Nov 11, 2018

Terrorists, cultists - or champions of Iranian democracy? The wild wild story of the MEK

Maryam Rajavi in Tirana, Albania in September 2017. Photograph: NurPhoto via Getty
They fought for the Iranian revolution – and then for Saddam Hussein. The US and UK once condemned them. But now their opposition to Tehran has made them favourites of Trump White House hardliners. 

Arron Merat
The Guardian
November 9, 2018

Mostafa and Robabe Mohammadi came to Albania to rescue their daughter. But in Tirana, the capital, the middle-aged couple have been followed everywhere by two Albanian intelligence agents. Men in sunglasses trailed them from their hotel on George W Bush Road to their lawyer’s office; from the lawyer’s office to the ministry of internal affairs; and from the ministry back to the hotel.

The Mohammadis say their daughter, Somayeh, is being held against her will by a fringe Iranian revolutionary group that has been exiled to Albania, known as the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, or MEK (Mujahedin-e Khalq). Widely regarded as a cult, the MEK was once designated as a terrorist organisation by the US and UK, but its opposition to the Iranian government has now earned it the support of powerful hawks in the Trump administration, including national security adviser John Bolton and the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo.

Somayeh Mohammadi is one of about 2,300 members of the MEK living inside a heavily fortified base that has been built on 34 hectares of farmland in north-west Albania. Her parents, who were once supporters of the group, say that 21 years ago, Somayeh flew to Iraq to attend a summer camp and to visit her maternal aunt’s grave. She never came back.

The couple have spent the past two decades trying to get their daughter out of the MEK, travelling from their home in Canada to Paris, Jordan, Iraq and now Albania. “We are not against any group or any country,” Mostafa said, sitting outside a meatball restaurant in central Tirana. “We just want to see our daughter outside the camp and without her commanders. She can choose to stay or she can choose to come home with us.” The MEK insists Somayeh does not wish to leave the camp, and has released a letter in which she accuses her father of working for Iranian intelligence.

“Somayeh is a shy girl,” her mother said. “They threaten people like her. She wants to leave but she is scared that they will kill her.”

Since its exile from Iran in the early 1980s, the MEK has been committed to the overthrow of the Islamic republic. But it began in the 1960s as an Islamist-Marxist student militia, which played a decisive role in helping to topple the Shah during the 1979 Iranian revolution.

Anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist and anti-American, MEK fighters killed scores of the Shah’s police in often suicidal street battles during the 1970s. The group targeted US-owned hotels, airlines and oil companies, and was responsible for the deaths of six Americans in Iran. “Death to America by blood and bonfire on the lips of every Muslim is the cry of the Iranian people,” went one of its most famous songs. “May America be annihilated.”

Such attacks helped pave the way for the return of the exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who quickly identified the MEK as a serious threat to his plan to turn Iran into an Islamic republic under the control of the clergy. The well-armed middle-class guerrillas, although popular among religious students and intellectuals, would prove to be no match for Khomeini’s organisation and ruthlessness.

Following the revolution, Khomeini used the security services, the courts and the media to choke off the MEK’s political support and then crush it entirely. After it fought back, killing more than 70 senior leaders of the Islamic republic – including the president and Iran’s chief justice – in audacious bomb attacks, Khomeini ordered a violent crackdown on MEK members and sympathisers. The survivors fled the country.

Saddam Hussein, who was fighting a bloody war against Iran with the backing of the UK and the US, saw an opportunity to deploy the exiled MEK fighters against the Islamic republic. In 1986, he offered the group weapons, cash and a vast military base named Camp Ashraf, only 50 miles from the border with Iran.

For almost two decades, under their embittered leader Massoud Rajavi, the MEK staged attacks against civilian and military targets across the border in Iran and helped Saddam suppress his own domestic enemies. But after siding with Saddam – who indiscriminately bombed Iranian cities and routinely used chemical weapons in a war that cost a million lives – the MEK lost nearly all the support it had retained inside Iran. Members were now widely regarded as traitors.

Isolated inside its Iraqi base, under Rajavi’s tightening grip, the MEK became cult-like. A report commissioned by the US government, based on interviews within Camp Ashraf, later concluded that the MEK had “many of the typical characteristics of a cult, such as authoritarian control, confiscation of assets, sexual control (including mandatory divorce and celibacy), emotional isolation, forced labour, sleep deprivation, physical abuse and limited exit options”.

After the US invasion of Iraq, the MEK launched a lavish lobbying campaignto reverse its designation as a terrorist organisation – despite reports implicating the group in assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists as recently as 2012. Rajavi has not been seen since 2003 – most analysts assume he is dead – but under the leadership of his wife, Maryam Rajavi, the MEK has won considerable support from sections of the US and European right, eager for allies in the fight against Tehran.

In 2009, the UK delisted the MEK as a terror group. The Obama administration removed the group from the US terror list in 2012, and later helped negotiate its relocation to Albania.

At the annual “Free Iran” conference that the group stages in Paris each summer, dozens of elected US and UK representatives – along with retired politicians and military officials – openly call for the overthrow of the Islamic republic and the installation of Maryam Rajavi as the leader of Iran. At last year’s Paris rally, the Conservative MP David Amess announced that “regime change … is at long last within our grasp”. At the same event, Bolton – who championed war with Iran long before he joined the Trump administration – announced that he expected the MEK to be in power in Tehran before 2019. “The behaviour and the objectives of the regime are not going to change and, therefore, the only solution is to change the regime itself,” he declared.

The main attraction at this year’s Paris conference was another longtime MEK supporter, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, now Donald Trump’s lawyer. “The mullahs must go. The ayatollah must go,” he told the crowd. “And they must be replaced by a democratic government which Madam Rajavi represents.” Giuliani also praised the work of MEK “resistance units” inside Iran, that he credited with stoking a recent wave of protests over the struggling economy. “These protests are not happening by accident,” he said. “They’re being coordinated by many of our people in Albania.” (Giuliani, Bolton and the late John McCain are among the US politicians who have travelled to Albania to show support for the MEK.)

Meanwhile, back in Albania, the MEK is struggling to hold on to its own members, who have begun to defect. The group is also facing increased scrutiny from local media and opposition parties, who question the terms of the deal that brought the MEK fighters to Tirana.

It would be hard to find a serious observer who believes the MEK has the capacity or support within Iran to overthrow the Islamic republic. But the US and UK politicians loudly supporting a tiny revolutionary group stranded in Albania are playing a simpler game: backing the MEK is the easiest way to irritate Tehran. And the MEK, in turn, is only one small part of a wider Trump administration strategy for the Middle East, which aims to isolate and economically strangle Iran.

Before the MEK could become a darling of the American and European right, it had to reinvent itself. Democracy, human rights and secularism would become the group’s new mantra – as its leader, Maryam Rajavi, renounced violence and successfully repositioned an anti-western sect as a pro-American democratic government-in-waiting.

The long march to respectability began with the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. The war toppled Saddam Hussein, the MEK’s patron and protector, but it brought the group into direct contact with US officials – who would soon be looking for additional ammunition against Iran.

The US had designated the MEK as a terrorist group in the late 1990s, as a goodwill gesture toward a new reformist government in Tehran. When George W Bush accused Saddam Hussein of “harbouring terrorists” in a 2002 speech that made the case for invading Iraq, he was actually referring to the MEK. But in the early days of the US occupation of Iraq, a row erupted inside the White House over what to do with the 5,000 MEK fighters inside their base at Camp Ashraf.

Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, argued that the MEK was on the list of terrorist organisations and should be treated as such. But Iran hawks, including then secretary of defence, Donald Rumsfeld, and vice-president Dick Cheney, argued that the MEK should be used as a weapon against the Islamic republic – the next target in the neoconservative roadmap for remaking the Middle East. (“Boys go to Baghdad, but real men go to Tehran,” was their half-joking refrain.)

Rumsfeld’s faction won out. Although the group was still listed as a terrorist organisation, the Pentagon unilaterally designated MEK fighters inside Camp Ashraf as “protected persons” under the Geneva conventions – officially disarmed, but with their security effectively guaranteed by US forces in Iraq. The US was protecting a group it also designated as terrorists.

There is no doubt that US hawks regarded the MEK as a weapon in the fight against Iran: as early as May 2003, the same month that Bush famously declared “mission accomplished” in Iraq, the New York Times reported that “Pentagon hardliners” were moving to protect the MEK, “and perhaps reconstitute it later as a future opposition organisation in Iran, somewhat along the lines of the US-supported Iraqi opposition under Ahmed Chalabi that preceded the war in Iraq”. In 2003, the Bush administration refused an offer, signed off by Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, to hand over MEK leaders in Iraq in exchange for members of the military council of al-Qaida and relatives of Osama bin Laden, who had been captured by Iran as they fled Afghanistan after September 11.

As the US occupation of Iraq collapsed into a nightmarish civil war, the American right increasingly blamed Iran for the country’s disintegration. Senior politicians openly called for bombing the Islamic republic, amid growing panic over Iran’s nuclear programme – the existence of which had first been exposed by the MEK in what the BBC called a “propaganda coup” for the group. (Several experts on Israeli intelligence have reported that Mossad passed these documents to the MEK.) By 2007, US news outlets were reporting that Bush had signed a classified directive authorising “covert action” inside Iran.

Between 2007 and 2012, seven Iranian nuclear scientists were attacked with poison or magnetic bombs affixed to moving cars by passing motorcyclists; five were killed. In 2012, NBC news, citing two unnamed US officials, reported that the attacks were planned by Israel’s foreign intelligence agency and executed by MEK agents inside Iran. An MEK spokesperson called this a “false claim … whose main source is the mullahs’ regime”.

It was around this time that the MEK began working to remake its image in the west. Groups associated with the MEK donated to political campaigns, blanketed Washington with advertisements and paid western political influencers fees to pen op-eds and give speeches – and to lobby for its removal from the list of designated terrorist organisations.

A stupendously long list of American politicians from both parties were paid hefty fees to speak at events in favour of the MEK, including Giuliani, John McCain, Newt Gingrich and former Democratic party chairs Edward Rendell and Howard Dean – along with multiple former heads of the FBI and CIA. John Bolton, who has made multiple appearances at events supporting the MEK, is estimated to have received upwards of $180,000. According to financial disclosure forms, Bolton was paid $40,000 for a single appearance at the Free Iran rally in Paris in 2017.

A handful of UK politicians have attended two or more of the MEK’s Paris events in the past three years, including the Conservatives Bob Blackman and Matthew Offord, and the Labour MPs Roger Godsiff and Toby Perkins. The Conservative MP and former minister Theresa Villiers has attended the past two annual Paris events. So has David Amess, the Conservative MP for Southend West – the MEK’s loudest champion in the UK parliament, who has also travelled to the US to speak at a rally in support of the group. (All of the MPs declined to reply to questions about their attendance.)

The other British attendees at this year’s Paris rally included three peers and five former MPs, including Mike Hancock, who resigned from the Liberal Democrats after admitting inappropriate behaviour with a constituent, and Michelle Thomson, who was forced to resign the SNP whip in 2015 in a controversy over property deals. The former Bishop of Oxford, John Pritchard, was also there, carrying a petition in support of the MEK signed by 75 bishops, including the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.

At this year’s event, flanked by union jacks and “#RegimeChange” signs, Villiers spoke of the importance of women’s rights, “paid tribute” to Maryam Rajavi – who is barred from entering the UK – and pledged support for her “just cause” in seeking to create “an Iran which is free from the brutal repression of the mullahs”. In a carefully stage-managed performance, Rajavi laid flowers and wrote a tribute in an enormous yearbook of MEK martyrs. “The time has come for the regime’s overthrow,” she said. “Victory is certain, and Iran will be free.”

One day after the conference, the MEK accused Tehran of plotting a bomb attack against the event, following the arrest of four suspects – including an unnamed Iranian diplomat – in Belgium, Germany and France. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, rejected claims of Iran’s involvement and described the accusations as a “sinister false flag ploy”.

Even as the MEK successfully amassed political allies in the west, its security in Iraq eroded as US troops departed. Between 2009 and 2013, Iraqi security forces raided the MEK base at least twice, killing about 100 people. Nouri al-Maliki, then the prime minister of Iraq – whose ambassador to the US called the group “nothing more than a cult” – insisted it leave the country.

Daniel Benjamin, who was then the head of counter-terrorism at the state department, told me that the US decided to remove the MEK from the list of foreign terrorist organisations not because it believed it had abandoned violence, but to “avoid them all getting killed” if it remained in Iraq. After the MEK was no longer designated a terrorist group, the US was able to convince Albania to accept the 2,700 remaining members – who were brought to Tirana on a series of charter flights between 2014 and 2016.

The group bought up land in Albania and built a new base. But the move from Iraq to the relative safety of Albania has precipitated a wave of defections. Those with means have fled the country to the EU and the US, but around 120 recent MEK escapees remain in Tirana with no right to work or emigrate. I spoke to about a dozen defectors, half of whom are still in Albania, who said that MEK commanders systematically abused members to silence dissent and prevent defections – using torture, solitary confinement, the confiscation of assets and the segregation of families to maintain control over members. In response to these allegations, an MEK spokesperson said: “The individuals who are described as ‘former members’ were being used as part of a demonisation campaign against the MEK.”

The testimony of these recent defectors follows earlier reports from groups such as Human Rights Watch, which reported former members witnessed “beatings, verbal and psychological abuse, coerced confessions, threats of execution and torture that in two cases led to death”.

The MEK grew out of Iran’s Liberation Movement, an Islamic-democratic “loyal opposition” established in 1961 by the supporters of Mohammad Mossadegh, the prime minister ousted in a 1953 coup orchestrated by Britain and the US. The movement called for national sovereignty, freedom of political activity and the separation of mosque and state. The MEK cleaved to these traditions, but responded to the growing repression of the Shah throughout the 1960s and 70s by rejecting nonviolence.

At the time, the MEK, whose members were largely idealistic middle-class students, combined Islamism with Marxist doctrine. They reinterpreted the Qur’anic passages that undergirded their Shia faith as injunctions to socialise the means of production, eliminate the class system and promote the struggles of Iran’s ethnic minorities. Steeped in thinkers such as Frantz Fanon and Régis Debray, they expressed solidarity with national liberation movements in Algeria, Cuba, Palestine and Vietnam. Quoting Lenin’s famous pamphlet, the MEK posed the question: “What Is to Be Done?” “Our answer is straightforward,” the MEK wrote: “Armed struggle.”

Rajavi was among 69 members of the MEK tried in 1972 by a military tribunal for plotting acts of terrorism. “The ruling class is on its deathbed,” he told the tribunal. When the prosecutor interrupted him to ask why he had acquired weapons, Rajavi replied: “To deal with the likes of you.”

Of the 11 members of the MEK central committee tried in 1972, nine were immediately executed and one remained in jail. When Rajavi emerged from prison in 1979, three weeks before the Iranian revolution, he was the undisputed leader of Iran’s most deadly underground rebel group.

The MEK played an important role in the 1979 revolution, seizing the imperial palace and doing much of the fighting to neutralise the police and the army. Two days after the revolution, Massoud Rajavi, who was 30, met the 77-year-old supreme leader. The two did not hit it off. “I met Khomeini,” Rajavi told a journalist in 1981. “He held out his hand for me to kiss, and I refused. Since then, we’ve been enemies.”

Khomeini saw the MEK as a threat to his power, barring Rajavi from running for president and casting his organisation as an enemy of Islam. Armed members of the newly created Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) disrupted MEK events, burned its literature and beat up its members. Without political power, the MEK relied on street protests. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians attended its rallies, which the courts soon banned.

In response, the MEK and the president, Abolhassan Banisadr, who was also antagonistic to Khomeini, organised two days of protests across 30 cities – forcing Khomeini to go on television to reiterate the ban. The MEK, he said, were “waging war on God”. Other clerics warned that demonstrators would be shot on sight. On 20 June 1981, the MEK organised a mass protest of half a million people in Tehran, with the aim of triggering a second revolution. The clerics were true to their word: 50 demonstrators were killed, with 200 wounded. Banisadr was removed from office and a wave of executions followed.

Over the following months and years, the violence escalated. Khomeini rounded up thousands of MEK supporters – while his loyalists launched waves of mob violence against MEK members and sympathisers.

By December, the regime had executed 2,500 members of the MEK. The group counter-attacked with a spate of assassinations and suicide bombings against Friday-prayer leaders, revolutionary court judges and members of the IRGC. “I am willing to die to help hasten the coming of the classless society; to keep alive our revolutionary tradition; and to avenge our colleagues murdered by this bloodthirsty, reactionary regime,” wrote one MEK fighter, Ebrahimzadeh, who killed 13 IRGC and Ayatollah Sadduqi, a close advisor to Khomeini, by detonating a hand grenade in a suicide attack in July 1982.

By the mid-1980s, thousands of people labelled as MEK had been executed or killed in street battles by the Islamic Republic of Iran.

This was the time when Rajavi accepted Saddam’s offer to fight Iran from the safety of Iraq. Over the next few years, Rajavi launched an “ideological revolution”, banning marriage and enforcing mandatory “eternal” divorce on all members, who were required to separate from their husbands or wives. He married one of the new divorcees, Maryam Azodanlu, who became, in effect, his chief lieutenant and took his name.

For Saddam, the MEK was a useful, but disposable, tool in his war against Iran. The MEK, however, was totally dependent on the Iraqi leader. In addition to cash and arms, he sent Iranian prisoners of war to Rajavi as new recruits. “The whole world was Camp Ashraf,” said Edward Tramado, one of these prisoners, remembering his indoctrination. “Nothing else had any meaning for me,” recalled Tramado, who now lives in Germany. “I was living in a delusional world. Even though I knew I had a mother who was waiting for me, my entire world had become what they had constructed for me.”

In July 1988, six days after the ceasefire that officially ended the Iran-Iraq war, the MEK launched a suicidal mission deep into Iranian territory, dubbed Operation Eternal Light. Once again, Rajavi predicted his actions would spark another revolution. “It will be like an avalanche,” Rajavi told the fighters he was about to send to their deaths. “You don’t need to take anything with you. We will be like fish swimming in a sea of people. They will give you whatever you need.”

The mission would end in a massacre: hapless MEK fighters were lured into an ambush by the Iranian army, which crushed them with minimal effort. One Iranian soldier who took part in the operation recently described it to me. Mehrad, who volunteered in 1987 at the age of 15, recalled that his division, which had fought against Iraqi soldiers on the southern front, was redeployed to the north in July 1988 to repel a new assault from Iraq. His division was sent to a location near the city of Kermanshah, about 111 miles (180km) from the border with Iraq. Mehrad and his fellow soldiers were surprised to hear that enemy soldiers had managed to make such a deep incursion into Iran. “We thought our army had given up,” he said.

When he arrived, Mehrad discovered that the enemy was the MEK – which had been led into a trap. “Their military strategy was very stupid,” he told me. “They just drove down the Tehran highway. It was like if the French army wanted to invade England and they just drove down the motorway from Dover to London.”

“We very quickly killed thousands of them,” Mehrad said. “There were piles of bodies on either side of the road. What was interesting to us was that many of them were women.” Some MEK took cyanide rather than be captured alive. The MEK subsequently claimed that 1,304 of its members were martyred, and another 1,100 returned to Iraq injured.

The survivors were tried on the spot and quickly executed; Mehrad watched as hundreds were hanged at gallows erected in the nearby town of Eslamabad. Khomeini then used the failed invasion as a pretext for the mass execution of thousands of MEK and other leftists in Iranian jails. Amnesty estimates that more than 4,500 people were put to death, and some sources say the numbers were even higher.

Eternal Light marked a major turning point for the MEK. Inside the barbed wire of Camp Ashraf, as the reality of indefinite exile sank in, a traumatised and grief-stricken membership turned against itself under the paranoid leadership of Rajavi. Several former members told me that after the bloody defeat, Massoud Rajavi cast himself as the representative of al-Mahdi, the 12th Imam who was “hidden” in the 9th century and who, according to Iranian Shia, will return alongside Jesus to bring peace and justice to the world.

Outside Camp Ashraf, the MEK continued to stage cross-border attacks against Iran, and helped Saddam to crush uprisings against his rule after his defeat by the US in the 1990 Gulf war. In March 1991, Saddam deployed the MEK to help quell the armed Kurdish independence movement in the north. According to the New York Times, Maryam Rajavi told her fighters: “Take the Kurds under your tanks, and save your bullets for the Iranian revolutionary guards.” The MEK vehemently denies it participated in Saddam’s campaigns to put down the Shia and Kurdish rebellions, but an Iraqi human rights tribunal has indicted MEK leaders for their role in suppressing the uprisings.

Karwan Jamal Tahir, the Kurdistan regional government’s high representative in London, was a fighter for the Kurdish peshmerga in 1991. He told me that he remembers how the MEK arrived in the town of Kalar, about 93 miles (150km) south-east of Kirkuk, just after Saddam had lost control of the north of Iraq after the first Gulf war. “They came in Saddam’s tanks,” he said. “We thought they were returning peshmerga because the tanks were covered with portraits of Kurdish leaders … but they opened fire on the town … It was a big atrocity.”

In the next decade, the MEK continued to fight against Iran. In 1992, the group launched concurrent attacks on Iranian diplomatic missions in 10 countries, including Iran’s permanent mission to the UN in New York, which was invaded by five men with knives. The MEK also settled more personal scores. In 1998, an assassin killed Asadollah Lajevardi, the former warden of Evin prison who had personally overseen the executions of thousands of MEK members.

Back at Camp Ashraf, commanders would tell wavering members that if they escaped, they would face certain death at the hands of either Saddam or the Iranian authorities. “We were far away from the world,” one member, who only escaped the MEK after the move to Albania, told me. “We had no information. No television, no radio.” Instead, within the camp, they had “Mojahedin television”, which consisted of looped speeches by Maryam and Massoud Rajavi, played “all day long”.

Rajavi told his followers that the failure of Eternal Light was not a military blunder, but was instead rooted in the members’ thoughts for their spouses; their love had sapped their will to fight. In 1990, all couples inside the camp were ordered to divorce – and women had their wedding rings replaced by pendants engraved with Massoud’s face. Spouses were separated, and their children were sent to be “adopted” by MEK supporters in Europe.

MEK commanders demanded that all members publicly reveal any errant sexual thoughts. Manouchelur Abdi, a 55-year-old who also left the MEK in Albania, told me that the confession sessions used to take place every morning. Even feelings of love and friendship were outlawed, he says. “I would have to confess that I missed my daughter,” he says. “They would shout at me. They would humiliate me. They would say that my family was the enemy and missing them was strengthening the hand of the mullahs in Tehran.”

Another recent defector, Ali (not his real name) showed me scars on his arms and legs from what he described as weeks of torture after he first joined the group in the early 1990s, including cigarette burns on his arms. When it was over, he said, he was taken to Baghdad to meet the leader. “They took us into a big hall. Massoud Rajavi was sitting there with a group of women,” Ali recalled. “[Rajavi said] ‘If any of you say one word to any one … One word, if any of this is exposed, reaches anyone else’s ears, or if you talk about leaving, you’ll be delivered to [Saddam’s] intelligence service immediately.’”

Batoul Soltani joined the MEK in 1986 with her husband and infant daughter. At first, her family was able to live together, but in 1990, she says she was forced to divorce and give up her five-year-old daughter and newborn son, who were sent abroad to be raised by MEK sympathisers. Soltani alleges that she was forced to have sex with Massoud Rajavi on multiple occasions, beginning in 1999. She says that the last assault was in 2006, the year that she escaped from Camp Ashraf and a time when Rajavi had not been seen in public for three years. When we spoke recently, Soltani accused Maryam Rajavi of helping Massoud to abuse female MEK members over the years. “[Massoud] Rajavi thought that the only achilles heel [for female fighters] was the opposite sex,” Soltani told me. “He would say that the only reason you women would leave me is a man. So, I want all of your hearts.”

Soltani, who was one of three women to speak about sexual abuse inside the MEK in a 2014 documentary aired on Iranian television, alleged that Rajavi had hundreds of “wives” inside the camp.

Another former female member, Zahra Moini, who served as a bodyguard for Maryam Rajavi, told me that women were threatened with punishment if they did not divorce their husbands and “marry” Massoud. “Maryam was involved in this sexual abuse, she used to read the vows to allow for the marriage to be consummated,” Moini said, in a telephone interview from Germany.

“Those who didn’t accept to marry would be disappeared. I was told that if I didn’t divorce [my husband], I would end up in Ramadi prison and I would have to sleep with the Iraqi generals every night.” (In response to questions about these allegations, an MEK spokesperson said: “The mullahs’ propaganda machine has been churning out sexual libels against the resistance and its leader for the past 40 years.”)

Two other female defectors, Zahra Bagheri and Fereshteh Hedayati, have alleged that they were given hysterectomies without their consent in the Camp Ashraf hospital, under the pretext they were being operated on for minor ailments. In the eccentric ideological language of the group, the women say the procedure was retrospectively justified to victims as representing “the peak” of loyalty to their leader.

Hedayati, who survived the massacres of Operation Eternal Light, joined the MEK as a 22-year-old in 1981 with her husband, who is still inside the group. “They said I had a cyst,” she told me. “But they also took out my womb. They told me that it meant that I had an even stronger connection to our ideological leader.” Hedayati, who left the group in Iraq and now lives in Norway, says she was never sexually abused, but was “brainwashed” by the group into divorcing her husband, and alleges that more than 100 other women were sterilised by MEK doctors. “I always ask myself why they did this to us,” Bagheri said. “Of course, to take away our futures.”

Between an escape attempt in 2001 and her exit from the MEK in 2013, Hedayati says she was subject to extraordinarily harsh treatment by her commanders. “They said I was a lesbian,” she says. “They spat on me, they beat me, they locked me up. I was put in jail, in solitary confinement.”

Albania ostensibly accepted the MEK members for humanitarian reasons – but the country’s leaders may have seen an opportunity to curry favour with the US government, which had seen its offers rejected by various other European states. “They were the only ones who would take them,” the former state department official Daniel Benjamin has said.

Olsi Jazexhi, a professor of history at the University of Durres critical of the government’s decision to accept the MEK fighters, says that Albanian politicians hoped the deal would lead the US to turn a blind eye to their own corruption. “The MEK is a card which gives them leverage with the United States,” he said. “They think that by taking the MEK, the Americans will leave their business alone.” (A secret US state department cable from 2009, published by WikiLeaks, said that the country’s three major parties “all have MPs with links to organised crime … Conventional wisdom, backed by other reporting, is that the new parliament has quite a few drug traffickers and money launderers.”)

For the Trump administration, the MEK is a valuable asset in the escalating regional conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. This summer, Trump abruptly pulled out of the Iran nuclear agreement and announced new sanctions, triggering a currency collapse and four months of sporadic protests across Iran. The US has reimposed tough sanctions this week, targeting Iranian oil exports and banking. But Trump’s Middle East strategy has come under new scrutiny after the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Istanbul – which has sparked a backlash against the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and his allies in the Trump administration.

For most of its life in exile, the MEK was funded by Saddam. After his downfall, the group says it raised money from Iranian diaspora organisations and individual donors. The MEK has always denied it is financed by Saudi Arabia – but the former Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Turki al-Faisal, made waves when he attended the group’s 2016 rally in Paris and called for the fall of the Iranian regime.

“The money definitely comes from Saudis,” says Ervand Abrahamian, a professor at the City University of New York and author of the definitive academic work on the group’s history, The Iranian Mojahedin. “There is no one else who could be subsidising them with this level of finance.”

Analysts agree that the MEK lacks the capacity or support to overthrow the Iranian government – as even Bolton and Pompeo would surely concede. “They are probably smart enough to know that this group is not democratic and anyway has no constituency inside Iran,” said Paul Pillar, who served in the CIA for 28 years, including a period as the agency’s senior counter-terrorism analyst. Trump and his Iran hawks, Pillar said, are not concerned with replacing the current regime so much as causing it to crumble. “They are pursuing anything that would disrupt the political order in Iran so they and the president can cite such an outcome as a supposed victory no matter what comes afterwards.”

According to one recent MEK defector, Hassan Heyrani, the group’s main work in Albania involves fighting online in an escalating information war between Iran and its rivals. Heyrani, who left the MEK last summer, says that he worked in a “troll farm” of 1,000 people inside the Albanian camp, posting pro-Rajavi and anti-Iran propaganda in English, Farsi and Arabic on Facebook, Twitter, Telegram and newspaper comment sections.

“We worked from morning to night with fake accounts,” he says. “We had orders daily that the commanders would read for us. ‘It is your duty to promote this senator, this politician, or journalist writing against Iran’ and we would say ‘Thank you, the Iranian people support you and Maryam Rajavi is the rightful leader’, but if there was a negative story on the MEK, we would post ‘You are the mercenaries of the Iranian regime, you are not the voice of the Iranian people, you don’t want freedom for Iran’.” An MEK spokesperson called these allegations “another lie” made up to support the Iranian foreign ministry.

