By Amir Taheri
You are young and unhappy because you think your people lack the freedom they deserve. So, you join a group that promises a new dawn of humanity only if you agree to give up the little freedom you have and blindly obey its leaders whom you don’t know. If the idea seems absurd to you it is because it is absurd. But, as George Orwell noted, there are some ideas so absurd that only intellectuals believe them.
“Masoud: Memoirs of an Iranian Rebel” is the story of one such intellectual growing up in the uncertain 1960s and tempestuous 1970s and passing through a personal inferno in the 1980s.
Let’s say it right from the start: this book is a masterpiece and a must-read for anyone interested in such subjects as sects, thought control, terrorism, and totalitarianism, not to mention its incidental interest for studying one of the most active opposition groups in post-revolution Iran.
This book is a masterpiece not because it is well-written. In fact, it is not. A mixture of business-like reports and women’s magazines’ confessions, Banisadr’s style is at times exasperating. Nevertheless, it is a masterpiece, perhaps, because it tells a moving story, what am I saying, a shattering story, honestly and unencumbered by the artefacts of literary style.
“Masoud: Memoirs of An Iranian Rebel” could remind some readers of Arthur Koestler’s classic “Darkness at Noon”, an account of how Communism can turn perfectly sane and well-educated men and women into delusional maniacs.
To tell the truth, however, I find “Masoud” even more moving, if only because the ideology that destroyed Masoud’s life was more bizarre than the Marxism-Leninism of which Koestler writes.
Now in his 60s, Masoud Banisadr, the writer of these memoirs, is an Iranian-born science graduate who joined the Mujahedin Khalq (People’s Combatants), one of a dozen or so guerrilla groups fighting the Shah in the 1960s and 1970s.
The Mujahedin had a special appeal because they mixed Shi’ite “ martyrdom” themes, which had become popular in Iran in the 1960s, with leftist slogans that had attracted some Iranian intellectuals between the 1940s and1960s. The Shah called them “Islamic-Marxists”, a label which, though not accurate, was not totally off the mark either.
By 1978 when the Islamic revolution was bursting on the Iranian scene like a tsunami in a lagoon, the Mujahedin were regarded as selfless, and ruthless, fighters for the cause, whatever it was. They had murdered dozens of people, including bank officials, ordinary policemen, provincial clerks, and, more spectacularly, five American military technicians hired by the Shah. They had also organized a spectacular, but ultimately unsuccessful, attempt at kidnapping the US Ambassador Douglas MacArthur III.
During the revolution, the Mujahedin acted as the vanguard of the Khomeinist movement. They attacked and burned banks, restaurants, bookshops, cinemas, and other “places of sin”. They also assassinated army officers, policemen and gendarmes.
Throughout the revolution, which took less than a year to triumph, the Mujahedin built up Ayatollah Ruhallah Mussawi al- Khomeini as a political idol. They chanted the slogan “God is Unique, Khomeini is the Leader!” (Allah Wahed! Khomeini Qa’ed!) All along, however, the Mujahedin leaders believed that Khomeini, an old and apparently frail cleric, would seek no personal political role after the Shah.
When the revolution triumphed, it was only natural for the Mujahedin to expect a seat at the high table. By the spring of 1979, however, it had become clear that the new revolutionary regime would not only refuse the Mujahedin even a side-chair but also regarded them as something of a nuisance.
Struck by hubris, the Mujahedin leaders persuaded themselves that Khomeini had “stolen” their revolution. They could not admit that it was Khomeini’s leadership and charisma, and not Mujahedin violence and terror that had mobilized the masses and ensured the victory of the revolution.
Emboldened by a few allies in the new revolutionary establishment notably a prominent mullah called Mahmoud Taleqani , the Mujahedin embarked on a policy of provocation against the new revolutionary regime which, in time, persuaded Khomeini that the only way to deal with them was to destroy their organization.
While all that was happening, Masoud, our memoirist, was a student in England working on a Ph.D. in a scientific subject. He had been attracted to the Mujahedin in 1977 and militated on their behalf in one of their many front organizations known as the Muslim Students Society in northern England.
For the organization, Masoud was the ideal catch.
He had had a turbulent childhood marked by his parents’ divorce and remarriage. Both his father and his stepfather had been army officers who neither wanted to nor did manifest any hostility towards the Shah. Masoud, however, grew up in an atmosphere created by two decades of intense anti-Shah propaganda by the regime’s many enemies: from the Tudeh (Masses) Communists to disgruntled mullahs and passing by Maoist, Trotskyite and other leftist groups.
Together they had created an anti-Shah culture based on a number of falsehoods, misrepresentations, and hallucinations. They dreamt of revolution not only as a means of getting rid of the Shah but also, perhaps especially, to sort out their inner contradictions.
During the revolution the Mujahedin had told Masoud to love Khomeini and hate the Shah. He had done so with exceptional zeal. He recalls how he had not been able to go to sleep without cursing the Shah and praying for Khomeini.
