I’ve been trying to write this story and realize that it won’t and can’t be what it seemed at first it should be: something hip and cynical and funny, an article that would fit with a late summer War of the Worlds or Battlestar Galactica-meets-National Enquirer parody cover with the title “UFO SEX CULT SUES IUPUI.”
Could there be a better title to sell free papers in August? UFO and SEX and CULT and SUES paired with a university with a weird acronym in the heart of the Midwest? How could I say no to writing this story?
But I wish I had said it. No. After spending days and weeks thinking and reading about this subject, after interviewing Raelian spokesmen and reading legal documents, after learning more than I ever wanted to know about sensual meditation and UFOs and cloning and female circumcision; after watching video clips that were pulled from YouTube and doing some Facebook stalking and working with my research assistant who interviewed the IUPUI student who was the catalyst for this story, I feel now as though the whole thing is a matter/anti-matter thing that calls into question (once again) much of what I know about what’s real and what isn’t, including the difference between religious truth and illusion and between entertainment and news.
Bottom line? While there’s enough delusion and fault and grandiosity and strangeness and lack of attention to go around in this story that will be known as “UFO SEX CULT SUES IUPUI” even though I’d rather it be titled, officially, “Untitled Story,” the majority of the people and institutions who are characters in this story are trying to get along on this planet as best they can, most of the time.
Here’s the story of how IUPUI became embroiled in a controversy with the International Raelian Movement, as well as I can reconstruct it.
Facebook, YouTube and ‘Little Claudy’
In May of 2005 an IUPUI student named Abdullah Hashem asked his friend Joseph Dean McGowen to accompany him to Las Vegas to, as McGowen explains in a November 2006 e-mail, “film a documentary on the UFO sex cult, the Raelians.”
Most of us know the Raelians through the 2002 claim by a Raelian scientist, Dr. Brigitte Boisselier, that she had cloned a human being known as “Baby Eve.” Or perhaps through the unlikely 2001 appearance of Rael, with his signature topknot and white spacesuit, at the Senate Congressional Hearings on stem cell research and human cloning.
It was the cloning incident that first brought the Raelians to Hashem’s attention. He and McGowen attended the Raelian seminar, posing as potential converts. They were given access to events and interviews, and the resulting film, titled Little Claudy, contains footage from the seminar as well as clips from other sources, often to humorous effect.
McGowen and Hashem, both extraordinarily good at public relations, launched a Facebook campaign to promote the film at IUPUI, a campaign that was so intense that for a while it got Hashem kicked off the social networking site for spam.
In addition, Hashem sent a press release to media and friends, stating that “My documentary on the UFO sex cult the Raelians is going to be shown on Nov. 2, 2006, at 6 p.m. at IUPUI in the Lilly Auditorium ... The Religious Studies Student Association is sponsoring the event … As you may or may not know, last year I infiltrated the Raelian cult posing as a Raelian member and obtained all kinds of footage that was never obtained or seen before …”
They also sent an announcement to the Raelian Movement. According to the Raelian spokesman, they have not seen a copy of the film. “They filmed in May 2005 and showed the film in November 2006. Tort claim followed in March 2007,” they explain. “So you can see we did not jump at the chance to ‘stifle’ him in any way. We very much support his right to believe what he wants. We tried to do nothing. But his lies got so bad we finally had to speak up. Then the YouTube stuff started.”
Outtakes on Web sites such as YouTube and MySpace created the controversy.
Hashem and McGowen got into prime ghost-and-prophet-busting mode, posting bits from the film on the Web with titles such as “Rael Watches Stripper Dance in Front of Children” and “Rael Admits Cloning Was a Hoax” with sometimes funny and sometimes angry (F—-You Rael) taglines.
In fact, the film footage itself is interesting but not that controversial. It covers ground that has been covered before by, in particular, Canadian (because Rael’s home, UFOland, was in Canada until recently) journalists and researchers.
In an interview with Wired News, Raelian spokesman Sagi Ali said, “The group has nothing to hide,” and is not ashamed of anything Hashem and McGowen may have filmed. But the two got their first of what will undoubtedly be many “15 minutes of fame.”
Hashem is alleged to have asked the Raelians to “stop all activities within the United States and Egypt,” demanded that Rael “step down as leader and admit his lies before he is exposed and is thrown off his throne by his own people” and that he “give a public apology to all and give back all Raelian donations and funds.” In exchange, it is alleged, Hashem would not distribute the film. Extortion, the Raelians call it, and they claim they have proof.
