March 2, 2010
Reality Check: Understanding the Mujahedin-e Khalq (PMOI/MEK)
BY ALI SAFAVI
The Mujahedin-e Khalq (PMOI/MEK) was founded in 1965 by three Muslim university graduates and sought to replace the Shah’s dictatorship with a representative government that respects human rights. But after the 1979 revolution, it fell victim to the new dictatorship’s onslaught. So far, it has lost tens of thousands of its members and supporters to the ruling regime, most famously during a massacre in 1988, which Amnesty International has dubbed “a crime against humanity.” Though a Muslim organization, the MEK seeks a secular republic in Iran based on democracy and political pluralism.
Given that despite an unprecedentedly harsh crackdown, the Tehran regime has failed to extinguish the freedom cry in Iran which erupted more than eight months ago, it is imperative to get a better understanding of the organized opposition, whose role in future developments will continue to be of critical importance. In virtue of its significant impact on Iranian affairs over the past 45 years, especially following the 1979 revolution, the MEK has long been targeted by the regime and its foreign apologists with a plethora of accusations meant to vilify the organization and diminish its influence now and in the future.
The purpose of this forum is to dispense with some of these myths originally propagated by Tehran’s intelligence services against the MEK, and also try to respond to various questions regarding the organization and its actions. Readers are welcome to comment on these posts or ask for further clarification.
NEXT WEEK: Mujahedin-e Khalq: Freedom Fighters or Terrorists?
Mujahedin-e Khalq: “Islamic-Marxists”?
“Masud [Massoud] Rajavi… is the leader of the movement. Its intention is to replace the current backward Islamic regime with a modernized Shiite Islam drawing its egalitarian principles from Koranic sources rather then Marx” ~ Former Undersecretary of State George W. Ball
One of the many allegations levied against the MEK has been that it is an “Islamic-Marxist” organization, purportedly combining Marxist philosophy with its proclaimed Islamic ideology.
The MEK was founded in 1965 as a Muslim organization. It saw the society divided between tyranny and liberation forces, and not believers and non-believers. Like most Iranians, its founders sought a secular republic and the establishment of a democracy in Iran. MEK has never endeavored towards an ideological government, be it Islamic or otherwise.
The origins of the “Islamic-Marxist” label date back to the early 1970s, when the Shah’s secret police, SAVAK, sought to erode the organization’s growing popularity among young Iranians. The Iranian scholar Afshin Matin-Asgari described it as “an ingenious polemical label” used by the Shah’s regime to discredit its enemies.
After the Shah’s overthrow in 1979, Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the newly established clerical regime, recycled the Shah’s propaganda relics in his own attempts to alienate a new generation of Iranians who wanted a democratic order. At the forefront of this generation was the MEK, which according to historian Ervand Abrahamian, came into the fore with a “reputation as a modern secular organization.”
The group’s gatherings attracted hundreds of thousands of people. More than half a million people took part in its protest in June 1981. By mid-1981, “the circulation of Mojahed [MEK’s newspaper] had reached 500,000” far surpassing the official newspapers. For Khomeini, this was a serious force to be reckoned with.
To confront the MEK, he alleged that the organization is not truly Islamic. Claiming that it had an “eclectic” ideology, which mixed Islam with Marxism, he called them “the Monafeqin” (literally, “hypocrites”), a derogatory term which is still used by the regime (most notably in their gatherings with the chants of “Death to America, Death to Monafeqin”).
By doing this, Khomeini wanted to pave the way for the violent crack down on the organization’s activities. In other words, his plan was to delegitimize the MEK first on religious grounds and then proceed to eliminate it.
In a 1981 interview, Massoud Rajavi, then MEK’s leader, said: “Every high school student knows that believing in God, Jesus Christ and Muhammad is incompatible with the philosophy of Marxism. … But for dictators like Khomeini, ‘Islamic Marxist’ is a very profitable phrase to use against any opposition. If Jesus Christ and Muhammad were alive and protesting against Khomeini, he would call them Marxists, too.”
