Anna Pivovarchuk and MasoudBanisadr
AnnaPivovarchuk is the Deputy Managing Editor, Culture Editor and Co-Founder ofFair Observer, having previously held the position of Europe Editor.
MasoudBanisadr is an author and former member of the Iranian Mujahedeen-e-Khalq(MeK). He was born in Tehran, in 1953, as the son of a prominent Iran
Inthis edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Masoud Banisadr, a formermember of Mujahedeen-e-Khalq.
In1965, Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MeK) was established in Iran in opposition to USimperialism. Espousing a blend of Marxism and Islam, the group helped bringabout the Iranian Revolution of 1979. However, after breaking with therevolutionary government, MeK embarked on a terrorism campaign and was forcedinto exile, losing followers in Iran after its support for Saddam Hussein inthe Iran-Iraq War.
MeKwas designated as a terrorist organization by the US State Department until2012. The Iranian government estimates that MeK activity has claimed some12,000 Iranian live sover the last three decades.
Operatingfrom exile, the organization had all the trappings of a cult. Attracting young,idealistic Muslims with slogans of Islamic justice and social freedom, itdisrupted familial and social ties, forcing members to divorce their spousesand abandon relatives, making them dependent on the group through isolation,misinformation and manipulation.
MasoudBanisadr, a cousin of former Iranian President Abolhassan Banisadr, joined MeKwhile 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 cultideology and the appeal of extremism. His books include Masoud: Memoirs of anIranian Rebel and Destructive and Terrorist Cults: A New Kind of Slavery.
Inthis edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Masoud Banisadr aboutwhat first attracted him to the MeK and what eventually forced him to escape.
AnnaPivovarchuk: How was MeK different from other political organizations? What isyour definition of a cult, and how does it fit into that image?
MasoudBanisadr: Cults resemble slavery more than they do political parties, which areidea-based. Cults, on the contrary, are leader- and behavior-based. They claimto have an ideology that is useful for recruitment, to use it as a mindmanipulation tool and to glue followers to each other. But when you look atthem closely, you will see that they have taken shape around a leader and acode of behavior dictated by that leader.
Cultdogmas are shaped around behavior. For example, for a cult member, it is moreimportant how he looks than how he thinks. In MeK, you could say I don’tbelieve in this or that principal of Islam, and nobody cared much. But if youbehaved differently, if you didn’t follow or have enough loyalty toward theleader, 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 importantis survival of the group and absolute loyalty and obedience toward the leader.
Theother main difference is that a cult is a way of life, and as slavery there isno way out of it till you die. When you are a member of a cult, it is the wholeof 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 commonreasons?
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 cultsdue to three main reasons.
Thefirst is personal: I might have a problem of belonging, identity or not havinga sense of purpose in life. These days, many young people lack a sense ofbelonging. Family ties are not as strong as before. Religion is not asimportant as before. Even nationality is not as relevant as before. This lackof feeling of belonging might attract them toward gangs, cults or groups of anysort to feed that longing. Imagine a young Muslim on the street who hasnothing: Suddenly, when he joins a group like al-Qaeda or Daesh, he becomes awarrior, a martyr, a great hero. It’s a great change. People either love you orhate you, but at least you are not insignificant anymore.
Thesecond is the cause: ideological, political, or philosophical, mainly as ameans to seek justice. If you feel or see injustice and discrimination againstyourself or against your community or religion, you feel you have to dosomething. Many young Muslims feel injustice against Palestinians in Israel, orthey see the rise of Islamophobia in Western countries and feel they have to dosomething against it. Cults feed on injustice and claim they can offer people away to seek justice. Cults also give an illusion of a sense of honor and a wayfor an ordinary normal person to feel that he/she can have an honorable lifeand that if one dies for the cause, they will be remembered as a martyr or a hero.
Andthe third reason might be that you have been born into a cult. Your parentshave been followers of a cult, and as a result you have been raised in thecult.
Pivovarchuk:You talk about the personality of a cult leader being very important. You haveto get people to buy into your narrative. How is that achieved?
Banisadr:After being recruited comes their mind manipulation. Although they haverecruited you, using some sort of doctrine, or cause, forcing you to acceptthat if you join their cult you will become a better person. Still, they haveto 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 threeintertwined stages.
