Book Review - Destructive and Terrorist Cults A New Kind of Slavery  Leader, Followers, and Mind Manipulation

International Journal of Cultic Studies, 8, 2017, pages 71-73

Destructive and Terrorist Cults: A New Kind of Slavery: Leader, Followers, and Mind Manipulation

Masoud Banisadr

Reviewed by Ron Burks

 Research Institute on Destructive Cults (RIDC; 2014. ISBN-10: 1502384795; ISBN-13: 978-1502384799 (paperback). 504 pages. $20.00 (; $5.00 (Kindle).

In the first three days after September 11, 2001, I spoke to several former Wellspring clients who lived in the New York City metropolitan area. They had all been triggered by the question everyone was asking: “How could anyone fly a plane into the side of the building just because somebody told them to?” As former members of cults, they knew very well how a normal person could eventually get to that place—and think they were obeying God.

Then I took a call from an investigative reporter from The Portland Oregonian. He introduced himself as having covered the entire affair at Antelope, Oregon, where Maharishi Mahesh Yogi had formed an enclave that almost took over the local government. The reporter said, “The more I dig into this thing, the more I feel like I’m covering the same story. What do you people think: Is this Al Qaeda really just a cult masquerading as Islam?”

Masoud Banisadr is in a position to know. Long before 9/11, he joined a group whose leader, Massoud Rajavi, was trying to use propaganda and violence to overthrow the Shah of Iran and establish the Mojahedin-e-Khalegh (MeK) as the means of bringing democracy to Iran. He made his escape from the group in 1996. He had been an unlikely terrorist.

In Destructive and Terrorist Cults: A New Kind of Slavery: Leaders, Followers, and Mind Manipulation, Banisadr debriefs his experience using Lifton’s criteria of thought reform. In chilling detail, he shows how a “liberal, middle-class, semi-intellectual” was made into “a dogmatic, cultic zealot, ready to die for the leader” (p. 6). Indoctrination could not make him into a killer, but he became the public voice of a group that used intimidation, violence, and murder, believing it was for the good of Iran.

He describes a terrorist organization as one “whose ‘only tactic, or at least its main tactic for reaching its goals is an act of terrorism’” (p. 10). He adds that “the terrorist organization is either a destructive cult or that it has no choice but to become one . . . to survive.  . . . to combat terrorism, we have to tackle the problem of destructive cults” (p. 10). The author’s insights into how Al Qaeda came to bring the world not just 9/11, but multiple 9/11s, which continue today, suggest that the differences between the author’s group and Al Qaeda or Daesh, the so-called Islamic State, are likely to be cosmetic. Yes, MeK, Al Qaeda, and Daesh are cults.

I share my journey through this book as a former member of a church whose pastors used our commitment to the cause to control our lives in personal matters not related to what, at first, were the core principles of the group. Banisadr demonstrates the astonishing similarities between the control tactics of psychologically harmful groups with which we are all familiar and those that perpetrate mass murder on a global scale. My experience became less like reading a very good book, which this one is, and more like watching a train wreck in slow motion.

Banisadr's group, “distorted popular beliefs and exploited social injustice to radicalize its members, [and to] give them the semblance of legitimacy” (p. 10) in its grooming of members to become suicide bombers or to take part in attacks against trained standing armies, effectively sending them to their deaths.

Terrorist groups do not need to use thought-reform techniques to recruit. Black and white, for-us-or-against-us statements in political speeches in the West after 9/11 sounded to Muslims, moderate and radical alike, that the military action to come was going to be a battle between Christianity and Islam. Al Qaeda and other organizations were inundated with volunteers.

Well-chosen quotes from George Orwell’s 1984 made me wish I had paid more attention when I had been forced to read it in high school. I could have avoided a lot of pain. The author admits that, looking back, he could identify as Orwell’s “unperson,” while at the time, he believed he “was becoming a better person, even a superman,” when “in fact” he “was becoming a nobody,” acting only out of loyalty in “absolute obedience” to his leader (p. 1). He contrasts escaped slaves of old who at least had scars on their bodies from their masters’ lashes or from the chains on their wrists and ankles to remind them of the injustice perpetrated against them. Former members of cults bear no signs to show how they were captured, imprisoned, tortured, and held against their will. They cannot explain their invisible psychological lashes, chains, and cages.

Although his contrasts and comparisons between cult membership and historical slavery may not play well on this side of the Atlantic, Banisadr demonstrates that the relationship between a cult leader and a member is closer “to the old slavery than to any other kind of membership or allegiance, such as among followers of a faith, members of a political party, members of a club or the workforce of a factory” (p. 14).

He parses the term free will to explain. He argues that the will-power of members of cults tends to strengthen. This is because they are no longer bound by the concerns of ordinary life such as personal and family safety and security, or planning for the future. Will may be strengthened, but individuality has been suppressed to the point that it no longer plays a role in the exercise of willpower. Members can exercise willpower but are not free to gather the information they need to make informed decisions.

