Fair Observer, January 09 2016:… In 1965, Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MeK) was established in Iran in opposition to US imperialism. Espousing a blend of Marxism and Islam, the group helped bring about the Iranian Revolution of 1979. However, after breaking with the revolutionary government, MeK embarked on a terrorism campaign and was forced into exile …
Living and Escaping a Terrorist Cult
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Masoud Banisadr, a former member of Mujahedeen-e-Khalq.
In 1965, Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MeK) was established in Iran in opposition to US imperialism. Espousing a blend of Marxism and Islam, the group helped bring about the Iranian Revolution of 1979. However, after breaking with the revolutionary government, MeK embarked on a terrorism campaign and was forced into exile, losing followers in Iran after its support for Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War.
MeK was designated as a terrorist organization by the US State Department until 2012. The Iranian government estimates that MeK activity has claimed some 12,000 Iranian lives over the last three decades.
Operating from exile, the organization had all the trappings of a cult. Attracting young, idealistic Muslims with slogans of Islamic justice and social freedom, it disrupted familial and social ties, forcing members to divorce their spouses and abandon relatives, making them dependent on the group through isolation, misinformation and manipulation.
Masoud Banisadr, a cousin of former Iranian President Abolhassan Banisadr, joined MeK while studying in Britain and served in its political wing for nearly 20 years. Finally leaving the group in 1996, he now writes about the dangers of cult ideology and the appeal of extremism. His books include Masoud: Memoirs of an Iranian Rebel and Destructive and Terrorist Cults: A New Kind of Slavery.
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Masoud Banisadr about what first attracted him to the MeK and what eventually forced him to escape.
Anna Pivovarchuk: How was MeK different from other political organizations? What is your definition of a cult, and how does it fit into that image?
Masoud Banisadr: Cults resemble slavery more than they do political parties, which are idea-based. Cults, on the contrary, are leader- and behavior-based. They claim to have an ideology that is useful for recruitment, to use it as a mind manipulation tool and to glue followers to each other. But when you look at them closely, you will see that they have taken shape around a leader and a code of behavior dictated by that leader.
Cult dogmas are shaped around behavior. For example, for a cult member, it is more important how he looks than how he thinks. In MeK, you could say I don’t believe in this or that principal of Islam, and nobody cared much. But if you behaved differently, if you didn’t follow or have enough loyalty toward the leader, you couldn’t stay in MeK for a second—same as al-Qaeda, same as Daesh [Islamic State]. In all of these organizations, you can see that what is important is survival of the group and absolute loyalty and obedience toward the leader.
The other main difference is that a cult is a way of life, and as slavery there is no way out of it till you die. When you are a member of a cult, it is the whole of you. Your motherhood and sisterhood is defined by being member of a cult. Your work is defined by being a member of a cult.
Pivovarchuk: So what makes people join a cult in the first place? Are there some common reasons?
Banisadr: I think people are recruited by cults rather than joining them freely. However, some people might be more vulnerable than others to fall in the trap of cults due to three main reasons.
Cult of the Chameleon – Al Jazeera
The first is personal: I might have a problem of belonging, identity or not having a sense of purpose in life. These days, many young people lack a sense of belonging. Family ties are not as strong as before. Religion is not as important as before. Even nationality is not as relevant as before. This lack of feeling of belonging might attract them toward gangs, cults or groups of any sort to feed that longing. Imagine a young Muslim on the street who has nothing: Suddenly, when he joins a group like al-Qaeda or Daesh, he becomes a warrior, a martyr, a great hero. It’s a great change. People either love you or hate you, but at least you are not insignificant anymore.
The second is the cause: ideological, political, or philosophical, mainly as a means to seek justice. If you feel or see injustice and discrimination against yourself or against your community or religion, you feel you have to do something. Many young Muslims feel injustice against Palestinians in Israel, or they see the rise of Islamophobia in Western countries and feel they have to do something against it. Cults feed on injustice and claim they can offer people a way to seek justice. Cults also give an illusion of a sense of honor and a way for an ordinary normal person to feel that he/she can have an honorable life and that if one dies for the cause, they will be remembered as a martyr or a hero.
And the third reason might be that you have been born into a cult. Your parents have been followers of a cult, and as a result you have been raised in the cult.
Pivovarchuk: You talk about the personality of a cult leader being very important. You have to get people to buy into your narrative. How is that achieved?
Banisadr: After being recruited comes their mind manipulation. Although they have recruited you, using some sort of doctrine, or cause, forcing you to accept that if you join their cult you will become a better person. Still, they have to change you into a committed or, if I may say, blind follower or a “zealot” member. And here comes mind manipulation that I have divided in three intertwined stages.
The first stage is rational trickery and influence techniques that change your belief system. For example, if you are attached to the family, through some rational trickery, through some influence techniques, they can persuade you that your new family are the cult members rather than your parents or your siblings. They persuade you to fight for them—[as] the only way that you can seek justice for yourself or your community. Then using some influence techniques they will force you to do something to affiliate yourself with the group. They might start with small requests and then build on those small steps and gradually pull you deeper and deeper into their swamp.
The next stage is of “mind control”—control of environment and control of behavior. Because at this stage you are divided between who you were and who you are going to be, your feelings, your personality will force you to go back toward who you were.
To overcome the effect of your old feelings, cult leaders have to isolate you from the society and your past life; this will be done through control of environment. There is an Iranian expression that says, “Whoever leaves your eyes will eventually leave your heart.” By stopping you from having any contact with your parents and friends, gradually cults can stop you remembering your feelings toward your loved ones.
They can change your personality gradually by changing your behavior. For example, if you look at the people who became followers of Daesh or al-Qaeda, you can immediately see a change of appearances and behavior. For example, they grow a beard, or they grow or cut their hair, their clothes change, and also their behavior will change—in extreme form of it, used by Daesh. You have seen in the media that they have asked a British-born person to behead another person, or even destroy shrine of a Muslim saint. By doing that, Daesh will force that person to stand against his old personality by an extreme change of behavior. It is also a way of dehumanizing the outsiders and isolating a new follower not only from the society, but also from history, tradition, ethic and culture of his previous being.
