Masoud Banisadr's Memoirs of an Iranian Rebel (Saqi Books, London, 2004) begins his story with his dysfunctional upbringing. The love that his divorced mother gave him was a short respite in between the harsh treatment of his father who left him emotionally scarred.
Masoud is typical of his pseudo-intellectual generation. Disgruntled by many things around him from politics to the economy , he is deluded into believing that only the country run by certain ideological manifestos can truly liberate the masses. The promises of milk and honey, emancipation of workers from their overlords, equality and peace finally won him over to the Mojahedin Khalgh's revolutionary ideals.
But the “reactionary” behavior of Khomeini after arriving in Jamaran from exile and the gradual sidelining of the Mojahedin turned to outright hostility toward their members and sympathizers and changed the course of their organization, putting them on the path to another “revolution”.
Masoud is not knowledgeable enough about Iranian history. He seems to accept as factual what his parents and grandparents tell him about Iranian history. You hope, as an educated person, he would try to test the veracity of such family proclamations but he does not. He even falls into the trap of echoing some of those claims himself. Of course this is a sad story of many revolutionaries who do not understand their own history very well; for it is much easier to cling on to a manifesto of some sort than research and study.
When Masoud tells us about his passion for reading history books, he does not show any in depth understanding. He says he has read Ahmad Kasravi's Varjavand Bonyad but he reduces this profound book to a proposal to reform the Persian alphabet and portrays Kasravi as an anti-Arab. For the innocent reader, Masoud paints a distorted picture of one of the greatest intellectuals, not only of Iran but the Middle East, by quoting Kasravi out of context.
Also, the fact that Kasravi was primarily against the mullahs and later assassinated by their thugs is inexcusably overlooked. Any one who purports to have some understanding of modern Iranian history cannot fully understand it without understanding Kasravi and his writing as a social commentator and critic.
Masoud's book is not exclusively about Iranian history but it spans twenty years of the writer's life and his roller-coaster ride with one of the most active Iranian political parties. He tries to be honest about his failures, his shattered dreams, his enslavement to political ideals that were never realized but instead took away his family, relatives and friends from him and wasted some of the best years of his life.
By sharing his thoughts and feelings toward the Mojahedin, Masoud takes the reader behind the scenes and shows the horrid treatment of members by the organization. His story is also the story of many thousands of young men and women who were lured to various political parties by promises of freedom, justice and equality. Masoud is lucky enough to have survived his ordeals in order to warn others about such perilous associations.
Although the book is 473 pages, it gives a sense as if it was written in a hurry. There are many insignificant details while more important matters are under-written. For example, his departure to England to study with his wife is dealt with in one short paragraph. Yet, he writes a page about driving a car without a license and bribing a policeman and justifying his action. professional editors.
Still there are many good accounts of the early months after the success of the revolution in 1979 when many political parties and personalities wanted to imprint their own ideology onto the new government. Khomeini is accurately depicted as a scheming, calculating despot who believes power cannot be shared with anyone outside the realm of Hezbollah. This is a fact that high ranking Mojahedin knew, according to Masoud, but still supported the ayatollah, hoping that later on they can take over the government due to their popularity with the people at the time. But Khomeini proved them all wrong.
In the beginning of this struggle for power one cannot help but see the striking similarities between the Mojahedin and Hezbollahis, the two most radical Muslim groups in the country at the time. They shared the same concepts on martyrdom, the rule of the oppressed (mostazafin), Western imperialism, as well as blind, hysterical following of their leaders as God's representatives on earth. They are both also modern pioneers in the use of suicide bombers to terrify their enemies.
In later years the Mojahedin began to adopt new policies to portray themselves as more progressive. For example, by appointing a Maryam Rajavi as co-leader with her husband, forming the National Council of Resistance in a democratic parliamentary environment, attracting popular singers and artists for live concerts and adopting the lion and sun emblem. But every policy the Mojahedin adopted failed. This is something Masoud could see clearly but couldn't understand why the leadership didn't acknowledge. Masoud, however, does not disagree with them as a matter of principle (which is very disturbing) but as wrong tactics.
According to Masoud, since early days the organization has run itself like a cult movement. Members are not allowed to read anything except what the organization approves. They are told how to think and behave publicly as well as privately. Their opinions about the running of the organization are never welcomed, regardless of proven abilities. Members work tirelessly and give all their hard earned money to support the organization. Their private lives are probed and judged with rigid moral and revolutionary standards. But the leadership itself has been exempt from any accountability. And when members complain, they are ostracized.
Mojahedin leader Masoud Rajavi displays all the classical symptoms of a cult figure, as this quote from Masoud Banisadr shows: “They should seek to burn, burn, die, die in the fire of love for freedom. They had to die and be reborn, not from their mothers' wombs but from [my wife] Maryam's. No one who has not been reborn could call himself a Mojahed… Yes, I have come to sacrifice myself and my organization and my generation for the sake of people's freedom… I am the representative of infinite generations. I have come to sacrifice myself for the freedom of my chained people. Is there anyone who would help me [a famous plea from Imam Hussein]?
To completely brainwash members and ask them to do what they wanted them to without questioning, the Mojahedin devised an 'ideological revolution.' Every person had to write a self-effacing essay about their 'old values' and express desire to break away from the past and be born into the Mojahedin's set of values. Then they had to send these essays (or exams) and wait for the result.
In a meeting in London with Mehdi Abrishamchi, a senior Mojahed and Maryam Rajavi's former husband, Masoud Banisadr recalls this conversation. Abrishamchi asked:
'I have a question. You asked in your essay to be permitted to burn yourself. May I ask why?'
I replied, 'Well, thanks to the “revolution”, I have seen my filthy past and I hate it with all my being. I want to burn so I can be born again, and be as fresh and clean as a baby born from Maryam.'
Banisadr gives some good accounts of the Mojahedin's operations outside of Iran and their initial popularity with some Western governments and freedom fighters around the world. He expounds on their military wing, National Liberation Army, and how they conducted their attacks into Iranian territory, believing that they could advance all the way to Tehran which later proved to be just a grand illusion.
Banisadr experiences serious setbacks through his long service with the Mojahedin, which makes one wonder why he didn't leave earlier. He is aware of this question that inevitably enters his readers' mind and tries to answer it but his reasons are inadequate. He believes despite of it all, his “dignity” and “honor” are in tact.
Time and again he missed chances to leave the organization and he fails to redeem himself by condemning violence. The twentieth century produced remarkable leaders and human rights activists such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Bishop Tutu, and Nelson Mandela, all of whom chose non-violent resistance and civil disobedience to achieve freedom and dignity for their people. For them, the end didn't justify the means.
Banisadr writes, “… I sincerely did what I could in the service of liberty and justice, those pillars of morality that make us human.” This is a bit hard to take when throughout his 20-year involvement with the organization, the Mojahedin led many thousands of young people to their slaughter. In other words, they were only good enough to die for the Mojahedin's quest for power.
Memoirs of an Iranian Rebel is the accumulation of emotional setbacks, grievances, blind devotion, poisonous hatred of so many things, and theological chauvinism that consumed the writer. But it is not introspective and contemplative enough. It doesn't dig deep enough. Recalling hurtful episodes alone will not provide the critical reader real reasons to be sympathetic.