Cleric Uses Weapon of Religion Against Iran's Rulers
By Elaine Sciolino
The New York Times
September 18, 2000
Despite his turban and cloak, or perhaps because of it, Mohsen Kadivar
is a very dangerous man for the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The 41-year-old cleric and confidant of President Mohammad Khatami trained
at the best theological seminary and taught at some of the best universities
in the country. He was active in the revolution that toppled the monarchy
21 years ago and has written heavy tomes on Islamic philosophy and law.
But that was before he was banned from teaching, before he was tried
and sentenced to prison for disseminating lies, defaming Islam and disturbing
public opinion with his newspaper commentaries suggesting that the rule
of the clerics had become as tyrannical as the rule of the kings.
Now, after 18 months in prison, Mr. Kadivar is free, in a manner of
speaking. He was released in July but is still banned from teaching. He
has been told that he faces new criminal charges, but does not know what
they are or when they will be filed.
Most of the reformist newspapers for which he wrote are closed. Many
of the journalists and clerics he counts among his friends are behind bars.
And his attempt to give a speech with another leading reformer in the western
industrial city of Khorramabad in August was blocked by armed vigilantes,
causing riots that left a policeman dead and 100 people wounded.
Mr. Kadivar has a lot of time to talk these days, but it was unusual
for him to invite an American reporter to his home. The Western press is
accused by many conservatives, including the country's hard-line newspaper
commentators, of being part of an international conspiracy that has infiltrated
the reform movement to undermine the stability of the Islamic state.
But Mr. Kadivar was upbeat, as he sat in an armchair in the living room
of the comfortable apartment he shares with his wife and four children,
surrounded by glass-encased, ceiling-to-floor bookcases filled with leather-bound
"I truly believe in the things I have said," he said in a
three-hour conversation over sour cherry juice and platters of fruits and
sweets. "And I have already paid the price for it."
The bearded, bespectacled mid-level cleric has refused to obey the dictum
of the clerical court that convicted him -- that he keep his pen still
and his mouth shut. "I have no intention of listening to them,"
he said. "If they want to act against me again, this time it is they
who will have to pay the price."
Mr. Kadivar is so dangerous because he is armed with one of the key
weapons of the Islamic Republic -- the language of religion.
Iran is locked in an intense struggle between reformers who want to
make the system more responsive to the will of the people and conservatives
supported by armed street vigilantes who are determined to keep their hold
on power through their rigid interpretation of Islam.
Mr. Kadivar comes to this ideological battlefield armed with Koranic
verses and complex theological scholarship. When he talks of democracy,
he does not demand the overthrow of the Islamic Republic and its replacement
with a secular form of government.
"I believe in a religious democratic state," he said. "I
believe that democracy and Islam are compatible. But a religious state
is possible only when it is elected and governed by the people. And the
governing of the country should not be necessarily in the hands of the
clergy. So what I support is the healthy state the reformers are promoting
as an Islamic Republic, not what exists now."
And what exists now, he continued, is a system in which one man, Ayatollah
Ali Khamenei, has too much power, under a system of government known as
the "rule of the Islamic jurist." Under Iran's Constitution,
Ayatollah Khamenei wields more power than the president and controls the
national police and the security agencies and appoints the heads of the
military, the Revolutionary Guards, the judiciary, national television
and radio and the ostensibly charitable foundations that control hundreds
of companies and industries.
But there are Islamic thinkers, Mr. Kadivar included, who argue that
the power structure has become distorted over the years. Proof of that
came last month, Mr. Kadivar said, when Ayatollah Khamenei stunned the
popularly elected Parliament -- and much of the nation -- when he decided
that that Parliament would be prohibited from amending a restrictive press
"This is the meaning of the absolute authority," Mr. Kadivar
said, referring to the ayatollah's position. "If one person is going
to rule the same way the monarchy did, well, it was not the goal of the
revolution to have one-person rule, even if he is a fair and knowledgeable
In the current political climate in Iran, such criticism is breathtakingly
bold. Essentially, Mr. Kadivar is arguing that the official interpretation
of Islam developed under the Islamic Republic is misguided. But he speaks
so openly in part because that is what he is trained to do.
The clerical system in Shiite Islam is a democratic, non-hierarchical,
even rowdy one in which students are trained to speak their minds and challenge
the authority of their professors.
Still, in clerical circles, Mr. Kadivar is an odd fit. He began his
studies in electrical engineering at the prestigious University of Shiraz,
where he learned English, and turned to religious studies in the dusty,
provincial holy city of Qum only after the secular universities were closed
in the cultural crackdown early in the revolution. For 16 years, Mr. Kadivar
studied and taught a wide variety of courses, including Arabic literature,
logic and religious law and philosophy.
Nine years ago, he antagonized conservative clerics when he wrote an
article using the views of various Islamic thinkers to argue that there
are other forms of Islamic government than one ruled by one "Islamic
jurist." More writing on the subject followed, and eventually a newspaper
that published the article was shut down, and Mr. Kadivar was stripped
of his teaching responsibilities.
Until his trial in early 1999 before the powerful Special Court for
the Clergy, however, he was overshadowed by his more prominent sister,
Jamileh Kadivar, a journalist, politician and mother of four. She is married
to Ataollah Mohajerani, a layman who, as minister of islamic culture and
guidance, has struggled to liberalize film and the media.
In February, Jamileh Kadivar came in second place in the election for
Parliament from Teheran. She is so outspoken that on the first day of her
brother's trial she declared before the television cameras, "This
court is worse than the executioners of the shah's regime."
Even from behind bars, Mr. Kadivar continued his relentless criticism
of the clerical system. In his most pointed commentary, contained in a
letter to his wife from prison in May 1999, Mr. Kadivar wrote, "The
Islamic Republic is faced with a historic catastrophe in its 20th year
of life in Iran." The main goal of the 1979 revolution, he added,
was "the end of absolute monarchy and the transformation to an Islamic
Republic. So the return to the same conduct of absolute monarchy cannot
be called an Islamic Republic." (He also found time in prison to finish
his doctoral dissertation.)
And in an article for the reformist newspaper Khordad before it was
shut down earlier this year, he wrote, "No one with a different mentality
-- even if he or she is one of the founders or true supporters of the revolution
-- is safe in these chaotic conditions in which aggression prevails, bookshops
fall easy prey to arson, people in cinemas and parks have to expect being
unexpectedly raided, tourists are attacked and legal gatherings and lecturers
are so often assaulted."
Asked about his writings now, Mr. Kadivar replied: "I stand by
what I said then -- word for word. I said these things to strengthen Islam
in our society and to implement freedom."
He has been just as outspoken since his release, branding the judiciary
a tool of the conservatives and "minority monopolists" and criticizing
the elected Parliament for not yet working to fulfill the needs of the
And he keeps in contact with his fellow reformers, even those in prison.
During the conversation, Akbar Ganji, one of Iran's best-known and most
daring political commentators, called from Evin Prison, where he has been
held for five months awaiting trial for his articles against the excesses
of the system. Mr. Ganji was excited about an article he had written in
an obscure reformist newspaper published in faraway Zanjan Province that
has not been shut down -- at least not yet.
Mr. Kadivar has no doubt that in the long run, his side will prevail.
"The pressure against people like me cannot last forever, because
the demands of the people are the opposite of what is happening in this
country," he said.
In any case, he added, "can one live without hope?"