Pivovarchuk: How important is this isolation from family and friends in altering someone’s idea of yourself? In your personal experience, what have you been told to do or asked to do?
Banisadr: When you say that I am a person, what does it mean? I am a person because of my set of beliefs, because of my principles, because of the way I think, because of the things that I enjoy, because of my relation to my family, my relation to parents, siblings, wife, children and so on. If you lose them one by one, then eventually you become an “unperson.” Nobody.
For example, I was in the last year of my PhD. But the way that MeK educated me, I was feeling ashamed of being a PhD student, not proud of it. Why? Because they were telling me that while I was studying and wanted to become a doctor, followers of the group were in prison under torture during the shah’s time. So instead of fighting, instead of sacrificing my life for the people, selfishly, I was studying. So instead of being proud of who I was, I was ashamed of it.
I was even ashamed of my family, because of my family name—because of my cousin, who was the president of Iran.
This is the new you—this new personality of yours. You change into a nobody, and you define yourself according to your cult personality. What is your rank in the cult? What is the relationship between you and the leader of the cult? How have you behaved in the cult? How successful have you been in the pursuit of the cult’s objectives?
I am calling it slavery because you change into an “unperson.” Your relationship with everybody else is defined via your relationship with the cult leader. Because whatever you do, you are not gaining anything for yourself and even your family and your society but for the cult leader. Like slaves whose existence was defined through their relationship to the master, and the fruit of their life was going to the master.
In MeK, we were not even allowed to think of our children and their wellbeing. The logic behind it was that while children in Iran are suffering, you wouldn’t dare let yourself think about your own children. As with slavery, you are a parent, but you are not a parent. You are a supervisor of your children, a person responsible for educating a child so he can change into another follower/slave of the leader/master. You have to teach your children: instead of loving you, love the leader. Instead of remembering grandparents, remember those who have sacrificed their life for the cult.
In slavery, at least in your dreams, in your desires, you are free. You can desire freedom because you can see that you are a slave. In your dream, you can remember your old life. Your country, your family. But in cults you can’t. Because through brainwashing, they have changed you into your own jailer. You even don’t dream of freedom as you are educated to think that you are freest person on earth.
Pivovarchuk: In your book, you say that you underwent a transformation from a “liberal middle-class semi-intellectual” to a zealot ready to die for the leader. It shows that those who join cults are not stupid or naïve, but that it’s a complicated psychological process. What caused this transformation that you talk about?
Banisadr: For me personally, I guess I have to go back to three slogans of the Iranian Revolution: independence, freedom and Islamic Republic.
I was born the year when the first democratically elected prime minister of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddegh was violently overthrown by a CIA coup. It affected my generation and the later ones deeply. We wanted independence because we used to feel that our country was ruled by Americans—not physically, but we knew that the shah was a puppet of the US. So independence was very important to us.
The second one was freedom, which was opposite of the dictatorship, and the censorship of shah’s regime. We understood political freedom more than any other freedom, probably because of the lack of it. So when we talked about freedom, we meant political freedom rather than liberalism as it is in the West, where it is mostly about personal freedom. During the shah’s regime, we almost had all personal freedom enjoyed by the Western youth, but there was a total lack of political freedom.
The third one was the Islamic Republic, which was mainly about social justice promised in Islam. We felt that people were divided between the superrich and super-poor, and if you were part of the system you could have everything. What attracted me among many other young people to the revolution were these three ideas, these slogans.
After the revolution, because I was in the UK, I couldn’t see for myself what was going on in Iran. I couldn’t judge for myself. The only source of information we had about what is going on in Iran was MeK papers. Even Western media, because they were against the Islamic Revolution and the new government in Iran, were feeding us with the same kind of news—all negative ones. So we felt that our country was even more unjust than before. What happened to freedom and Islamic justice?
MeK was even telling us that sooner or later, this new government would become the puppet of the United States. That because they cannot run the country, they will need the help of foreigners and will invite Americans and British. As you can see, for us it looked like everything was ruined and lost.
Pivovarchuk: What made you change your mind? What was the catalyst for you leaving the MeK?
Banisadr: As I mentioned before, cults—I believe all cults—have one weakness. They can change you, they can change your set of beliefs and everything, they can change your behavior, your appearance and so on. But they are unable to change one very important thing: They are unable to wipe out your memories. There are some fantasy stories where people have been brainwashed and have lost their memories and have found completely new personalities. That is fiction.
If you do not think about your feelings toward your past life, friends and families, your feeling toward them is still alive—though it is passive, paralyzed or asleep.
Anything can make it active. A smell reminds you of your childhood. A flower, a color or kindness from a stranger. Walking in the streets, seeing somebody who looks like your mother. Seeing love between a parent and children in the street. For the majority of followers of groups like MeK, Daesh and al-Qaeda that have been isolated (both psychologically and physically) from society and normal life, it is more difficult to save themselves because their feelings toward their loved ones cannot be triggered and remembered.
But for a person like me, who had to travel to different countries to represent the group politically at the United Nations in Europe and the United States, the situation was different, because I could see other ordinary people.
The first thing that forced me to remember ordinary kindness was when I was traveling from France to the United States. I was so tired that I slept on the airplane, from the beginning almost to the end. When I woke up, there was an old lady sitting beside me, and I found out that she kept for me whatever was given out in the plane. It was a very natural, ordinary kindness, but it affected me greatly to understand ordinary life, ordinary human behavior, because in the cult you will categorize ordinary people just above animals. They dehumanize outsiders, so followers are ready to do anything for the cult. As you have noticed, followers of Daesh are ready to behead other human beings without any remorse or doubt.
In MeK, if you were called ordinary, it meant that they had called you a dog or a pig. To be ordinary is worse than any other swear words. And suddenly, I was facing the beauty of being ordinary. Beauty through love, through understanding, through simple empathy and compassion.