The Raelians are not happy.
McGowen had signed a paper at the seminar, explaining that “the documentary film and all footage remains the sole property of the Raelian Movement” and that “Any use or exhibition shall be allowed only with the prior approval” of the movement.
In an e-mail to NUVO, Ricky Roehr, leader of the United States Raelians, said, “There were so many YouTube vids. We were able to grab some of the later ones before it was too late.
“These two guys never infiltrated, as they say. They were invited after Abdullah asked over several weeks if he could film, as he was making a film for an IUPUI project.
“It is he who lied from the moment he first contacted us in order to ‘infiltrate’ us.”
And on March of 2007, Dr. Jonathan Levy, counsel for the International Raelian Movement, filed a Notice of Tort Claims against IUPUI, naming the two students, their faculty advisors and the Department of Religious Studies in the claim.
I took the bait
In the tort claim, Levy states that “the subject of the film was purported by Hashem to the Raelian Movement to be a fair and balanced investigative documentary about the Raelian Movement, and its members” but that Web sites created by Hashem “contained defamatory materials and incited religious hatred and ridicule towards the claimants …”
The claim against IUPUI and “its employees and agents” mentions violation of civil rights, extortion, breach of contract, gross negligence, defamation and a potential murder plot. The claim contains a cease and desist letter and estimates damages that “exceed $l,000,000.”
The Raelians are known for controversy, including lawsuits. According to Canadian researcher Dr. Susan Palmer, the Raelians “are provocative. They deliberately concoct controversies to attract the attention of the world’s media. Their press kit is a veritable pageant of colorful controversies, such as the masturbation conference, the funeral practice of ‘lifting the frontal bone,’ anti-Catholic marches with crucifix-burning invitations and Operation Condom for high schools.
“They have succeeded to a remarkable degree in baiting and reeling in journalists … in shaping the substance of news reports and in harnessing the power of the international media to indirectly spread the message of their own covert religious agenda.”
I am now one of those journalists who has been baited and reeled in, though it is by both the Raelians and by the students. And I took the bait.
It’s clear in the events that followed the seminar, and in the YouTube clips, that Hashem’s intent, eventually, was to become a “prophet buster” or “dragonslayer” (names from his Web sites) of what he believed to be a dangerous cult.
He’s not the first researcher to do this. We owe some of our understanding of the Heaven’s Gate cult to a Harvard researcher who did much the same.
However, with the possible exception of journalists (this exception varies by college), student researchers are now required to follow regulations “on the use of human subjects.” Anyone who is filmed or interviewed for a project has to sign a release form. Human subjects regulations, formerly associated with social science research at the graduate level, have become stricter in the past few years. When the research is sponsored by the university — as in an honors thesis — the regulations are fairly clear. When research takes place in a class as part of the learning experience, they are less clear.
The students are Abdullah Hashem and Joseph McGowen. Abdullah, in addition to being a religious studies major at IUPUI, is also a stand-up comic, and a good one.
The son of an Egyptian father and an American mother, he is, as he says in his comedy act, the “only white African-American from Mooresville, Ind.”
In fact, Hashem devotes a section of his Raelian documentary to his own performance at Talent Night at the Raelian seminar. Rael himself is filmed laughing at Hashem’s jokes and then leaning over to an assistant after Abdullah’s act, supposedly asking to meet him. (It’s a scene at Talent Night where a woman dances seductively — fully clothed, but in a Las Vegas stripper style — while Rael watches and a female audience member who is somewhere between the ages of 13-18 watches that is later tagged as “Stripper Dances Before Rael While Children Watch” and posted on the Internet.)
One other outtake I viewed, “Rael Admits Cloning is a Scam,” is from one of Rael’s own stand-up bits (not that he would admit to doing stand-up). It is very similar to things he has been reported as saying before.
According to an article by Brigitte McCann in the Sun Media Newspapers in October of 2003, Rael said in Montreal, “Come my beloved friends and journalists, and ask me if we did all that [announcing the cloned human] just to benefit from free publicity … Yes!”
“Even if you want to think that we did all that only for publicity, it is wonderful,” he goes on, to raucous laughter.
“If that is the case, we are promotional geniuses.”