Thefirst stage is rational trickery and influence techniques that change yourbelief system. For example, if you are attached to the family, through somerational trickery, through some influence techniques, they can persuade youthat your new family are the cult members rather than your parents or yoursiblings. They persuade you to fight for them—[as] the only way that you canseek justice for yourself or your community. Then using some influence techniquesthey will force you to do something to affiliate yourself with the group. Theymight start with small requests and then build on those small steps andgradually pull you deeper and deeper into their swamp.
Thenext 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 aregoing to be, your feelings, your personality will force you to go back towardwho you were.
Toovercome the effect of your old feelings, cult leaders have to isolate you fromthe society and your past life; this will be done through control ofenvironment. There is an Iranian expression that says, “Whoever leaves youreyes will eventually leave your heart.” By stopping you from having any contactwith your parents and friends, gradually cults can stop you remembering yourfeelings toward your loved ones.
Theycan 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 canimmediately see a change of appearances and behavior. For example, they grow abeard, or they grow or cut their hair, their clothes change, and also theirbehavior will change—in extreme form of it, used by Daesh. You have seen in themedia that they have asked a British-born person to behead another person, oreven destroy shrine of a Muslim saint. By doing that, Daesh will force thatperson 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 notonly from the society, but also from history, tradition, ethic and culture ofhis previous being.
Pivovarchuk:How important is this isolation from family and friends in altering someone’sidea of yourself? In your personal experience, what have you been told to do orasked to do?
Banisadr:When you say that I am a person, what does it mean? I am a person because of myset of beliefs, because of my principles, because of the way I think, becauseof the things that I enjoy, because of my relation to my family, my relation toparents, siblings, wife, children and so on. If you lose them one by one, theneventually you become an “unperson.” Nobody.
Forexample, I was in the last year of my PhD. But the way that MeK educated me, Iwas feeling ashamed of being a PhD student, not proud of it. Why? Because theywere 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. Soinstead 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.
Iwas even ashamed of my family, because of my family name—because of my cousin,who was the president of Iran.
Thisis the new you—this new personality of yours. You change into a nobody, and youdefine yourself according to your cult personality. What is your rank in thecult? What is the relationship between you and the leader of the cult? How haveyou behaved in the cult? How successful have you been in the pursuit of thecult’s objectives?
Iam calling it slavery because you change into an “unperson.” Your relationshipwith everybody else is defined via your relationship with the cult leader.Because whatever you do, you are not gaining anything for yourself and evenyour family and your society but for the cult leader. Like slaves whoseexistence was defined through their relationship to the master, and the fruitof their life was going to the master.
InMeK, we were not even allowed to think of our children and their wellbeing. Thelogic behind it was that while children in Iran are suffering, you wouldn’tdare let yourself think about your own children. As with slavery, you are aparent, but you are not a parent. You are a supervisor of your children, aperson responsible for educating a child so he can change into anotherfollower/slave of the leader/master. You have to teach your children: insteadof loving you, love the leader. Instead of remembering grandparents, rememberthose who have sacrificed their life for the cult.
Inslavery, at least in your dreams, in your desires, you are free. You can desirefreedom because you can see that you are a slave. In your dream, you canremember your old life. Your country, your family. But in cults you can’t.Because through brainwashing, they have changed you into your own jailer. Youeven don’t dream of freedom as you are educated to think that you are freestperson on earth.
Pivovarchuk:In your book, you say that you underwent a transformation from a “liberalmiddle-class semi-intellectual” to a zealot ready to die for the leader. Itshows that those who join cults are not stupid or naïve, but that it’s acomplicated psychological process. What caused this transformation that youtalk about?
Banisadr:For me personally, I guess I have to go back to three slogans of the IranianRevolution: independence, freedom and Islamic Republic.
Iwas born the year when the first democratically elected prime minister of Iran,Mohammad Mosaddegh was violently overthrown by a CIA coup. It affected mygeneration and the later ones deeply. We wanted independence because we used tofeel that our country was ruled by Americans—not physically, but we knew thatthe shah was a puppet of the US. So independence was very important to us.
Thesecond one was freedom, which was opposite of the dictatorship, and thecensorship of shah’s regime. We understood political freedom more than anyother freedom, probably because of the lack of it. So when we talked aboutfreedom, we meant political freedom rather than liberalism as it is in theWest, where it is mostly about personal freedom. During the shah’s regime, wealmost had all personal freedom enjoyed by the Western youth, but there was atotal lack of political freedom.
Thethird one was the Islamic Republic, which was mainly about social justicepromised in Islam. We felt that people were divided between the superrich andsuper-poor, and if you were part of the system you could have everything. Whatattracted me among many other young people to the revolution were these threeideas, these slogans.
