Lebanon Cruises on Scientology’s “Way to Happiness”

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A file photo taken on November 24, 2011 shows a masked member of the Church of Scientology demonstrating in front of the Paris courthouse, to protest against the appeal trial on the Church of Scientology's fraud conviction. (Photo: AFP -Joel Saget)

By: Yazan al-Saadi

Published Thursday, October 17, 2013

Four years ago, a booklet titled “The Way to Happiness” found its way into a number of Lebanese public schools. Inside, the booklet lists 21 moral precepts that range from discouraging promiscuity to encouraging brushing one's teeth.

In bold print, the cover declares: “A book for all Lebanese.” A pathway composed of the Lebanese flag leads to a sparkling sun rising between luscious green hills. On the back, in fine print, is the author’s name: L. Ron Hubbard, the American science-fiction writer and founder of the controversial Church of Scientology. The booklet, translated into a record-breaking 70 languages, is now available in Lebanese Arabic.

Scientology is widely considered to be a secretive cult steeped in extraterrestrial tropes. It was established in the United States by Hubbard in 1952 and rapidly grew in the last few decades, scooping up Hollywood celebrities who provide a friendly face for the cause. Scientology’s constant conflict with governments has earned it the distinction of being one of the most legally combative organizations, unleashing a salvo of lawsuits against opponents.

At the same time, it is recognized as an official religion by authorities in the US, South Africa, Sweden, Spain, and a handful of other states, and people have argued that Scientologists have every right to practice their faith like any other religion as long as it does not infringe on others’ rights.

Beyond the borders of Lebanon, “The Way to Happiness” received approval for distribution in social programs in the UAE, Qatar, Palestine, and Syria, as well as an alleged blessing from al-Azhar Islamic Research Academy in Egypt. The appearance of the booklet in Lebanon, a country where barely anyone has heard of Hubbard or Scientology, raises the question: Are Church of Scientology members attempting to open a new front in the country, away from prying eyes?

Scientology and Lebanon’s Golden Age

The 75-page booklet, first published in 1980, is distributed and taught by a Lebanese NGO, The Self and Social Betterment Association (SSBA). The group’s offices are located in the Majzoub Building, a fairly inconspicuous, mid-sized building on Clemenceau Street in Hamra.

“L. Ron Hubbard wrote this secular manifesto. He’s the only one who wrote something secular that is able to touch different people from different political orientations at any geographic space,” said George Maatouk, founder and president of the SSBA in Beirut, to Al-Akhbar during a phone interview.

Maatouk is a Lebanese engineer in his early 50s who shuttles between Lebanon, Kuwait, and the US.

“I wanted to bring this to my nation because the civil war in Lebanon left a horrible scar. I want the Lebanese society to return its golden age before the civil war. This is the Lebanon I love. This booklet can induce that [since] it calls for respect of humans,” he said.

“Our goal is to make sure that we get out of sectarianism, that human beings treat each other correctly, and live a balanced life,” he added.

According to SSBA's website, the NGO was formally established in Beirut in September 2008. The website claims that the association works for the development of human rights within Lebanon. But how this is done, besides disseminating the booklet and conducting seminars centered on it, is not clarified.

On the first page of “The Way to Happiness” are reader instructions stating that, surely, the reader desires to help those around them. It states that the reader should get an envelope and write their name and the name of the person they want to help. Then, the reader should pass the envelope to that person, urging them to read the booklet. This is part of how one can develop “a happier and more secure life.”

According to Maatouk, donors – and he stresses that they are from his own network of family and friends, as well as modest sums from Lebanese municipalities – determine where the booklet is sent and where the seminars take place.

When asked if ties exists between the booklet he distributes in Lebanon and Scientology, Maatouk stressed a complete separation, contending, “If it has points that are relevant to our experiences, what is the issue of the writer himself then? Are the ideas worthwhile for us or not? The Lebanese people are a people who are separated. We have issues of sectarianism. Do we want to stay like this or move forward as a unified people?”

To buttress his point, Maatouk emphasized that Hubbard was a “humanist” and did a lot of humanitarian work for American society. He noted how Hubbard's prominence in America resulted in a museum established in his honor “just like how Gibran Khalil Gibran has one in Lebanon.”

Distribution of “The Way to Happiness” is coordinated by The Way to Happiness Foundation International, headquartered in California. The foundation is a division of the Association for Better Living and Education (ABLE) – an umbrella organization classified as a “Scientology-related entity” by the American government. ABLE represents three other Scientology-affiliated organizations that separately deal with specific social issues like drug abuse or prison rehabilitation.