And the second thing that saved me was seeing my daughter and old friends in the UK. Remembering my love for my daughter. My family and friends.
And also after that, I was lucky because of my back problem I had to be hospitalized. And because the group was so busy with the different political meetings that Maryam Rajavi [wife of Masoud Rajavi and co-leader of MEK] had in London, they forgot about me. So for almost a month, or three weeks, I was in the hospital without having any kind of connection to the group.
In the hospital I could see other people. I remember there was a guy beside me who had an accident and his hands were in plaster. I used to give him lunch and I even helped him to shave. And he showed me kindness as well. These kinds of things suddenly force you to remember who you were and who you truly are: a human being.
Remembering feelings suddenly forced me to wake up from a very, very bad dream. Although I can admit that still I could not understand what was happening or what had happened. I could not understand the political deception; I could not understand the hypocrisy of the group. But I could understand and I could see who I was. I could see my old personality, I could see my old feelings, and I think this was the trigger that helped me leave the group.
Pivovarchuk: How long would you say it took you to process all that had happened to you?
Banisadr: Very long. They say you can leave a cult, but it takes a long time for the cult to leave you. Because it infiltrated your mind, your heart, your philosophy, your way of thinking, and it’s very difficult to get rid of it.
I think for a year I couldn’t understand it as a cult. I couldn’t understand the procedure as brainwashing or mind manipulation. After I started writing my memoirs—gradually, because I was remembering stage by stage what had happened—I think it was in the last chapter of the book that I finally felt that it was a cult and I had been brainwashed.
Pivovarchuk: How did this realization make you feel?
Banisadr: It was great and horrible at the same time. If you find a very close friend has robbed you, it hurts; if you find him violating your trust and dignity and deceiving you for years, it hurts much more. Then imagine finding out a guy who you thought of as a saint and the holiest person on earth has been just a charlatan wanting to make you his slave through manipulating your mind—robbing not only your wealth, health and happiness, but your individuality, personality and humanity. Then you will understand what I felt.
After that comes realization of nothingness, loneliness and powerlessness. You feel you are free to do anything you like, but you are neither who you were before the cult, nor a follower of the cult.
So you ask yourself, who am I? If I am going to buy clothes for myself, what should I buy? What kind of food do I enjoy? Suddenly making any decision became huge. Impossible. I used to get help from my daughter. Ask her to choose for me, to buy clothes.
What do you consider as honor, and what are you proud of? What are your political or philosophical beliefs? And how do you run your daily life and make a new relation? All these are very big questions.
When people look at you, they see a grown man. But I can say that somehow you are a newborn child without the support of parents. There is no solid wall to lean on. You are really vulnerable, and there is nobody to tell you what has happened to you and how should you find your way.
Suddenly you’re coming out of a cult penniless—the things that I knew were obsolete. For example, I went to a job interview, and they asked me, “What do you know?” I answered: mathematics, chemical engineering, programming and so on. The guy asked me, “Okay, very good, nice great, what kind of programming do you know?” I started saying, “Fortran, Assembly, basic language…” And he looked at me: “Where are you from?”
Suddenly I realized that I knew nothing. I even didn’t have common sense of ordinary people. I had lost it. If you wanted to talk with me about music or movies, or the kind of programs I like on TV, I didn’t have a clue what to say. So what kind of connection and communication could I have with you?
After that you will face another big problem: how to get rid of the cult in your mind. How to change your behavior. How to change your way of thinking, your worldview from a black-and-white into a colorful one. How to see bad and good beside each other. How to get rid of the cult’s way of thinking, what they have forced you to believe and accept as reality. All this will take a lot of time.
Pivovarchuk: Ironically, what they tried to isolate you from—your family, your children—has become something that brought you back to normality. As you said, you can’t destroy memory, so there’s this hope that people can find their way back.
Banisadr: I think so. And this is my advice to parents of all those children who have been recruited by cults: show them love. Instead of arguing and discussing political, religious or philosophical issues, give them love. Let them remember the kind of relationship, the kind of emotion that they had with you. The kind of feelings that existed between you. In this way, they can remember who they were, and in this way they can find a way to get rid of cultic manipulation and become somebody again.
Pivovarchuk: It’s interesting that you mentioned that, because obviously there’s been a lot of attention given to Islamic extremism and groups like al-Qaeda, al-Shabab, ISIS. How do we stop people from joining? Where does this battle for their hearts and minds begin?
Banisadr: The first thing to understand is what attracts young Muslims to these groups. I believe it is injustice—injustice against Muslims in different countries. It is very important we recognize this. For politicians and the media to recognize it—accept that yes, there is injustice against, for example, Palestinians in Israel. There are double-standards toward Israel. We understand this, we accept this. This acceptance is very important.
Then we have to separate the religion of Islam and Muslims from these groups. Calling them Islamic or Muslim is a horrible thing to do. Why? Because we are enabling them to recruit from a 1.6 billion population pool. If you call them Muslim, you will create sympathy, shared ideas and religion between them and these 1.6 billion Muslims. Even these Muslims might see them as their own children—they might see them as their fellow Muslims in need of help and support.
So it’s a very big mistake, which unfortunately many mass media and some politicians make and in a way will help these groups to recruit even more. By calling these terrorist groups Muslim and using Islamic State instead of Daesh, first they enable these groups to recruit more. At the same time, they advocate Islamophobia among non-Muslims in society, and finally alienate ordinary Muslims from the rest of the society.
Therefore, Muslims in the West think of themselves more as Muslim than, for example, as British. Even if the media want to talk about ideology of these groups, they should use the name of their ideology—Wahhabism or Takfiri—and not Islam. The same thing they do when they want to talk about other groups such as David Koresh’s or Jim Jones’s cults, or when they talk about the Moonies.
Second, we have to educate young people about Islam as a religion of peace and tolerance, and at the same time, we have to educate them about cult and mind manipulation—to immunize them against mind manipulation of the cults. To teach them how people can be manipulated, how people can be influenced, be tricked by rational manners. How they can be brainwashed.
