This past week, I finished Lawrence Wright’s latest book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief. It is one of the most fascinating books I’ve read in a long time; a truly amazing story of modern America that is exceptionally researched. The book provides a contemporary accounting of how a religion is formed and in these descriptions I found many parallels to what is described in the recruitment processes of other ideological groups like al Qaeda and how they recruit new members. (Note: I do not think Scientology is a terror group nor do I have anything against Scientologists with the exception of those described in the book that senselessly beat subordinate members and imprison them in dark basements. (Read the book, you’ll be amazed!) I don’t care what anyone believes as long as you don’t use it to justify killing other people or restricting others’ freedoms.)
In the book, Wright describes how writer/director Paul Haggis was recruited into Scientology. On page 4, of Going Clear, I’ve done a short paraphrasing of Wright’s description of the Scientology playbook:
“Although he didn’t realize it, Haggis was being drawn into the church through a classic four-step “dissemination drill” that recruiters are carefully trained to follow. The first step is to make contact…The second step is to disarm any antagonism the individual may have toward Scientology. Once that’s done, the task it to “find the ruin” — that is, the problem most on the mind of the potential recruit…The fourth step is to convince the Subject that Scientology has the answer.”
This description sounded so familiar to what I’ve seen and studied with regards to groups like al Qaeda. But in reality, this approach can be seen in most all religions. Wright does a great comparison of Scientology with other religions in the final chapter of the book, one that is both fair and instructive of Scientology’s parallels with more ancient religious traditions.
As I discussed in a recent post on Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s recruitment to extremism, the ability for one to be susceptible to a recruitment strategy is an emotional trigger; or as described in Going Clear as “finding the ruin”. If one is primed by one or more emotional triggers, for example, the loss of a family member (family), a struggle for employment (financial), a mental condition (psychological) or the failure to achieve a goal (professional), the “ruin” can send one seeking an answer and an ideology can easily be a solution to solve all problems. It’s not a coincidence that those sentenced to prisons (a “ruin”) often quickly find either God, a gang or both.
While Scientology is thankfully not a violent organization, at least not externally anyways, the process by which they “find the ruin” mirrors many extreme groups. Wright’s description reminds me of on of my favorite articles on radicalization and recruitment – an article by TJ Leydon, a former white supremacist, who wrote a response to the Wade Michael Page massacre last year entitled ”What I Might Have Told Wade Michael Page“. Leydon explains how he targeted people for recruitment.
“Treat someone normal like a winner and he’ll fight for you, but treat a loser like a winner and he’ll kill for you” became a phrase that I took to heart in recruiting others. As the years passed, I started to care more about the power of being high in the hierarchy of the white supremacy movement, so I started to go along with the ideology, even ideals I didn’t believe in or care about, such as Holocaust denial.”
Leydon’s conclusion also provides another contrasting perspective as to why people join different ideologies; extreme or otherwise. The ideology provides the answer to all problems and a way to pursue both group and individual goals whether they be enlightenment, enrichment or power. It’s striking how this thinking (the ideology is the solution to everything if its applied in such a way that it suits my needs) still provides comfort to those like Omar Hammami who routinely speak in the same narratives of ideological panacea as the solution to solve their ruin and all problems.