Cultic identity formation in MKO

Cults are largely in need of obedient and submissive members whose mentality can be shaped through a change of identity. The process of producing identity within MKO follows the same mechanism as similar in other cults and its orientation began with the start of the internal ideological revolution.


To stripe somebody of his individual identity to replace it with a new identity has been a common process in majority of all contemporary cults. This cult identity is created by sophisticated mind control techniques and it does not represent the whole individual. Steven Hassan stresses that “[cult] members are taught to suppress negative personal thoughts and emotions. They are trained to speak only positively of their involvement. When the cult member says he is "happy," it is usually the cult identity who is talking. The cult self is doing what it has been instructed to do”. 1



As cults have developed their own principles and rules, their reactions to the outside world are based on some certain criteria different from that of other political and social organizations that have to exercise the discipline of their own in order to achieve certain objectives; however, rarely they make use of any process to forge identities. At the present, cults are largely in need of obedient and submissive members whose mentality can be shaped through a change of identity and our aim here is to take a brief look at the concepts of individual identity, cult identity and investigate the process of setting up new identity in MKO similar to that of other cults.



We may consider the individual identity as the sum of mental and ideological beliefs of a person and the extent to which he is affected by the environment out of the cult. On the contrary, the detachment of the person from such beliefs and values by means of a system controlling his behavioral, mental and psychological aspects constitute one of the major goals of cults. Such a replacement of values leading to a new cult personality makes the person struggling with many contradictions to adapt his potentiality in line with cult objectives. In other words, cult identity neutralizes the individual identity of the members. In fact all the cultist instructions depend on such a mechanism for actualization.



As such, cults make their best to recruit members with unstable identity and ready to acquire cult identity due to their political, emotional and familial discouragements in order to play the major role in the quantitative growth of cults. Under the impact of a new identity, members easily submit to cultic domination and whatever sacrifices for the cult causes. Eric Hoffer evaluates the factor of devotion based on the cult identity. He believes that the relation between these concepts may clarify the nature of members' full obedience to cultist instructions:



To RIPEN A PERSON for self-sacrifice he must be stripped of his individual identity and distinctness. He must cease to be George, Hans, van, or Tadao- a human atom with an existence bounded by birth and death. 2



Reviewing the historical cults may reveal the role of such a factor. The earliest religious cults such as Isma’ilis (Hasan Sabbah) tried hard to instill a kind of cult identity into members. They declared openly that members had to do something more than self-sacrifice for leaders and consider the extent of obedience as the main measure for a new cult identity. Therefore, they asked their members to put the principle of absolute obedience into action rather than pretending by merely saying it. What the leaders asked members was to have absolute faith in the cult’s commands:


We don’t ask Fedayeen [self-sacrificers] for passion but for a sound belief. We are to be sure that in case of issuing any order for any of our Fedayeen, there is nothing to prevent it. 3



Cultist relations of Mojahedin, as the most typical political leftist cult, are the same as that of Hasan Sabbah's cult. The term "spiritual journey" refers to the negation of individual personality and development of a cultist one instead. The theoreticians of Mojahedin resort to mystical concepts in order to justify their procedures and approaches saying:



In spiritual journey, no question is allowed. The wayfarer has to put his faith in Sheikh wholeheartedly and must regard him as the most perfect person to conduct him in spiritual training, guidance and education, be his interlocutor and obey Sheikh far from any inward or outward objection. 4



Then a quotation from Maulavi, the Persian mystic poet, is resorted to:



A wayfarer has no responsibility and should be submissive like a piece of wood in the hands of carpenter. 5



An intellectual outlook does not bear such a procedure and also may denounce it. Mojahedin are against any spiritual identity but have to pretend to its reception. They analyze the mechanism of such a new identity as follows:


It is evident that such a process does not follow a logical trend. Its dominant factor is not reason nor logic but love and emotion. Its means is not discussion nor justification but blind obedience. Herein Masoud asks for Mojahedin's hearts. 6