Yet, whenever allegations of a direct relationship between “The Way to Happiness” and Scientology are voiced – as it has in North America, Europe, and elsewhere – those who disseminate it usually go great lengths to deny such connections.

Nevertheless the ties are too vast to discount, particularly since most of the various organizations that circulate the booklet are run by Scientologists.

Indeed, even the Scientology's official web page notes how Scientology centers are active in producing millions of copies of the booklet and accompanying video. Scientologist publications have directly stated that “The Way to Happiness” campaign is “the largest dissemination project in Scientology history” and is “the bridge between broad society and Scientology.”

A Dirty Operation

“I really liked my job. My job was to get into the car and go to these amazing places, remote areas where schools are not taken care of at all. I would go with my colleague, and go to these schools and give a lecture about 'The Way to Happiness' or just hand out the booklet,” T.H., a former SSBA employee who requested anonymity, told Al-Akhbar.

T.H. explained that most schools visited were poor and lacked adequate infrastructure to provide ethics courses to students and were eager for help from other parties.

According to the former employee, they visited two to three schools a day. A map of Lebanon hangs in the office with colored pins indicating which towns, villages, and cities were penetrated.

“No one thought that there was anything fishy about it. We were like celebrities when we walked in. They [students and teachers] would tell us that they loved the booklet and that the accompanying video was nice. The kids especially loved the debate over each of the 21 moral precepts,” T.H. said.

He noted that the job had a high turn-over rate. High school or university graduates were hired, generally under the impression that they were working for a legitimate NGO, and were paid $1,000 or less per month.

“It's weird. It's an NGO and seems to have a mission, but [“The Way to Happiness”] is the only project that it's been doing for years. NGOs tend to take social networking seriously, [SSBA] do not. Their pages are outdated and pointless. All we do is pass out copies. The booklets are the donations. If we don't pass out these booklets, we won't get donations, and ultimately without the donations, we couldn’t send money to the US,” T.H. claimed.

Months into the job, T.H. became concerned. It was after a wealthy friend of Maatouk arrived to the office and announced that he wanted to donate hundreds of thousands of copies of the booklet to Tripoli during the height of the instability transpiring there.

“He started using terms that me and my peers weren't familiar with, like 'safe pointing.' So, to write the report to send to [Maatouk], we researched 'safe pointing' and that's when everything unraveled,” T.H. said.

'Safe pointing' is a concept frequently used by Scientologists “related to handling attacks by enemies and by creating a public relations image that is good in the community,” according to Scientology documents leaked through WikiLeaks.

Next, T.H. and a colleague read the 21 moral precepts critically, realizing that they were generic and seemed introductory to something else.

Undeniably, when deconstructing the precepts, the values are articulated in pseudo-religious terms with a socially conservative bent. For example, in the Arabic edition, it states that those who commit promiscuity, defined as illegitimate sex, will face “strong punishment,” with no further details. In a section regarding respect for all religions, a line states “those without faith are a sorry lot.”

“They never mentioned that this was Scientology at all during my time there. It was only after I left, and when they realized that I left because of this issue, did they start being upfront with my peer who had decided to stay for some time after me. They would talk openly about Scientology in the meetings,” T.H. said.

“I hated that it felt like a dirty operation, something that is so masked and opaqued,” he concluded.

Blessed by Authorities

Al-Akhbar contacted some of the schools that worked with SSBA and allowed the dissemination of “The Way to Happiness” on its premises.

None knew who or what L. Ron Hubbard nor Scientology were. All had no contentions with the booklet and took it at face-value. One school administrator in southern Lebanon told Al-Akhbar that he had passed out more than 1,000 copies to students and teachers when SSBA had contacted him almost three years ago.

“We work with hundreds of NGOs on different issues, particularly when it comes to conducting seminars and courses in schools,” Lebanese Minister of Education Hassan Diab said about the procedure for approval. “We encourage this as a community outreach. It's a win-win situation for our students in the public sectors.”

Diab elaborated that for any NGO to be operational in Lebanon it has to be vetted by the Ministry of Interior. Once it is studied “in an intricate manner,” the application is submitted to the cabinet of ministers for approval. But when asked if he knew about L. Ron Hubbard or any of the controversies surrounding “The Way to Happiness,” the minister affirmed his obliviousness of such issues.

