This piece appeared on VICE in September 2014.
Masoud Banisadr was a young postgraduate maths student at Newcastle University when he watched political upheaval unfold in his homeland of Iran on the nightly news.
After the fall of the Western-backed Shah in 1979, 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.
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