Afterthe revolution, because I was in the UK, I couldn’t see for myself what wasgoing on in Iran. I couldn’t judge for myself. The only source of informationwe 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 inIran, were feeding us with the same kind of news—all negative ones. So we feltthat our country was even more unjust than before. What happened to freedom andIslamic justice?
MeKwas even telling us that sooner or later, this new government would become thepuppet of the United States. That because they cannot run the country, theywill need the help of foreigners and will invite Americans and British. As youcan 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 canchange you, they can change your set of beliefs and everything, they can changeyour behavior, your appearance and so on. But they are unable to change onevery important thing: They are unable to wipe out your memories. There are somefantasy stories where people have been brainwashed and have lost their memoriesand have found completely new personalities. That is fiction.
Ifyou do not think about your feelings toward your past life, friends andfamilies, your feeling toward them is still alive—though it is passive,paralyzed or asleep.
Anythingcan make it active. A smell reminds you of your childhood. A flower, a color orkindness from a stranger. Walking in the streets, seeing somebody who lookslike your mother. Seeing love between a parent and children in the street. Forthe majority of followers of groups like MeK, Daesh and al-Qaeda that have beenisolated (both psychologically and physically) from society and normal life, itis more difficult to save themselves because their feelings toward their lovedones cannot be triggered and remembered.
Butfor a person like me, who had to travel to different countries to represent thegroup politically at the United Nations in Europe and the United States, thesituation was different, because I could see other ordinary people.
Thefirst thing that forced me to remember ordinary kindness was when I wastraveling from France to the United States. I was so tired that I slept on theairplane, from the beginning almost to the end. When I woke up, there was anold lady sitting beside me, and I found out that she kept for me whatever wasgiven out in the plane. It was a very natural, ordinary kindness, but itaffected 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 beingswithout any remorse or doubt.
InMeK, if you were called ordinary, it meant that they had called you a dog or apig. To be ordinary is worse than any other swear words. And suddenly, I wasfacing the beauty of being ordinary. Beauty through love, through understanding,through simple empathy and compassion.
Andthe second thing that saved me was seeing my daughter and old friends in theUK. Remembering my love for my daughter. My family and friends.
Andalso after that, I was lucky because of my back problem I had to behospitalized. And because the group was so busy with the different politicalmeetings that Maryam Rajavi [wife of Masoud Rajavi and co-leader of MEK] had inLondon, they forgot about me. So for almost a month, or three weeks, I was inthe hospital without having any kind of connection to the group.
Inthe hospital I could see other people. I remember there was a guy beside me whohad an accident and his hands were in plaster. I used to give him lunch and Ieven helped him to shave. And he showed me kindness as well. These kinds ofthings suddenly force you to remember who you were and who you truly are: ahuman being.
Rememberingfeelings suddenly forced me to wake up from a very, very bad dream. Although Ican admit that still I could not understand what was happening or what hadhappened. I could not understand the political deception; I could notunderstand the hypocrisy of the group. But I could understand and I could seewho I was. I could see my old personality, I could see my old feelings, and Ithink 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 cultto 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.
Ithink for a year I couldn’t understand it as a cult. I couldn’t understand theprocedure as brainwashing or mind manipulation. After I started writing mymemoirs—gradually, because I was remembering stage by stage what had happened—Ithink it was in the last chapter of the book that I finally felt that it was acult 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 findhim violating your trust and dignity and deceiving you for years, it hurts muchmore. Then imagine finding out a guy who you thought of as a saint and theholiest person on earth has been just a charlatan wanting to make you his slavethrough manipulating your mind—robbing not only your wealth, health and happiness,but your individuality, personality and humanity. Then you will understand whatI felt.
Afterthat comes realization of nothingness, loneliness and powerlessness. You feelyou are free to do anything you like, but you are neither who you were beforethe cult, nor a follower of the cult.
Soyou ask yourself, who am I? If I am going to buy clothes for myself, whatshould I buy? What kind of food do I enjoy? Suddenly making any decision becamehuge. Impossible. I used to get help from my daughter. Ask her to choose forme, to buy clothes.
Whatdo you consider as honor, and what are you proud of? What are your political orphilosophical beliefs? And how do you run your daily life and make a newrelation? All these are very big questions.
Whenpeople look at you, they see a grown man. But I can say that somehow you are anewborn child without the support of parents. There is no solid wall to leanon. You are really vulnerable, and there is nobody to tell you what hashappened to you and how should you find your way.
