An Underground menace

An Underground menace

The Evening Standard (London), 31 July 1998.
By Kate Hilpern

One summer’s day when Ayman Akshar was 27 and on his way back from college in Warren Street, he was invited to a party by a guy he got chatting to on the Bakerloo Line. He assumed he’d just made a new friend. In fact, he was being subjected to something a lot more sinister, something that hundreds of commuters in the capital are exposed to every day. It’s called tubing, and although it looks like nothing more than one passenger being sociable to another, tubing has become one of the most popular recruitment methods for religious sects and weird cults in the London area.

Strange, really, that it’s so successful when you consider that it’s almost an unspoken rule that you don’t talk to strangers on the London Underground. But it’s that notorious metropolitan coldness that tubers are so good at manipulating. In Akshar’s case, the stranger made such an effort to talk in French – the only language they could both speak – that he felt flattered. ‘When the man ended the conversation by asking me to a get-together, I thought, “Why not?” There was no mention of religion. There was only mention of fun.’

It was, though, a mere six days after that invitation that Akshar found his mind so controlled he had become a member of the London Church of Christ (LCC) – a decision marked by a cultic baptism that took place at 2am in the Thames. From that moment on, he claims he was told how to run every aspect of his new life. He was told when to get up in the mornings, who to mix with, and even when and how to have sex with his wife – who, of course, also had to be a member of the LCC. Indeed, she was herself ‘tubed’ on the Northern Line. Akshar also says he was coerced into giving up his education and moving into the church’s commune, for which he was eventually rewarded by being made a leader. ‘One of my jobs was to collect money from other members. One man was on income support and it was unbearable to make him suffer. On one occasion, the man’s son phoned me, pleading with me to stop because his father had become suicidal. But I had to do it in the name of God.’

Come again? ‘I know it sounds ridiculous and I know people are always amazed at how quickly it is possible to get sucked in,’ Akshar explains. ‘But when I got to the initial party, I was showered with what’s called “love bombing”. No one knew me but suddenly they were all my best friend. In fact, because they liked me so much, they even met me outside my house at 6.30am the following day. Then at lunchtimes. Then all the time. Slowly they introduced me to the Bible, and because they seemed to have all the answers and were so high on life, I fell for it.’

And once you’re a member, warns INFORM (Information Network Focus On New Religious Movements), you’re continually urged to prove your commitment – and there’s no better way of proving that than by recruiting new members to the group. Which means tubing.

Akshar was tubing as soon as he’d been baptised. ‘People have very little to occupy their minds on the public-transport system,’ claims one of the LCC guide books. ‘Often the Christian will literally go the “extra mile” travelling on to complete his invitation(s),’ it advises, warning recruiters to: ‘Be warm but firm in getting the phone number.’ Akshar explains, ‘I used to be told not to return until I’d got at least 20 contacts. That meant 20 names of people who had agreed to meet the members and a phone number for each one. Target white people rather than black, I was advised, because there’s a better chance of high income. And even better, recruit in lucrative areas like the City, sticking where possible to the Jubilee, Northern and Bakerloo lines because they’re nearest to the LCC centres. We were told to ask the time or hold an Underground map and say we were lost, so that we could start conversations easily without seeming strange. Once I’d got chatting to someone and gave them my phone number, it was amazing how many people were prepared to do the same.’

What tubers are looking for is not someone sad or lonely, as many people might suppose. No, they’re labelled as the ‘lame ducks’, the ones who’ll be useless when it comes to recruiting. Rather, it’s the people who are smiling at what they’re reading or observing their surroundings with interest that tubers look for. These, cults advise, are the signs of an unreserved personality which will, once they’ve been drawn in, adapt perfectly to the world of tubing. Just look around your Tube carriage for the signs: tubers will use far more eye contact and far more hand gestures than the average person. Then, if they get the response they want, they will cautiously work their way into their target’s personal space, and even give the odd arm-squeeze when they consider it suitable. Other techniques play on the weary commuter’s vulnerabilities. The procedure known as ‘Confession’, for instance, involves the cult member in trying to recruit by encouraging tubees to admit personal problems. ‘It sounds like you’ve had a really bad day,’ a fellow traveller might remark when your face resembles a sour grape. And before you know it, her sympathetic tone has resulted in you missing your stop because you’ve been so busy explaining how you shouted at your mother as well as your boyfriend on the phone this morning, and now you feel terrible. The stranger seems so understanding that you accept her invitation to meet up sometime. What a joy, you muse, to meet someone so interested in your problems. Only trouble is that two weeks later, you’re a fully fledged member of the Moonies.