Finally, we have to show them a way out of the cult. Instead of criminalizing them, which will stop them coming back. We should realize that followers of a cult are victims as well—a victim of mind manipulation and not a criminal. If we help them and show them kindness and education, they can change into an antidote of cults and terrorism. It is very important for those who have left Daesh and al-Qaeda to say what they have witnessed and educate other people not to fall in the trap of cults.
By criminalizing them, by putting them in prison, we change them into heroes of the next generation of terrorist cults. By executing them, we make them into martyrs.
Pivovarchuk: Can Iran and the US work together against Daesh successfully?
Banisadr: To get rid of Daesh and al-Qaeda in the Middle East, to find a long-lasting peace and stability in the region, America and Iran have to talk and work with each other. But can they? True, every week in the Friday prayer, Iranians chant “Death to America,” but what they mean is “Death to those Americans who tried to destroy our country and still want to do so.”
After all, while no American has ever been killed by any Iranian (except those killed by MeK), but on the opposite side. The CIA overthrew the first democratically-elected prime minster of Iran; America established and supported the shah’s dictatorship; supported Saddam Hussein’s war and his chemical attacks against Iran. During aggression of Saddam against Iran, Americans even shot down Iran Air Flight 655, an Iran Air civilian passenger flight from Tehran to Dubai in 1988, killing all 290 passengers, without any proper apology.
And now some warmongering American politicians are supporting MeK, who have been the lobbying force behind the sanctions against Iran and are lobbying Western countries to attack the country, praying for the destruction of Iran so they might become its new rulers. They are mostly hated in Iran, and I believe this will add to why Iranians don’t trust Americans.
As long as America doesn’t review its foreign policy, realizing who its friends and who its enemies are, and the Western media doesn’t stop this propaganda against Iran based on its love for Saudi petrol dollars, we will hardly see any improvement in Iran-US relations. And, unfortunately, we have to witness growth of Saudi-backed Wahhabi terrorist groups and more instability and suffering in the region.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
How Do Terrorist Groups and Cults Attract Followers?
Massoud Banisadr, Fair Observer, November 30 2015:… What they replace those dots with is not as important as how they define them. For example, in MeK, along with the fluctuating whims and interests of its leader—Masoud Rajavi—how to love and worship God and resist and fight those who oppose them has changed many times. “God” has been substituted …
How Do Terrorist Groups and Cults Attract Followers?
Knowingly or unknowingly, we may be supporting and promoting groups like Daesh instead of crippling and destroying them
In the fight against terrorist groups or cults, we should take care not to promote them in any way or to make it easier for them to recruit. Our first line of defense should be to understand their strengths and weaknesses, in order to match their strengths and attack their vulnerabilities.
There are three Hs that matter most in people’s lives: health (of body and soul), honor and happiness. Destructive and terrorist cults are masters of deception, with their black-and-white worldview. They appear to be offering a simple, strict and easily understood definition of these three concepts to their followers.
A cult’s definition of the three Hs will infiltrate deep into the mind and soul of its followers and stay deep in their unconscious, even years after they leave the group. The promise of these three Hs can be very attractive, especially to young people, and this ability to convince and deceive is the cult’s main strength, and one that should worry us most.
The formula for defining honor in most cults, especially those that may be called destructive or terrorist groups, is very simple: love/worship/praise (X) and hate/resist/fight (Y). The only thing that is needed to make this formula complete is to replace X and Y with a popular idea, which can later be defined and elaborated by the cult leader.
For example, all “religious” cults, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Moonies, al-Qaeda, Daesh (Islamic State) and Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MeK), will substitute X with God/Christ/Islam and Y with the Devil/Satan/the anti-Christ/enemies of Islam. Political or nonreligious cults might replace God with the people/freedom/democracy and the devil with imperialism or dictatorship.
In order to recruit young Muslims, al-Qaeda, Daesh and MeK claim that their ideology is Islam and that they are fighting the enemies of the religion. They have all exploited two important Islamic concepts, jihad (struggle) and shahada (giving witness), and have developed a doctrine around these ideas by giving them twisted, wrong definitions.
Jihad (greater and lesser struggle), according to the majority of Muslim jurists (except the Wahhabi and Salafi), is defined as a struggle against wrongs in the mind and behavior of a Muslim or in a Muslim community (greater jihad), or defending a Muslim community against aggression by enemies (lesser jihad). Both greater and lesser jihad have many rules and conditions set in the Quran and hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad).
Shahada (giving witness or martyrdom) also has a very clear definition throughout all the different sects of Islam, but terrorist cults have given a new distorted meaning to both notions, changing them into “killing” and “dying,” even by suicide bombing. MeK, al-Qaeda and Daesh have violated all the norms and rules of jihad and shahada through acts of terrorism, such as killing of unarmed civilians, women, children and the elderly, and bombing places of worship.
However wrong or distorted and anti-Islamic their definition in the view of most Muslims, they have given a new meaning to the word honor, namely fighting and dying for the cause of the group and the desires of the leader. Of course, it is easy to show that what they do has nothing to do with Islam, jihad or shahada, but when the cult has manipulated a person’s mind, from then on he or she is utterly reliant on the leader for understanding the doctrine of the cult and the meaning of honor.
What they replace those dots with is not as important as how they define them. For example, in MeK, along with the fluctuating whims and interests of its leader—Masoud Rajavi—how to love and worship God and resist and fight those who oppose them has changed many times. “God” has been substituted or supplemented by “the people,” “independence,” “freedom” or “human rights”; and the “devil” has become “exploitation,” “imperialism,” “Zionism” or “dictatorship.”
At the same time, Rajavi has been able to define these ideas as he wishes. For example, he has defined people and love for the people in such a way as to justify support for international sanctions against Iran. He has defined honor as a fight for the independence of Iran and opposition to imperialism, while at the same time ordering his followers to join Iraq in fighting Iran during the Iraq-Iran war. And now he is encouraging warmongering, right-wing Americans to attack Iran and ruin the country, as they did in Iraq.