“Once it's approved, we assume that all its clearances are made. [But] when we are aware of issues, we deal with it,” he added.

Potential problems surrounding the booklet not only escaped the Lebanese government, but other Lebanese institutions as well. According to documents provided by Maatouk to Al-Akhbar, the Muslim Scouts Organization in Lebanon and the Amal Movement have authored validation letters in support of the booklets distribution.

Open to Society

“We are a charitable organization that is open to everyone and willing to go to anyone that comes to them and asks for courses. We are open to the society,” Maatouk told Al-Akhbar.

The propagation of religious doctrine in schools and general society is not that peculiar, but the core difference here is the perseverance to deny any links to an alleged religious organization when the evidence indicate otherwise.

However, even if Scientologists were transparent and upfront, the Lebanese state itself is not conducive to allowing a new religion to operate so openly. Religion is significantly intertwined with the sociopolitical structures of the state, and the 18 recognized sects are granted authority over personal statuses. Forming a new, legally-recognized religion would undoubtedly prompt clashes with other groups and political elites. This may offer some explanation to the rationality behind the overbearing level of secrecy and caution by those who run and back the SSBA.

But given the Lebanese context, Scientology’s work is restricted in other nations that are aware of its conduct and history, and it is unsurprising that members would attempt to tap into places unfamiliar about the movement or its founder. Naturally, these virgin territories offers lucrative possibilities for expansion.

What is most unfortunate in this tale is that poorer Lebanese schools appear to be unwittingly duped into being the receiving end of a multifaceted dissemination and profiteering project.

Comments

All Lebanese people should be aware of this cult, whose minions were recently convicted of serious crimes in France, from which its organiation is banned. It is a pernicious and criminal organisation founded by a sociopath and fraud.
a good document produced during a court case in California goes into the full pathology of this nasty outfit:
SCIENTOLOGY AND COERCIVE PERSUASION
by Lawrence Wollersheim
http://www.naderlibrary.com/cult.coercivepersuasionscientology.htm
http://www.truthbook.com/index.cfm?linkID=349

It is incredulous what is being pointed out in this article: that the cult Scientology got this far with public schools in Lebanon. Are Lebanese educational institutions so out of it, that the schools would even accept these 21 principles when they are so stupid and generic as the conservative example regarding promiscuity. Precisely what happens when there is no valid ministry in charge of education, with a clear program that would not allow just anyone to leave their pamphlets there as if valid reading material for students. The author should have emphasized the actual hard cases against Scientology as a cult, managed like a financial pyramid scheme, and the repressive sea org schools and more as long exposed by its ex-members as well. It has nothing to do with "community" but with creating a cult and financial operation from that. It is not only about whether it is a religion (for its tax haven status) but as well its operational methods which are like those of cults.

Scientology wins Dutch tax exemption status as a faith institute

Thursday 17 October 2013

The Scientology Church in Amsterdam should be treated in the same way as other church and faith-based organisations and allowed to claim tax breaks, the city's appeal court ruled on Thursday.

The verdict overturns a lower court decision which said the tax office is right in the way it treats Scientology. The court case stemmed from a tax office refusal to grant Scientology ANBI status, which is applied to religious and spiritual organisations and allows them, for example, to benefit from gifts.

The tax office had argued Scientology does not qualify as an ANBI institution because it also charges members for its audit and training programmes. However, the appeal court ruled that other churches also charge for training, such as becoming a priest.

In addition, the appeal court said the Scientology movement's training programmes are not the same as those offered by commercial companies because people who cannot afford them pay a reduced fee or get them free. In addition, the courses are aimed at spiritual and theoretical enlightenment.

This is not different to other religious institutions, the court said.

- See more at: http://www.dutchnews.nl/news/archives/2013/10/scientology_wins_dutch_tax...

PARIS (AP) — France's highest appeals court has upheld the 2009 fraud conviction of the Church of Scientology's French branch, its bookstore and five of its leaders.

The Scientologists were accused of pressuring members into paying large sums for questionable services and materials and using "commercial harassment" against recruits. The group and bookstore were fined 600,000 euros ($814,000). The Scientologists' appeals of their convictions claimed infringement on their religious freedom.

While Scientology is recognized as a religion in the U.S., Sweden and Spain, it is not considered one under French law.

The Los Angeles-based Church of Scientology, founded in 1954 by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, teaches that technology can expand the mind and help solve problems. It claims 10 million members worldwide, including celebrity devotees Tom Cruise and John Travolta.

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