Contemporary cults resort to such techniques in order to establish subordinate identities in which their members have to replace their external ties with internal ones. A new identity is regarded as the origin of cults' power. Therefore, external bonds are the main barriers in the way of a new identity replaced by cultist models. Hofer refers to such a process saying:



The chief burden of the frustrated is the consciousness of a blemished, ineffectual self, and their chief desire is to slough off the unwanted self and begin a new life. They try to realize this desire either by finding 'a new identity blurring and camouflaging their individual distinct- and both these ends are reached by imitation. 7



From a cultist viewpoint, a new identity works as a new faith to which a member has to be attached. It may tie an individual to an ideological group, band, political party or any ritual concept. In this regard, Hoffer writes:



Faith here is primarily a process of identification; the process by which the individual ceases to be himself and becomes part of something eternal. Faith in humanity, in posterity, in the destiny of one's religion, ation, race, party or family -what is it but the visualization of that eternal some- tiling to which we attach the self that is about to be annihilated? 8



The relationship between cults and producing of new identities is a complex one and varies widely from cult to cult. But what is common is that the main goal of producing a new identity in cults is to make insiders dependant on the cult and to be obedient. The mechanisms the cults exploit to achieve the goal are interrelated but each can be discussed separately since they are all prerequisites for insiders’ persuasion and control and the final transformation of the recruits into real cultists. It will not be wrong to say that whatever the cults do is to cut the members off from the outside world to produce a new identity and belief totally different from what the members previously held as right and dear. The process finished, the insiders will adopt a new and reborn personality as Singer states:



As part of the intense influence and change process in many cults, people take on a new social identity, which may or may not be obvious to an outsider. When groups refer to this new identity, they speak of members who are transformed, reborn, enlightened, empowered, rebirthed, or cleared. The group' approved behavior is reinforced and reinterpreted as demonstrating the emergence of "the new person." Members are expected to display this new identity. 9



The new personality totally split from the outside world is manipulated for a variety of group tasks based on the objectives of the group and cult that consider the outsiders as the enemies who have to be confronted:



The conflicts a mass movement seek and incites serve not only to down its enemies but also to strip its followers of their distinct individuality and render them more soluble in the collective medium. 10



As Hoffer asserts, a cultist personality is formed to be submissive to the inner-cultic relations that have priority to outwardly demonstrated ambitions and goals. The members undergoing overall identity change easily consent to any means of changing behaviour and conduct. Thus, cults can successfully accomplish their goal of binding new members to the group. Considering the stages people will go through as their attitudes are changed by the group environment and the thought reform processes, Singer points to psychologist Edgar Schein’s second stages of three:



During this second stage, you sense that the solutions offered by the group provide a path to follow. You feel that anxiety, uncertainty, and self-doubt can be reduced by adopting the concepts put forth by the group or leader. Additionally, you observe the behavior of the longer, term members, and you begin to emulate their ways. As social psychology experiments and observations have found for decades, once a person makes an open commitment before others to an idea, his or her subsequent behavior generally supports and reinforces the stated commitment. That is, if you say in front of others that you are making a commitment to be "pure," then you will feel pressured to follow what others define as the path of purity. 11



There are also the eight psychological themes that psychiatrist Robert Lifton has identified as central to totalistic environments and cults invoke these themes for the purpose of promoting behavioural and attitudinal changes in the members. The third theme, demand for purity, depicts two opposite world of black and white; the cult being an absolutely white and clean world versus the black and evil world of outside. Of course, the members with a new personality have no other choice but to think and act according to cult’s ideology and drawn strategy:



An us-versus-them orientation is promoted by the all-or-nothing belief system of the group: we are right; they (outsiders, nonmembers) are wrong, evil, unenlightened, and so forth. Each idea or act is good or bad, pure or evil. Recruits gradually take in, or internalize, the critical, shaming essence of the cult environment, which builds up lots of guilt and shame. Most groups put forth that there is only one way to think, respond, or act in any given situation. There is no in between, and members are expected to judge themselves and others by this all-or-nothing standard. 12