MeK’s definition of freedom rests on the notion that a person permanently suppresses his or her individuality, desires nothing personal, abandons family life and accepts celibacy. According to this definition of freedom, followers feel they are the freest people on earth, overlooking the fact that with this definition its subjects have no individual desire, ambition or want. These days, MeK defines honor for its followers simply as love, loyalty and obedience toward the Rajavis (husband and wife, the leaders of the group) and hatred toward the Iranian regime, which the Rajavis wish to overthrow in order to become the next leaders of the Iranian people.
This definition of honor sticks to the mind and mentality of followers and will direct and justify all their thoughts, feelings and behaviors even years after leaving the cult. Recently, I overheard about some ex-members of MeK insulting other former members, calling them traitors or mercenaries in the employ of the enemy, because they had abandoned the “honorable goals” planted in their minds when they were part of the cult. Years after leaving the group, the name-callers still feel they are honorable because of their “struggle” within the group.
I noticed the same kind of argument being proffered by some ex-followers of other cults, claiming that the doctrine and goals of the groups were sound and only the leadership was wrong, and that they were going to stick to that doctrine. What they fail to realize is that these “goals, “honor” and “doctrine” are, in this context, nothing more than words without any substance. Whatever the words used—freedom, imperialism, justice—ex-members of a cult should know that they simply reflect the leader’s interests.
It is very difficult for ex-members, who have made great sacrifices and paid an enormous price for being in the cult, to reject the concepts of the doctrine or the honor that they have learned within the cult, and instead seek new principles to live by. Unless they succeed in finding a better meaning of honor, they are condemned to be unhappy and, in many cases, to remain a follower at heart, without knowing how or why.
Health (physical, psychological and emotional) is another prerequisite for a happy life. Again, in destructive cults there is a very clear and strict, unequivocal definition of health. Physical health is important as long as one is struggling to pursue the cult’s goals, but it can and should be sacrificed as a mark of honor when needed.
In destructive cults, followers do not need to think about their physical health (including their essential needs such as food and shelter), as the group acts as a kind of insurance, guaranteeing them the fulfilment of all their physical needs and lifelong care. They achieve this by, first, drastically reducing each person’s personal expectations about his or her physical needs, and, second, by channeling the resources of the cult toward specific needs when necessary.
In addition, cults, by rejecting individuality, which they describe as the ugliness of selfishness, dramatically reduce the psychological needs of individuals, offering them a collective life, comradeship and brotherhood/sisterhood, common goals and the security of the cult’s character.
Cults deal with the emotional health or needs of their followers by labeling outsiders as the enemy and dehumanizing them, thus psychologically isolating their followers from the outside world and their familiar social milieu, and neutralizing any feelings they may have for their loved ones. At the same time, the cult portrays itself as a family, cult leaders as parents and other cult members as friends/comrades or siblings, thereby creating a new set of feelings and emotions among the followers, which can easily be directed, controlled and satisfied by the leader.
Cults also instill a new set of beliefs in their followers about their sexual needs, which can be met by free sex, arranged marriages or sex without emotion and family ties, or denied by eliminating sex from their lives altogether.
Destructive cults, by rejecting all the social and family responsibilities and expectations of their followers and their individual needs and desires, claim to provide the health component of happiness. More importantly, by creating a strong belief system and a clear, simple and achievable definition of honor and being honorable, they promise their followers an illusion of happiness, which seems satisfactory, although to outsiders it seems strange, wrong and unacceptable. This capacity to delude their followers is one of the great strengths of destructive and terrorist cults that enable them to recruit and hold on to their followers.
Most of us would, of course, argue that this kind of happiness is a sham, an illusion, and is only achievable via some sort of mind manipulation or brainwashing. But the reality is that it can be and has been achieved within cults, and we have yet to find an answer or antidote for it.
For us in the West especially, it is very difficult to imbue young people with a sense of the three Hs, particularly honor, given that all three Hs have been commercialized and given ambiguous and sometimes unachievable meanings. The mass media and advertising give young people the impression that, to feel good, proud and honorable, they have to be rich, famous, good looking, with fit and beautifully proportioned bodies and, perhaps, endowed with immense artistic or scientific talent. It is almost impossible to define honor for an ordinary individual by reference to an idea such as nationalism or a belief in a religion or philosophy, without pushing them toward becoming racist, dogmatist or superstitious. For other meaningful, achievable and admirable values, such as caring for nature and humanity or standing up against exploitation, there is a lack of teaching and incentives in our families, schools and the media.
With respect to health, again, the monopolization of its meaning by the mass media and its exploitation by the dollar is, to say the least, unfortunate. Similarly, happiness for our younger generation tends nowadays to mean joy, fun and lust.
Promoting Cults Instead of Destroying Them
In defining the three Hs, we in the West are, therefore, at our weakest, while destructive and terrorist cults are at their strongest. In this situation, the worst thing that we might do is to attack them from this angle.
This is why I believe that those who direct their attacks to the ideology of destructive cults—often by blaming Islam and portraying Islam and Muslims as the root causes of terrorism—are promoting and supporting these cults and, knowingly or unknowingly, facilitating recruitment to them.
I am not referring to groups that are themselves cults in some form and that feed on hate. For them, the existence of other destructive or terrorist groups gives them ammunition with which to promote their own philosophy and agenda and to recruit. Rather, I am referring to our governments, our police, our old and established media and even those who claim to be fighting cults and terrorism. They too, in some cases, by calling these groups Muslim or jihadist and by attacking their doctrine, knowingly or unknowingly support and promote them instead of crippling and ultimately destroying them.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
A Former MEK Member Speaks About the ‘Cult’ of Extremism (Interview with Massoud Banisadr)
Adam Forrest, Vice.com, September 02 2014: … In 1979, Masoud Banisadr was a young postgraduate maths student at Newcastle University, watching political upheaval in his homeland of Iran on the nightly news. After the fall of the Western-backed Shah, wanting to play his part in a new society he joined Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), an Islamic Marxist revolutionary …
A Former MEK Member Speaks About the ‘Cult’ of Extremism
An MEK oath ceremony at Camp Ashraf in Iraq, taken around 2002 by a member who has since left and does not wish to be named.