“But if what we say we did is true, we are also scientific geniuses.”
“In any case, we are geniuses. Wonderful. In any case, we win.”
The official Raelian response to this, according to Roehr, is that journalists have “sorted through hundreds of comments and spliced together recorded speeches in order to try to give the illusion Rael said this.”
A eulogy on beauty
Hashem’s colleague, Joseph McGowen, is the one who initially reached out to the local media asking to cover this story. He felt brainwashed, he wrote, at the Las Vegas retreat and wanted to bring Rael to justice, to expose him as a “pedophile and sex guru.” This was before the lawsuit.
According to a column by Brian Culp, in the Dec. 28, 2006, issue of the Mooresville Decatur Times, McGowen “said that he had a hard time keeping his head during parts of the seminar.
“You have really attractive women who are out of a lot of men’s league, and they come up to you and touch you,” McGowen said. “I was seduced by a couple of women and got in pretty deep.”
McGowen’s experience is not surprising. As Dr. Susan Palmer says in her book Alien’s Adored: Rael’s UFO Religion, when she sends her students to the Raelian seminars to do field research, she makes a point “of giving my students a pep talk to explain Raelian sexual ethics. I emphasize that Raelians respect the individual’s power of choice, so if students find themselves ‘hit on’ all they have to do is politely decline.”
One of her students, “an 18-year-old Jewish girl from a strict Orthodox family,” interviewed a Raelian guide “who gave her a pep talk on the joys of sex, followed by a eulogy on her beauty.
“She confessed … that the incident so disturbed her, she ‘kept worrying about it and couldn’t sleep for a week.’”
Rebuilding the clitoris
Hashem was studying religion at IUPUI when he saw the cloning announcement. “My passion,” he explained, “is smaller sects, why they do what they do.”
When this sect got international attention for the cloning, Hashem decided “either they pulled off the greatest hoax the world has ever seen … or they really did it.” If they didn’t do it, they were receiving money under false pretenses. Grieving parents send money to Clonaid to have their dead children cloned.
Even now, you can get on the Clonaid Web site and order a “cloning machine,” the RMX2010, for $9,200 or buy cloning insurance where you store your children’s (or your own) DNA in case of death. (Clonaid, while run by Raelian angel Dr. Brigitte Bosselier, who follows “her prophet Rael,” is not technically a Raelian company, though Rael was present at the announcement of “Baby Eve.”)
You can also (see www.rael.org) “adopt a clitoris” by donating $500 to a future Pleasure Hospital in Africa where doctors will rebuild the clitorides of victims of female genital mutilation, restoring pleasure.
A worthy cause, perhaps, but like the cloning of human beings, dubiously possible with current technology.
“Do you know how many families lost millions of dollars because they lost their infant children and then said, ‘Hey, clone my children for me,’ to the Raelians?” Hashem says.
“I believe whole-heartedly in freedom of religion,” Hashem explains. “If you want to worship a tree, worship a tree, as long as it doesn’t effect me, it doesn’t effect my community and it doesn’t effect innocent people.
“But once you start saying that this tree’s telling me that all these people need to give me $20, then it becomes a problem. This was a cult conning people,” Hashem explains.
So Hashem claims he has solid proof that the whole Raelian Movement is a con.
And the Raelians claim they have proof that Hashem was conning them.
“A documentary filmmaker is kind of like a journalist,” Hashem explains. “You’ve got to show people what’s there.
“I threatened their empire and so they thought if they threw a lawsuit at me, I’d shut up.”
Here come the extraterrestrials
In 1973, a charismatic French journalist/race car driver named Claude Vorilhon, a.k.a. Rael, claimed he saw a flying saucer and spoke with extraterrestrials called Elohim who gave him, as God gave Moses, a message that re-tells the Bible in E.T. terms, gives new commandments and let him know that he is the last prophet and the half-brother of Jesus Christ.
While visiting the Elohim, Rael watched as a clone of himself was made and then destroyed, had a “night of pleasure” with beautiful robots, had all the knowledge of the universe transferred, via a sort of helmet, to his brain and met the earlier prophets: Jesus, Mohammed and Gandhi.
One of the funniest bits in Hashem’s film, when Hashem is in Conan O’Brien/parody rather than Michael Moore/expose mode, is when Abdullah asks Rael what it was like to meet those guys, and Rael explains that since he had just been given all the world’s knowledge it was just fun, you know, like a party, and Abdullah cuts to the clip of a ’50s dance party.
