One Muslim Chaplain's Blog

Dawah Series Part 1: Lessons to Learn from Scientology’s Appeal

In Islam, Religion on July 3, 2012 at 6:38 pm

With the news of a now thrice-divorced Tom Cruise making the headlines, I thought to dig a bit deeper into the religion cult of Scientology which counts many celebrities among its followers. (Part 2 of this series will analyze the appeal of Buddhism among non-Buddhist Americans, God willing.)

If American Muslims are to take the nation’s pulse when it comes to religion, and da’wah (inviting to Islam) in general, then we must be willing to examine even the fringe movements. It will entail wading through a lot of megalomaniacs and spiritual ponzi schemes, but the purpose is not to imitate the methods, but to identify the void these religions/cults are filling for those whom they appeal to.

I asked myself, how can such a patently absurd UFO theology such as Scientology find its way into the minds of supposedly educated individuals? What is the appeal? Also, where do we draw the line between cults and religions? Many would argue that the major religions are merely more successful cults. It behooves us to think about this accusation so that we can indeed identify how we are NOT a cult…indeed how to avoid turning our religions into cults.

SCIENTOLOGY: The Greatest Pyramid Scheme Ever Sold

Not long ago, an overly friendly Muslim approached my husband at the mosque. Not an odd thing– friendships begun at the mosque. But the man and his wife who later visited us at our home clearly had a purpose behind their overtures….they were selling products for Amway Global, and it seemed it had become their life. So too with Scientology.

There is nothing more American than the self-made success story. Rags to riches. Pulling one’s self up by her bootstraps. Take that concept, dress it in vaguely  religious attire, and you have Scientology.  The actual title of their current leader, David Miscavige, is Chairman of the Board. (I am not making this up). Much of scientology’s promotional material touts the good they are doing for others in terms of concrete charitable work but also how they are mentally enlightening non-Scientologists (aka wogs) to their potential for infinite knowledge (…a groan-inducing concept if you know your aqeeda…). It must have appealed to the young Tom Cruise when fame first hit him and along with it, the questions that plague any human worth his salt, “All this wealth and fame..how can I give back? How can I help others?” but also “Who am I? Who is Tom Cruise?” Around the same time Scientology began to seriously pursue the conversion of celebrities.

I’m sure Cruise has access to Google, so I’m not sure how he explains the voluminous material portraying founder L. Ron Hubbard (LRH, as he’s known to followers) as one sick puppy. But for now, let’s just focus on what must have appealed to an up and coming Cruise.

The Draw

Scientology offers a very practical, even mechanical, self-evaluation for its followers from the get-go. Kind of like that relationship compatibility test you and your spouse took. You said it was for fun but let’s be honest, part of the fun is the idea that you can gain insight into yourself. Auditing is done using a lie-detector type machine called an e-meter which detects emotional responses to questions asked. Presumably the auditor (not your IRS variety), identifies areas of turmoil in the Scientologist’s life, and they somehow work towards a “clear” reading next time around.  Putting aside the question of whether emotionless responses should be a spiritual goal, or whether one should spill sensitive information to someone they barely know, there is a kind of  spiritual “intake assessment” up front. It’s not a psychiatrist, it’s your own responses, which is presumably more trustworthy than what a shrink can make up…right?

There may be a sinister angle to these audits—the responses are recorded and locked in storage somewhere—for blackmail purposes by the organization? We are left to wonder its purpose. But the point is that upon becoming a Scientologist a person gets individual attention and they presumably gain insight about their inner turmoil. Most of us call this confiding…Catholics call it confession. Scientologists call it an audit….and followers pay for the sessions.

It should give us pause that people are willing to pay for what should be the right of every human being: to be heard, to be probed in those tender spiritual spots, to be given attention and insight into their problems.

Let us contrast this with the oftentimes highly impersonal reception new Muslims encounter upon  entrance into Islam. A sweaty palm-inducing shahada (profession of faith) that is pronounced in a large room full of very foreign-looking people, followed by a loud “Allahu akbar” (“God is great,” which has interesting connotations in this culture, to say the least).

Then, a handshake or two (if you’re male)…and off you go. It’s not that the welcome is insincere. It’s just highly impersonal, and there is little follow-through. Maybe you are assertive enough to try to find a class in the mosque (if they are even available) or, at the very least, you might get invited over for some good biryani. But clearly, there needs to be a personal reception, in addition to a public one, that is enduring and meaningful. It can be as simple as a question posed in a private setting,

“Are there any life issues that we can be of immediate assistance about? We do not have professionals in every field, but we will try our best to help direct you to resources.”

“Where are you living? Do you have a place to go home to?”

“Are there any fears or concerns you have now that you are Muslim?”

Of course, the best reception is a friendship that forms in which a person earns trust enough to where the convert is willing to reveal any issues they may have. I believe I heard that Ta’leef Collective’s CCC component (Convert Continuum of Care) entails someone assigned to call the convert daily for the first three months after conversion, just to check on them.

Here, of course, we must be careful not to blur the line and become cult-like in our pursuit of this person. Allah guides and misguides. It is not our job to keep someone in the fold. But that said, it is upon us to offer a fold in the first place. If the fold resembles a bear hug, even better.

My understanding is that the UFO theology (LRH began as a sci-fi writer, after all) gets gradually introduced after many auditing sessions and hard-earned dollars have been shelled out…and also after many secrets have been spilled and recorded for the Church of Scientology’s “safekeeping.” At this point we have “consumer lock-in”…a concept I love to overuse, and here is no exception. It perfectly describes any situation where despite cognitive dissonance, a person feels so invested in a matter that they do not leave it, despite their misgivings.

It is easy to make fun of Cruise in his couch-jumping, Scientology-preaching intensity. But I believe he was victimized at the highest, and most vulnerable, point in his life. Some even say three marriages have ended because of his devotion to the church. Whatever the case, I want to know what makes Tom Cruise tick, what turned him from the good old Abrahamic stand-by religions and onto something completely new and untested by previous generations. I admire his devotion and his desire to act on what he believes to be true…he reaches an evangelical intensity when he speaks about his beliefs. While we cannot dress our faith in every new fad and trend, we can certainly draw lessons about where the spiritual holes are, and how we might fill them.

With Allah is all success.

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