Cult of the chameleon
Aljazeera, October 17, 2007
Hello and welcome to WITNESS. I am Rageh Omar. During the ongoing and often contentious negotiations between Iran and the United States, there is one subject they both agree on: the MEK or the People’s Mojahedin of Iran is a terrorist organisation. Massoud Rajavi is the leader of this bizarre Iranian Cult who over the years helped Ayatollah Khomeini overthow the Shah, then declared war on the Islamic Republic ruthlessly killing their fellow countrymen. They allied themselves with Saddam Hussein but now that he is gone are ardent supporters of the coalition. The MEK has switched allegiances so often that any underlying ideology is long gone. But one fundamental tenet remains; personal power.
Massoud Rajavi claims to be a bridge between his followers and God and the faithful believe him. Rajavi is a master of human psychology. He manipulated his followers’ weaknesses until they are prepared to do anything for him. One woman carried cyanide capsules in her mouth for two years ready to die for her leader.
Iranian film maker Maziar Bahari met her and other followers as he tried to untangle the CULT of the Chameleon.
Narrator: For more than three decades, it has been one of the most secretive cults in the world - The People’s Mojahedin of Iran - or the MEK. Its leader is Massoud
Anne Singleton: Massoud Rajavi has likened himself as the bridge between people and God. Now from that position, he can more or less order his followers to do anything.
Marjan Malek: The MEK tell their members that Massoud Rajavi is not only your leader, but also your husband, father and brother. He is the only one who should matter in your life and you shouldn’t think about anyone else.
Narrator: In a suburban house in the northern English city of Leeds, Anne Singleton looks like any other suburban mother having a bit of after school playtime with her son. But for Anne and her husband Massoud Khodabandeh, it has been a long strange journey to this normality.
In the 1970s like many university students, Anne was looking for a challenge and a cause. She found it in an Iranian revolutionary group active in Leeds University.
Anne Singleton (former MEK supporter): When I became a full time cult member I gave up everything that I had. I gave up my home, and all the possessions in it. I gave up my car. I converted to Islam. I became Moslem. I had even burned my diaries. Since I was a kid I kept diaries, and in order to show them that I was so dedicated to them I just burned them all. Just, I gave myself to them.
Narrator: When Anne joined the MEK in Leeds in 1979, the organisation was helping the leader of the Iranian revolution - Ayatollah Khomeini - to depose Iran’s Monarch - the Shah.
The MEK shared Khomeini’s hatred of America and called him their Imam or Islamic leader. But the Ayatollah never thought Rajavi was a true Moslem. After the revolution, the MEK was outlawed, and Rajavi was banned from running for president.
Narrator: The MEK’s terror teams killed many officials as well as more than ten thousand innocent Iranians. In turn the Islamic government executed and tortured thousands of MEK members, and even those who only sympathised with Rajavi’s ideas. Majid Farahani was one of them. He was working as a trades union activist when he was arrested and sent to prison for four years.
Majid Farahani: When I was in prison they tortured me in different ways. For example they played football with me. The torturers literary kicked me around between them. They also made me lie down at the door of the torture chamber, so I could hear the screams of others being tortured inside. But the most effective form of torture was beating my feet with an electric cable. When they hit you they start with a thick cable, after a while your feet go numb and you can’t feel anything anymore. So they change the cable and hit you with a smaller one. That hurts much more.
Narrator: Like thousands of imprisoned political and labour activists, soon after his release Majid joined the MEK’s guerrilla fight against the Islamic government.
Majid Farahani: While I was being tortured, the main thing I was thinking about was when my feet were going to heal. But while my feet were healing there was not a moment in which I was not thinking about taking revenge for what they did to me.
Narrator: While the tortures and assassinations continued in Iran, in London Anne Singleton joined a group of Rajavi supporters on a hunger strike against Khomeini’s regime.
Anne Singleton: After about three or four days of hunger strike, I began to feel if as I was really on a different level to the rest of the world around me. It was almost as if when I walked down the street, I was walking at twice the speed of everyone else. I was having a really kind of spaced out experience. And I interpreted this - and I was encouraged to interpret this - as if I had kind of seen a hidden truth.And the truth was that by understanding the Mojahedin and understanding their leadership - the Rajavis - I had somehow transcended normal existence and that therefore I had made the grade.
Narrator: In 1981 Rajavi escaped to France. Soon after, the MEK began evolving into a cult. Rajavi declared that the organisation should be run equally by a man -himself - and a woman. The problem was Rajavi's wife had died fighting the Islamic government. He needed a new partner to join him at the top of the organisation. Rajavi's deputy Mehdi Abrishamchi voluntarily divorced his wife Maryam, so Rajavi could marry her.
Massoud Rajavi's marriage was the beginning of a series of ideological and sexual revolutions which he used to take over his followers’ lives.