But when the Mujahedin broke with Khomeini, the ayatollah became their chief object of hate. Masoud was told to hate Khomeini and start loving the Mujahedin leader Masoud Rajavi. He did so without any qualms. Now, it was Khomeini that he cursed and Rajavi that he prayed for every night.
Masoud Banisadr had missed the revolution in Iran and felt almost cheated. This was why the idea of a second revolution, this time against Khomeini, a revolution that would give him a chance to prove how selfless a fighter he is, appealed to him.
Masoud Banisadr needed four things to give his life meaning:
–A set of lies that he could believe as absolute truth. These had been provided by the Shah’s enemies for years. A new version of them was now manufactured by Khomeini’s enemies. The Shah had been presented as an “American agent”. It was now Khomeini’s turn to be accused of being in cahoots with the Americans and the British.
–Someone to worship and someone to hate. Until 1979 the Shah had provided the hate figure while Khomeini had represented the love idol. After that Khomeini became the symbol of hate and Rajavi of love.
–The illusion that there was an historic, even a divine, mission that one had to undertake on behalf of one’s nation, if not mankind as a whole.
–A cocoon in which to escape from the real world and build an alternative universe. The Mujahedin , a close-knit , tightly controlled and clandestine organization, offered precisely that.
From 1977 until he broke with the Mujahedin decades later, Masoud Banisadr was a prisoner in a parallel world created by one of the most ruthless sects seen in the last century.
As a member of Mujahedin he was ordered to burn all his books, notes and documents, which he promptly did.
The typical Mujahed was ordered not to read anything not expressly authorized or published by the organization. He could not even read the Koran unless asked to do so by the organization with its own commentaries. The Mujahed could not go to cinema, unless on an organizational mission; could not watch television or listen to radio except those controlled by the organization, and had to refrain from forming any relationship with “outsiders.” The Mujahed’s children had to attend special schools controlled by the organization.
The idea was to totally isolate the Mujahed from the outside world and gradually kill his critical faculties. He was to be left with a single view of the existence: the “alternative reality” created by the “Supreme Leader” Masoud Rajavi and his entourage.
At a later stage the Mujahedin were ordered to stop loving their wives or husbands and children because that might reduce their love for Rajavi. But then Rajavi decided that that, too, was not enough. He ordered all Mujahedin to divorce their wives or husbands. Once they had complied, the “Supreme Leader” ordered the Mujahedin to eliminate their natural sexual desires. Special agents would check the Mujahedin’s urine sample to see if it contained “traces of sexual excitement”, whatever that meant.
At a still later stage the male Mujahedin were ordered to transfer all the top jobs to their female colleagues and accept the superiority of women over men.
In the meantime, Masoud Rajavi had divorced his second wife, a daughter of Abol-Hassan Banisadr who had briefly served as President of the Islamic Republic under Khomeini. But Rajavi was not bound by the rules he fixed for others. He asked his number-two Mahdi Abrishamchi to divorce his wife, Maryam Azodanlu-Qajar, and the latter promptly complied. A few days later Rajavi announced that he had married Maryam, Abrishamchi’s divorced wife. The Mujahedin were ordered to celebrate the event as a “great revolutionary and historic event”, which they did without zeal.
The idea was to show that Rajavi was the only person above all laws, man-made or divine.
The Mujahedin not only accepted whatever Rajavi did but also went out of their way to present his deeds as sacrifices on his part. He had fled from Tehran to Paris, hidden in women’s clothes aboard a hijacked aircraft, and presented his escape as “the most courageous act of heroism”, and the Mujahedin had believed him. And when Rajavi signed a “treaty” with Tareq Aziz, then Iraq’s Foreign Minister under Saddam Hussein, to help Iraq in the war against Iran, the Mujahedin hailed the move as “a great patriotic act.”
Needless to say the Mujahedin had no qualms to take up arms, enter Iran under the wing of the invading Iraqi armies, to kill Iranians and burn their villages in the name of revolution. Rajavi had told them to hate America for years. But, after 1983, he urged the Mujahedin to do all they could to win Washington’s support, including collecting information for American intelligence services. In Rajavi’s lexicon, treason meant patriotism, and freedom was blind obedience to the chief.
The reader might assume that Banisadr wrote his memoirs to unmask and discredit Rajavi. Paradoxically, however, Masoud Rajavi , who is now presumed to have died in exile in Iraq, emerges from this book with a less ugly image than that of his followers, including our talented memoirist.
After all, Rajavi did what he knew best: building his personality cult with great success.
When he was propelled into the leadership of the Mujahedin in 1979, Rajavi was a 30-year old ex-student who had spent six years in prison.
He had virtually no higher education and his political experience was limited to a few armed attacks on isolated gendarmerie posts and a failed attempt to kidnap Douglas MacArthur III, then American ambassador in Tehran. Nevertheless, he was hailed by tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of young Iranians, most of them students or graduates, not only as a political leader but also as savior.
