Mohsen Kadivar spent 18 months in Iran’s infamous Evin Prison, mostly in solitary confinement. Kadivar says he wasn’t especially bothered by the isolation, since it allowed him to work 16 hours a day on his theological and political writings. Calling Kadivar “resilient” sounds like cheerleading, so I’ll settle for calling him tough.
Last semester, one of my classmates in Kadivar’s undergraduate course, “Religion and Politics in Post-Revolutionary Iran,” asked our professor what prison was like. Kadivar seemed to find the question amusing. He laughed and shrugged, as if the answer couldn’t have been more obvious. Prison was, he said, “like prison!” He went back to a detailed lesson about the collapse of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s regime. Kadivar would rather talk about the issues than about himself, even if it’s difficult to leave his name out of a discussion of the uneasy détente between religion and politics in contemporary Iran.
Kadivar doesn’t need to spin grim prison tales to inflate his reputation. He’s a high-ranking Shi’i Muslim cleric, able to use the title “Ayatollah,” though he prefers not to do so. He doesn’t like hierarchies, he says, which helps explain why he’s spent more than a decade as a thorn in the side of Iran’s autocratic government. In 2004, while he was still living in Iran and being routinely harassed by pro-regime forces, TIME Magazine named Kadivar one of the world’s leading innovators for his efforts to reconcile Islam and liberal democracy by considering both political philosophy and religious doctrine. Now, Kadivar is one of Iran’s most high profile political exiles, an influential public intellectual who is still regularly vilified in his home country’s state-run media.
A handful of Duke students have gotten to know Mohsen Kadivar as a visiting professor of the department of religion. Kadivar, who came to the United States in 2008, was a Chomsky-esque intellectual rock star for much of his career—he’s one of the most famous Iranian academics of his generation. He once gave public lectures to auditoriums of more than 5,000, but at Duke, his classes have been as small as three students. One of the most important living Iranian intellectuals is largely anonymous on his current campus.
Kadivar’s self-described “sabbatical” at Evin Prison in 1999-2000 was actually his second jail sentence. Pahlavi’s U.S.-backed regime briefly imprisoned Kadivar about a year before its fall in the 1979 Islamic Revolution. He was 19, one of many young dissenters against a monarchic government whose human rights abuses rivaled anything perpetrated by today’s Islamic Republic. Kadivar’s father and grandfather both spent time in prison for objecting to the policies of the Pahlavi dynasty. Kadivar’s first book is dedicated to his father: “A humble teacher, practicing reason, religiosity, and “Azadagi,” which loosely translates as “liberal-mindedness.”
During the revolution, Kadivar was a supporter of Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in his quest to create a republic ruled by Shi’i Muslim doctrine. Americans often think of Khomeini as the dour face of an extremist, oppressive, venomously anti-Western state. And yet Kadivar, now one of Iran’s staunchest pro-democracy activists, used to keep a picture of Khomeini in his study. He eventually took it down in March 1989, with tears in his eyes. He explained to his young son that his days of deifying mortal leaders were over.
“I said to him, ‘I will no longer give any man’s picture this special place,’” Kadivar told me last year. He told German news magazine Der Spiegel in 2009 that Khomeini’s portrait had been replaced with a verse from the Qu’ran: “God is greater than anything.”
His falling out with Khomeini’s ideology is typical of Kadivar’s ever-evolving, hyper analytical beliefs. But Kadivar has never wavered in his faith in the tenets of Shi’i Islam, which he describes as a religion that believes in the importance of non-dogmatic, rational reasoning. Along with his formal training in Islamic philosophy and theology (and an early stint as an engineering student), Kadivar was trained by Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri. Montazeri formally granted Kadivar the high distinction of ijtihad, or the right to practice individual judgment in theological and legal matters. Kadivar is about as credentialed as a Shi’i cleric can be, but he notes that sometimes he isn’t taken as seriously as he would like to be by his colleagues.
“Among clerics, I am young,” says the 52-year-old Kadivar, laughing.
Montazeri, who died in 2009, was once Khomeini’s hand-picked choice to succeed him as Supreme Leader—Iran’s theocratic head of state, appointed for life. Kadivar’s mentor was pushed out of the line of succession by a conservative coalition that considered him untrustworthy because he objected to the mass executions of political prisoners. “He was my teacher, my spiritual guide, my father—the most important person in my life,” Kadivar said of Montazeri in the Der Spiegel interview. Montazeri eventually became a sort of spiritual godfather to the Green Movement protests, which took place in the wake of the widely condemned 2009 presidential elections. Montazeri issued a now-famous fatwa, or religious opinion, against the religious legitimacy of an Iranian government that often claims to have a monopoly on the correct practice of Islam.
