For an exiled Iranian dissident, Mohsen Kadivar is remarkably softly spoken. I’d expected, prior to our meeting, that anyone who’d been deemed dangerous enough to exile would have at least an air of thundering zealot about him. So, when a benign-looking middle-aged man introduces himself and asks politely if I’d like a cup of tea, I’m somewhat taken aback.
Kadivar is one of Iran’s most prominent, and most recently notorious, reformist advocates. As a young theology student in the late 1970s, he was among thousands of Islamist students working to overthrow the American-backed Shah in favour of an Islamic Republic. His dedication to the cause was such that he was briefly imprisoned by the Shah’s police in 1978, before the Iranian Revolution and establishment of an Islamic semi-theocracy in 1979.
“Our demands were justice, freedom, independence, sovereignty, and compassionate Islam. I still believe in all those things now,” he says, adding, “I do not blame myself for thinking these things.”
In the years following the revolution, he ascended to the upper echelons of Iranian theological scholarship, becoming, according to TIME, an intellectual “pop star” capable of attracting 5000-strong crowds to his public addresses. This rise coincided, however, with a growing wariness about the post-revolution regime’s progressive monopolisation of power, “all in the name of Islam”.
“So, I began to write some things,” he says casually, a dismissive shrug of the shoulders implying that he’d done little other than keep a daily journal. “I found that I had some critical viewpoints to give from the inside of Islam. So I criticised the government, [saying] that they should follow the teaching of Islam, about justice, about freedom, about the dignity of humans.”
In fact, Kadivar’s various tracts – on the inequity of the Iranian state, on the archaic nature of sharia law, on the contradictions between Islamic doctrine and human rights – were so influential that in 1999 he was convicted by Iran’s Special Clerical Court of “disseminating false information” and “disturbing public opinion”.
Sentenced to 18 months’ gaol, Kadivar was sent to the political prisoners’ wing of Evin Prison (nicknamed “Evin University” for its abundance of incarcerated intellectuals). Although much of his time in prison was spent in solitary confinement, Kadivar is nonchalant about it, referring to it as an extended “sabbatical”.
“It was not too bad. I had books, I had newspapers, I could write. Now, I am not so sure. Now I hear many bad things about prisons. I was never tortured, but I think that it is not the same for people in prisons today,” he says, moving quickly onto a discussion of his hopes for Iran’s newly-elected reformist president, Hassan Rohani.
This determination not to let his past compromise his engagement with the present seems typical of his attitude to the world at large. Much of the trouble he encountered in Iran was borne out of his insistence that religion should adapt alongside evolving social norms, and not let historical traditions dictate the nature of contemporary doctrine.
“Religions were not meant to stay always the same,” he says. “We need a new understanding of Islam that fits this modern time. So many religious people, they live in this century, but their minds are in another.”
Since his exile to the US in 2008, Kadivar, working from a base at Duke University, has travelled around the world, extolling the merits of governmental secularity. To his mind, Iran’s experiences with theocracy should serve as proof to other nations of the world – perhaps most importantly at this stage, to Egypt – that religion and politics should never mix.
“In the Middle East, we need to rethink the way we look at religion, at government. We need to rethink so that sharia law and civil law are separate, so that crime and sin are separate,” he says.
Is he optimistic that the Middle East will, in fact, rethink its way of doing things any time in the foreseeable future?
Mohsen Kadivar was a guest at the Competing Visions in the Muslim World Symposium at the University of Sydney.