In 1979, Masoud Banisadr was a young postgraduate maths student at Newcastle University, watching political upheaval in his homeland of Iran on the nightly news. After the fall of the Western-backed Shah, wanting to play his part in a new society he joined Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), an Islamic Marxist revolutionary organisation.
But a couple of years after the revolution, the MEK began to clash with Ayatollah Khomeini’s theocratic regime and were soon deemed an enemy of the new Iran. MEK suicide bombings and assassinations followed. In 1981, thousands of MEK members went into exile, and by 1986 had established a tight-knit paramilitary organisation in Iraq led by husband-and-wife team Masoud and Maryam Rajavi.
Banisadr became the MEK’s PR man, moving between Camp Ashraf, their headquarters in Iraq, Geneva and Washington DC, trying to win over Western politicians. He finally left the group in 1996, went into hiding and now lives back in England.
The United States removed MEK from its list of terrorist organisations in 2012, but Banisadr still considers it a fanatical cult acting under the warped leadership of the Rajavis. He argues that any terrorist organisation is either a cult or “has no option but to become one in order to survive”.
I spoke to Banisadr about the power of cults, and how this might help us understand why young men in the UK are vulnerable to joining the Islamic State and other extremist groups.
VICE: You were once a high-ranking member of MEK. Why do you now see the organisation as a cult?
Masoud Banisadr: There was a charismatic leader, Rajavi. There was a black-and-white world view imposed; followers cutting themselves off from family; followers losing their personality. There was mind manipulation. At Camp Ashraf in Iraq there were talks lasting for days on end. I remember one task where we had to write down our old personality in one column on a board, and the new personality in a different column. I remember a guy who said, “My brother works in the Iranian embassy in London. Before I loved him as my brother, now I hate him as my enemy. I am ready to kill him tomorrow, if necessary.” And everyone applauded.
How did you justify violence?
I was fortunate not to be involved in any violence. But all group members accepted MEK suicide bombings and killings in Iran to be revolutionary acts. This was the brainwashing. And later, in my role as official representative, I would justify and explain these acts as the only means we had to defend ourselves. I was a nice person, well-mannered, and could argue very rationally with politicians. So I was a good salesman.
Massoud Rajavi and his wife Maryam
Why did MEK members divorce their wives?
In 1990, Rajavi said all members must divorce their spouses. My own wife had already left the group by then. All members accepted these terms, and it [applied to] everyone except the leader and his wife Maryam. In a single day, everyone became celibate. Someone asked, “What about sex in the afterlife?” He replied, “I know your trick – you want to fantasise about the afterlife. But no – you must be prepared to forget about sex, about spouses, about love.”
No sexual thoughts. The idea was that we were in a war to take back Iran, so you cannot have a family until the war is won. This was the excuse the outside world would hear, but inside we were told your spouses are a barrier between you and the leadership. We were ordered to surrender our soul, heart and mind to Rajavi and his wife.
Masoud meeting trade union leaders at an International Labour Conference in Geneva in 1987 (published in an MEK newspaper).
How did you manage to leave the organisation?
What saved me was seeing my daughter. In 1996 I came to London to arrange some meetings. I saw my daughter, after many years of not seeing her. I had totally forgotten about the guy who was the father, the old Masoud. I only knew Masoud, the MEK member. The old Masoud wanted to hug her, but the group member – living under strict rules where men and women never interacted – knew he should not. I was fortunate that I had a bad back problem, so I was allowed to go and recuperate in hospital. And in those two weeks, being around ordinary people, seeing ordinary families, I allowed feelings for my own family to come back. And so, finally, I decided to leave the group.
Where did you go?
I had to go on the run for a time. I learned how to hide myself around the UK until they gave up looking for me.
An MEK oath ceremony at Camp Ashraf in Iraq, taken around 2002
What do you think it is that makes young people vulnerable to extremist causes?
Well, terrorism is like a virus. It attacks us through our weaknesses. It kills our personality, our individuality, like a cult. I think there are three stages. The first stage is the injustice of the world. Young Muslims see injustice, become angry and want to react. Then comes along a powerful ideology, and the Wahabi ideology offers a very simple, black-and-white world view, and a very narrow-minded interpretation of jihad, offered as a solution to young Muslims. But both these stages are not enough to make someone a terrorist, a human bomb or a fighter for a caliphate. A third stage is required: the mind manipulation, which robs someone of their personality, makes them identify entirely with the group and cuts them off from their parents and society.
So radical ideas alone aren’t enough to go off and fight for, say, the Islamic State?
If you’re a young Muslim and you feel like a nobody, it’s appealing to hear that we can return to the time of Prophet Mohammed – [that] we will be powerful again and feel proud of ourselves. This can make you radical – even prepared to be violent – but you will not stay a fighter or become a martyr without being entirely cut-off from family and the values of the society you were brought up in. That requires the mind-manipulation that goes on in a destructive cult.
Islamic State fighters in Syria
Where does the Islamic State fit in? Do you consider it a cult as well as a terrorist organisation?
The signs are there. The leader – Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – is charismatic and has unlimited ambition. He has been introduced as the leader of all Muslims, the Caliph. Normal leaders want political power. Cult leaders want something more than governing a city or country – they want to govern history. They want to change the structure of humanity. For a while they were calling themselves ISIL – Islamic State of Iraq and Levant.
They wanted control of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel. Now they call themselves the Islamic State. They want whatever they think was once part of the Islamic empire, so they claim Spain, Portugal, North Africa, India and part of China and Russia. They want the whole world, to make everyone Muslim. This is not normal leadership; this is heading towards cult. There is no limitation you can deal with, politically.
What would you say to British parents who have children fighting in Syria or Iraq?