This fatwa can at least partly be credited to Kadivar, who triggered Montazeri’s landmark denunciation by writing him a letter asking questions about the theological problems with the current regime. Kadivar’s letter was strategically timed, and the fatwa it bred was humiliating for Iran’s governing theocrats. But Kadivar is not a casual rabble rouser. Like many of Kadivar’s writings, the letter to Montazeri reads like the work of a man more familiar with scholarly journals than political soapboxes: “Taking up positions of power for serving the public—which according to the laws must be occupied by those who are fair, honest, competent, and require the vote of the majority of the people—by those who are either not qualified, or no longer satisfy the conditions and qualifications stipulated by the laws…”
Kadivar provokes visceral reactions from those in power, but he does so by producing careful academic works that expose what he takes to be the self-serving logic of powerful religious and political leaders who, in Kadivar’s estimation, haven’t done their theological homework. The classic Kadivar move is to argue that a rational interpretation of Shi’i doctrine has “x” issue right, but Iran’s ruling clerics have it wrong. In Kadivar’s telling, the regime’s religious apologists are in conflict with their own faith as much as with secular concepts of justice. Kadivar stresses that a more democratic Iran will be, in his words, a “modern” Iran, which is not the same as a “westernized” Iran.
Kadivar’s writings on Islam and human rights bear this stamp, arguing that Shi’ism promotes a much more liberal treatment of dissidents and minorities than has been the rule in contemporary Iran. And then there’s Kadivar’s best-known criticism of the Islamic Republic, detailed in his trilogy of books on political theology. Kadivar’s deconstruction of Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s theory of vilayat-e faqih—“the guardianship of the jurist”—has deep theological underpinnings, but the basic thesis will appeal to anyone who is wary of self-proclaimed philosopher kings. Kadivar simply argues that no human ruler should have absolute control over the state, and that the doctrines of Islam do not allow any earthly leader to deem himself infallible. By this reasoning, vilayat e-faqih appears to be the root of exactly what so many Western observers take the Iranian government to be: an authoritarian thugocracy masquerading as a morally pure religious republic.
Vilayat-e faqih is the backbone of the Islamic Republic’s claim to legitimacy, which means that attacking the doctrine is one of the most direct challenges an Iranian can make to his or her government. Attacking vilayat e-faqih in his trilogy was a major cause of Kadivar’s 1999 prison sentence. The regime reacted so strongly because a critique like Kadivar’s, leveled by a respected cleric and framed in religious terms, is deeply threatening to a regime headed by a Supreme Leader who bills himself as a divinely guided authority. Because he is a theological insider, Kadivar’s censures of the regime have a credibility that no secular opponent can achieve.
“By my works, by my interviews, by my articles, books, papers, [the regime’s supporters] know something new. And because of it, the regime are so afraid of these kind of works,” Kadivar says. “I showed in my books that [the regime’s] methods are in contradiction with the method of the Prophet Mohammad.… It’s so bad for them when a person by the religious language criticizes them, because they want to show that all of the opposition are secular… I show that all of these things are wrong.”
And this is why, in 2008, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government finally sent Mohsen Kadivar into exile.
Eight unrepentant years after his release from prison, the regime continued to hassle Kadivar. Security forces prevented him from speaking at his scheduled lectures and he had to apply for official permission to host foreign visitors. In 2008, Kadivar received an offer to teach for a year at the University of Virginia. He started to apply for a visa to the United States, a harrowing process for Iranian citizens, who have to travel abroad to places like the United Arab Emirates just to stand in immobile embassy lines. (The U.S. hasn’t, of course, had an embassy in Iran since the entire embassy staff was held hostage by Iranian students for more than a year near the start of the 1979 revolution.) But when Kadivar went to the airport in Tehran on his way to Dubai to visit the U.S. embassy, it became clear that the government was determined to make things harder than usual on him.
“The government got my passport, and they said, ‘It’s forbidden for you to go out of the country,’” Kadivar says.
Kadivar went to a special clerical court to be grilled about all of his writings and speeches since his release from prison, but his passport was eventually returned. He managed to get his visa and leave for the U.S., along with his wife, Zahra (who has written about Iranian politics) and his four children. Kadivar knows that he can’t go back to Iran any time soon, barring serious political change.
That’s because, since leaving Iran and switching from Virginia to Duke in the fall of 2009, Kadivar has only escalated his criticisms of the regime. He writes for Rahe Sabz, or “Green Way,” the main website of the persecuted Green Movement, and maintains his own website—kadivar.com—on which he and other dissidents publish detailed critiques of various regime practices and policies. Kadivar spends less time trying to reach a Western audience, but he has been interviewed on Charlie Rose and co-authored an op-ed for Salon.com. Given that the Iranian government has only gotten harsher in its treatment of dissidents since Kadivar left—in the wake of both the massive 2009 protests and the Arab Spring—Kadivar doesn’t expect to be allowed to go back to Iran, and he wouldn’t be safe if he did return.
Iran has a long history of exiles influencing internal politics from abroad—Khomeini himself was exiled for years before the revolution. Still, no one seems able to agree about what will bring change to Iran, or whether anything can effectively be done from a distance. Kadivar believes that one of the main values of his writings is in exposing young pro-regime Basiji militiamen and Revolutionary Guards to the real ideology and practices of the government they support.
“We have a lot of young militia in Iran, they are ignorant of the reality of things,” Kadivar says. “When they read my book, they understand what happened in Iran.… I believe that the future of Iran will be changed by the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij, when they understand the reality.”
