One person’s terrorist is another’s bizarre asexual cultist/terrorist

Just because a government decides to ‘de-list’ a terrorist group does not mean it no longer is one.

IT TAKES A special person to try to defend the modern state of Iran. The Shia theocracy which took over from the despised Shah in 1979 is anything but a normal state. Over the past four decades it has imposed strict Islamic principles, brooked no dissent and sponsored terrorist groups such as Hizballah and Hamas. For that, many call Iran a ‘state sponsor of terrorism’.

So when a group arises that is trying to oust these religious fanatics that is a good sign, right? We should all give support, at least moral if not financial/logistic, to such partners, should we not? Then there is the old saw ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’.

When a group arises that is trying to oust these religious fanatics that is a good sign, right? We should all give support, should we not?

In this context enters the Mujahedin-e-Khalq, a.k.a. the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (PMOI). Interestingly this organisation helped to overthrow the Pahlavi dynasty in the 1970s but fell out with the Ayatollah Khomeini-led Shia parties fairly quickly. The PMOI is driven by Marxist ideology and is inextricably tied to the fortunes of the Rajavis – Masood (who ‘vanished’ in 2003) and his wife Maryam.

The Rajavis, before Masood ‘disappeared’

PMOI was, and is, a cult

To describe the PMOI as weird is not even close to enough. Members were forced to abandon their partners and become ‘celibate’. The Rajavis were worshiped as gods. The group made its adherents engage in ‘self-criticism rituals’, whereby members would confess to their commanders any sexual or disloyal thoughts they had.

In other words, the PMOI was, and is, a cult. And perhaps more than that.

What is left of the PMOI appears to be holed up in a form of legal limbo in Albania of all places. Members seem to while the day creating propaganda and maintaining a ‘museum’ where Iran’s torture of its soldiers is highlighted. Surprise, surprise, no mention of the sexual celibacy though.

Supporters of the Mujahedeen Khalq in London last January, carrying placards with the face of the group’s leader, Massoud Rajavi, who vanished in 2003. 
Supporters of the PMOI in London last January, carrying placards with the face of…Masood Rajavi again! (Photo: Agence France-Presse)

Is the PMOI a terrorist group or a gang of ‘freedom fighters’?

Very much the former. In fact, it was listed as a terrorist entity by the US State Department as late as 2012. In my country (Canada) it was also seen as a terrorist group but was also removed from the ‘listed terrorist entities’ roster by the former government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper for reasons I never understood (full disclosure: I was a strategic terrorism analyst at CSIS at the time this change took place, and had focused on Iran from 1985-2005).

Cult, freedom, fighters, terrorists… Wherever you put them in your classification system you cannot dismiss the fact that they carried out acts of terrorism in Iran in the 1980s. In one particularly massive incident, the PMOI was blamed for the bombing of an Islamic Republican Party meeting on June 28, 1981 that killed 78 top officials, including then Chief Justice Ayatollah Mohammed Beheshti, then #2 after Khomeini.

My position is as it always was: the PMOI is a terrorist outfit. That it has received the backing of US officials such as former New York mayor Rudi Giuliani (who is not a well man in my estimation) and John Bolton does nothing to shake my convictions.

Besides, how can we justifiably condemn Iran for terrorism when we turn around and back an equally heinous group?


When Religion Kills: How Extremists Justify Violence Through Faith (2019)

Christian fundamentalists. Hindu nationalists. Islamic jihadists. Buddhist militants. Jewish extremists. Members of these and other religious groups have committed horrific acts of terrorist violence in recent decades. Phil Gurski explores violent extremism across a broad range of the world’s major religions.


Phil Gurski
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