According to Marc Owen Jones, an academic who studies political bots on social media, “thousands” of suspicious Twitter accounts emerged in early 2016 with “Iran” as their location and “human rights” in their description or account name, which posted in support of Trump and the MEK. These accounts, says Jones, were created in batches and would promote Trump’s anti-Iran rhetoric using the hashtags #IranRegimeChange, #FreeIran and #IstandwithMaryamRajavi.

Albanian journalists say that the MEK, which has close contacts with senior politicians and the security services, operates with impunity within Albania. Ylli Zyla, who served as head of Albanian military intelligence from 2008 to 2012, accused the MEK of violating Albanian law. “Members of this organisation live in Albania as hostages,” he told me. Its camp, he said, was beyond the jurisdiction of Albanian police and “extraordinary psychological violence and threats of murder” took place inside.

Former members accuse the MEK of responsibility for the death in June of Malek Shara’i, a senior commander who was found drowned by police divers at bottom of a reservoir behind the group’s Albanian base. Shara’i’s sister, Zahra Shara’i, said that his family had received news from former members that Malek was about to escape, and says the MEK was responsible for his death. “I am their enemy and I will not rest until I get my revenge,” she told the Guardian from Iran. The MEK said that Shara’i drowned while attempting to save another member from drowning. The Albanian police said the death was not suspicious.

While defectors with private means have been smuggled out of the country into the EU, many former members live hand-to-mouth in Tirana. The Albanian state has not granted refugee rights to the MEK or its defectors, and a UN monthly stipend of 30,000 lek (£215) lapsed on 1 September. “They’re stuck,” says Jazexhi, who has worked to support the defectors. “They don’t know the languages, they don’t know the laws, they don’t know what democracy is. They are used to dictators. We tell them that they shouldn’t be afraid.”

Migena Balla, the lawyer representing Mostafa and Robabe Mohammadi, the couple in Tirana fighting for the release of their daughter Somayeh, believes that pressure has been put to bear on both the police and the judiciary to ensure the MEK does not “create political problems”. “Politics is interfering in the judicial system,” she says. “When I went to the police station to register their complaint the police officers actually ran away. They are scared of losing their jobs.”

The MEK has not taken kindly to the presence of the Mohammadis in Albania. They accuse Mostafa – and any former member who has spoken out against the MEK – of being a paid agent of the “mullah regime”. On 27 July, Mostafa was hospitalised following an assault by four senior members of the MEK, which was captured on video by his wife. The attackers, who shouted “Terrorist!” at Mohammadi, were briefly detained by Albanian police. But, after a phalanx of MEK members arrived at the police station, the men were promptly released.

The MEK has published letters, purportedly written by Somayeh, accusing her father of being an Iranian intelligence agent. A nervous-looking Somayeh recently gave a video interview inside the MEK base saying that she wishes to remain a member of the group.

The Mohammadis have responded with open letters to their daughter and to Albanian politicians, calling for an unsupervised meeting with their daughter. “I am your mother Mahboubeh Robabe Hamza and I want to meet with you,” Robabe wrote to Somayeh. “I am the woman who fed you at my breast, I held you in the crook of my arm. You are my flesh and blood … I love you more than my life … I’m getting old, I am getting tired, but life is not worth living without seeing you.”

Arron Merat was a Tehran correspondent for the Economist between 2011 and 2014. He has covered Iran for the Guardian, the Sunday Times and Vice News. He tweets at @a_merat

The State of Hate

To illustrate this story, we asked four artists to create visual interpretations of the concept of hate. This illustration: Andrea Levy for The Washington Post.
Researchers at the Southern Poverty Law Center have set themselves up as the ultimate judges of hate in America. But are they judging fairly?

David Montgomery
The Washington Post Magazine
November 8, 2018

See that speck there?" retired Lt. Gen. William G. "Jerry" Boykin says, directing my gaze to the ceiling of the Family Research Council's lobby in Washington. I spy a belly-button-size opening in the plaster. "That's a bullet hole."

The blemish has been preserved for six years. "See that?" he asks, now indicating a cratered fire alarm panel near the reception desk. "That's a bullet hole. That's the first round. The second went through the arm of the building manager. The third round hit the ceiling. … Fired on August 15th, 2012, by Floyd Lee Corkins."

The hero of that day was the building manager, Leo Johnson, who tackled Corkins and was shot in the arm as they scuffled. Asked by an FBI agent how he came to single out the FRC, Corkins replied: "Southern Poverty Law lists anti-gay groups." The gunman, who was found to be mentally ill, was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

"He came in here to kill as many of us as possible because he found us listed as a hate group on the Southern Poverty Law Center website," continues Boykin, FRC's executive vice president, who is dressed today in a leather vest over a shirt and tie. "We and others like us who are on this 'hate map' believe that this is very reckless behavior. … The only thing that we have in common is that we are all conservative organizations. … You know, it would be okay if they just criticized us. … If they wrote op-eds about us and all that. But listing us as a hate group is just a step too far because they put us in the same category as the Ku Klux Klan. And who are they to have a hate-group list anyhow?"

Eight hundred miles south, the modernist, glass-and-concrete headquarters of the Southern Poverty Law Center etches the skyline of Montgomery, Ala., just up a hill from Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. used to preach. On display in the SPLC's lobby is a melted clock. It marks the time at 3:47 a.m., July 28, 1983, when Klansmen torched a previous SPLC headquarters. Over the years, according to the organization, more than two dozen extremists have been jailed for plots to kill its employees or damage its offices.

Richard Cohen, president of the SPLC, decries Corkins's assault on the FRC when I ask him about it in his office, with its view of King's church. But he says the SPLC's hate list — which doesn't include the FRC's address or any call for violence — shouldn't be held responsible. "Labeling people hate groups is an effort to hold them accountable for their rhetoric and the ideas they are pushing," says Cohen, who is dressed in a polo shirt, khakis and running shoes.

"Obviously the hate label is a blunt one," Cohen concedes when I ask whether advocates like the FRC, or proponents of less immigration like the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or conservative legal stalwarts like the Alliance Defending Freedom, really have so much in common with neo-Nazis and the Klan that they belong in the same bucket of shame. "It's one of the things that gives it power, and it's one of the things that can make it controversial. Someone might say, 'Oh, it's without nuance.' … But we've always thought that hate in the mainstream is much more dangerous than hate outside of it. The fact that a group like the FRC or a group like FAIR can have congressional allies and can testify before congressional committees, the fact that a group like ADF can get in front of the Supreme Court — to me that makes them more dangerous, not less so. … It's the hate in the business suit that is a greater danger to our country than the hate in a Klan robe."

The SPLC was founded in 1971 to take on legal cases related to racial injustice, poverty and the death penalty. Then, in the early 1980s, it launched Klanwatch, a project to monitor Klan groups, neo-Nazis and other white supremacists. Their hate seemed self-evident. But eventually the SPLC began tracking — and labeling — a wider swath of extremism. And that's when things became more complicated.

Today the SPLC's list of 953 "Active Hate Groups" is an elaborate taxonomy of ill will. There are many of the usual suspects: Ku Klux Klan (72 groups), Neo-Nazi (121), White Nationalist (100), Racist Skinhead (71), Christian Identity (20), Neo-Confederate (31), Black Nationalist (233) and Holocaust Denial (10). There are also more exotic strains familiar only to connoisseurs: Neo-Volkisch (28; "spirituality premised on the survival of white Europeans") and Radical Traditional Catholicism (11; groups that allegedly "routinely pillory Jews as 'the perpetual enemy of Christ' "). Then there are the more controversial additions of the last decade-and-a-half or so: Anti-LGBT (51), Anti-Muslim (113), Anti-Immigrant (22), Hate Music (15), Male Supremacy (2). Finally, the tally is rounded out by a general category called Other (53) — "a hodge-podge of hate doctrines."

For decades, the hate list was a golden seal of disapproval, considered nonpartisan enough to be heeded by government agencies, police departments, corporations and journalists. But in recent years, as the list has swept up an increasing number of conservative activists — mostly in the anti-LGBT, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim categories — those conservatives have been fighting back. Boykin, of the FRC, recently sent a letter to about 100 media outlets (including The Washington Post) and corporate donors on behalf of four dozen groups and individuals "who have been targeted, defamed, or otherwise harmed" by the SPLC, warning that the hate list is no longer to be trusted. Mathew Staver, chairman of the Christian legal advocacy group Liberty Counsel, told me 60 organizations are interested in suing the SPLC.

There are signs the campaign is having an impact. Last year GuideStar, a widely consulted directory of charitable organizations, flagged 46 charities that were listed by the SPLC as hate groups. Within months, under pressure from critics, GuideStar announced it was removing the flags. The FBI has worked with the SPLC in the past on outreach programs, but Attorney General Jeff Sessions has signaled a very different attitude. At a meeting of the Alliance Defending Freedom in August, Sessions said, "You are not a hate group," and condemned the SPLC for using the label "to bully and to intimidate groups like yours which fight for religious freedom."

Along the way, the SPLC undermined its own credibility with a couple of blunders. In 2015, it apologized for listing Ben Carson as an extremist (though not on the hate list), saying the characterization was inaccurate. Then, this past June, the group paid $3.4 million to Muslim activist Maajid Nawaz and his Quilliam organization to settle a threatened lawsuit. The SPLC had listed them in a "Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremists" (again, not on the main hate list). The SPLC apologized for misunderstanding Nawaz's work to counter Islamist extremism.

Ironically, the assault on the SPLC comes at a time when, by other measures, it has reached a new peak of public regard. Last year the group raised a whopping $132 million through its famously relentless direct-mail appeals and other giving. (Disclosure: Last year my wife gave $25 to the SPLC, as I learned from her after I started working on this story.) That's a 164 percent increase over the $50 million it took in a year before. The SPLC's endowment is up to $433 million. SPLC leaders explain the jump as a reaction to the tone unleashed by Donald Trump's presidential campaign and continued by the Trump administration.

