A bad day for Scientology?

The Church of Scientology in the internet age

In the heady days before the internet, an entity such as the Church of Scientology had no real difficulty in protecting its intellectual property and in seeking to uphold its reputation.

Any alleged misuse or supposed wrongful disclosure of its sacred and confidential texts could be met with a cease and desist letter to an offending publisher. Any adverse statement could perhaps be confronted with a libel threat. Any unauthorised contacts by Church members with external critics could be appropriately dealt with. The Church of Scientology were beneficiaries of the command-and-control model of media relations in a Golden Age for newly-invented religions.

Regardless of the merits of Scientology, such a model can no longer be sustained. Their sacred and confidential texts are freely available on Wikileaks. Critics of Scientology commonly exchange views and information on Twitter and elsewhere. The Church of Scientology simply does not appear as imposing as it once did.

It is in this context that we should consider the events of yesterday, a seemingly bad day for the Church of Scientology in the United Kingdom.

First, in the early afternoon, a committee met at - of all places - Cardiff City Council. They were to consider a complaint against Councillor John Dixon. He had once tweeted a hostile comment about Scientology. Some months afterwards a scientologist made a complaint to the Welsh public services ombudsman who, in a bizarre decision, upheld the basis of the complaint. Now the council were to consider whether the complaint should proceed, or whether it could just be struck out.

They struck it out emphatically. And they did so knowing that John Dixon's case was an international cause, and that around the world people were on the internet waiting for news of the outcome of their deliberations. And John Dixon himself has heartened by the extent of support on Twitter, Facebook, and elsewhere. He knew he was not alone.

Second, last night the BBC broadcasted a rather interesting edition of Panorama, where John Sweeney followed up his previous programme (where he famously "lost it"). Again, as the programme was broadcast, hundreds of people on Twitter were happily discussing and dissecting the merits of Scientology, its practices, and its odd beliefs. Some did so anonymously, but many of us did so under our own names. People were no longer scared. There appeared to be nothing for anyone to fear.

For me, as a secularist, the belief system of Scientology is not inherently any more - or less - peculiar or preposterous than say Christianity or Islam. Lord Xenu is a figure as credible as the Angel Gabriel. As a religion and a business organisation, the Church of Scientology should of course have no greater or worse position than any other religion and business organisation.

But for many years, there has been concern as to the practices of Church of Scientology. And there was a sense that such practices could not be addressed openly and without fear. Such a sense may have always been groundless. It may be that the Church of Scientology was misunderstood all along. However, it no longer really matters; for if the Church of Scientology suddenly wanted to close down criticism and anxious scrutiny, it is no longer able to do so.

So even if yesterday was not a bad day for Scientology - indeed, they may have been glad of the attention - it was without doubt a good day for free expression.

 

David Allen Green is a lawyer and writer. He blogs for the New Statesman on legal and policy issues.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue