Talking of the mechanisms the cults exploit to force members submit to the wills of the leaders, the charisma and techniques of persuasion are of the two important factors. The priority of the one over the other has always been the subject of studies and discussions but one thing is clear for certain that the charisma and charismatic features avoid making any negative value in general. However, made judgments indicate that the mentality of charisma plays a crucial role in the structure of a group itself, its pattern of recruitment, its ideology and its contradictions, the mechanisms used to gain commitment, and the maintenance and evolution of the group within a given social context.
Charisma on its own is not evil and does not necessarily breed a cult leader. The negative image of the charismatic context and process that is characteristic of most modern social theory is derived from the history of those charismatic leaders who are most feared because of their anti-human and atrocious activities that have risked many lives and intensified social antagonisms. To define charisma first, one dictionary definition of charisma is "a personal magic of leadership arousing special popular loyalty or enthusiasm for a public figure (as a political leader or military commander); a special magnetic charm or appeal”. 1
Charisma was studied in depth by the German sociologist Max Weber, who defined it as "an exceptional quality in an individual who, through appearing to possess supernatural, providential, or extraordinary powers, succeeds in gathering disciples around him." 2
Thus, charisma is the first factor and the magnetic appeal that helps formation of a new cult by convincing recruits that the leader is giving them the ideal they had long been seeking for:
For the cult leader, having charisma is perhaps most useful during the stage of cult formation. It takes a strong-willed and persuasive leader to convince people of a new belief, then gather the newly converted around him as devoted followers. 3
It is actually true of political cults and their charismatic leader compared with other forms of cults. And again it is more typical of the leftist political cults than rightists since the formers basically claim to be relying on the support of the masses. However, the magnetism of a charismatic leader depends on a follower’s demands. Sometimes it happens that somebody’s love and devotion in a leader turns to be absolute aversion and hatred in another’s eye in the same way that the members of the Marxist camp can never live in harmony with those from the capitalist camp.
So we see that charisma is indeed a desirable trait for someone who wishes to attract a following. However, like beauty, charisma is in the eye of the beholder. Mary, for example, may be completely taken with a particular seminar leader, practically swooning at his every word, while her friend Susie doesn’t feel the slightest tingle. Certainly at the time a person is under the sway of charisma the effect is very real. Yet, in reality, charisma does nothing more than create a certain worshipful reaction to an idealized figure in the mind of the one who is smitten. 4
In fact, the magic of a cult leader is his/her ability to allure recruits and build statuses to which all devotedly bow down. But it has to be pointed out that it is not at all the product of an overnight process but skilful application of various techniques of persuasion and brainwashing. It is through these brainwashing techniques that a seemingly non-destructive cult overturns its peaceful codes of conduct and becomes a destructive and even a terrorist cult.
Once considered a charismatic political leader by the help of his organizational comrades, since he lacked the needed appealing characteristics of a charismatic leader, Massoud Rajavi took himself to the status of a deified cult leader for whom many were ready to sacrifice themselves. The process clearly depicts the effectiveness of cult techniques exploited by the falsely created magnetism of a cult leader. It was much because his close ranking cadres idolized him as a divinely inspired figure whose orders for operations, being them terrorist operations that shed many innocents’ blood or suicide and self-immolation operations, had to be blindly submitted to. Although one may wonder to learn about the horrible potentialities of Mojahedin Khalq with Rajavi at the lead, but it is a true example of an existing terrorist cult in the modern world:
Political cults include terrorist groups that resort to the killing of innocent citizens to promote their cause. Suicide bombers are often members of these extremist political groups. When you hear about a suicide bombing in the Middle East, for instance, you may wonder how someone could give his life in order to kill others. 5
It is hard to develop a deep understanding of Rajavi’s personality especially for the Western people and his advocates there. They will come to know his real nature only when it is too late and they have to pay a great deal for their false calculations. In a discourse on the unnoticed, terrible potentialities of Mojahedin Khalq we read:
As I know Mojahedin, they are too hard a wall to climb. I take the opportunity to inform the US and European states; as a theoretician to whom neither MKO nor NCRI have the least responsibility and to whom neither of them establishes any organizational link, I believe Mojahedin are benefitting a remarkably terrible potentiality which break the control, … . 6
It has to be pointed out that emergence of Rajavi as a propagated charismatic leader depended much on the circumstances that well approve the idea that a “charismatic leadership depends not only on personality but on circumstance: the leader must ride the zeitgeist. Chance and timing playa large part in determining whether a would-be cult leader, for example, ends up as Manson or Moses”.7
It was in the midst of a great revolution that Rajavi was released from the prison and found the opportunity of playing a militia leader especially for the zealous revolutionary Iranian youths who could easily follow a Che Guevara-like model. Hardly believing in what people willed, he would express a new mixture of radicalism and idealism and cleverly played the role of a revolutionary who pretended to respect demands of the rising people based on novel political, social and religious claims. In fact, Rajavi bore no charismatic appeal but it was his adventurous charm that allured inexperienced people to join him in his claimed combat against imperialism. But it did not take long to shock Iranian people and the world in general that the anti-imperialists turned to conduct many assassination and terror operations inside Iran and Iraq, claiming thousands of innocent lives.
Who knows, maybe it was the charismatic charm of the Rajavis that fascinated the Europeans to rub off the terrorist label long attached to their cult!
1. Tobias, Madeleine and Janja Lalich; Captive Hearts, Captive Minds, Alameda, CA: Hunter House 1994.
5. Steven Hassan; Releasing the Bonds; Empowering People to Think for Themselves, Freedom of Mind Press Somerville, 2000, p. 8.
6. On Mojahedin’s future in Iraq, www.goftogoo.net.
7. Tobias, Madeleine and Janja Lalich; Captive Hearts, Captive Minds, Alameda, CA: Hunter House 1994.