What should we make of the SPLC at a moment when its influence is growing — and its detractors are louder than ever? I recently spent time shuttling between the SPLC and the people it is seeking to monitor. By getting specific about the SPLC's particular charges against particular organizations, I thought I might be able to try to separate hate from hyperbole.

The SPLC's definition of a hate group is "an organization that — based on its official statements or principles, the statements of its leaders, or its activities — has beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics," including race, religion, ethnicity and sexual orientation. It's a standard that is in line with the latest thinking among scholars of hate, and also one that intentionally parallels the FBI's definition of a hate crime.

Does an alliance of lawyers with conservative Christian leanings that has won nine cases before the U.S. Supreme Court in the past seven years meet that criteria? According to Heidi Beirich, director of the SPLC's Intelligence Project — which produces the hate list — the decision to put the Alliance Defending Freedom on the list for 2016 was a judgment call that went all the way up to top leadership at the SPLC.

The ADF's Supreme Court victories have included the case of the Colorado baker who didn't want to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, and the effort to block California from forcing antiabortion pregnancy centers to provide information about abortion providers. But those didn't get the ADF placed on the hate list. Instead, a major strike against the group was its decision to file an amicus brief in the 2003 landmark Supreme Court case that struck down a Texas law criminalizing gay sex. The ADF wanted to uphold the state's right to decide whether "it is reasonable to believe that same-sex sodomy is a distinct public health problem," according to the ADF's brief. "It clearly is."

"It's really bad that you want these people thrown in jail for consensual activity," Beirich told me. "It's literally barbaric in our opinion. And that was the thing that really pushed ADF over the top to us." Beirich counts not just the Texas case, but also more recent assistance the ADF has given in cases that would have preserved criminal sanctions for sodomy in other countries.

When I met ADF senior counsel Jeremy Tedesco in a coffee shop on Capitol Hill, the alleged card-carrying hate-group member was wearing, yes, a mainstream business suit and tie. He said the criminalization cases cited by the SPLC amounted to less than 1 percent of the ADF's work and raised issues of courts usurping the will of the people, a larger subject that animates the ADF. He also defended his group's submission of a brief in a case involving birth certificates in France that, according to the SPLC, would have resulted in the forced sterilization of transgender people. Tedesco countered that the ADF is against the forced sterilization of anyone and that the case really was about the autonomy of nations in Europe and protecting traditional gender distinctions in the law — another principle that motivates the alliance. He added that France itself denied that forced sterilization was at stake. (Beirich told me later that the SPLC stands by its characterization of the case.)

The ADF has no plans to join more cases involving criminalization of same-sex activity either here or abroad, Tedesco told me. Since the Supreme Court upheld same-sex marriage in 2015, he said, the alliance has intensified its focus on religious-liberty cases and free-speech cases to protect Christians like the cake maker who may feel beleaguered in the new gay-marriage world. That work is included in the SPLC's hate dossier as context "about how they view the LGBT population," Beirich said, "so our readers can understand where they're coming from. But that's not the thing that gets you on the hate list."

Tedesco, like representatives of other organizations characterized as haters by the SPLC, said that since the ADF was added to the list, the group has been barred from raising money through AmazonSmile, a program set up by to help customers designate nonprofits to receive a portion of the price of purchases. According to an Amazon spokeswoman, Amazon relies on the SPLC alongside an arm of the U.S. Treasury Department to determine if a group is ineligible because it promotes intolerance, hate or criminal activity. (Amazon CEO Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

"It's a stranglehold on conservative and religious groups that is just hovering over us and that can continue to constrict and limit our ability to simply voice our opinion," Tedesco told me. "This hate label shuts down debate. … It creates enmity towards people that are just on the other side of an issue from you. That's not something we need in our culture."

Later, when I met with Cohen, he noted that far from being shut down, groups like the ADF have more power than ever, given the friendly remarks by top administration officials like Sessions. Cohen also showed me an anonymous letter he had received, marked "Re: 'Alliance Defending Freedom' ": "I know who you are; what you look like; where you work; where you live, and what you drive. … So I think I'll pay you a visit soon. What do you think will happen then?! Trust me — it will be the worst day in your life!" Cohen said, "I don't hold the ADF responsible for that, but there are people who are angry at us."

A feature of many SPLC dossiers on hate groups is an "In Its Own Words" section that presents extreme-sounding quotes by members of the group. In the ADF's case, nearly half of the dozen quotes generally condemning the "homosexual agenda" are more than a decade old. In a follow-up conversation, I read to Tedesco this one attributed to another ADF lawyer in 2012: "Control of the educational system is central to those who want to advance the homosexual agenda. By its very nature, homosexual acts are incapable of bearing fruit — indeed, strictly speaking, they are not sexual, as they are incapable of being generative or procreative. Thus there is the need to desensitize and corrupt young minds, both to undermine resistance to the agenda and for recruitment among those that are at an emotionally vulnerable stage of development."

"I've never seen that speech," Tedesco told me. "None of our work is dealing with those issues right now. … It's another cherry-picked quote that they're going to try to build what is ultimately a house of cards on top of."

In the middle of my tour of alleged hate groups, I made a trip to a Georgia satellite office of the SPLC, where much of the team that researches the hate list is based. On my way, I read the autobiography of SPLC co-founder Morris Dees. A born raconteur, Dees proved to be as good a marketer as a lawyer. He hit on the novel strategy of shutting down Klan groups by suing them, and he spun equally compelling tales of injustice to juries and to recipients of the fundraising appeals he used to finance the nonprofit law center. Now 81, Dees doesn't come into the office regularly anymore, according to a spokeswoman, and I never got to meet him. He still was paid $358,000 last year, just ahead of Cohen, who earned $351,000.

The SPLC may be best known for its hate monitoring, but that work takes up a fraction of the total budget and staff — about $4.6 million out of $72 million, and 30 employees of a total of 330. The post-Trump fundraising boom has allowed anti-hate resources to double since 2015, to meet what the SPLC says is a rising need, while the overall budget is projected to reach $85 million with 400 employees by the end of next year. The bulk of the center's work is legal advocacy. A team of 80 lawyers has dozens of cases in progress, on behalf of poor people, minorities, immigrants, disenfranchised citizens and children, mostly in the South. Sometimes the legal advocacy and the hate monitoring merge, as with a recent suit against the founder of the Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website, for allegedly launching a harassment campaign against a Jewish real estate agent. In addition, the SPLC creates and distributes free "teaching tolerance" materials to tens of thousands of schools and periodically produces award-winning documentaries.

The center's Intelligence Project is a quasi-journalistic unit within the SPLC that produces the hate list as well as a biannual magazine, online investigative stories on trends in extremism, and the daily Hatewatchblog. A fascinating report last year used Dylann Roof's online manifesto to argue that his misperceptions about black-on-white crime — which fueled his massacre of nine black church members in Charleston, S.C., in 2015 — were in part based on quirks in the Google search algorithm that had led him to racist Web pages rather than to federal crime statistics. A report this year looked at 13 young men purportedly influenced by "alt-right" ideology before they allegedly killed or injured 110 people since 2014.

The Georgia office has about 10 researchers working on the hate list and other hate monitoring. They are paired with writers and editors working mostly out of Montgomery. My visit in September came as the researchers were preparing the list of hate groups for 2018, which will be published early next year. Clustered at desks according to their specialties — anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant, anti-LGBT, anti-government and so forth — they were trying to determine who still belongs and prospecting for new entries.

Most of the researchers can't be quoted for security reasons, according to a spokeswoman, but in a small office I met Keegan Hankes, lead research analyst on the team devoted to white nationalist groups. He was scrolling through a year's worth of articles on the website of Faith & Heritage — which describes itself as primarily a "webzine" — to see if the group still merited a place on the hate list. "We affirm that all men, of every race, ethnicity, and tribe, are created in the image of God," the site reads. "However, this common humanity does not mean that all groups are equal in every respect." The articles promote the ideal of a white Christian nation.

"So you get a lot of Christian nationalism but with a racialist bent," Hankes said. "I'm basically trying to make sure that … they have remained as extreme as they were when they joined our list. See the first article here: 'A Biblical Defense of Ethno-Nationalism.' So that's a red flag, obviously, when you're deciding whether a group may have racist leanings." (Faith & Heritage did not respond to messages I sent seeking comment.)

Hankes was also weighing whether to add a store in Georgia where the racist inventory includes music with vile anti-black lyrics, and he was considering dropping a couple of groups that seem to have become inactive. Once he has a recommendation, he will prepare a file, and it will be reviewed up the chain to Beirich and her deputy, and all the way to Cohen for the closest judgment calls.

He showed me how his computer's customized software can create a graphic of the network of members of large groups like the Council of Conservative Citizens. Other tools capture social media posts, video and podcasts. "Last year I probably listened to a thousand hours of racist radio at least," he said.

Hankes grew up in Auburn, Ala. After graduating from the University of Chicago, he started as an intern at the SPLC and has been working there for about five years. "Seriously, it does not make you a more optimistic person," he said. "You're just on average reading hundreds if not thousands of racial slurs or listening to them every single day. … But on the other side, it's a real privilege and a rare position to be in to actually do something about it — to do our part to expose this."

Back in Washington, I paid a visit to the Center for Security Policy, four blocks from the White House. Founder Frank Gaffney greeted me warmly. Coincidentally, the date was Sept. 11. "Perhaps it's not accidental," Gaffney said. The SPLC calls the former Reagan administration Pentagon official an anti-Muslim conspiracy theorist, and even some conservatives in town want nothing to do with him. But the Center for Security Policy's allies include Ron Dermer, Israeli ambassador to the United States, who in a 2016 speech to Gaffney's group said: "If you have enemies, Frank, it's because you have stood up for something, many times in your life. … The SPLC and others who asked me not to come here tonight claim to support free and open debate. But in reality, they seem to want to stifle debate."