Suddenlyyou’re coming out of a cult penniless—the things that I knew were obsolete. Forexample, I went to a job interview, and they asked me, “What do you know?” Ianswered: mathematics, chemical engineering, programming and so on. The guy askedme, “Okay, very good, nice great, what kind of programming do you know?” Istarted saying, “Fortran, Assembly, basic language…” And he looked at me:“Where are you from?”
SuddenlyI realized that I knew nothing. I even didn’t have common sense of ordinarypeople. I had lost it. If you wanted to talk with me about music or movies, orthe kind of programs I like on TV, I didn’t have a clue what to say. So whatkind of connection and communication could I have with you?
Afterthat you will face another big problem: how to get rid of the cult in yourmind. How to change your behavior. How to change your way of thinking, yourworldview from a black-and-white into a colorful one. How to see bad and goodbeside each other. How to get rid of the cult’s way of thinking, what they haveforced 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—hasbecome something that brought you back to normality. As you said, you can’tdestroy 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 havebeen recruited by cults: show them love. Instead of arguing and discussingpolitical, religious or philosophical issues, give them love. Let them rememberthe kind of relationship, the kind of emotion that they had with you. The kindof feelings that existed between you. In this way, they can remember who theywere, and in this way they can find a way to get rid of cultic manipulation andbecome somebody again.
Pivovarchuk:It’s interesting that you mentioned that, because obviously there’s been a lotof 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 theirhearts and minds begin?
Banisadr:The first thing to understand is what attracts young Muslims to these groups. Ibelieve it is injustice—injustice against Muslims in different countries. It isvery important we recognize this. For politicians and the media to recognizeit—accept that yes, there is injustice against, for example, Palestinians inIsrael. There are double-standards toward Israel. We understand this, we acceptthis. This acceptance is very important.
Thenwe 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 areenabling 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 1.6billion Muslims. Even these Muslims might see them as their own children—theymight see them as their fellow Muslims in need of help and support.
Soit’s a very big mistake, which unfortunately many mass media and somepoliticians make and in a way will help these groups to recruit even more. Bycalling these terrorist groups Muslim and using Islamic State instead of Daesh,first they enable these groups to recruit more. At the same time, they advocateIslamophobia among non-Muslims in society, and finally alienate ordinaryMuslims from the rest of the society.
Therefore,Muslims in the West think of themselves more as Muslim than, for example, asBritish. Even if the media want to talk about ideology of these groups, theyshould use the name of their ideology—Wahhabism or Takfiri—and not Islam. Thesame thing they do when they want to talk about other groups such as DavidKoresh’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 andtolerance, and at the same time, we have to educate them about cult and mindmanipulation—to immunize them against mind manipulation of the cults. To teachthem how people can be manipulated, how people can be influenced, be tricked byrational 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 cultare victims as well—a victim of mind manipulation and not a criminal. If wehelp them and show them kindness and education, they can change into anantidote of cults and terrorism. It is very important for those who have left Daeshand al-Qaeda to say what they have witnessed and educate other people not tofall in the trap of cults.
Bycriminalizing them, by putting them in prison, we change them into heroes ofthe next generation of terrorist cults. By executing them, we make them intomartyrs.
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-lastingpeace and stability in the region, America and Iran have to talk and work witheach 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 triedto destroy our country and still want to do so.”
Afterall, while no American has ever been killed by any Iranian (except those killedby MeK), but on the opposite side. The CIA overthrew the firstdemocratically-elected prime minster of Iran; America established and supportedthe shah’s dictatorship; supported Saddam Hussein’s war and his chemical attacksagainst Iran. During aggression of Saddam against Iran, Americans even shotdown Iran Air Flight 655, an Iran Air civilian passenger flight from Tehran toDubai in 1988, killing all 290 passengers, without any proper apology.
Andnow some warmongering American politicians are supporting MeK, who have beenthe lobbying force behind the sanctions against Iran and are lobbying Westerncountries to attack the country, praying for the destruction of Iran so theymight become its new rulers. They are mostly hated in Iran, and I believe thiswill add to why Iranians don’t trust Americans.
Aslong as America doesn’t review its foreign policy, realizing who its friendsand who its enemies are, and the Western media doesn’t stop this propagandaagainst Iran based on its love for Saudi petrol dollars, we will hardly see anyimprovement in Iran-US relations. And, unfortunately, we have to witness growthof Saudi-backed Wahhabi terrorist groups and more instability and suffering inthe region.
Theviews expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarilyreflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.