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
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
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 books.
"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
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 law.
"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
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
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
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 people.
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