Freedom does not exist when all the self-confidence and self-esteem have been snapped out of persons on the pretext that such qualities are ugly or selfish. Cult members are filled with overwhelming will to do something for the cause and, at the same time, emptied of the means to choose what to do. Now dependent on the leader for direction, they are ready to do almost anything the leader asks. Those who hold back face the most powerful tool for suppressing personality, guilt:

Members who were working in Europe and America were made to feel guilty for not being in Iraq fighting the Iranian revolutionary guards; and those in Iraq felt guilty for ‘not begging from the bourgeois’ on the streets of European and American cities, braving the cold in countries such as Norway. If you had given up your wealth, you were expected to feel guilty for not giving up your family, and if you had given up your family, you felt guilty for being free in Europe or Iraq and not in Iran in prison and subject to torture; whereas if you were being tortured in prison, you were made to feel guilty for being alive and not a martyr. Only death could bring relief from guilt—and then MeK could hold you up as a martyr in front of others and make them feel guilty.

(p. 346)

At first, I was relieved when the author compared MeK to famously horrific groups. Groups such as mine are different, surely. MeK used a mixture of Islam and socialism. Jim Jones mixed liberal Christianity and socialism. MeK’s leader, Rajavi, married the wife of one of his closest friends. Members were then required to engage in self-condemnation for thinking the marriage was motivated by sexual desire. The similarity to David Koresh’s sexual proclivity for preteens and his deft but twisted Bible teaching was not lost on the author. MeK’s “order to members to divorce their spouses, leave their children and accept celibacy for life and afterlife recalls, for him, the edicts of” the eleventh-century cult leader “Hassan Sabah, who ordered members of the Assassins to be castrated, or Marshall Applewhite, founder of the Heaven’s Gate group, whose male members underwent voluntary castration inn order to maintain their extreme ascetic lifestyle” (p. 10). Surely these groups were different. Terrorist groups have similarities to famously horrific groups, but not to mine. Not to the groups whose former members I have treated through the years. I could not compare my experiences to theirs, but could I identify?

The author explains his categorization of cults first around the nature of the leader, then to their doctrine or cause, and finally to their method of mind manipulation. He uses psychoanalytic insights to explore narcissism of cult leaders. He says, “No amount of attention, care and giving from others satisfies them.” To Banisadr, cult leaders have “a childish, narcissistic ego and” are “unable to fulfill” their “unrealistic needs . . . in the real world.” The leader’s “charm” and “sense of utter superiority,” “totalitarian behavior,” “need for worshipers and his loneliness” (p. 11) are manifested in the “miniworld” of the cult in psychological or physical isolation from wider society. Now he is hitting closer to home.

To cult leaders, the cause or ideology is just a means to an end. They choose a doctrine or ideology that seems to meet a public belief or need so they can recruit people who have that interest in common. They never let commitment to the cause or a belief system get in the way of their own self-importance. Banisadr recalled the Assassins, a group that he believes created the model for modern terror groups. They “allied themselves with ‘Hindu heathens’ and ‘infidel Christian’ crusaders against their Muslim brethren” (p. 29). For them, “Islam was but a convenient black curtain behind which to hide.”

When Banisadr, an Iranian, joined MeK, the Shah, Iraq, and the West were the enemy. When Khomeini came to power, the Rajavi found himself at odds with the new regime. Saddam Hussein and his friends in the West were suddenly friends of the Mojahedin. After sending hundreds of his followers to their deaths fighting the army of the Shah, Mojahedin thought nothing of sending hundreds more to die alongside Saddam’s army against the forces of the Ayatollah Khomeini. That feeling in the pit of my stomach returned. Rajavi’s techniques to make terrorists out of idealistic, thoughtful young people were nothing more than a dramatized version of the same old familiar, cultic manipulation. To me, Rajavi’s methods of mind manipulation were almost identical to the self-condemning techniques of Lifton’s “Cult of Confession”; those used by Stewart Trail, leader of the Church of Bible Understanding (COBU); the Moon organization; and hundreds of others.

The author acknowledges his debt, as do I, to Jung Chang, author of Wild Swans, and her coauthor Jon Halliday, who also collaborated with her on Mao the Unknown Story, for their insights into self-denigration as a tool of control. Banisadr calls Rahavi a “mini Mao” (p. 5).

Banisadr divides Rajavi’s control techniques into three categories that might be used in any order. Reason was used initially to change new recruits’ beliefs and as a tool for recruiting new members. Rajavi and his wife then used familiar techniques such as isolation in remote locations and humiliation to stabilize new beliefs and prevent new recruits from returning to their previous belief systems, family, and friends. Finally, the cult leader has to change disciples’ personalities into one that is compatible with the collective cult personality. He asserts that this is done mainly by manipulating emotions, which he calls brainwashing.

Masoud Banisadr now teaches mathematics in Britain. So it is only natural that he would use algebraic formulas to express the complex relationships between belief and emotion in a thought-reform environment. His formulas maybe difficult for some to follow, but effort by the reader will be rewarded.

It could be argued that his distinctions between mind manipulation, thought reform, and brainwashing might be contrived. But clearly the approach works for him as he winds his way through the labyrinth of the severe unethical persuasion he experienced.

The author intertwines his story with truly dedicated scholarship. His incredible attention to detail is most evident in the copious annotated endnotes after each chapter. Destructive and Terrorist Cults: A New Kind of Slavery: Leaders, Followers, and Mind Manipulation is a nuanced view of thought reform as it applies to groups whose adherents we would call terrorists. After reading this book, I will be calling former terrorists what they are: fellow former member.