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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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.