Q&A with Mohsen Kadivar

Mohsen Kadivar, a visiting professor in the religion department, spent 18 months in an Iranian prison for speaking his mind. 

Kadivar, 50, who is teaching an undergraduate class and a seminar in the Divinity School, is a prominent Iranian cleric and political dissident. Most recently, along with four other leading opposition figures outside Iran, Kadivar drafted and signed an open letter calling for the resignation of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, free elections, the release of political prisoners, greater freedom of speech and an independent judiciary. 

Kadivar studied at Qom Seminary for 17 years, reaching the level of education needed to become an ayatollah. But after receiving a Ph.D. in Islamic philosophy and theology from Tarbiat Modares University in Tehran in 1999, Kadivar was arrested and jailed for publicly criticizing the Islamic Republic system.

After political pressure forced him out of Iran in 2007, he came to the United States and began teaching college students about Iran and Islam, first at the University of Virginia, and now at Duke. 

“I have a specialty in two cases of Islamic studies – Islamic philosophy and theology on the one hand, and Islamic jurisprudence on the other hand,” Kadivar said. “Every semester, I have one course on Iran, one course on Islam. I think it’s good for students to know something about... Islam, and also about political thought in Iran.”

He is currently teaching Ethics and Politics in Post-Revolutionary Iran to undergraduates and Islamic Philosophy: Prophecy and Revelation to graduate students. Only a handful of students have enrolled in his undergraduate class, which has a capacity of 40. 

“I was a little disappointed, I have to say, because he’s offering a course on politics and revolution in contemporary Iran and the enrollment was fairly low for whatever reason,” said Richard Jaffe, chair of the religion department. “I guess the students don’t know about him, but it’s really quite an opportunity. He’s involved very heavily in the Iranian opposition movement and is a real major figure in Iranian politics.”

Jaffe added that Kadivar will be teaching at Duke for at least two more years.

The Chronicle’s Ciaran O’Connor sat down Mohsen Kadivar to explore his views on Iran’s power structure, the recent elections and protests, and the nation’s nuclear ambitions. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

TC: Tell us about the evolution of your political views. When did you become critical of the Iranian government? How did you wind up in jail?

MK: After some of my speeches and interviews were published in Iran about eleven years ago, I was arrested by the government and sentenced to about eighteen months in prison. At the time, I criticized the regime and compared the goals of the [Islamic] revolution to the reality of the regime. I made a speech in a mosque in Iran and criticized [the murders of] four scholars by the intelligence service. I said, ‘Terror is forbidden in Islam. You cannot do it in the name of Islam.’ After release from jail, I continued my academic work but they made some restrictions on me. They didn’t allow me to continue my teaching in the university because they thought that my connection to students was not so good for the government.

TC: In the last presidential election, incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defeated reformist candidate, Mir Hussein Moussavi, despite widespread allegations of voter irregularities and fraud. Tell us about your reaction to the election and the subsequent protests, and your efforts to support the opposition since then.

MK: I supported Mir Hussein Moussavi. I believe that he won the election and that the government cheated and replaced him with Ahmadinejad. After [the election], I wrote several papers, made a lot of speeches, and wrote some declarations, and I was so active in this area. About the protesting, [It was] completely non-violent protesting. I think it’s a great norm in the Middle East. But the regime used violence against the protesters. After several times, some young protesters used very radical slogans against the Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei], and against the regime, so [the regime] fired against the protesters. The government said that about 34, 35 protesters were killed in the street and the protesters claimed 100. Some of [the dead] were women, some of them were men. Also, the regime censored and made a lot of limitations for the media. We do not have free media now in Iran.

TC: Can you tell us your opinion on the current state of democracy in the regime and your hopes for reform?

MK: Iran is so complex… The regime is supported by about 10 to 15—not 50—percent of citizens. [Iran’s vast reserves of oil] mean that the government does not need to listen to the citizens. Gradually, the government restricted and decreased the level of democracy in Iran. In the Iranian constitution, you have a contradiction... between democratic values... and autocracy and despotism. The Supreme Leader has a lot of legal power. He is like a king. He has the right to veto all law making. In American media, they think it’s so simple.  Our challenge to reach democracy will take a lot of time.  We try to increase the role of citizens, the rights of citizens, those democratic values that we have in the Iranian constitution. We have a background of 100 years of challenges for freedom and democracy and justice in Iran. The numbers of movements for justice and freedom in Iran [is among the most] in the Middle East. […] Democracy is not something that you can export from the US or Europe to other countries. This struggle is a national struggle to achieve democracy and human rights. Iranians do not want another revolution but they want reform. They do not want to use violence to achieve their goals.

TC: Do you agree with sanctions? Do you think they can be effective in facilitating reform?

MK: I do not agree with sanctions. Iranian citizens will suffer more than the regime. When the citizens are in trouble, the regime can use it as an instrument and make more restrictions against the citizens.

TC: What do you think about Iran’s nuclear ambitions? Do they have a right to pursue nuclear weapons and do we have a right to try to stop them?

MK: The nuclear issue is not an important case for Iranians. It’s the issue for foreigners, for Americans, or Israel, or other European countries. If you ask an Iranian, ‘What’s your goal?’ I think less than one percent say, ‘nuclear energy.’ Iranians say, ‘Our issues are about democracy and human rights, not nuclear energy. It’s your issue, not our issue!’ [Other countries in the Middle East] have a nuclear bomb, like Israel, and we didn’t hear anything from the US against them! I think it’s a double standard. It should be condemned and prohibited for all countries, the same. Also, as a Muslim, I think using any nuclear weapon is forbidden in Islam, ethically and religiously.

TC: Lastly, can you tell me about the open letter you wrote along with four other opposition leaders?

MK: I sign a lot of letters. These open letters are important in Iran. In this letter, we highlighted ten requests of Iranians. All of these requests could be achieved in the framework of the Iranian constitution. For example, the freedom of press and media, the first one, or releasing all the political prisoners. After the election, [there are] at least 500 [political] prisoners and about 50 of them are the leaders of all reformist parties. [We also included in the letter] judiciary power. We said they should be neutral, they should be fair, they should be just. The seminary should be independent from politics and government and the universities should be independent. The professors and students need independence. [We ask for] accountability and responsibility of all of government, especially the [Supreme] Leader. He is not above the constitution. He is under the constitution. The legitimacy of the leader came from the constitution. We also said Ahmadinejad should go out of the government because he cheated in the election. He is not our legal president. We need another election, a fair election.


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