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.
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