Gaffney's concern about Islam, he explained to me, is sharia, or Islam's legal framework. Sharia is a "totalitarian ideology," he said, and "sharia supremacists" including the Muslim Brotherhood want to make it the law of this land.

He listened patiently as I read to him from the SPLC's five-page dossier on him and its seven-page dossier justifying his group's listing as an anti-Muslim hate group. The SPLC claims this statement comes from a 10-part video course hosted by Gaffney: "America faces in addition to the threat of violent jihad another, even more toxic danger — a stealthy and pre-violent form of warfare aimed at destroying our constitutional form of democratic government and free society. The Muslim Brotherhood is the prime-mover behind this seditious campaign, which it calls 'civilization jihad.' "

"Accurate quote," Gaffney said. "But that has nothing to do with hatred. That has to do with intelligence analysis of the threat. It is a straightforward exploration based on the factual evidence of a peril to our country, as I say. And the only thing that I think you can conclude from the insistence [of SPLC] that nobody can say anything like that — and anybody who does say anything like that is not just a national security professional with whom they disagree, but is a racist and a bigot and a hater and an Islamophobe — is they're trying maybe to get me killed. … I'm quite sure that if a jihadist decides to kill me, part of the inspiration will come from the hateful things they've said about me."

Another quote, by a colleague of Gaffney's at the center: "When people in other bona fide religions follow their doctrines they become better people — Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, Jews. When Muslims follow their doctrine, they become jihadists."

Gaffney nodded. Even peaceful forms of jihad can undermine the United States, he said, and not all are peaceful. "It's not that we're trying to offend Muslims by pointing this out. That, unfortunately, is the doctrine they follow."

I left Gaffney's office with a tote bag full of 14 books buttressing his worldview. A 15th came later in the mail. In thinking about my interview, I was struck by just how little he had disputed the SPLC's claims about the frankly disquieting positions he has taken. To some extent, it was similar to my experience at the FRC and ADF. They simply saw those positions as admirable, or at the very least defensible, expressions of truth — whereas, to the SPLC, they were expressions of hate.

Next, I visited the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington. The CIS supports reduced legal immigration and tougher border security. The lobby is decorated with executive director Mark Krikorian's collection of kitsch renderings of the Statue of Liberty — Barbie, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, covers of the New Yorker and the Saturday Evening Post, Eddie Murphy in the movie poster for "Coming to America," even a vintage Peace Corps recruiting poster that says: "Make America a better place. Leave the Country."

The CIS has testified before Congress 100 times and publishes studies purporting to show the burden of immigration. The center supports a policy "that admits fewer people but does a better job of welcoming and incorporating those people," Krikorian said. Among the factors that got CIS added to the SPLC's hate list: the center's habit of circulating links to articles from arguably noxious sources in its regular email roundup. Also, a series of harsh-sounding quotes about immigrants by Krikorian and some of his colleagues.

Krikorian indulged my desire to go deep into the SPLC's 14-page hate dossier. The SPLC (with research help from the civil rights group Center for New Community) found that in 450 emails over 10 years, the CIS circulated 2,012 pieces from what the SPLC deems white nationalist websites. The total includes more than 1,700 from, an anti-immigration site that promotes white-identity politics. Popular article tags on Vdare include "minority occupation government," "anti-white hate crimes," "immigrant mass murder" and "white guy loses his job."

"If they had just sent around one Vdare piece, for example, that wouldn't matter at all," Beirich had told me back in Georgia. "But we documented 2,000 hate-group things. … When you get into the thousands, it's like, 'How come you're always on these hate sites and you're sending it to your membership?' You're telling people to read hate material over and over and over again. At some point you have some responsibility for that relationship."

The dossier leaves unclear how many of the 2,012 articles themselves were hateful, as opposed to having been published on platforms that the SPLC deems hateful. It offers only a handful of examples of the actual articles, and Krikorian maintains that most were legitimate immigration commentary. "The point is to cast a wide net," he said. "There's all kinds of stuff on Vdare that I have problems with. … But you know it is one of the main sources of commentary on immigration, and I'd be doing a disservice to readers not including immigration-related stuff that appears at Vdare."

Beirich countered that readers who clicked on the links still found themselves on hateful websites, and the center's aggregation helps legitimize those sites. Moreover, according to the SPLC, dozens of the pieces the CIS circulated were by authors whose work elsewhere is hateful.

"Providing links to immigration articles written by people who in other venues wrote things on other topics that are objectionable, and that I myself almost certainly would object to — so what?" Krikorian says. "You've got to admire the Inspector Javert-like obsession to go through hundreds of these links and find out who the author was and then Google the author and see what he — I mean it's just, get a life, people!"

I read to Krikorian excerpts of pieces that the SPLC does cite. He owned up to some mistakes, such as linking to a piece attacking Jewish organizations for welcoming refugees, and also this piece in American Free Press (itself listed as a hate group): "So-called refugees are committing rape and other horrific crimes against European women and men in increasing numbers. … The native ethnic stock that founded and built Western Europe and the U.S. is systematically being replaced through massive Third World immigration, which is facilitated and encouraged by Western governments. … Western governments give up their lands without a fight in the name of 'tolerance,' 'diversity' and 'humanitarianism.' "

"When you cast the net wide you're going to catch some crap along with the fish," Krikorian said. "I'm happy to disavow that article, but we don't avow anything we're distributing anyway."

Turning to his group's eyebrow-raising quotes the SPLC had culled, Krikorian knew which one I was going to mention first — because he's been trying to explain it ever since: In 2010, after the Haitian earthquake that killed more than 200,000, he wrote in a six-paragraph blog post on another site: "My guess is that Haiti's so screwed up because it wasn't colonized long enough."

"You're demonizing the Haitian population," Beirich had told me. "Maybe for some people it spreads out to all black people, or all immigrants. You're saying these people aren't as valuable as 'us' people."

Krikorian told me his point was historical: "Haiti probably has had all the problems it's had over the past couple hundred years precisely because it succeeded in breaking away from France almost too early. In other words if they had — obviously anybody who's a slave has the right to rise up at any time you want — if they had failed, at this point France would be shoveling money at them just like they are to their other black slave sugar colonies in the Caribbean, Guadalupe and Martinique." Still, I thought, Krikorian's historical point, compressed as it was, ignored the reality of the generation of Haitians who would have remained slaves. Is that a data point of hate?

Next, from the dossier, Krikorian in 2015: "The diminution of sovereignty engineered by the EU is bad enough for some share of the population, but many more will object to extinguishing their national existence a la 'Camp of the Saints.' " "The Camp of the Saints" is a French novel from the early 1970s that the SPLC and others call racist. In some circles, the title is shorthand for masses from poor regions overwhelming Europe or any more-prosperous place.

"Like the book or don't like the book" — Krikorian said he could only get through a few pages — "the concept is real," he told me. "When immigrants from poor countries come up and basically present a potential threat to the integrity of prosperous modern societies … it's not just economic because that's not what people are reacting to. They're reacting to a kind of cultural assertion that the host societies are reluctant to push back against."

One more: "We have to have security against both the dishwasher and the terrorist because you can't distinguish between the two with regards to immigration control," Krikorian said on none other than Frank Gaffney's radio show in 2014. I asked him if such a statement casts a demonizing pall over all the Latino immigrants working in kitchens or anywhere, by suggesting they might be terrorists.

"I'm not even sure why they pulled that out," Krikorian said. "That's sort of a truism. The point is you can't have immigration security that magically knows ahead of time who the terrorist is and who the dishwasher is. … There's not that many terrorists among illegal aliens, but you can't pick and choose who you're going to try to enforce the law against."

The dossier contains more of the same. Blunt quotes, documented associations — sometimes tenuous — with extreme corners of the anti-immigration movement, evidence of cozy proximity to White House immigration hard-liners. But the SPLC's critique devotes less attention to the main daily research work of the CIS. The analyses the CIS cranks out are sharply and even gleefully skeptical of immigration, and they are challenged by pro-immigration advocates. Yet, arguably, that side of the CIS resembles the standard think tank jousting that goes on in Washington. Nevertheless, overall the SPLC had found enough data points to meet its standard of hate.

With the SPLC relying upon such a seemingly objective and widely accepted definition of hate, why do the vast majority of the groups on the hate list fall on the right side of the ideological spectrum? Cohen says there are just far fewer groups on the left that condemn categories of people for who they are.

Can that possibly be true? What about antifascists, or antifa, those black-clad anarchists who hate capitalists and even Democrats, and who love to run amok during events like Trump's inauguration?

While often violent, the antifa movement doesn't have an ideology against people for their immutable characteristics, Cohen says. The SPLC has condemned antifa's violent tactics and has spotlighted acts of ecoterrorism and animal rights extremism. But to the SPLC and other hate watchdogs, not all violent groups are hate groups, and not all hate groups are violent.

What about Black Lives Matter? "We have heard nothing from the founders and leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement that is remotely comparable to the racism espoused by, for example, the leaders of the New Black Panther Party — and nothing at all to suggest that the bulk of the demonstrators hold supremacist or black separatist views," the SPLC says in its online FAQ on hate.

Boykin of the FRC — the first group on my itinerary — scoffed at these distinctions. "At the same time we're listed as a hate group … antifa, which advocates violence, is not," he said. "Black Lives Matter, which advocates killing cops, is not." (Boykin says he has heard cop-killing sentiments voiced in some chants captured in videos of BLM rallies.) "If there was anything other than a political motivation for doing this, or a financial motivation, you would think that these groups would be included."