In fact, MEK’s history shows a pronounced rejection of the philosophy of Marxism. In late 1979, Massoud Rajavi presented the ideological viewpoints of the MEK in a series of lectures in Tehran University entitled “Comprehending the World,” later published in a 15-volume book. The lectures were meant to clearly demarcate the MEK’s Islamic ideology against Khomeini’s fundamentalist interpretation of Islam on the one hand and Marxism on the other.
According to Syracuse University professor Mehrzad Boroujerdi, Rajavi provides the MEK’s critique of the limitations of a host of “isms” such as scholasticism, positivism, pragmatism, scientism, empiricism, and rationalism. But Rajavi saves his most extensive critical commentary for Marxist materialistic epistemology. The chief target of the lectures was the Russian biochemist Aleksander Ivanovich Oparin (1894-1980), whose theory on the origin of life was first formulated in 1922. By subjecting the materialistic doctrines of Oparin and a host of other orthodox Marxist thinkers to a philosophical critique, the MEK hoped to challenge the vigorous presence of Marxism within Iranian intellectual circles. The group remained skeptical of Marxism’s philosophical postulates and rejected the latter’s cardinal doctrine of historical materialism. It held firm to the beliefs in the existence of God, revelation, the afterlife, the spirit, salvation, destiny, and the people’s commitment to these intangible principles.
So, clearly, the MEK’s is not Marxist. If it were, Khomeini would have been able to easily eradicate the organization. But, in fact, in virtue of its ideology which had its roots in a Muslim country, the MEK survived Khomeini’s ideological onslaught, which incidentally eliminated every other opponent, including Marxists, from the political arena at the time.
The MEK’s ideological stance also guaranteed its complete independence from other political powers like the Soviet Union. Precisely because of such emphasis on independence and freedom, Marxist organizations like the pro-Moscow Tudeh Party vehemently spurned the MEK.
The Tudeh leaders’ unconditional backing of Khomeini, part of a policy dictated by the Soviet KGB, led them to describe the MEK as “a bastion of liberalism and imperialism.” The Tudeh Party described the MEK’s actions during those years as American conspiracies, and many MEK supporters later executed on Khomeini’s orders were wrapped in American flags before burial.
In his book, The Center of the Universe: The Geopolitics of Iran, Graham E. Fuller noted that the Mojahedin’s Islamic orientation was a major impediment to the Soviets’ effort to gain influence within the organization: “The Soviets in the past have also been interested in other leftist movements such as the Mojahedin-e-Khalq (‘The People’s Holy Warriors’) but had almost no success in establishing any influence over it because of that group’s own suspicions of Moscow and its at least nominal commitment to Islam.” 
Since the beginning of the twentieth century, especially after the Bolshevik victory in Russia, Iran’s northern provinces like Gilan and Mazandaran turned into the mainstay of the pro-Moscow Communist Tudeh Party. Marxism further gained momentum among Iranian youths and intellectuals after Marxist-inspired movements sprang up in Africa and Latin America in the latter half of the century.
Against this backdrop, the MEK’s arrival into the political scene, as the first democratic Muslim organization in contemporary Iran, changed the landscape completely. Intellectuals and youths now felt their ideals revived in an organization with potential mass appeal that could materialize their democratic desires. Following the 1979 revolution, the MEK’s growth proved that earlier predictions about its widespread appeal were indeed true.
People in the northern provinces, for example, began to embrace the MEK’s Islamic ideology on a wide scale. Roughly a year after the Revolution, more than 300,000 people from the city of Rasht in Gilan province gathered in a stadium to hear MEK’s leader Massoud Rajavi speak. The rising tide of support for the MEK in former Tudeh strongholds, helped increase the Marxist and Communist organizations’ enmity towards the MEK. At the same time, the MEK’s tolerant and democratic interpretation of Islam alienated and threatened Khomeini’s fundamentalist clique. This explains why the Communist Tudeh and the ostensibly Islamic Khomeinists quickly forged an unexpected and ironic alliance against the MEK.
In a 1979 report from Tehran, the Washington Post wrote about the MEK’s “large public following,” adding that the “Mujahideen owe much of their impact to their unquestioned religious credentials, which make them acceptable — if sometimes only barely — to Khomeini’s followers in contrast to the Marxists, Maoists, Trotskyites and other atheist splinter groups.”