When asked how he knows that his work is read by these potential converts to the pro-democracy cause, Kadivar says that the government’s wariness of his work and its eagerness to discredit him speaks for itself. As I was writing this piece, Kadivar said he had every reason to believe that Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security keeps careful tabs on his writings and writings about him. He was explicit about a few things I couldn’t mention in this article, precisely because he says he has to assume it will be read by Iranian intelligence officers.
“We have a newspaper in Iran, by the name of Kayhan. Every week, we have something in it about me, what I said, what I wrote.” Kadivar says he has also been publicly denounced by Iran’s MIS, and identified in a press release by the Assembly of Experts, Iran’s version of a Supreme Court, as part of a “think tank of the civil war” that the regime accuses the Green Movement of trying to foment. An example from 2010 of the kind of casual takedowns of prominent dissidents that can be found in Kayhan: “Mohsen Kadivar, who pretends to be a cleric and has fled and lives in America…”
Kadivar’s exile is itself used against him by his pro-regime foes. He believes that the main reason he was allowed to leave in 2008 instead of once again being imprisoned or otherwise persecuted is because of the regime’s belief that exiles are easily discredited and that the influence of prominent dissenters always wanes the more time they spend outside their homeland.
Sina, a Duke student who was born in Iran and asked that his real name not be used out of consideration to his family members still in Iran, doesn’t believe that Kadivar or the remnants of the Green Movement will be the real agents of change in Iran. “When you hear an Iranian abroad saying something about Iran, you say ‘Oh, they have no idea what they’re talking about.’…It does make you irrelevant in that sense.” He adds that, “Anyone who comes to America is sort of viewed as a spoiled brat that can’t possibly understand the problems of real Iranians. So, if someone from abroad is going to make a difference, I doubt it will be someone from America, it will more likely be someone who’s in Afghanistan or Tajikistan” or elsewhere in the Muslim World. Sina also notes that, whatever he may think of Kadivar, he doesn’t feel safe taking his classes because he doesn’t want the Iranian government to associate his family with such a well-known dissident.
Not all Iranian expatriates agree with Sina’s indictment of Kadivar’s relevance. Fattaneh Naeymi-Rad, who teaches Farsi Persian at Duke, notes that since religion will continue to remain such an important part of Iranian public life, Kadivar is taking the right approach by focusing on how a self-identified Islamic state can be a liberal democracy. “If there is going to be change [in Iran],” she says, “it’s going to be what he’s trying to make.”
Negar Mottahedeh, an associate professor of literature and women’s studies who was born in Iran, takes a different tack in analyzing Kadivar’s activism. The potential problem is not that Kadivar is too removed from current Iranian politics—it’s that he’s so similar to the members of the regime whom he’s criticizing. “He’s a product of that theocracy,” she says, alluding to Kadivar’s clerical credentials. Mottahedeh also says she’d like for Kadivar to spend more time talking and writing about creating a better Iran not just for the Shi’i Muslim majority, but also for minorities like Baha’is and Iranian Jews.
She does agree with Kadivar, however, that very few American students have a good grasp of anything about Iran’s history, culture or politics. “I really haven’t seen the desire to learn that you would expect given America’s ties to that part of the world.” Mottahedeh, who has written extensively about contemporary Iranian culture and art, shares that work with Kadivar—educating Americans about a country she thinks we should understand better than we do.
Mohsen Kadivar’s son, Mohammad Ali Kadivar, is himself a political exile. Now a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Ali wrote a master’s thesis while studying in Iran that analyzed the failure of efforts to democratize the Islamic Republic. His thesis was later featured as fodder for an anti-social sciences campaign by the government. He says that he and his father have both faced a difficult transition to an American intellectual culture that is much different from that in Iran: “Intellectuals in Iran are like celebrities. People really care about what they say. But in the U.S., intellectuals in general, not just my dad, are very marginal in the public sphere…. If you ask five random people on campus to name five public intellectuals in the U.S., they barely can.”
Kadivar’s sprawling and often chaotic career as a cleric, activist and intellectual “pop star” (in TIME’s words) is difficult to assess from an American perspective. Someone like Kadivar can mean something in Iran that he couldn’t mean in the United States, and few Americans can imagine the dangerous glamour that attaches itself to political activists in countries where free speech can be a capital offense.
Kadivar has made disruptive contributions to Iran’s public discourse, and he’s got plenty more to add. He’s likely to be remembered as one of the most controversial and widely subscribed Shi’i scholars of his generation. But for as long as Kadivar continues to make his living teaching at American universities, he’ll probably be best known on campuses as a teacher of a select few students, those whose interests happen to extend into subjects like changing interpretations of the Qur’an, Islamic philosophy or the intersection of religion with Iranian politics during the last 30 years.
Senior Dania Toth took Kadivar’s “Religion and Politics in Post-Revolutionary Iran” class with me last spring—she’s the one who was bold enough to ask him about his time in prison. According to her, Kadivar was “more than a professor. The stuff that he taught us was only the most basic level of what he knows and the impact that he has on discourses in Iranian politics. We never really got the impression that he was an Ayatollah, with everything there, until we did some Google searches on him and found that he can mesmerize audiences of three thousand people. And then you’re in a three-person class with him.”
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