(The SPLC's stated goal is to create an unbiased hate list, but forays into political activism by other parts of the organization could certainly hurt the list's reputation. For the first time, the SPLC recently took a stand on a Supreme Court nomination, urging Alabama's senators to vote against Brett M. Kavanaugh. It also just formed a political arm called the SPLC Action Fund that can lobby and support ballot measures. I asked Cohen if those advances onto political ground threaten to erode the SPLC's credibility as a nonpartisan arbiter of hate. "We think it's important to protect our integrity, the power of our brand, you might say," Cohen said. "But we also think the issues that we're advocating for are important.")

By this time, Boykin and I were up in his office, having completed our tour of the bullet holes. He assured me that the FRC doesn't hate gay people. I asked him what word he would use instead. Perhaps pity? Boykin thought for a moment. "Would it be possible to say 'love'?" he said. "I love you enough to tell you the truth. Is that possible? See, that's the way I look at it."

Groups like the FRC that are listed as anti-LGBT make much of being persecuted supposedly for advancing policy informed by their biblical outlook on marriage, sexuality and religious liberty. Beirich says this is incorrect: "We have never, ever considered a position on gay marriage on the hate group listing." Same with opposition to homosexuality for religious reasons. That alone is not hate, Beirich says. Nor is supporting exceptions to federal or state law for religious beliefs, or fighting the proposed law to bar employment discrimination against gays, or advocating against transgender students being able to use the bathrooms they choose, or opposing gays in the military.

But there are some bright lines that the SPLC absolutely considers hate. Along with advocating the criminalization of gay sex, a big one is linking homosexuality to pedophilia. "When you say that gay men are a bunch of pedophiles and molesters, for some people that's an opportunity to victimize that person because they're not a real person," Beirich says. "Disparaging a population and calling them perverts is very different than saying, 'I don't think you should engage in this conduct because my theology says that it's bad and it's bad for you.' "

This issue has appeared in FRC publications and also in leaders' comments, but the FRC insists it doesn't think all gay men are molesters — just that it's more likely, on average, that a gay man will be a molester than a straight one. But still, I wondered, doesn't that mean that parents must be on the lookout for all gay men, because how can you tell?

Its view, the FRC says, is based on science. Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow and the FRC's expert on sexuality, laid out the case on the phone after my visit to the council. It starts with the fact that nearly all child molesters are men — whether their targets are boys or girls. Then, the proportion of male abusers who attack boys is significantly greater than the estimated proportion of gays in the general population. "That in itself would seem to indicate that the relative rate of sexual abuse of minors by homosexual men is disproportionate to their representation in the overall population," Sprigg said.

To advance its case, the FRC cites a number of studies, including one that Sprigg sent me from a series co-authored in the 1980s and 1990s by Kurt Freund of the Clarke Institute of Psychiatry in Toronto. However, while highlighting some of Freund's data, the FRC discounts Freund's own assessment that the charge that gays are more likely to molest children is a "myth."

"We do reserve the right to draw our own conclusions from the data that's presented in these articles and not necessarily to agree with the interpretations or the conclusions that are drawn by the author from the same data," Sprigg told me. "They will not necessarily agree with our interpretation of their studies, but we think that we've quoted them correctly. … The fact that we disagree with others' interpretations I don't think is grounds for labeling us a hate group. The data is unclear enough or ambiguous enough that there are grounds for legitimate debate."

In the end, it seemed to me that the four groups I visited contained unequal quantities of what even the SPLC calls hate. Yet by its nature, the hate list draws no distinctions, and the SPLC is unapologetic in its view that hate is hate: "I don't see gradations with these organizations," Beirich says.

Among hate scholars and watchdogs, the SPLC is unique in going so far as to publish a list of hate groups. Specialists I talked to said they appreciate that the SPLC has taken on the role of labeler, as labels do add a stark clarity to the discussion. But is there a downside to applying this admittedly blunt, either-or instrument?

Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University in San Bernardino, told me he supports the SPLC's approach; indeed, he used to work there in the 1990s. But he cautioned: "How much high-fructose corn syrup do you have to put into something until it's not juice anymore? How much bigotry do you have to put into a mainstream policy organization before it becomes a hate group?"

"I think the Southern Poverty Law Center is a victim of its own success," Levin continued. "The traditional violent hate groups that they've successfully sued have now yielded to a much more mottled landscape, where the defining line is more amorphous. We're seeing a society that is changing with respect to" how it defines hate.

Meanwhile, both sides of the debate over the meaning of "hate" continue to make their cases to the public and, specifically, to donors — ensuring that the war will go on. "If you're outraged about the path President Trump is taking, I urge you to join us in the fight against the mainstreaming of hate," stated an SPLC direct-mail appeal sent last month over Dees's signature. "Please join our fight today with a gift of $25, $35, or $100 to help us. Working together, we can push back against these bigots."

Messages like that are what the FRC's Boykin cited to me as proof that the SPLC invokes the specter of hate to promote and finance a left-wing agenda. I mentioned to Boykin that I had heard that the SPLC's enemies, including the FRC, similarly raise money by invoking the boogeyman of the SPLC. He chortled in response. "Prove that one," he said. "I don't think you'll find any evidence of us specifically using the SPLC to raise money. … We appeal to our people based on a more positive message."

Later, four of the FRC's 2018 fundraising appeals mentioning the SPLC came into my hands, including this from January, over the signature of FRC president Tony Perkins: "The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), originally chartered as a national 'civil rights' organization based in Alabama, is now working to marginalize and ultimately silence the voice of Christians all across America. … One look at the SPLC's 'hate map' tells the story. … FRC's goal is to raise $200,000 over the next 45 days to dedicate to this battle. … The SPLC must be stopped or we risk jeopardizing the security of everything good, true, and beautiful: our faith, our families, and our freedom."

As these letters make painfully clear, hate, like so much in American life, has become highly ideological. In this climate, seeking widespread credibility for a hate list — with its inherently blunt methodology — seems at once quaint, noble and, possibly, futile.

David Montgomery is a staff writer for the magazine.

Nov 10, 2018

A Twisted Road to Murder

Dianne Wood 
Waterloo Record
January 17, 2008

In 1992, young Michael Sirois caught the imagination of artist Randy Penner. 14 years later, Siroiswould murder Penner and Verna Bast

KITCHENER: When the front door of Verna Bast's home swung open for the last time, warm light spilled out into the darkness of the night.

And then the darkness came in.

Michael Sirois, an angry young man carrying a knife, had hatred and murder boiling in his heart.

Sirois, who had listened to Bible stories in Bast's home as an angelic-looking boy, was out to kill.

After his rage was spent, two people lay bleeding to death in the Glasgow Street home in Kitchener where so many had found shelter and acceptance over the years.

Randy Penner, 47, the man who opened the door that night on Feb. 20, 2004, had been savagely stabbed 22 times in the head, eyes, chest, abdomen, arms and hands.

Bast, 87, a widow described by her son, Philip, as a deeply religious woman who devoted her life to helping others, died of hemorrhage and shock from three stab wounds to her head and one between her shoulders.

Yesterday, Sirois was found criminally responsible for his actions, and received a life sentence for two counts of second-degree murder.

The double killings shattered family, friends and people across North America who had known Bast for decades, since she first opened her doors to boarders and people in need.

Rev. J.O. Yeatts travelled all the way from Texas to speak at her funeral. He met Bast and her husband, Aaron, in the late 1940s when he preached in Kitchener. James Lunney, a former Kitchener chiropractor who now serves as an MP in British Columbia, flew in.

And Penner's family, including all five of his brothers, came to pay tribute to the artist who loved spending time with his nieces and nephews, teaching them how to draw or taking them on walks through the bush and pointing out wildflowers.

After his death, his mother learned Penner supported five orphaned boys in Nepal and three teenagers at Teen Challenge, a substance abuse rehabilitation farm near London, Ont.

Penner's brother, Jeff, a well-known local paralympic athlete who faithfully attended Sirois' four-week trial, said the community doesn't know what it lost.

His brother tried to help "disadvantaged people, and he's paid with his life,'' Jeff said.

Penner lived at Bast's home with another boarder, John Routley, who had been there 35 years. Penner was there for 25 years.

They were a family, held together by their strong Christian beliefs. A small group gathered with them weekly as a house church originally named Shiloh Manor.

Sirois' parents, Neil and Angie, used to come to the meetings. They brought their only child, a four-year-old son named Michael.

In a portrait Penner painted of the wide-eyed, chubby-cheeked boy in 1992, there's no sign of what he would become -- a person a psychiatrist would later describe as "a time bomb waiting to explode.''

A person, who, at his preliminary hearing, giggled while a pathologist detailed the wounds he had inflicted on Bast.

A devil worshipper who hated Christians and performed angry rituals in his room with candles, voodoo dolls and malevolent chants against people who had slighted him.

"He said he had a doll," a woman named Christa Webster testified at his preliminary hearing. "He would picture it as someone who had gone against him. He would stab it over and over."

Webster, who worked for Waterloo Region running training groups for people needing to find work, had cut Sirois from her group. He was late, argumentative and unfocused in the group. She thought he had mental health issues.

He begged her to let him back in, then started describing what he did to people who angered him, using thrusts to simulate a stabbing motion.

"He said he felt good and justified in getting vengeance against people who had done him wrong,'' she said. "He was frightening.''

She stopped walking to work and locked the door to her work area.

Sirois had a list of people in his bad books. There was the store owner who accused him of stealing. Sirois was either going to torch the store, shoot the owner or stab him, he told a girlfriend.

There was the teacher who dared suggest he get help for mental health issues.

Sirois took a knife and went to the man's house to stab him, but he wasn't home.

Then there was the doctor who admitted him to Grand River Hospital's psychiatric unit and gave him a sedative by needle.

A girlfriend was sure he would kill the doctor and made him get in her car one day when she saw him approaching the doctor's office.

