When worlds collide: Scientology and the Nation of Islam

The Tampa Bay Times reports the Pinellas County Florida Board of Education has revoked the license of a charter school that uses a religion-based curriculum after its students tested poorly in the state-wide FCAT exams (Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test). By itself this summary is not likely to generate more than local or even parental interest. However the title of the article contains a noun that perked my interest; "FCAT scores at Pinellas charter school that used Scientology 'study tech' are among lowest in Tampa Bay", while the lede pulled me into the story.

DUNEDIN — When Hanan Islam and her management company took control of the struggling Life Force Arts and Technology charter school here last summer, she passed out lesson plans based on the work of Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.

She said Hubbard's "study technology" would enlighten children and help save the school. But grades from Florida's standardized FCAT test released Thursday show that, in one year under Islam's management, Life Force students' education suffered.

The article did an excellent job in outlining the local issues involved and was able to pull strong quotes from supporters of the school, teachers and the school district. This comment from school district --

"It's a classic case of how a management company mismanaged this school, was paid an extraordinarily large fee for dismal services, and the ultimate victims were those poor children," said Dot Clark, the Pinellas County school district's coordinator of partnership schools.

Islam's company, Clark added, "promised the world and gave them nothing. ... It breaks my heart."

-- is nicely paired with this one from a teacher:

Some blamed students' poor marks on instability due to Islam's repeated firings of, as third-grade teacher Lynne Kittredge said, "good, certified teachers, because they wouldn't accept her Scientology stuff."

"We worked our butts off. We did after-school, we did tutoring; we weren't even being paid. But I'm not a miracle worker," said Kittredge, who was hired in February. "By the time we came in, the best we could do was damage control."

And stands well with these comments from the school:

Life Force board chairman Louis Muhammad, appointed by Islam in January, defended her management of the school, saying students' scores would have drastically improved if study tech had been given more of a chance.

He also blamed the low scores on the Tampa Bay Times, saying the newspaper's coverage of Life Force's problems "caused confusion and, in other words, hindered the school."

"You all put out this confusion on religion, and we're not talking religion: we're talking technology," Muhammad said. "If you all had left the school alone, it would have been better."

This aspect of the article is very well done. I applaud reporter Drew Harwell for doing a thorough job.

But I stopped short of giving full marks as the religion ghosts in this story were rattling their chains. For the casual reader two screamed out for attention: What is a Scientology-based curriculum and are we dealing with Muslim Scientologists?

I have no idea what a Scientology-based curriculum might be. The Washington DC Fox affiliate in 2010 ran a brief story over parent concerns over "study technology" after the DC school district approved the Scientology-based education program. The Tampa Bay Times article reports the school board chairman says this dispute is not over religion but technology. What does Mr. Muhammad mean by that?

And, the names in this story, Mr. Muhammad, Ms. Islam -- to my eyes do not seem to belong to a Scientology story.

I checked Mr. Harwell's past articles for the Tampa Bay Times and learned the failing was not the newspaper's, but mine. I had come late into the game and had not read his February story that reported on parents complaining about the takeover of the school by the Nation of Islam and Scientologists.

Linking on its website or mentioning its past stories in the body of the article would have helped bring me (and I assume other readers) up to speed on the story. But I should say the Tampa Bay Times has done a superior job in reporting on Scientology and this article is further evidence of their fine work.

I have seldom reported on Scientology as it has not appeared on the radar that frequently in Europe. Reporting on the foibles of the Church of England is also a full time job. But when it does enter into a story my editors have always cautioned me to take special care as the group has a reputation for resorting to litigation when displeased.

What I have not seen before is a practical link between the Nation of Islam and Scientology. The Chicago Tribune reported last year on a speech given by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakahan that touted its benefits for "white people".

He praised Scientology and its founder, L. Ron Hubbard. Farrakhan extolled the virtues of Scientology and its auditing process, which is considered spiritual counseling by its members.

"L. Ron Hubbard is so exceedingly valuable to every Caucasian person on this Earth," Farrakhan said.

"L. Ron Hubbard himself was and is trying to civilize white people and make them better human beings and take away from them their reactive minds. … Mr. Hubbard recognized that his people have to be civilized," Farrakhan said to a cheering crowd.

The Nation of Islam is a black-nationalist or empowerment movement that does not allow for white members. Is Minister Farrakhan saying that those unable or unwilling to join the Nation of Islam consider Scientology? Is the Life Force Arts and Technology Charter School dispute a practical working out of this meeting of minds between the Nation of Islam and Scientology? How should reporters develop this story? Or is there even a story to develop?

Setting to one side the controversial public image of the two groups, the Nation of Islam and Scientology do share some common tenets including the place of UFOs in the great scheme of things.

The LA Times states that Scientology's founder L. Ron Hubbard taught that:

Seventy-five million years ago a tyrant named Xenu (pronounced Zee-new) ruled the Galactic Confederation, an alliance of 76 planets, including Earth, then called Teegeeack.

To control overpopulation and solidify his power, Xenu instructed his loyal officers to capture beings of all shapes and sizes from the various planets, freeze them in a compound of alcohol and glycol and fly them by the billions to Earth in planes resembling DC-8s. Some of the beings were captured after they were duped into showing up for a phony tax investigation.

The beings were deposited or chained near 10 volcanoes scattered around the planet. After hydrogen bombs were dropped on them, their thetans were captured by Xenu's forces and implanted with sexual perversion, religion and other notions to obscure their memory of what Xenu had done.

Soon after, a revolt erupted. Xenu was imprisoned in a wire cage within a mountain, where he remains today.

But the damage was done.

During the last 75 million years, these implanted thetans have affixed themselves by the thousands to people on Earth. Called "body thetans," they overwhelm the main thetan who resides within a person, causing confusion and internal conflict.

In the Operating Thetan III course, Scientologists are taught to scan their bodies for "pressure points," indicating the presence of these bad thetans. Using techniques prescribed by Hubbard, church members make telepathic contact with these thetans and remind them of Xenu's treachery. With that, Hubbard said, the thetans detach themselves.

In the Chicago Tribune report of Minister Farrakhan's 2011 speech we find this statement:

The keynote address, titled "God Will Send Saviours," capped a weekend of workshops focused on health, preparing for natural disasters and unidentified flying objects. The Nation of Islam believes in a UFO called "the wheel" or "the Mother Plane."

Farrakhan has described a 1985 religious experience in which he ascended into a flying saucer and heard the voice of Elijah Muhammad predicting events that came to pass.

A speech by Minister Farrakhan printed in the Final Call, the Nation of Islam's newspaper, develops this theme:

The final thing is the destruction. The Honorable Elijah Muhammad told us of a giant Mother Plane that is made like the universe, spheres within spheres. White people call them unidentified flying objects (UFOs). Ezekiel, in the Old Testament, saw a wheel that looked like a cloud by day, but a pillar of fire by night. The Hon. Elijah Muhammad said that that wheel was built on the island of Nippon, which is now called Japan, by some of the original scientists. It took 15 billion dollars in gold at that time to build it. It is made of the toughest steel. America does not yet know the composition of the steel used to make an instrument like it. It is a circular plane, and the Bible says that it never makes turns. Because of its circular nature it can stop and travel in all directions at speeds of thousands of miles per hour. He said there are 1,500 small wheels in this Mother Wheel, which is a half mile by-a-half-mile. This Mother Wheel is like a small human built planet. Each one of these small planes carry three bombs.

What say you GetReligion readers? Are we seeing a meeting of minds? Or is this a local issue whose religious connotations can be exploited for sensationalist purposes? Or is this news?

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