It’s very difficult, very delicate. If a parent says anything critical against a radical preacher, or about an organisation like Islamic State, that’s when a person’s mind becomes defensive. It is difficult to argue rationally. So if a parent has contact, they should not try to talk about politics or religion. They should show only kindness and love. This is the member’s weakness. Feelings do not die away, even if personality has changed. So the parent has to let them know they will be there, waiting. There has to be a pathway back to a life where family love is there, something that has nothing do with ideological thinking. Unconditional love unlocks the mind manipulation that has taken place.
The Cult in the Shadow War: An Interview with a former member of Mojahedin-e-Khalq
Richard Potter on November 26, 2013
Masoud Banisadr was an active member of the controversial Iranian opposition group Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK, PMOI) for twenty years, serving as the organizations representative to the United Nations and to the United States during his tenure. The group is largely obscured from public discourse, or more recently veiled in headlines describing them as political dissidents or refugees. To those more familiar with the group the debate tends to focus primarily on their nature. For many MEK is a dangerous terrorist organization, yet for others they are freedom fighters and the only legitimate alternative to the Iranian Government. They’ve been subject to several pieces suggesting they work as assassins for the United States and Israel. Masoud has published a book called Memoirs of an Iranian Rebel about his experience in the organization, which he very candidly describes in detail as a cult, and one that has long lost its strength and vibrance. He now focuses much of his work on the research and understanding of cults, terrorism, and cult behavior within those structures.
Richard Potter: How long were you active in MEK?
Masoud Banisadr: I left MEK 1996. Before that I was the representative in the United States and the United Nations.
You were only in the political arm?
You would have joined in 1976 when it was a more political guerilla movement?
Yes at the time I joined them I was a PhD student in UK in New Castle University. I was married and I had a little daughter. Of course I married young, so everything was very fast. We married in UK far from Iran, but the only source of news we had during the Iranian revolution was from MEK. So because of the past history and the number of martyrs the MEK had against the Shah we trusted them. The slogans they gave were about freedom and democracy and equal rights, women’s rights, minority rights. All destructive cults are like some lizards and can change colors very rapidly to their surroundings.
How did this change?
What happened in 1981 is that Massoud Rajavi (The head of MEK until 2003. Currently believed dead or in hiding) saw that he had attracted so many students and he thought he could repeat the Bolshevik revolution of Russia in Iran. So what he did was he suddenly on 20 June 1981 asked all members and supporters to come to the streets of Tehran and overthrow the new establishment. MEK says that 500,000 people came to the streets. They failed. They failed and they couldn’t do anything and from the next day they changed into a clandestine organization. Between the summer of 1981 the MEK went through many terrorist actions. They bombed the Islamic revolution party buildings. They killed the new President and Premier of Iran, and then they killed at Friday prayers in different cities through suicide operation, they killed different imams through suicide operations. They themselves claim that within one year that they killed almost 1400 people, high officials and supporters of the new establishment in Iran. At the same time they claimed 2000 of their members were killed in street clashes with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. In Iran what they were doing was what they called “heroic terrorism operations” later they thought the word terrorism had a bad connotation, especially in the west and they changed it to heroic actions. Most of their supporters in Iran were those who joined this group because of its peaceful nature. For the democratic liberal and pro social justice nature, so they were not ready to change into terrorist or even guerrillas. People are ready to vote for a party, but not to fight for that party.
You refer to MEK as a destructive cult, when do you believe they transformed from a political group or a guerilla group to a cult?
What happened was within Iran they were left losing 99% of their member. Only 2,000 to 3000 members left in Iran. Most of them were gone because of change of policy from peaceful demonstration to terrorist activities and street fighting. Even those who could become radicals were either killed in street clashes or by execution by the government. They lost the battle in Iran. Outside of Iran they were portraying themselves as the democratic alternative to the Iranian government. Two of the most important allies of theirs were ex Iranian President Banisadr and the Kurdish democratic party of Kurdish Iran. These two left the National Council of Resistance in 1984, suddenly this coalition of Rajavi and others turned into the pseudonym MEK. In 1983 they could get support from the labor party of UK and the socialist party of France, but after this they did not have it anymore. MEK was on the verge of disintegration, so he had to do something, which is why I think he did what was called the ideological revolution, which is when it became a destructive cult.
You’ve written about the organization forcing you to divorce your wife at this point, can you elaborate?
At this time they were telling me that my wife was what they called “revoluted”- meaning that she had accepted the ideological revolution and she was now a disciple of Mr. and Mrs. Rajavi and if I wanted to leave the group I had to leave my wife and my children as well. This was my main problem. It wasn’t just leaving the group it was leaving my children and the love of my life. I tried to rationalize it and I tried to stay in the group. Then there was some time later when they asked me to divorce my wife, again it was the same problem. Then I was in the United States and everything was wrong and slogans were wrong and meaningless, everything they said was meaningless.
How did you rationalize all of this?
There is an experiment where they put a live frog in a pot and they turn the heat up degree by degree. Outside the pot is cold, inside the pot is warm. The frog won’t jump out of the pot. It can but it won’t. It’s because the outside is cold. But when it’s realized that it is boiling and it is cooking the opportunity is gone because all of his muscles have been cooked. This is what happened to us. When the ideological revolution changed and we could see the pot was boiling, all of our muscles were cooked. All our self confidence or individuality that would help us jump out of the pot were gone.
MEK was originally aligned with some of the Kurdish groups but later on there was a great deal of fighting between MEK and Kurdish groups. What caused this change?
After the gulf war when Saddam lost the war the Kurds in the north and Shia in south thought they could revolt against Saddam Hussein and get rid of him. Unfortunately the US didn’t help and this is why they lost. Since Saddam’s army wasn’t in good shape after the war they asked MEK to attack some of the Kurdish guerillas in the north and MEK committed many atrocities. Of course then I was outside of Iraq and I couldn’t believe that we did this. After I left the group and I met other who left I realized it was true. What we were told was we were fighting Iranian revolutionary guards who had Kurdish guards, and this is what I was believed. When the accusation was brought up at the UN or anyone I would deny it vehemently, but when I left the group and met ex MEK from that war I realized this wasn’t an accusation, but a fact. They say they even killed women and children.