The first human beings, according to Rael’s visions, were the result of a cloning experiment by the Elohim, and the Bible can be read almost line-by-line in the context of Rael’s narrative, a narrative he spells out in his book The True Face of God.
According to Christopher Partridge, author of UFO Religions, Rael argues, “Jesus was a son of the Elohim who, having been murdered by an unenlightened society, was resurrected, in the sense that a cell from his dead body was cloned. The new body then underwent an ‘advanced growth process’ and had the personality from the murdered body transferred to it. (Rael speaks of the personality in terms of software that can be downloaded into cloned corporeal hardware.)”
When someone joins the Raelians, he is baptized by Rael (or a Raelian Guide) with water, in the traditional way, but during baptism the baptizee’s “cellular plan,” his DNA, is beamed up to the Elohim. Eternal life depends upon that DNA, which will be reconstructed by the Elohim after death, depending on how the experiment of your life turned out.
The Elohim are supposed to return, according to Rael’s prophecy, around the year 2035 to view the final result of their experiment on our planet UNLESS (and this is crucial to Rael’s vision) we destroy ourselves through nuclear or environmental holocaust.
In fact, the Elohim first appeared to Rael, he claims, because human beings now have nuclear knowledge for the second and most dangerous time. The first time is recorded in the Bible as the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. This is, according to Rael, our test as a planet, and we are tested as other planets have been tested before us.
According to Rael and his followers, the Elohim still speak to and through him, usually each year around Aug. 5.
Not coincidentally, around the same time Rael saw a flying saucer, John Lennon also saw a flying saucer and E.T. (the movie) came out, and Close Encounters, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kurt Vonnegut satirized alien abduction stories in Slaughterhouse Five. (Billy Pilgrim, when stuck in time, ended up being observed by Trafalmadorians and having sex with Montana Wildhack.) It was, as they say, in the air.
A lot of people believe they’ve seen flying saucers or been abducted by aliens. Few of them, however, begin a religious movement. The same is true of people suffering from delusions that God is speaking to them, no matter how coherent and beautiful their delusions.
What is important in this case is that Rael found followers, and lots of them — at times, there have been close to 65,000 Raelians in the international movement. Currently, according to Ricky Roehr, leader of the United States Raelians, there are “several hundred” members in the U.S., and they’re spread across the country. (For more of Roehr’s statements, see blog.)
As fiction, the story Rael tells is almost heartbreakingly perfect. His story has, as theologist George D. Chryssides explains, “a perfectly coherent world view.” The reason for the relative success of this New Religion (as sociologists refer to them) is the way it resolves the cognitive dissonance associated with the attempt to reconcile the world’s ancient established religions with science and our post-apocalyptic fears of nuclear or environmental holocaust.
It’s an “atheistic religion” that still offers gods and a belief in intelligent design. One stop shopping!
In addition, it offers an explanation for things we don’t understand: things that appear in the night sky that aren’t stars and that we call UFOs because in fact we can’t identify them, and things like crop circles.
As weird as it is, it shuffles established religions together with science in an “ah-ha” way that makes you feel as though all your questions are answered and now you can stop thinking!
And then, of course, there’s the sex. It’s their sexual mores that draw fire to the movement.
Sensual meditation. Nudity. A group of beautiful women, Raelian Guides, called “angels” who surround Rael in the hopes of summoning the Elohim back down to Earth. The angel’s DNA is, of course, perfect.
“In the worldview of a Raelian,” according to sociologist Susan Palmer, “the human scientist stands at the center of the universe, dabbling on an artist’s palette of DNA. Humans created all life on this barren planet with the broad brush strokes of nanotechnology.”
And so, the legal troubles
Whether Hashem’s intention in the beginning was to film a Michael Moore-style documentary/expose or a Conan O’Brien-style parody of the Raelians (and which it was that he succeeded in doing in the final documentary and the outtakes that appeared on the Internet) depends upon the viewer’s mood in the same way that it’s not clear at all times whether Prophet Rael, leader of the Raelian Movement, is himself offering a parody or is completely sincere.
And whether the Raelian Movement has any staying power, as Scientology seems to, for instance, remains to be seen. The focus on pleasure makes it unlikely that this story will have the kind of tragic ending of a Jonestown or Heaven’s Gate, though that depends largely on Rael. As Rick Ross, an expert on new religions explains, “When the leader slips over the edge, he takes the others with him.”
