Another planet

One day - when I was a teenager - I decided to have my personality tested. For weeks I had passed the odd-looking bookshop near Goodge Street Tube station, on London's Tottenham Court Road, which advertised on-the- spot analysis. Perhaps it was the luridly illustrated science-fiction paperbacks in the window, or the insistent manner with which the man in the doorway invited youngsters (always youngsters) to come inside, that put me off. And then, in a fit of self-confidence, I went inside and filled in the interminable questionnaire about holes in my life (none, unfortunately), spiritual emptiness (also absent) and my longing for completeness (incomplete).

Someone in the shop took a quick shufti, looked me up and down and bade me farewell. And thus ended my only brush with the Church of Scientology.

Had I been slightly more promising material, I would have been slowly drawn into sessions of self-exploration. Gradually truths (as witnessed by Scientology's founder, L Ron Hubbard, sci-fi author and honorary Venusian) would have been revealed to me. I would have come to know how evil Lord Xenu filled the world with alien Engrams some 75 million years ago, how these can be measured by a machine passing 1.5 volts through your body, how they can then be purged through a mixture of psychobabble and mumbo-jumbo called dianetics. And how giving vast amounts of your time and money to the Church of Scientology can assist the process of becoming a Thetan - one of the elect. I might have been one of the several millions worldwide who subscribe to this nonsense.

According to a group of Hollywood writers and actors - including heroes of mine such as Gore Vidal and Dustin Hoffman - I have had a fortunate escape. For had I become an aspirant Thetan, I might then have faced a similar persecution at the hands of the modern German government to that which was experienced by many of my (never-met) Jewish relatives in the Nazi Germany of the Thirties.

This alarming charge was to be found in a full-page advertisement, "an open letter to Helmut Kohl", the German Chancellor, in Thursday's edition of the International Herald Tribune. "In the 1930s it was the Jews," says the ad. "Today it is the Scientologists." Then, "the world stood by in silence" as "Jews were marginalised, then excluded, then vilified and ultimately subjected to unspeakable horrors". Not any more. "Extremists of your party should not be permitted to believe that the rest of the world will look the other way. Not this time."

Joining Hoffman and Vidal in signing this remarkable accusation are Costa- Gavras, CNN's Larry King, Mario Puzo, Oliver Stone and a score or more of Hollywood's finest.

Here are some questions that I would like to ask the co-signatories. Have Scientologists' assets been seized? Have their churches been systematically burned? Is there a law forbidding intermarriage between Scientologists and Germans? Do gangs of semi-licensed thugs roam the streets beating up Scientologists? Are there embryonic concentration camps where leading Scientologists are incarcerated without proper process? Do ordinary people spit at Scientologists in cafes and restaurants? Are the cinemas filled with films depicting Scientologists as vermin? Does the Number One hit on the Kurfurstendamm this year contain the words "when Scientologist blood spurts from the knife, then I feel good"?

No. What has happened is that the democratic Germans have taken Scientology seriously (just as they take everything, from bowel movements to dental hygiene, seriously), are wondering about how to dissuade the impressionable from joining the cult, and getting it a bit wrong. The youth wing of the CDU has tried to boycott a Tom Cruise film (because of his membership of the cult), but exercises about the same influence on the young as a line-dancer at a rave. The European Court will sort the whole thing out.

But Hollywood, with its rich schvuntzes, talented schmucks, political schmos, public schlemiels and casting-couch schnorrers, with its feted campaign endorsers, with its Cinemascope understanding of the great issues in world history (Liam Neeson Scots nationalists, Kevin Costner cowboys, Dan Day Lewis Irishmen), with its tenuous grasp on any notion of morality, Hollywood knows better. It looks at one of the two or three most democratic states in the modern world and cries "Nazi!"

Actually, there is a group whose treatment by democratic societies holds a much better parallel for the Church of Scientology. This group is forbidden from practising its rituals openly, its assets are seized and burned, it is not allowed to trade, it is forced into a shadowy, criminal existence, it is not tolerated in schools, it may not be propagated. I refer, of course, to drug-taking. Drugees - the new Jews. How about it, Gore?