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The resilient MEK: How two regimes failed to destroy Iran’s main opposition movement

Gathering of members of People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK) in Ashraf 3, Albania
Gathering of members of People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK) in Ashraf 3, Albania

This is the first part of an essay by Mehdi Abrishamchi, a veteran member of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (MEK). Abrishamchi was a political prisoner under the Shah’s dictatorship. 

The People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK) was founded by three progressive Muslim intellectuals and university graduates Mohammad Hanifnejad (often referred to as Hanif), Saeid Mohsen, and Ali-Asghar Badizadegan. Many have come to know the MEK as the most organized and influential democratic opposition to the mullahs’ regime in Iran. Since its inception in 1965, the MEK has effectively fought against the despotism of the Shah’s dictatorship and the fundamentalist regime of the mullahs currently ruling Iran.

We were one of many political organizations who fought the Shah’s regime. The MEK then evolved into the most potent opposition and an existential threat to the mullahs’ regime, who usurped the 1979 popular anti-monarchic revolution. In this essay, I offer what sets our organization apart from all other political groups in Iran’s recent history by examining the following themes:  

  1. The MEK is the only multi-generational organization in the Iranian society that has surived and expanded starting with the baby boomers to Millennials. Throughout the last five decades, the MEK has attracted the best and brightest talent of the Iranian society, not just in numbers but also in terms of representation from Iran’s rich ethnic and demographic diversity.  
  2. The MEK is the only organization in the world that has fully implemented gender equality, not just in theory but also in practice. While such gains hae come at a high price and enormous sacrifices have been made throughout our journey, we are proud that both our women and men are fully emancipated and free of any gender biases that continue to plague many cultures and societies.
  3. The MEK is the only organization in the world that has intimate knowledge regarding the threat of Islamic extremism or Islamic fundamentalism. We also hae a concrete plan and expertise to defuse and defeat this global threat in its entirety. Our confidence is predicated on a progressive and democratic interpretation of Islam that empowers us to fully challenge those who weaponize this religion to threaten peace, security, free society and civilization as a whole.

 

The leader of the Iranian Resistance, Massoud Rajavi, joined the MEK in 1967 as the organization was undertaking its preliminary theoretical work and worked directly with the founders of our organization. He says, “the MEK has an extraordinary story. The Shah and the mullahs’ regime—especially the mullahs—did everything in their power to destroy the organization that Hanif had founded.”

Maryam Rajavi, who joined the MEK in 1973 and currently serves as the President-elect of the parliament-in-exile National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), says that the “MEK is a movement that adheres to democratic Islam and is the vanguard of struggle against religious tyranny and extremism. And we salute Massoud [Rajavi], who has guided this movement through numerous trials and tribulations, while developing the philosophical and political foundations of this struggle. He has paid a heavy price to educate the generations that serve at the forefront of this struggle for freedom.”

We are confident that one day, historians will have an opportunity to objectively study the role of the MEK in Iran’s history. In the meantime, this essay intends to address the essence of what keeps the MEK surviving and thriving every day. I examine how the MEK managed to survive the Shah’s suppression and his secret police, SAVAK, during the 1960s; how our organization, despite all the pressures imposed by the mullahs’ regime, did not fall prey to internal fissures and splits as was the case with some other major organizations after the 1979 revolution; how we survived the numerous plots and ploys concocted by the mullahs and became even more resilient throughout the years; and how the MEK became the centerpiece of a political alternative despite the ongoing attacks and plots by many other forces with interests in the regime’s survival both inside and outside of Iran.

 

The “hypocrites”! “Do they still exist?”

These are the words by the regime’s firebrand former Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, when he arrived in Iraq for an official visit in March 2008. An Iraqi journalist asked him at the airport after his arrival: “Are you planning to discuss the situation of the MEK, residents in Camp Ashraf, on this trip?” The president of the mullahs arrogantly responded: "The hypocrites?! Do they still exist?" The term ‘hypocrites’ is what the regime’s founder, Khomeini, coined to brand the MEK as discredited Muslims in the hopes of diminishing their rising social status and popularity.

The regime’s contradictory statements about the MEK’s perceived “existence” or “non-existence” have been going on for the last four decades. After the tumultuous years of the 1980s, the mullahs’ regime, depending on the circumstances, adopted different tactics to deal with the continued influence of the MEK in Iran's socio-political scene.

Whenever the mullahs have dominated the flow of information and the media, they declared the MEK as dead or non-existent. As more accurate information became more accessible to the public, the mullahs have tried to portray the MEK as a marginalized and non-influential exiled group with little or no connection to the Iranian society.  These tactics were adopted heavily at the end of Ali Khamenei’s presidency and the start of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s tenure.  Often, the mullahs’ regime would refer to the MEK as a group that surfaced in the early 1980s and vanished completely in a few years. Such narrative was further propagated after the 1988 massacre of 30,000 political prisoners affiliated with the MEK. By the end of Rafsanjani’s second term and beginning of Mohammad Khatami’s presidency in 1997, the regime officially adopted a policy of forbidding any mention of the MEK in government documents, publications, or state-run media. The policy even banned derogatory references to the MEK or the infamous use of the word “hypocrites” or anti-MEK slogans like “death to hypocrites,” which were a constant feature of Friday Prayer sermons. Through such tactics, the regime wanted to completely erase the MEK’s name and identify from the social memory of the Iranian people.

Creating a historic divide between the youth and the MEK

Having witnessed the MEK’s rapid rise in popularity among the youth and different sectors of the society after the 1979 revolution, the mullahs’ regime intended to completely wipe us off from the face of the earth.  In Iran, thousands were imprisoned and executed, and many were targeted in exile through assassination plots because of their membership or sympathy to our cause. Beyond their attempt to physically eliminate us, they also unleashed a well-funded and intentional propaganda campaign to demonize the MEK in the hopes of creating a deep and wide chasm between the MEK and our social base. It is for this reason that perhaps a generation of Iranians born after 1988 had not even heard the name of the Mojahedin or MEK until more recently. In some cases, those who heard about us knew us as a distant enemy of the mullahs’ regime that doesn’t exist anymore.

Gradually fighting against the regime’s tide of censorship and vilification, and with the hard work of our underground network inside Iran, the deceptive spell of regime’s tactics broke and the MEK was once again back in the public discourse. By the late 1990s, a new generation of Iranian youth, men and women, began to find ways to connect with us or even join us at our bases near the Iran-Iraq border. The disenchanted youth who faced tremendous hardship and oppression joined us to fight the mullahs’ regime.

Ironically, many who joined our cause and supported our objectives, used the regime’s terminology ‘hypocrites’ to refer to us because they did not know the proper name. This indicates how deep the regime’s demonizing narrative about the MEK had penetrated the social psychology of this generation. As we began to explain to them where this terminology came from and how the regime used this in the hopes of shunning our movement, these newcomers were shocked and angered by how the mullahs operated against the MEK. 

I share such examples to contextualize the environment that our movement has operated in since the 1979 revolution. Although the Shah’s regime used similar tactics against us, the depth and breadth of mullahs’ regime is vastly greater, which shows the extent to which they view the MEK as an existential threat that requires extensive resources to counter.

To be continued…