Sirois, who had childhood problems with aggression, often talked about "bumping off'' or harming people who had done something to anger him.

His desire to kill grew with each perceived slight, each revisiting of a long-harboured grievance in his tormented mind.

So its final eruption into murderous rage came as no surprise to those who had seen his potential for violence long before the fatal stabbings.

Some of Sirois' blackest fantasies surrounded his parents and members of the house church.

He blamed the church for the strict way his parents raised him. He couldn't go swimming, have sleepovers or watch television.

The Christians had ruined his life, the self-described Satanist claimed bitterly.

In fact, he went to Bast's home to confront church members about these allegations 19 days before the stabbings. Routley stood up to vigorously defend the group. He said members didn't like the way Sirois was raised and had advised his parents to be more lenient.

Sirois attacked Routley and Penner, who ended up in hospital with a concussion. Jeff Penner said his brother feared Sirois would come back. But he didn't take any special precautions. He had his faith.

"He said, 'I'm afraid for my life. He's going to come back and kill us,' " Jeff said.

"I offered to let him stay at my house and Verna could, too.''

But Penner said that if his time had come, "He was ready to go," Jeff said. "His faith was so strong, he didn't fear it."

Sirois' lawyers argued that their client, who had been diagnosed a paranoid schizophrenic, was not criminally responsible for his crimes because of his mental illness.

The voices he heard, the demons he claimed to see and his strange behaviour in court -- giggling and making nonsensical remarks -- were evidence of auditory and visual hallucinations, they said. He could not have known the murders were wrong.

Psychiatrists expressed mixed opinions at a hearing on whether Sirois should be considered criminally responsible.

Some said that although he was disturbed -- possibly even psychotic -- he could still make rational choices. One suggested he was exaggerating his symptoms and was really just a narcissistic psychopath.

Others said Sirois, who claimed demonic voices had told him to kill church members, was severely deluded and psychotic. The court heard that Sirois believed killing would take him to a higher level of Satanism.

Carol Schwartz has her own beliefs. Schwartz, a member of the house church and one of the first on the scene of the murders, thinksSirois was responsible for choices he made years ago.

"Michael received a bitterness,'' she said. "He became bitter as a very young child. The grace of God that was extended to him, he rejected.

"He didn't guard his heart. It's like the bitterness and rage and anger and unforgiveness -- those just filled his heart until he was welcoming it. He opened to the dark side and said, 'Satan, come in and work through me.' "

Schwartz sees Penner and Bast as martyrs, not just murder victims.

"The spirit that was working in Michael hated the spirit that was working in them,'' she said.

Today, the house that was once a scene of horror is again a home with a loving family. Bast's son, Philip, restored it and moved in with his wife and family.

When the door opens, the light spills out. The darkness will not return. 

Glimpse of Chinese Culture That Some Find Hard to Watch

Eric Konigsberg 
New York Times

February 6, 2008

Each of the first few numbers was more elaborate than the last, teeming with acrobatic dancers, awash in jewel-toned silks, swelling to the anthemic strains of the orchestra. It was the opening night of Chinese New Year Splendor, a music and dance production that began at Radio City Music Hall last week.
Then the lyrics to some of the songs, sung in Chinese but translated into English in the program, began referring to “persecution” and “oppression.” Each time, almost at the moment a vocalist hit these words, a few audience members collected their belongings and trudged up an aisle toward the exit.

Before long came a ballet piece in which three women were imprisoned by a group of officers, and one was killed. At the end of the number, more members of the audience, in twos and fours and larger groups, began to walk out. At intermission, dozens of people, perhaps a few hundred, were leaving.

They had realized that the show was not simply a celebration of the Chinese New Year, but an outreach of Falun Gong, a spiritual practice of calisthenics and meditation that is banned in China. More than three years after flooding city corners and subway stations to spread the word about the Chinese government’s repression, Falun Gong practitioners are again trying to publicize their cause. Only this time, it involves costumed dancers and paying audiences in that most storied of New York concert halls, Radio City.

While the street theater, which often included live simulations of torture and videos and photographs of beaten victims, took a direct approach, the Chinese New Year Splendor show involves a slow reveal. It is not until the performance is under way that any reference is made to Falun Gong.

“I don’t feel comfortable here,” said Elizabeth Levy, an author of children’s books who was among the first to leave. “I had no idea when I came that this was about Falun Gong.”

“The Power of Awareness,” a piece that occurred late in the event, marked one of the first overt mentions of the movement in the program. In that number, Communist police officers walking through a park rough up a mother and daughter whose banner carries the Falun Gong message of “truthfulness, compassion and tolerance.”

The abusive officers are pushed back and chased away by a large group. The mother and daughter duo then “poetically leads the multitudes in learning the exercise of Falun Gong.”

Advertisements for the show, which have appeared on Metro-North trains and in The New York Times, among other places, make no mention of Falun Gong. Nor do the show’s Web site or the brochures being handed out on Manhattan sidewalks. The brochures include what appears to be an endorsement quotation from Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg: “Brings to life the rich traditions of ancient China right here in the Big Apple.”

However, a spokesman for the mayor, John Gallagher, said that Mr. Bloomberg had neither seen the show nor praised it, and that the quotation may have been taken from a greeting card Mr. Bloomberg sent to Chinese-American organizations in which he saluted Chinese New Year celebrations in general.

The show, which runs through Saturday, is a production of New Tang Dynasty Television, a nonprofit satellite broadcaster started by Falun Gong followers and based in New York.

With roughly 200 performances planned for 2008 — the company employs two troupes — it estimates that about 600,000 people will see the shows (in 2007, the company said, the number was about 200,000).

The television network, which often broadcasts news critical of the Chinese government, has been sparring continuously with Beijing over the shows. Before last year’s show at Radio City (the first was in 2006), the network complained that China was pressuring sponsors to withdraw their support, a claim echoed in other cities where the show has run.

In a statement, the Chinese Embassy criticized the network for trying to “inveigle the public into watching the show,” and said, “The truth is that the so-called ‘galas’ were nothing but a sheer political tool used by ‘Falun Gong’ organization to spread cult and anti-China propaganda.”

Falun Gong is a form of qigong, an ancient practice of breathing exercises, but also incorporates a spiritual element and some unique beliefs, including one that followers have a spinning wheel in their bellies that pushes out evil and attracts good. In 1999, its founder, Li Hongzhi, told a Time magazine reporter that aliens from other planets were responsible for corrupting mankind by teaching modern science.

From its creation in the early 1990s, the movement, and Mr. Li, grew in popularity through the decade. The Chinese government branded it an “evil cult” in 1999, banning the practice and persecuting its members.

Human rights groups have supported claims that the Chinese government has tortured, imprisoned or killed thousands of Falun Gong followers. Mr. Li immigrated to the United States, and at one point was said to be living in Queens.

The Radio City event “is kind of a P.R. front to try to normalize Falun Gong’s image, so that people don’t think of it as some kind of a wacko cult,” said Maria Hsia Chang, a professor of political science, emerita, at the University of Nevada, Reno, who wrote a book about Falun Gong.

But, she added, “I can only speculate as to why they’d put in these elements without declaring as much ahead of time, because it doesn’t help their image much.”

A New Tang network spokeswoman, and several members of the production troupe who agreed to be interviewed, said that they did not think publicizing Falun Gong’s connection to the show was necessary. “If we advertise Falun Gong, then why don’t we also say the show has Tibetan dancing and Mongolian dancing and Korean dancing?” said Vina Lee, a choreographer and a principal dancer. “Chinese culture is more than dragons and firecrackers.”

MSG Entertainment, which owns Radio City as well as Madison Square Garden, said in a statement: “When booking a rental, MSG Entertainment does not discriminate on the basis of political, religious, cultural, or ethnic viewpoints or beliefs.”

Aside from the references to Falun Gong’s plight, the two-hour performance was an elaborately stitched homage to Chinese traditions. Complementing the dance routines were solos from two sopranos, two tenors, a contralto and a woman playing the erhu, sometimes known as a Chinese fiddle. A giant video screen put forth majestic background images of Chinese landscapes.

But audience members who filed out of Radio City before and during intermission said they were troubled by the material. “I had no idea it was Falun Gong until now that it’s too late, and it really bums me out,” said Steven, a Chinese immigrant living in New Jersey who, along with his family, was among the first to leave and asked that his last name not be published.

“It’s a little too political, too religious, especially the dance showing some girls getting tortured in the prisons. That’s too much for Chinese New Year, especially with our children.”

Tickets cost $58 to $150, though one woman, a Chinese immigrant visiting from Dallas, said that as she was walking by Rockefeller Center just before showtime, a man offered her a free ticket. She also left the show early. “I didn’t like the torture stuff so much,” said the woman, who refused to give her name.

Cary Chiang, a father from New Jersey, said that his wife had objected to the Falun Gong material, but that as for their three children in tow, “It went right over their heads.”

Ms. Levy, the children’s book author, said, “I don’t particularly like being accosted on the street by Falun Gong, and I don’t like it happening to me here.”

Charles Wyne, a computer systems manager who sat happily through the entire performance, said he enjoyed the program. “I don’t know much about Falun Gong, but I don’t like the way the Communists treated the people,” he said, adding that freedom of speech was among his reasons for leaving China.

John Campi, vice president for promotion and community affairs at The Daily News, one of the listed sponsors, said the newspaper’s sponsorship involved trading a one-page ad in the paper for a Daily News ad on the back cover of the program. “I had heard that they were connected with a political group, and I said if this show is political, I’m not getting into it,” he said. “And they said it wasn’t.”

Joe Wei, national editor of the World Journal, a Chinese-American newspaper that is based in Queens and that takes no position on the practice and its teachings, said he saw one of the group’s shows about one year ago and detected no Falun Gong imagery. “This would be a major change,” he said. “I don’t know why they want to do this.”