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.