And this, says Ian Haworth of London’s Cult Information Centre, is typical of how many groups go about increasing their membership. ‘There are well over 500 cults in this country and it’s always the people who assume they’ll never be victims who are most vulnerable,’ he explains. ‘They’re the ones who don’t put up their guard because they don’t think cults really exist any more. Or they think cults only appeal to kids or people with limited intelligence. In fact, few members are under 20 and most are well-educated.’ Of course, as Haworth points out, it’s impossible to compile exact figures on victims of tubing because, almost by definition, people who are in cults aren’t going to tell you about it. But consider this: LCC alone claims around 1,600 current members – almost double the number in 1995. And other groups like the Unification Church (the Moonies), the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (Hare Krishna), and the Jesus Army tell similar success stories.

Among the incorrect assumptions that caused Rochelle Adams to become a victim of tubing were that cults only consist of ‘Bible bashers’ and ‘Jesus freaks’. As Adams, who’s 33, explains, ‘One morning last October, I was reading leaflets on quitting smoking while I was waiting for a train at Baker Street. It was the rush hour and the platform was packed. So I thought nothing of it when a woman told me she couldn’t help noticing what I was reading. She said she knew of a fantastic course on addiction and, after we’d got chatting, she jotted down an address. “This is silly,” she said, “I’m helping to run the next meeting. I live in your area so why don’t I just call round for you on the way?” I felt obliged. She seemed so well-meaning. So I agreed.’ To Adams’ pleasant surprise, the evening went well, so she agreed to attend a four-day workshop. There, she believes her rational thinking was altered by a combination of peer-group pressure, sleep and food deprivation, and hypnosis (which she was told would help her stop smoking). The next thing she knew, she’d decided to resign from her job and donate £5,000 to the group – the bulk of her savings.

It was only the following week, when she overheard an argument between an ex-member and William, one of the top executives, that she realised how dangerous the organisation was. ‘The man was clearly on the breadline, and was pleading with William to give him back even a little of the money he’d contributed. He said it came to over £12,000 and that his house was about to be repossessed. But William just laughed. A cold, heartless laugh from a man I had believed was caring. It was horrible. Then the man started reading from a newspaper about how corrupt the group was alleged to be – and I felt as though I was being snapped back to reality.’ Adams believes she was very fortunate to escape so quickly. ‘Under the group’s influence, everything seemed right. I wasn’t given a minute alone to think, and all individuality was removed by conforming to a single dress code. I think I was particularly vulnerable because my parents had just moved to Australia, and the group seemed to fill a void in my life. The fact that all they actually wanted was money only became apparent when I saw the damage the group had done to someone else.’

Unlike Rochelle Adams, it took seven years for Akshar to recognise his tyrannical lifestyle for what it really was. He and his wife decided to challenge the top dogs. The result? They were expelled. Under no circumstances were the remaining members to speak to them, leaving them feeling utterly abandoned. He explains, ‘One Christmas, there were 200 people around me and the next, I didn’t even get one card. I’m just eternally grateful that I was seen as important enough within the group to choose my own partner rather than the usual method of arranged marriage. My wife and daughter were all that kept me going, finally making me strong enough to found the help group Triumphing Over London Cults.’

Today, Akshar is more concerned than ever about cult recruitment on the Tube. ‘Families are being broken up all the time. Last night, I had a phone call from a very troubled nurse from Croydon. She and her husband joined up with a cult eight months ago, when she was evangelised on the Northern Line between Tooting Bec and Morden. Now she’s absolutely desperate to escape. The trouble is, her husband isn’t. If she goes, he says, he’ll divorce her without question. Then, she feels, she’ll have lost everything.’

It’s a terrible story, but an instructive one: as Ian Haworth insists, it’s high time Londoners stopped underestimating the repercussions of tubing. ‘Some cult members are told to stay in a burning building in Waco, Texas. Some are told to commit mass suicide by drinking deadly Kool-Aid in the jungles of Guyana. And others – even though they get less media attention – are told to go around recruiting members on the Tube. But it all amounts to the same thing. Obeying orders irrespective of personal cost. And that cost can be your life.’

Back to other media reports about the International Churches of Christ.