Saddam was probably one of the only allies in the Middle East MEK had at that time, no?
No. At this time Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were helping as well. As a matter of fact, Rajavi at one juncture traveled to Saudi Arabia and met the king. In MEK they showed us a video of him meeting the king. It was secret, the KSA and UAE support. Everyone knew about Saddam, but even within the group they didn’t speak about KSA or UAE. I saw the video when I reached the highest rank men could go in MEK. When MEK had their last battle, Forough Javidan, which means eternal light, the plan was that MEK, with the help of Saddam Hussein, would take part of Iran and announce the government order over it, calling it the democratic Islamic government of Iran- They’d go and capture western Iran and establish a government and immediately Saddam Hussein would recognize it and Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates would support it, and there were others. They were hoping Kuwait would join and the United States could be pressured to acknowledge them and they could create a situation of pressure on Iran like North and South Vietnam, or Korea. This was their tactic.
This one of the bloodiest incidents during this period, no?
They failed. They lost a third of the members. As a matter of fact I was in that battle. I lost some of the muscles in my right soldier because I was shot. Of course, we were not trained, not for that battle. They said everyone had to attend, even representatives who weren’t in Iraq. So I had to go back to fight. I had no military training but I had to go. Rajavi wanted everyone to attend but himself and his wife.
I’m sorry to hear about this
It was very horrible. There were 15 students who were from the United States, they were supporters. They were brought to Iraq and in the same night they were moved to the battle field. Because of my political rank I was a commander even though I had no military background. I didn’t know anything about fighting. Only a few days before for the first time I saw a machine gun, and I only shot it once. So in the first battle I almost lost my life, I was shot and went unconscious and was take back to the hospital. Unfortunately I learned all 15 died because they didn’t have any training, and because it was done so quickly no one asked them their names and nothing was recorded. I didn’t even know their names. It was horrible.
How did you eventually get out?
In 1996 Maryam Rajavi (Wife of Massoud Rajavi and current head of MEK) was speaking in London and they asked me to come and mobilize supporters, and talk to British politicians and arrange meetings for Mrs. Rajavi, including Margaret Thatcher. So in London after five or six years I met my daughter. Before that she was 13 and now she was 18. I was faced with a lady. Emotions and feelings are very important in destructive cults. They isolate you from your loved ones, so you don’t turn your emotions to your loved ones. In London I could see my daughter and my sister and my old friends. From early morning to midnight I had to see old friends, ex-supporters of MEK, and answering thousands of questions which internally I had no rational answer for any of them. So these things, my feelings between my friends and family helped me change. And also luck. I had an accident and back problems, and I was so active in London that I had to go to the hospital. My back gave out. Fortunately for me MEK was very busy then for Maryam Rajavi with different meetings, so they didn’t care about me. If it was another juncture they’d make sure someone was with me, because MEK never leaves a member without a chaperone, always at least two with each other they watch and look after each other. So in the hospital I was alone for the almost a month and I could see normal relationships of people with each other. There was a guy beside who had an accident and I was helping him to shave his beard, or to feed him and so on, and this revived my individuality and my humanity and self confidence. All gradually it came back. When it came that I left the hospital I left MEK. I didn’t reject them fully yet, but I realized I couldn’t be with them anymore.
There are many who believe MEK serves as proxy for the West and that they are allied, do you believe this?
I don’t think so. Another problem MEK has is that Americans and Europeans know MEK has no support. In the early eighties there was an illusion of support but it was realized there was no support. There are no demonstrations for MEK and no one comes to support them. Even in Iran anyone who hates the government, hate the mullahs, even the old supporters, if you ask them they’ll say MEK is worse than the Mullahs. Western governments know this. Would the US repeat the same mistake they made in Afghanistan by supporting MEK where in Afghanistan they supported the Taliban but now they fight them. All of this aside it isn’t said that they don’t use MEK, because they do. As long as there is a bad relation with the United States and Iran they will use MEK. The Israelis, they also use MEK very much. But it doesn’t mean that even the Israelis trust them.
There was an accusation that the US was training MEK in Nevada to be used as assassins. Do you believe this?
No I don’t believe this. What is the average age of MEK members now/ I think it is about eighty. What do you want to do with people this old? I don’t think so. Probably not even spying. The only use they might have for them may be in relation to some terrorist activities in Thailand and in Europe where they say Iran or Hezbollah are committing terrorist attacks against Israeli embassy or the personnel of the Israeli embassy. Probably they could use MEK to discredit the Iranian government or even Hezbollah because Politically I don’t believe they use these tactics at this point, it would be political suicide for them. There was a story in the United States that came to the media and vanished about someone who was going to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in the United States. It’s possible they can create this news with MEK members to work against the Iranian government, but no real action.
Press TV, August 11 2014: … Batoul: At this point, Maryam Rajavi would tell us, “You women, after divorcing your husbands, you should marry Masoud.” And we always considered her words as an ideological thesis. I could never imagine that her words would be put into practice some day and I would have to sleep with Masoud. I really thought that it was merely a
Daniel Larison, Th American Conservative, August 10 2014: …It’s important to remember that the MEK and its umbrella group are not “the main Iranian opposition” or anything like it. For one thing, the real “main” Iranian opposition is still in Iran, and unlike the MEK it is not widely loathed by Iranians. Naturally, any exile group would like foreign governments to believe that …
Mazda Parsi, Nejat bloggers, July 31 2014: …To justify its support for the Iraqi crisis makers the MKO propaganda refers to “remarks” of its self-claimed leader Maryam Rajavi who is swollen with pride to address “parliamentarians and prominent political figures, especially former U.S. senior officials”. Her so-called remarks say…
A. Sepinoud, Nejat bloggers, July 29 2014: … The Mujahedin Khalq launched “Eternal Light,” against Iran in the immediate aftermath of Iran’s acceptance of the U.N.-brokered cease fire agreement on July 18, 1988. Massoud Rajavi falsely analyzed the ceasefire as notifying the weakness of Iranian forces. So as the group leader …