to the Islamist provocation was abandoned when its organiser came to fear that the far-right and football hooligans would hijack the event. However, McKoy is black, and he says that protestors carried banners attacking the far-right National Front.

So who organised the Easter Monday protest? A report at Hope Not Hate written a few days before has some background to one of those involved:

…In wades Peter Fehr to announce another march on Bank Holiday Monday, 13 April. In an email to supporters he does a reasonable job of organising the event, saying:

“This Demo is being well publicised all over Great Britain and over 20,000 people are expected to descend to Luton on the 13th April to show their disgust towards Muslim extremists. So please attend and bring friends, relatives and work colleges, and show your support by bringing along a Union Jack flag. The 13th is on Easter Monday, so this is a bank holiday, so no excuses, turn-up and show your support.”

On the other hand, later in the email he goes to some lengths to distance the BNP from the event, saying:

“I MUST STRESS THAT THIS DEMO IS NOT BEING ORGANIZED BY THE BNP. Please do not wear any BNP badges if you plan on going to this event.”

…A flyer for the march on the 13th was sent to the Searchlight offices on Blood and Honour notepaper. On it was a phone number, which turned out to be that of NF activist Stuart Hollingdale, the person who was jailed for three months in 1999 for daubing the Stephen Lawrence memorial with white paint. Hollingdale said that his erstwhile NF chum, none other than BNP parish councillor Simon Deacon, was briefing him on events in Luton.

Fehr’s involvement is not mentioned in either of the Star‘s reports. Fehr is a former BNP activist who has supposedly “retired” from campaigning.

As for the St. George’s Day event, I’ve explained some of the causes for concern about that (which is not the same as saying it should not be allowed) in previous blog entries: in particular, the main organiser is Paul Ray (“Lionheart”), an inflammatory pro-BNP blogger (“you should not judge these people who God is doing a work with and through”) who makes no distinction between moderate and extremist Muslims. Ray (who has featured on this blog a number of times, and whom even Little Green Footballs considers excessive) also expresses solidarity with a local group of football supporters called the “Luton Town MIGs“, which has a reputation for violence; Hope Not Hate describes him as ” a lynchpin for the various strands of nationalism in the area – from the football-orientated Luton MIGs…to those drawn into BNP membership”. While I’m sure that McKoy is law-abiding, his Facebook profile is an English flag with the word “MIG Crew” written on it (Apparently “MIG” refers to the Russian fighter plane; the claim that it stands for “Men in Gear” comes from rival groups, presumably as a taunt of some kind).

Also involved with the plans for the St. George’s Day event were elements from the “March for England” (MFE) organisation, which I blogged on here. MFE is run by Dave Smeeton, who has a similar Facebook profile picture that advertises the “6.57 Crew”. This is a Portsmouth group of the same kind as the MIGs, although in the comments to my blog entry here he expresses irritation that I might think this choice of profile picture might mean he is a member or supporter:

A picture of a me and a flag does not mean i was 6,57…Does me being in the Cubs or Boys Brigade long ago i know. Have any relevence to your spin? NO. I am in my 50s with 5 grown up children and 8 granchildren. If i had any connections to the 6,57 that would have been 30 years ago.So if i had what relevence is 30 years ago?

Smeeton adds:

You are still under the delusion we are anti muslim. We have only ever turned up to protest at one event which has attracted Radical Islam. The Al Quds event had and was part organised by an extremist group both Blair and Brown said they would ban. But no suprise they never did.

99% of March for Englands events have nothing to do with Islam but are directed at the Goverment or are in support of our troops. Our Rememberance at the Cenetaph in London every Nov.Our St Georges Parades is used to raise money for forces charities.

…I can safely say we have controled all our marches and protests. There has never been an arrest on one of our events. Myself and our Stewards monitor our events carefully. We also work closely with the Police to ensure we steward our events as they ask. This is the reason why we to date have had no problem putting on our events.

To make it crystal clear we do everything within the law informing the Police and gaining all relevent permission. If we where a violent group the Police would not allow our events due to public order concerns.

Smeeton believes that I wish deliberately to misrepresent MFE; I have responded to his complaint here.