By Steven Philp
There are times when “reclaiming”—politically redefining a word or symbol—goes a little too far. On Sunday, July 3 members of a small, but growing, religious sect called the International Raelian Movement (IRM) set up shop at Pride Toronto 2011 to raise awareness about their organization, featuring a rather curious juxtaposition in their official logo: a star of David intertwined with a swastika. This is not the first time that their chosen symbol has caused controversy; as detailed in an article from Trinity College, over its 35-year history the IRM has faced criticism from both Jewish and non-Jewish organizations for resurrecting the swastika. After a brief hiatus from incorporating the swastika in to their symbolism—supposedly out of concern for its negative association with the National Socialist German Worker’s (Nazi) Party—in 2007 the leader of IRM announced that they would permanently revive the original logo. Over the past four years IRM has engaged in a campaign to “take it back.” According to an article posted by the Toronto Sun, when IRM was denied a position in the Pride Toronto parade—which serves as a celebration of the Canadian LGBTQ community—it set up a booth near the festivities, to “remove the negativity attached to [the swastika].”
“For religions like Jainism and Buddhism, the swastika represented luck, well-being, harmony and peace,” explained Diane Brisebois, a spokesperson for IRM, to the Toronto Sun. “When people think of the swastika, they immediately think of the Nazis and we want to change that.” Although she was disappointed that the organization was not allowed to participate in the parade—understandable, considering the Nazi position toward the LGBTQ community—she mentioned plans for a rival parade next year that would reclaim the swastika. According to an article in the Ottawa Citizen, spokesperson Brigitte Boisselier claimed that its historical origin in “many peaceful religious groups, especially in Asia” gives historical reason to reclaim the symbol. Indeed the swastika is still used among practitioners of several Eastern faith traditions, including Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism. Its earliest archaeological records date it to 2500 B.C.E. in the Indus Valley, before it spread across South and East Asia. Using the symbol may be tone-deaf in the West, but an argument can be made that in some places it is regarded as an auspicious symbol.
Yet why the Star of David? Apparently the IRM is not only fond of borrowing symbols from the Jewish tradition, but several words as well. The organization—whose non-theist faith Raelism has been compared to Scientology—was founded in 1974 after French-born Claude Vorilhon (now called Rael) encountered a being named Yahweh while walking in the woods. Through conversations with Yahweh, Vorilhon learned that human beings are the end result of scientific experiments conducted by extraterrestrial beings called Elohim. Small in stature, individuals from this species have been mistaken for angels, cherubim or divine spirits by human eyes. Over time the Elohim have contacted select human beings to carry their messages; these include people like Moses, Buddha, Jesus, and other faith leaders. This, he claims, has created a succession of religions, starting with older traditions like Judaism. Vorilhon was given their final message through Yahweh, to pacify the earth so that we may be welcomed in to the fold of the Elohim. This includes establishing a global government, formed around a meritocracy of intellect and the tenets of voluntarism; this is to say, the intelligent rule, while adherents conduct themselves as they see fit.
Over the years, the IRM endorsed attention-getting practices such as human cloning, their liberal consideration of sexuality, and—of course—their logo. Yet concerning the latter, the group says intertwining two opposing symbols was not done to step on toes, but rather speak to their core beliefs. As Boisselier explained, by combining juxtaposed elements the logo speaks to “the infinity of time.” Their claim to borrowing from preceding traditions to build the “ultimate faith,” seems circumspect, considering they do not incorporate iconography from any other religious group.
Their attempt to “take back” the swastika does raise interesting questions concerning what cultural signifiers—visual or verbal—can be reclaimed, and by whom. Instances of minority groups reappropriating symbols used by the Nazi Party are few and far between. Perhaps the only prominent example of such a shift is the use of the pink triangle by the LGBTQ community, now a prominent symbol at pride parades, on gay-friendly businesses, or LGBTQ monuments. The pink triangle, or rosa winkel, marked prisoners detained for suspected or confirmed homosexuality; it was part of a larger system of triangular badges used to identify concentration camp victims, of which the Star of David (two interposed yellow triangles) was part. Yet in the case of the pink triangle, it was the minority community in question that “reclaimed” the symbol. The fact that the swastika has maintained its negative symbolism through modern Neo-Nazi organizations makes it especially inappropriate for an organization with no connection to reclaim it. Although we can acknowledge the positive sentiment behind the desire to redefine the swastika for Western audiences, it seems that—for some symbols—there are no take backs.