Personal Column: The former Islamic militant
Anne Singleton, 48, was recruited into the mujahedin at university, and was active for seven years. She left the organisation in 1996 and now campaigns to warn others
Interview by Lynne Wallis
Published: 01 October 2006
Manchester University in the early 1980s was very political. My then boyfriend Ali, an Iranian, was interested in the mujahedin, and I became interested in them and Islam. I have never been religious, but the structured life Islam offered made sense to me.
The mujahedin seemed to be the only group who were doing anything, fighting the regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran after the revolution. I went to so many meetings that I neglected my studies and flunked my exams (I completed my degree at Sheffield poly). Their religious role-modelling was intense, and their behaviour so righteous. They were willing to sacrifice their own interests for that of their society. I worshipped them.
In l985 the mujahedin leader Massoud Rajavi took over and married a woman called Maryam whose role was to encourage women to break away from male control. As a feminist, this appealed to me. They had used bombers from the early 1980s. They said they wanted to break the atmosphere of terror by killing their oppressors, and it seemed noble.
I spent all my spare time with the movement, caring for members’ children, cooking and monitoring media reports. If they asked me for a £l0 donation I’d give £l00 to impress them with my commitment. They flattered me, and then would make me feel guilty, pushing for more so I’d feel worthy enough to be recruited. I got totally hooked.
I did temporary jobs and lived frugally in bedsits, my walls covered with posters of their martyrs – suicide bombers and women with guns. I felt part of something very right. Everyone else had posters of Che Guevara who was part of an armed struggle. I was just supporting a different revolution. We saw fighting films and listened to heroic poetry and revolutionary music. I had had such a boring childhood, this was what I had been looking for. My working-class family was quite political but never did anything except watch telly. There wasn’t much debate, so I grew up seeing life as black and white.
I moved to London in 1989 and found some activists at a safe house in Finchley who treated me as a trusted supporter. The UN Human Rights Rapporteur visited Iran in l990 and we wanted to put pressure on him to ask about all the mujahedin prisoners so we went on hunger strike.
After five days I felt high as a kite. My perceptions changed, and I felt I had transcended normal humanity. I had so much energy and felt as if I were walking in a bubble. Food deprivation is a classic recruitment technique used to weaken resistance.
I quit my job as a computer programmer and became a full-time worker for the mujahedin. I didn’t question a thing, even the violence, which they inure people to so cleverly. I was shown a film of a female suicide bomber blowing up an ayatollah in Iran. It was horrific, and very shocking, at first, but I was shown the film many times, and each time was less distressed. Then they put it on over dinner and I didn’t bat an eyelid. I believed she had a duty to perform, this brave, wonderful martyr.
I barely saw my parents, I’d ditched all my friends, and I’d publicly burnt the diaries I’d kept since childhood, insisting “my past means nothing”, but it wasn’t enough. I still wasn’t seen as 100 per cent obedient.
In l992 they asked me if I’d like to go to Iraq for some military training. I knew as a member of an “armed struggle” this might be required, so I didn’t resist, although I knew I could never kill anyone. I learned how to drive a truck, march and shoot a gun, but I clearly wasn’t soldier material. I loved the camp and the irresponsibility – I obeyed orders and it felt liberating. I had this childlike feeling that if I put myself in their hands, I’d be OK.
Then they decided marriage was banned. I couldn’t agree as I wanted marriage and kids. I was punished and they put huge pressure on me to conform. I returned to London, telling myself I’d sort my head out then return refreshed to the movement, but it wasn’t to be.
In l993 I met my husband, another disillusioned member, and we were drawn to each other. I resisted constant pressure to be re-recruited and we broke away for good in l996. We acted as counsellors to each other, de-programming ourselves from the horrific abuse we had endured. But we didn’t recover properly until 1999, when we read literature from the Cult Information Centre. I was furious when I learned that everything we’d been through was on a “recruitment techniques” list! The anger and betrayal I felt was enormous, but I felt relief that it wasn’t my fault, and I could put a name to it – psychological coercion. It didn’t mean you were weak, evil or stupid.
We believed we had reached the pinnacle of human existence, that the worst thing in life was to be ordinary. Well, we’re ordinary now and it’s wonderful. We had a son in 2000 and live in a three-bedroom semi in Leeds. A life where we make our own decisions is amazing.
I still think of myself as Muslim, I still think it is a good belief system, but I eat pork and drink like a fish.
Spreading the word about the dangers of cults is my new cause. When people are recruited into these groups they have no critical ability. It can happen to anyone, any time. If you’re lucky you end up with a timeshare. If you’re unlucky you end up blowing people up on the Tube.
For more information contact: iran-interlink.org or khodabandeh.org; cultinformation.org.uk
The Independent, October1, 2006
The Independent, U.K.