Anne Singleton: They went beyond arranged marriages and actually ordered their members to divorce. This didn't just mean that if you are married - actually married to somebody - you must divorce them. It meant that if you weren't married you had to somehow mentally, emotionally divorce, to understand that you are divorced from your sexuality. And the demand was made - on the surface - it was justified by saying that you had to give all your energy and your time to the cause and not be distracted by your sexual feelings and your love for your wife or your husband.
Narrator: Anne's husband Massoud Khodabandeh was Rajavi's bodyguard for six years. He is one of the very few people who observed up-close the characteristics which make Rajavi a charismatic leader.
Massoud Khodabandeh (former MEK member): As someone who lived closely with Mr Rajavi for years, I can tell you that he is very intelligent and he is quite a charming man, but most importantly he is a hard worker. He spends a lot of time and energy on whatever he wants to do. He is really interested in psychology. There is no book on psychology that he has not read a few times. But he is a very lonely person. That might be because he is a ruthless leader who has killed or alienated many of his close friends and colleagues.
Narrator: In 1986 at the height of the Iran-Iraq war, the MEK moved to Iraq at the invitation of Saddam Hussein. Saddam was already responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands of Iranian young men. To many Iranians who already hated the MEK for its campaign of terror, Rajavi's collaboration with Iraq was nothing short of treason.
Massoud Khodabandeh: Shortly after we went to Iraq, we became part of Saddam's Army. We collaborated very closely with the Iraqis. You may ask me now: “how you help the enemy of your country?” But it goes back to the nature of cults. Being part of a cult kills all kinds of emotions in you. A member becomes a tool in the hands of a cult. You don't care about your country, or even your mother and father anymore. We saw ourselves as saviours of humanity, so nationalism or other feelings were not important for us anymore.
Narrator: The group settled at camp Ashraf, a military base one hundred kilometres north of Baghdad. In this isolated setting, Rajavi could exert more control on his followers and delude them about his power. In 1988 he convinced them all to make an all out attack on the regime in Iran, an act of collective suicide. Rajavi told his followers that they could take over Tehran within a few days. The operation was called the Eternal Light. And the order to attack was give by Rajavi's wife Maryam.
Massoud Khodabandeh: At the time of operation Eternal Light, we were isolated in camp Ashraf in Iraq and didn't know anything about what was going on in Iran. We were under the illusion that if we attacked Iran, the people of Iran would help us and then we could topple Khomeini's government. That was wrong and most Iranians we came across fought against us.
Narrator: After the attack Ayatollah Khomeini ordered the massacre of MEK members inside Iranian prisons. Within a few weeks thousands of MEK prisoners were summarily executed. Rajavi in turn, used the legacy of the Eternal Light martyrs to reinvigorate the organisation.
Massoud Khodabandeh: Rajavi had his own reasons to fight the Iranian regime. He believed that more victims on either side of the conflict would help him consolidate his control over the MEK. After the operation he even exaggerated the number of the dead on both sides. Ironically Mr Rajavi was helped in his mission by the Iranian government. They killed about three to four thousand MEK prisoners after the operation and ensured that Rajavi could rule the MEK for years.
Rageh Omar: For individuals caught up in the strange world of a cult, the price is high. But on the world’s political stage the MEK, led by Massoud Rajavi still had a few more surprises. Join me after the break.
Welcome back. Life inside a cult is filled with disinformation and psychological manipulation. Massoud Rajavi is a master of mass hypnosis, harnessing the faith of his followers and convincing them to fight his battles. He switches allegiances at will to suit the current political climate. But some started to question their leader when he asked them to kill children.
Narrator: In 1991, at the height of the first Gulf War, Saddam found a new use for Rajavi. He ordered the MEK to help put down the uprising of the Iraqi Kurds with maximum force.
Majid Farahani: When we entered the town of Kifri in Iraqi Kurdistan, the MEK used heavy artillery against anyone who was in their way. It didn't matter if the person was an innocent civilian, a man, a woman or even a child. The MEK shot anyone who came in their way through the town.
Narrator: Majid's platoon killed most of the captives, but one was handed to the Iraqis to be executed.
Majid Farahani: They brought this little boy who was hit in the stomach and was suffering a lot. The MEK didn’t give him any medical help or even a glass of water. The next morning they handed the boy to the Iraqi authorities and the Iraqis killed him right there and then. I can never forget the screams of the boy who called Baba, Baba, asking for his father. Those words still echo in my head.
Narrator: Majid and many others left the organisation in protest after the genocide against the Kurds. Once again Rajavi needed new members for the MEK. He found them among vulnerable Iranian asylum seekers in Europe. In 1996, Marjan Malek was living as a refugee in Holland.
Marjan Malek (former MEK member): The MEK are masters of human psychology. When they meet someone they spot that person's weak points. They talked to me and they realised that I had many problems with my ex-husband who used to beat me. So they started talking about women's rights and the equality between men and women, in order to attract me for the organisation.
