Last week, MEK officials allowed a pair of journalists to visit Camp Ashraf, the first such visit by Western reporters since shortly after the Iraq war. The visit left the impression that if there is a definable line between commune and cult, the MEK might just be straddling it.
MEK cadres wear olive green uniforms, with matching, identically tied head scarves for the women. In talking, certain phrases and themes pop up again and again — suggesting a high level of political indoctrination.
Tehran is the "mullah regime," and the movement fighting the Iranian government has suffered "120,000 martyrs." The more than 400 people who have defected from the group in recent years are "quitters" who were too weak or selfish to "pay the price." Explaining why they chose to come to Camp Ashraf, most offer some variation on the theme of feeling guilty living abroad in comfortable exile while their people suffered back home.
Pictures of Maryam and Massoud Rajavi are everywhere in the camp, and members refer to Maryam's sayings and ideas in a manner that evokes Maoist China. Camp leaders acknowledge that regular Shiite Muslim religious observance is basically mandatory.
Direct contact with the outside world, including families, is rare. Phone calls, letters and e-mails are all routed through the central leadership.
Although the cult charge clearly rankles, MEK members also seem insulated from much of the criticism directed their way by a sort of circular logic.
Any accusations, negative articles or outside criticism are dismissed as the product of an Iranian campaign to discredit and undermine them. The complaints of some defectors that they were tricked into coming to the camp and then held against their will are the lies of those trying to get into the good graces of the Iranian intelligence services.
The LAT has had another few interesting Middle East stories for the past couple of days, following on the tradition of Anthony Shadid no doubt, including Megan Stack on Hizbullah and Monte Morin on insane levels of criminality in Iraq -- the latter is a must-read to understand the level of chaos there.
Update: Speaking of the patron saint of Arab-American journalists, Praktike points to a great new Shadid piece here.