Mohammad Hanifnejad was one of the three people who founded the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), the longest standing and most prominent Iranian opposition group. Born in 1939 to a working-class family in Tabriz, northwestern Iran, Hanifnejad underwent a tough childhood. However, life calamities did not prevent him from following his studies in Tabriz.
Entrance in Iran’s political scene
Hanifnejad’s adolescence coincided with the events that saw the arrival of Mohammad Mossadegh. As a teenager, Hanifnejad was very active in the political scene and a great supporter of Prime Minister Mossadegh, who helped nationalize Iran’s oil industry. While Mossadegh was eventually overthrown through a coup, young Hanifnejad nonetheless drew many lessons from the experience and gradually shaped his political mindset.
After earning his diploma, Hanifnejad entered the University of Agriculture of Karaj, about 40 km west of Tehran. During his studies at the university, Hanifnejad continued his political activism. He became acquainted with the Mossadeghist National Front and the Freedom Movement of Mehdi Bazargan. At the same time, he took the helm of a student association in the university.
In 1963, Hanifnejad obtained his master's degree in agricultural machinery engineering.
During the same period, his political activism caused him trouble with Savak, the Shah’s secret police. He was arrested and imprisoned for seven months in Tehran, where he became acquainted with Ayatollah Mahmoud Taleghani, a cleric that was well-known for his progressive and anti-fundamentalist beliefs. It was there that Hanifnejad began formulating his own ideals, which he documented and sent outside of the prison.
Once released, being at the end of his studies, Hanifnejad was drafted into the army, where he earned military skills and got to know the Shah’s dictatorship better through the institutions and internal relations in the army.
After his military service, he further reflected on political matters and approached Saeid Mohsen, one of his friends. At the time, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Iran’s monarch, was enjoying his iron-fisted rule over the country. His regime had banned all opposition parties and movements, and opposition leaders had opted to remain silent in face of the Shah’s reign of terror.
Hanifnejad and Mohsen started examining the reasons that previous struggles for democracy had not borne fruit. Their findings were that the failure of previous attempts were due to the absence of leaders who were willing to sacrifice everything for the struggle for freedom, the lack of a structure that could organize the members of the movement, and the fact that the struggle for freedom is a science that needs to be learned.
The first seeds of PMOI/MEK
In September 1965, Hanifnejad, Mohsen and a third colleague, Ali-Asghar Badizadegan, created the first seed of an underground resistance network that later became the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK). Loyal to their previous conclusions that the fight for freedom is a science that must be learned, the trio began by studying various philosophies and ideologies.
Hanifnejad’s conviction was that they had to extract all the experience there was to learn from every school of thought that was involved in struggles for freedom and democracy. This is why he categorically rejected Islamic fundamentalism, which was represented by a class of clergy that were either integrated in or supportive of the dictatorship ruling Iran.
He firmly believed that to become involved in the struggle for freedom, knowing the society wasn’t enough—one had to take action to change the situation. That’s why their studies weren’t limited to reading books, and the network, which gradually started to grow in numbers, went to explore and experience the harsh worker-class and peasant life in different parts of the Iranian society. They wanted to thus share, learn and understand the suffering of their fellow compatriots.
It was after this practical social experience and a deep analysis of prominent ideologies and philosophies that the founding members of the PMOI/MEK chose tolerant and democratic Islam as their ideological model for leading the struggle for democracy in Iran. The first characteristic of the Mojahedin’s interpretation of Islam is that they oppose any form of constraint imposed on the society on the pretext of adhering to Islamic principles.
In contrast to Islamic fundamentalists, who try to leverage Islam to consolidate their power over the masses, the MEK’s focus is to serve and struggle for the rights of the oppressed.
It was in the course of these studies that PMOI/MEK network grew inside Iran and added more and more intellectual members who were drawn to its unique way of thought and its dedication to bringing true democracy to Iran.
Prison and execution
In 1971, six years after the founding of the PMOI/MEK, the Savak arrested dozens of the leading members of the organization, including Hanifnejad. After the raids, which was a heavy blow to the nascent Mojahedin, Hanifnejad played a decisive role to preserve the organization he had founded and to keep the flame of resistance alive.
“If we draw the right lessons from this defeat, they will certainly lead us to victory,” he wrote in a message that was circulated among his fellow MEK members while all the arrested members were under the most brutal interrogations of the Savak.
Shah sentenced the leaders of PMOI to death for planning to overthrow his regime. In a plot, Savak agents proposed to Hanifnejad to publicly repent his decision to oppose the regime, which he denied. True to his decision that the leaders of the organization must be ready to make any sacrifice necessary for the struggle for freedom, Hanifnejad and his fellow co-founders Mohsen and Badizadegan, embraced their death sentence.
“Our deaths will serve to motivate and fuel the future struggles of our people,” Hanifnejad said days before his execution. On May 25, 1972, Shah’s regime executed Hanifnejad, Mohsen and Badizadegan. But as Hanifnejad had promised, the sacrifice he made saved the organization he had founded and the struggle he had begun. Seven years after Hanifnejad’s death, as the Shah’s regime was on the verge of collapse, led by Massoud Rajavi, the PMOI/MEK was flourishing and becoming a movement with deep roots in the Iranian society.
More than a half a century after the founding of the PMOI/MEK, thanks to the teachings and selfless sacrifice of Hanifnejad, the organization still stands and is as strong as ever.