The MEK’s Islamic ideology, however, is also sharply distinct from the fundamentalist Islamic ideology of the likes of Khomeini and the regime’s terrorist proxies in the region. Its interpretation of Islam is one which gives solid ideological grounds for embracing science and modernity, and advancing modern social causes such as gender equality, participatory democracy and popular sovereignty. Currently, the entire leadership council of the MEK is comprised of women.
The MEK is impenetrable against fundamentalist propaganda, since it challenges Islamic extremism not from the position of “enemies of Islam,” but as committed Muslims. Blessed with the most effective and practical ideological and cultural weapon, the MEK has emerged as the antithesis to the fundamentalist and extremist ideology haunting the Middle East under the veneer of Islam. Three decades ago, former Undersecretary of State George Ball chastised Western press for characterizing the MEK as Marxist. He wrote, “The sloppy press habit of dismissing the Mujahedeen as ‘leftists’ badly confuses the problem. Masud [Massoud] Rajavi… is the leader of the movement. Its intention is to replace the current backward Islamic regime with a modernized Shiite Islam drawing its egalitarian principles from Koranic sources rather then Marx.”
 Fear of Ill-treatment/possible prisoner of conscience, Public AI Index: MDE 13/128/2007, Amnesty International, November 2, 2007, http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/MDE13/128/2007/en/d6ea449a-d359-11dd-a329-2f46302a8cc6/mde131282007en.pdf
 Afshin Matin-Asgari, 2004, “From social democracy to social democracy: the twentieth-century odyssey of the Iranian Left“. In: Cronin, Stephanie, editor. Reformers and Revolutionaries in Modern Iran: New Perspectives on the Iranian Left: London and New York: Routledge Curzon. pp. 37-64 (cited originally in Iran Policy Committee, White Paper, Sept. 13, 2005, p. 42. http://www.iranpolicycommittee.org).
 Ervand Abrahamian, The Iranian Mojahedin, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), p. 187
 Ibid. p. 218
 Ibid. p. 207.
 Massoud Rajavi, interview, “We Are on the Offensive,” Time Magazine, September 14, 1981.
 According to the French daily Le Monde, “some 10,000 people presented their admission cards to listen for three hours to the lectures […and additionally] the courses [were] recorded on video cassettes and distributed in 35 cities. They [were] also published in paperback and sold by the hundreds of thousands of copies.” Le Monde, Paris, 29 March 1980.
 Mehrzad Boroujerdi, “Iranian Intellectuals and the West: The Tormented Triumph of Nativism“, Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1996. pp. 117-9 (cited originally in Iran Policy Committee, White Paper, September. 13, 2005, p. 42. http://www.iranpolicycommittee.org).
 In March 1980, Le Monde wrote: “The daily Jomhouri Islami has devoted entire pages to writings against the Mojahedin and its leadership. On the eve of the election, hundreds of thousands of newsletters abounding in vituperations were distributed. In one, Mr. Rajavi is described as a SAVAK agent. Doubtless, the fundamentalist clergy consider these leftist Muslims a greater enemy than the Marxist organizations, easily discredited with the label of atheist.” (Le Monde, Paris, March 29, 1980).
 Ervand Abrahamian, a US historian, writes that the communist Tudeh and Majority faction of the Fedayeen “pleaded with the Mojahedin to join their Anti-Imperialist Democratic Front; to remember that the United States was still Iran’s main enemy; to avoid allying with pro¬-Western liberals,” adding that the Minority faction of the Fedayeen (still opposed to the regime) accused the Mojahedin of “flirting with pro-American liberals such as Bazargan.” The author writes that “the Mojahedin rebuffed the pleas and criticism.” Op. cit., p. 215.
 Graham E. Fuller, “The Center of the Universe: The Geopolitics of Iran,” (Westview Press: 1991), p. 179.
 Jonathan Randal, “Iranian Leftists Emerge From Isolation,” The Washington Post, 3 December 1979.
 George W. Ball, Op-Ed, “Iran’s Bleak Future,” The Washington Post, August 19, 1981.