The roots of the People’s Mojahedin of Iran (PMOI) reach back to the Liberation Movement of Iran (LMI), a modernist liberal-religious party formed in 1961. The founders of the LMI, virtually all educated members of the traditional middle class, opposed the Shah’s rule on both political and moral grounds. Mehdi Bazargan, the first prime minister of the Islamic Republic, has been the principal leader and theoretician of the LMI since its inception. Following the defeat of the June 1963 uprising against the Shah, some younger members of the LMI split from the parent organization. They created the nucleus of the Mojahedin as an urban guerrilla group and concocted a radical-left version of Islam as their ideology. Even though the Mojahedin suffered a violent schism in 1975 and was incapacitated as a fighting force before the fall of the Shah, its image as Iran’s sole Islamic revolutionary movement made it possible for the organization to dramatically expand its popular base after the 1979 revolution.
Before long, the PMOI’s ideological mix of Islam and Marxism, combined with its relentless pursuit of state power, put the organization on a collision course with the ruling clerics. Within a year after the final break between the PMOI and the clerical government in June 1981, the Mojahedin assassinated nearly 200 leaders of the Islamic Republic and more than 500 Revolutionary Guards. In the following four years, executions and street confrontations “took the lives of 12,250 political dissidents, three quarters of whom were Mojahedin members or sympathizers.” As early as mid-1983, the PMOI lost its capacity to commit violent acts against the Islamic rulers, but the regime’s suppression of the Mojahedin remains unabated to this day. In exile, the PMOI has become a closed sect, and its leadership, headed by “maximum leader” Masoud Rajavi, has moved to Iraq.
Ervand Abrahamian’s Radical Islam: The Iranian Mojahedin is a masterful exposé of this tragic story. How could a native political formation once so promising suffer such a fate? Where does one look for an answer to this question? Ideological eclecticism? Failure of leadership? Obsessive pursuit of power? Social origins of membership? Political culture? Abrahamian does not directly address these questions, but by “piecing together the history of the organization” and illustrating “the links between its ideology and its social bases” he provides an exceptionally detailed empirical context within which treatment of such issues can go beyond speculation.
For a wealth of information about the social backgrounds of the Mojahedin founders and a brilliant analysis of their ideas are among the distinct qualities of Abrahamian’s work. Abrahamian sees much significance in the fact that the Mojahedin “was predominantly formed of the young intelligentsia, especially the sons of the traditional middle class.” He shows how concrete needs and expectations motivated the educated members of the traditional middle class families to support the Mojahedin. “The Mojahedin,” he writes, “with its stress on Shiism, naturally appealed to this intelligentsia raised in homes where Shiism had been an integral part of everyday life. Joining the Mojahedin — unlike joining a purely Marxist organization — did not necessitate severing ties to family values, household customs, or childhood beliefs.” It is in this sociological environment that one has to search for the sources of internal contradictions in the Mojahedin’s project — the contradictions that contributed to gruesome political miscalculation and ideological obstinacy.
Abrahamian’s commentary on Ali Shariati and his relationship to the Mojahedin is a unique and impressive achievement. The “founders of the Mojahedin were not Shariati’s disciples,” according to Abrahamian. “In fact, they developed their ideas not only independently of Shariati but also a few years before meeting him.” Abrahamian reveals that “the prominence given to Shariati is partly due to the fact that the Mojahedin leaders made a deliberate decision in the early 1970s to propagate radical Islam less through their own handbooks, which were banned, and more through Shariati’s works which differed from their own only on minor points.” This view is accurate but does not contradict the fact that the impact of Shariati’s books and lectures among the traditional middle class (and to a lesser extent among the non-Marxist secular intelligentsia) was indispensable to the popularity of the Mojahedin. Shariati as an ideologue/publicist and the Mojahedin as a guerrilla organization could begin separate but parallel careers because, as Abrahamian perceptively observes, Iran’s socio-historical conditions had created a favorable environment for the emergence of modernist Shi‘i thought as a response to widespread alienation among the urban middle class, particularly the educated members of the traditional families.
Radical Islam displays no grand theory of Islamist politics or Shi‘i fundamentalism. Abrahamian does not impose labels on complex phenomena. He does not see political Islam per se as progressive or regressive; he neither romanticizes nor laments the Islamic tradition. Rather, he meticulously probes the anatomy of the Mojahedin and the course of its development in order to comprehend the causes behind the rise and fall of the organization. He places the key individuals who initially defined the PMOI project within their historical parameters. He also furnishes richly textured descriptions of the social origins, education and personal sensibilities of the organization’s leaders and martyrs. In this context, he empirically explores both the objective conditions and the normative beliefs that shaped or constrained the Mojahedin conduct. Abrahamian’s conclusive evidence that the PMOI founders and fighters were predominantly of the traditional middle class runs counter to the widespread claim that radical Islam appeals most readily to the “uprooted” and “marginalized” elements of the society.
Radical Islam is a learned, lucid and cogent piece of Iranian history. The would-be translator and publisher of the book in Persian will receive the gratitude of those who can read the work only in their native language. Indeed, the book is must reading for all experts and observers interested in the politics of the Islamic Revolution and the role of Iran’s political culture in it. Politicized Iranians have a more urgent need to study what Abrahamian teaches us about the Mojahedin, for it has much relevance for comprehending the behavior of other groups on the Iranian political scene.