And so the legal troubles.
Dr. Jonathan Levy, counsel for the Raelians, says, “We started first with a tort claim. We’d like to mediate it.”
Raelian spokesman Ricky Roehr agrees that they would like to “get to the bottom of this and seek mediation, a dialogue.”
Joseph M. Scodro, counsel for Indiana University, responded to the tort claim within five days, though both the Raelian counsel and the spokesman were unaware of that until I told them. In his response, Scodro says that “the film was created by a student, and the student received neither financial support nor course credit for the film.
“In addition,” Scodro writes, “the viewing of the film in question was not a University event but a student club presentation.”
David Craig, professor of religious studies at IUPUI and one of the professors named in the suit, agrees. “The film was not for a class project,” he states.
Rael speaks to the students
In an interview at the end of the version of the film I saw, Rael clearly speaks to IUPUI students, implying he knew it would be shown. (“A special message to IUPUI? Don’t listen to the old teachers,” he says. “They are stupid! The Internet is much more important than your teachers.” Beat. Laughter. Rael smiles.)
Still, Levy states that “The interesting story here is how could IUPUI get themselves into a situation like that?”
Easy, I said. Very easy. College students are intelligent yet inexperienced adults, wanting to get out into the world and make a difference, to make a name for themselves. Here you have two talented, Web-savvy students.
I’m a college professor and if a student came to me and said he was going out to Las Vegas to “infiltrate a cult” and make a film, I’d say good for you. Be careful. Make sure your parents know. Use the buddy system. Learn something about film and writing and about religion and about yourself.
If he came back and wanted to show the film he’d made, I’d say why not. You have a right to free speech, as Roehr himself admits.
It wouldn’t occur to me to ask if he’d signed some sort of document giving rights to the film away. And in this case, the students weren’t asking to sell tickets to the performance. They were supplying refreshments.
And if this had been me at 23, I would probably have signed the document as well, out of ignorance, and then ignored it. I would have assumed it was the only way I could get the information I was looking for. I would have been sure I was onto a big story. I wouldn’t have known enough about the world yet to know that any ground I covered would have other explorers there before me, ones that I could learn from. I’m special. One of a kind. Not a clone.
After the film showing, if I were the professor, I’d say good job. And I’d ask questions, as I’m sure Abdullah and McGowen’s professors and peers did: How did you make that editing decision? What questions did you ask? What did you learn from this experience? How are we to know what part of your film is parody and what part expose? What have you learned about new religious movements and, in particular, about this one? What have you learned about documentaries? About ethics and film? What have you learned?
The students have hopefully learned from the experience. No Raelian has been harmed. That should be the end of it.
We all know that Star Wars is fiction. We don’t worship George Lucas or Steven Spielberg or J.K. Rowling or Tolkien as prophets, however much we may love the coherence and beauty of their stories.
Of course, none of the above ever claimed that his or her story was anything but fiction.
Rael did. Does he believe his own story or is he a con man?
According to Canadian researcher Dr. Susan Palmer, “My impression is that he believes in what he says, he is not prone to violence, and he is not crazy.”
I wouldn’t rule out playful or P.T. Barnum-esque.
Why the voices of E.T.s?
With the exception of mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, who wrote a book in the 18th century claiming to have visited and spoken with Venusians, or the late 19th century theosophists, who claimed to visit Mars or Venus by astral projection, UFOs did not appear in dreams or delusions or popular culture until after 1947.
Before that, implosions of meaning and a sense of awe from beyond (in Western culture) usually came in the form of angels or a spirit or a god.
When aliens first began appearing in Western culture, they told those they appeared to (usually mediums, and in séances) that they were from one of the planets in our solar system, usually Mars or Venus. We didn’t have the technology yet to know that those planets were uninhabitable. When we developed the technology, the stories changed to fit.
First the E.T.s appeared “telepathically” and then they began to arrive in our delusions and our dreams and our stories, in flying machines, not coincidentally at the same time that we developed our own flying machines and began flying toward them. Jung thought that visions of UFOs were a projection of our needs and fears from the unconscious. I know enough about perception to know that we only see a portion of, say, the color spectrum and that our eyes often deceive us; UFOs are a way of explaining some of those deceptions.