In other words, it was those young enthusiasts who had a problem, not Rajavi. All that Rajavi did was to comply with the old Iranian dictum: If people act as a donkey, just ride them!
Masoud Banisadr, our memoirist, was roughly the same age as Masoud Rajavi. He was better educated than Rajavi because he had completed his university course, obtained a PH.D, and learned English. He had also more practical political experience because he had organized a student union, managed fund-raising events, and lobbied British parliamentarians, journalists and trade union leaders. And yet, Masoud Banisadr regarded Masoud Rajavi as almost divine. He was ready to lie, cheat, betray, and even kill for Masoud Rajavi.
Banisadr was not alone.
Almost all the Mujahedin cadres were better educated and more experienced than Rajavi. But Rajavi was able to play with them like toys. He would order them to divorce their wives and they would do so without protest. He would tell them to hate each other and use abusive language against their closest comrades, and they would do so with zeal. He would ask them to laugh or to cry, and even, quite literally, to dance for him and they would do so like circus bears.
I remember in 1990 in Paris I ran into an old intellectual who had been a prominent figure in the socialist circles in the 1960s but had rallied to the Mujahedin during the Khomeinist revolution. I had not seen him for years and asked where he had been. He said he was in Baghdad as “advisor” to Masoud Rajavi. When I expressed surprise, he shouted: “You understand nothing! Rajavi is the only hope for Iran. I am his dog!”
So: who was it who had a problem?
Rajavi or those who helped build his bizarre personality cult?
Lacking education and experience, Rajavi acted on animal instinct. He realized that the revolution, which many had dreamt about but few really wanted, had produced large numbers of confused and rootless people looking for some measure of certainty.
Rajavi was clever enough to know that only well-educated individuals could be deceived in a big way. Ordinary people, the illiterate peasants and semi-literate workers, could be deceived in small matters, but never in big ones, if only because they lacked the imagination needed to believe big lies. For example, no Iranian peasant or factory worker shed a tear when Stalin died in 1953 while many Iranian poets wrote odes (qasidas) to mourn the Soviet dictator. No Iranian peasant or worker joined the Khomeinist movement until after the Shah had shown that he was no longer able to play the role of the “father.” But scores of intellectuals did.
At one point in 1988, Rajavi boasted that the Mujahedin were the only organization in which people with university degrees were a majority. He was more right than he had imagined. His sect included famous poets, writers, entertainers, academics, lawyers, footballers, and scientists but hardly any peasants or factory workers. The capacity of intellectuals to believe in and embark on stupid enterprises far outstrips that of the “ordinary people.”
Among Rajavi’s worshippers were a grandson of the late Dr. Muhammad Mussadeq, the idol of anti-Shah bourgeoisie, several of Khomeini’s closest former advisers, and numerous defectors from various Communist outfits.
Now put yourself in Rajavi’s place. You see that so many people, all of them your superiors by education and experience, come every day to worship you as an idol. They tell you are the greatest, the cleverest, the bravest, the best-looking, the most blessed of the human species EVER created.
What would you think? If you have a sense of humor you might think that they are pulling your leg. You would wonder how so many grown-up intellectuals could worship a 30-something ex-student?
But if you suffer from egomania, as Rajavi did, you would believe that you are doing them a favor by letting them worship you.
During the 40 years of their activity, the Mujahedin caused the death of large numbers of Iranians. Their hit-squads and suicide-bombers killed hundreds of officials, religious leaders, and personalities of the Khomeinist regime. In their border attacks on Iran, from bases in Iraq, the Mujahedin killed large numbers of innocent Iranians. In turn, the regime executed thousands of Mujahedin members and sympathizers.
Masoud Banisadr’s memoirs are particularly chilling because he makes it clear that there is no complete cure for political self-deception.
Masoud Banisadr managed to get out of the Mujahedin after almost 20 years. But he has not managed to get the Mujahedin out of himself. In his book, he still defends their project and has difficulty hiding his hateful admiration for the sect.
The reader would be astonished that Masoud Banisadr still considers himself to be “in love”, not physically of course, with Maryam, Rajavi’s third wife who was appointed by the latter as “President of Iran” and quickly banished to Paris so that the “ Supreme Leader” could take a new wife, his fourth.
Is it because Maryam symbolizes the mother-figure that Masoud Banisadr had always missed?
Masoud Banisadr has not cured his initial ailment, the need for someone to hate irrationally and someone to love beyond reason. Today, his object of hate is Masoud Rajavi. And, if my reading is correct, his new object of love is the long dead Dr. Mussadeq.
Fortunately for Banisadr, Mussadeq is dead and would not be able to ride him as Rajavi had done.
The final chapters of this book read like a thriller. We see Masoud Banisadr trying to escape from the clutches of the sect. At one point he narrowly escapes being kidnapped by Mujahedin goons at Baker Street in London, and shipped to Baghdad.
This is a must read.
“Masoud: Memoirs of an Iranian Rebel”
Author: Masoud Banisadr
Saqi Books, London, UK