The process of producing identity within MKO follows the same mechanism as practiced in other cults and its orientation began with the start of the internal ideological revolution. All the members undergoing the revolution process have admitted, unveiled by the ex-members, their identity change, and the result was development of a long distance between their organizational and personal identities. It was instilled into them that their identity would be prompted based on the extent of adherence to the ideological system of the group and denial of any personal identity. In a written testimony by a member of MKO, he is somehow proud of his new identity that believes has granted him a new insight into his within and without:



Personality, egocentrism, self-reliance and individualism are all souvenirs of the bourgeoisie’s worthless humanism that distanced me from the organization as far as its degree of its impact on me. I was unworthy and this barred me to drink the pure, life-giving instructions of the organization and was leaving me alone in a desolate waste-land with no way out. I was enslaved by dominant ambiguities within me. When I failed to overcome the ongoing struggle inside me, I was even more vulnerable to the outside misfortunes and could not even face them. 13



The member’s confession well depicts his identity destabilization and what psychologists call an identity crisis. He looks back at his own world and values to find out that he has been wrong in the past. This process makes him uncertain about what is right, what to do, and which choices to make and of course, as he admits, only the cult-like instructions of the organization can lead him to what is inspired to be the right path. Consequently, he takes on a new organizational identity which he considers a change for the better. In the process, he, as the member of a cult, detaches from his most dear ideas and attachments which he discovers to have been nothing beyond a barren waste-land for the identity reborn, a utopia in the horizon he fails to dismiss easily. Masoud Banisadr, another separated member of MKO, in his memoir relates of the time when sat tearing whatever attached him to the past under the commands of the organization:



This time I attacked my old photographs from my own childhood till marriage and up to then, my parents photographs as I wanted to deny all of them, my father who was perhaps responsible for my bourgeois tendencies and my mother who was responsible of my own ‘mild’ and ‘gentle’ behaviour known as liberal ones. Anna seeing me taking all those photographs and albums, with anger, was quietly crying, then when I attacked our marriage Album she start crying louder, and asked me to stop it. She said those are not just yours . . . but I was not listening to her and took everything and put them in a rubbish bag. 14



Quoting Lifton’s forth theme, through a cult’s instructions, members are told whatever connects them to their former lives is wrong and has to be avoided, a fact well affirmed by MKO’s ex-members:



Through the confession process and by instruction in the group's teachings, members learn that everything about their former lives, including friends, family, and non-members, is wrong and to be avoided. Outsiders will put you at risk of not attaining the purported goal: they will lessen your psychological awareness, hinder the group's political advancement, obstruct your path toward ultimate knowledge, or allow you to become stuck in your past life and incorrect thinking. 15



That is why MKO refer to members’ solubility in the organizational identity as a “reborn” or “identity salvation”. The organization, being transformed into a cult, pursues the same cult mechanism of altering the members’ personal identity to produce a new identity.








1. Steven Hassan's Releasing the Bonds: Empowering People to Think for Themselves. FOM Press, 2000.2. Eric Hoffer; The true believer, Harper &. Row, Publishers, New York, 1966, p.60.

3. Paul Amir; The Lord of Alamout, p.45.

4. Niyabati, B. A different look at the ideological revolution within MKO, p.32

5. ibid, p.40

6. ibid, p.15

7. Eric Hoffer; The true believer, Harper &. Row, Publishers, New York, 1966, p.94.

8. ibid, p. 62.

9. Margaret Thaler Singer; Cults in Our Midst, JOSSEY-BASS, 2003, p. 78.

10. Eric Hoffer; The true believer, Harper &. Row, Publishers, New York, 1966, p. 112.

11. Margaret Thaler Singer; Cults in Our Midst, JOSSEY-BASS, 2003, p. 76.

12. Ibid, 71.

13. Mojahed, no. 252; Abdol-ali Maasoumi’s letter to the ideological revolution.

14. Masoud Banisadr; Memoirs of an Iranian Rebel.

15. Margaret Thaler Singer; Cults in Our Midst, JOSSEY-BASS, 2003, p. 72.