Narrator: Marjan was born into a working class family in Tehran. She was not politically active and simply left Iran with her family to find a better life in Europe. When the MEK operatives first approached Marjan in Holland, her asylum application had just been rejected. The MEK helped her successfully appeal the Dutch government's decision and in so doing, gained a new recruit for the organisation. By the time Marjan joined the MEK, Rajavi was using even more personal measures to control his followers.
Marjan Malek: Sometimes Massoud Rajavi had general meetings with women and never allowed men to enter the session. I remember in one of those meetings he gave us brushes, combs and hairclips as a gift. But before giving them to us he used them on his own hair first. Or in another session, he gave women Terrycloth robes as a gift. Again he put them on first and walked around the stage a little bit before giving robes to the women.
Narrator: In 1998, Marjan was chosen to be a member of an all women sabotage team sent into Iran.
Marjan Malek: Before leaving for operations in Iran, I had training in camp Ashraf on how to hold cyanide capsules under my tongue. We had to use the capsules in case we got arrested by the Iranian regime. We had to break the glass, scratch our tongues with it, and within a few seconds commit suicide, so we couldn't reveal any organisational secrets to our captors. In order to practice, we put two small date pits under our tongues. I hope I can remember how to do it - good - I still remember. We had to hold the pits for days under our tongues to practice, and the pits are really hard. I am sorry, can I throw these out?
Narrator: After a failed attack on an army base in Tehran, Marjan was captured in a restaurant just as she was taking out the cyanide capsules so she could eat. The MEK thought that she succeeded in committing suicide. Rajavi called her a martyr . . . a shining emerald in the sea of love who reached the highest levels of dignity and glory.
Marjan Malek: When they arrested me I thought of nothing else but Massoud and Maryam Rajavi. I didn't think of getting killed, tortured or whatever else might be about to happen to me. My only thought was that I disappointed Massoud and Maryam Rajavi.
Narrator: Soon after her arrest, Marjan publicly denounced the MEK. At a press conference, she told reporters that while in prison she had time to question Rajavi's policies and his cult of personality. Marjan came to realise that terrorism and collaboration with Saddam had made Rajavi a hatred figure in Iran. She also experienced the new attitude that the Iranian government took towards the MEK prisoners.
Marjan Malek: When I was in prison, I often asked my captors when they tortured and killed the MEK members in the past, why they weren’t doing that now? They answered that in the past they didn't know better so they resorted to violence. But now they realise that if they killed me, my whole family would want to revenge my blood. So the Iranian regime has realised that if they treat the MEK as cult members and not criminals, there will not be bad blood between them and the victims family, so there would not be any reason for revenge.
Narrator: Soon after leaving the MEK, Marjan opted for normal life. She married another MEK dissident and they now live in the Netherlands with Marjan's two daughters from her former husband.
After the fall of Saddam Hussein, Rajavi ordered the MEK to greet the coalition forces wholeheartedly. Rajavi himself went into hiding and he has not been seen since. The MEK surrendered their arms and offered to help the Americans to fight against the Ayatollahs in Iran.
Rajavi's words sounded like music to the ears of those Americans who thought after the fall of Baghdad they could attack Tehran. While many in the Pentagon wanted the United States to support the MEK, the State Department insisted that Rajavi cannot be trusted. But Saddam's overthrow meant that the MEK had to find other ways of financing their survival in Iraq. There are many stories of members embezzling their parents to send money to them.
Rezvan and Mohammand Saffari's son joined the cult sixteen years ago.
Mohammad and Rezvan Saffari (parents of an MEK member): He never called us or tried to get in touch with us for fifteen years. We thought that – god forbid – he might have died in a war. He said I want to leave the MEK and I need money to hire a lawyer. I withdrew whatever savings I had to send to him. I was really happy that I could send him that money. I thanked God that he could finally come back to us - come home.
I worked so hard to raise my son. I worked until midnight to provide for him and his brothers and sisters. I sent him to London to become a dentist, to become a useful member of society. I really don't know what to say.
Narrator: Their son gave the money to the MEK and is now one of spokesmen of the organisation.
Massoud Rajavi is still in hiding and still in charge. His organisation is listed as a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union. For three decades he has changed ideologies and swapped allegiances, while keeping his followers enthralled with sexual manipulation. After the American debacle in Iraq, Rajavi's followers are trapped at a camp in the Iraqi desert, awaiting his next alliance.
And in northern England, at least one former cult member thinks about those in the desert all the time.
Anne Singleton: I look now at the people in camp Ashraf and I remember how I was in that organisation. And I feel nothing but the mostenormous compassion for them. I really wish I could help them to escape from that organisation because I do feel very deeply how inhuman their life is in many ways. They really have no rights at all. And now that I have regained my freedom - my freedom of thought - of belief - my freedom of speech - and just basic enjoyment of life, I understand how deeply their humanity has been crushed, and I really wish they could be helped.
Rageh Omar: Massoud Rajavi’s followers are still sitting in the Iraqi desert waiting for their leader’s next move. They are being ‘looked after’ by American and Bulgarian forces. Thank you for watching.