Several thoughts passed through my mind as I walked through Clemenceau’s congested and construction-crazed streets, on my way to the Self and Social Betterment Association’s office: will I get a story out of this meeting? Can I loiter by the building without attracting the attention of Walid Jumblatt’s security team? But mostly, I was extremely aware of the sweat gleaming on my brow. You see, the main reason I was there was to learn about ‘The Way To Happiness,’ a booklet the Association has been distributing in Lebanon since 2006, and before even ringing the doorbell, I felt like I was already breaching one of its first teachings (Precept 1.2, “keep your body clean”).
It had taken a long time to arrange this meeting. I’d been in touch with Georges Maatouk, the president of the SSBA, over the course of several weeks and several long emails, because I wanted to better understand his NGO’s activities. The Association had been the target of some negative press drawing links between the group, the booklet it distributes, and the Church of Scientology — itself the subject of much media controversy recently — so I was curious to know how the SSBA responded, and what it was trying to accomplish.
(Source: SSBA Facebook Page)
The group was understandably hesitant to meet with me at first. Previous reports had portrayed them in an aggressive and sensationalist manner, and so, in the first few minutes of what would become a four-hour conversation, Maatouk, his colleagues and I cautiously read each other, trying to gauge our mutual motivations while seeking common ground. How were we to negotiate between the right to define and defend one’s self-image with the impulse to challenge and provoke?
The most tangible thing we had before us was ‘The Way to Happiness,’ a booklet of 21 “precepts” or principles written by L. Ron Hubbard as “a common sense guide to better living” and “a gift to mankind.” The text elaborates on a series of general moral edicts, such as “don’t be promiscuous” (Precept 3), “seek to live with the truth” (Precept 7) and — most notably, for our local context — “respect the religious beliefs of others” (Precept 18).
Though the devil is always in the details, generally speaking, the moral code offered in this slim text is uncontroversial, and easily reconcilable with a wide range of religious and philosophical frameworks. This was the “very basic and simple piece of truth” that Maatouk was most eager to press upon me, and the reason he gave to explain why he decided to devote his energy to spreading its message in Lebanon.
Indeed, much of the SSBA’s activities over the past few years have revolved around testing this “simple piece of truth,” by sharing the booklet with an impressively wide variety of civic, religious and political figures and institutions in Lebanon. Maatouk showed me a large binder filled with photographs, letters of thanks and endorsements from groups as diverse as the Order of Muslim Scouts, the Kataeb, and the Lebanese Communist Party. As the tone of these letters of support affirms, these meetings and workshops are part of the central mission the Association envisions for itself, and what it believes ‘The Way to Happiness’ can accomplish: namely, helping the Lebanese people move past their myriad divisions.
(Source: SSBA Facebook Page)
During our meeting, Maatouk and his colleagues shared several stories and anecdotes about the way in which sectarianism has touched them personally, and how Hubbard’s writing offered them an exit, and a framework to think about and describe their yearning for a more directly “humanitarian” connection with their fellow citizens.
In their view, and in the view of the dozens of endorsements I saw, ‘The Way to Happiness’ fills a gap left behind by the trauma of civil war by serving as a reminder about the bare minimum of human values that people from different ideological backgrounds (ostensibly) share.
For example, one SSBA activist told me how he’d served as a sergeant in the Lebanese Army, assigned to patrol “a demarcation line” between flash points of sectarian tension in Beirut. Having witnessed how civil war can be easily reignited, he was determined to look for an alternative way of thinking. “I used to carry a rifle for deterrence. Now I am carrying ‘The Way To Happiness’ and using it to counter sectarianism and build a better Lebanon,” he said. This striving towards unity around basic civic values is what motivates Maatouk and his team, and this is what seems to resonate with the SSBA’s donors, supporters and workshop participants.
But nagging questions remained. L. Ron Hubbard, after all, founded a religion called Scientology, and his and his Church’s activities have been the subjects of intense controversy and debate in many countries, and over several decades. Can this well-documented material connection between this man and this booklet simply be ignored?
In the lead up to our eventual meeting, I had tried to move my dialogue with Maatouk beyond the text of ‘The Way To Happiness,’ but in various ways, Maatouk insisted that the booklet itself ought to be the focus of their story. In his view, the text is a “workable tool” whose “application gives results beyond expectation,” and a “Product” that “ought to be judged for the value it gives to the society” in and of itself.
“If we can judge a Toyota independent of the religions and political affiliations of its owner, designer, manufacturers and dealers,” Maatouk wrote, “that is, based on the horse power of the engine, the A/C, the price versus the car options, etc… then we stay within the boundaries of wisdom, common sense and proper human conduct.”
Thinking in terms of this metaphor is certainly attractive. The impulse to insist that one focuses solely on a person’s output is felt by many Lebanese people sick of being put in boxes of sect and family origin. If you agree with my ideas, why ask me where I’m from? If you agree with the precepts, why ask who wrote them?
And yet, if getting there (i.e. the idea) is what matters most, why pick a Toyota (i.e. ‘The Way to Happiness’), or any vehicle in particular? Why not work to strive for civic unity with a homegrown “common sense” framework?
After I raised this question again in person, Maatouk took out a book about L. Ron Hubbard’s life that he had tucked behind a collection of Gibran Khalil Gibran’s writings, noting how he believed Hubbard to be “the spiritual son” of “that great humanitarian,” Khalil Gibran. “The only difference,” he added, “was that Hubbard created a technology, while Gibran simply wrote about it.”
And for Maatouk, this technology — ‘The Way To Happiness,’ in book form, or as in its DVD edition — has demonstrable results. As he flipped through the book, it became clear that Maatouk respected Hubbard and the many organizations based on his work, like ABLE and The Hubbard College of Administration, for example. The SSBA is well aware of Scientology, but for them, ‘The Way to Happiness’ can be pulled out from that wider story. “Using the book does not mean I can’t follow the religious rites I was born with,” one member told me. The book’s many regional endorsers — like Al-Azhar — seem to agree.
As I was readying to leave their office, another member wondered how I would choose to write about their activities. I wondered that too. The Self and Social Betterment Association believes that L. Ron Hubbard’s common sense technology can help Lebanon heal its wounds. Should we focus on Scientology, or should we focus on the positive good the Association feels they are bringing to Lebanon? Both dimensions are important parts of this story, but what is most important is that lazy prejudice should not define the discussion.