In the years since the 1979 Iranian revolution, Mohsen Kadivar has intellectually evolved from being a supporter of Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic republic to a believer that Iran should be a secular democratic state.
Now he thinks many Iranians are following the same path as he, and in an April 9 talk at Duke, Kadivar expressed optimism that the country is on the road to becoming a secular state.
Speaking on "Evolution of the Relationship of Islam and the State in Post-Revolutionary Iran," Kadivar said "the diversity of (religious) thinkers shows us that Iranians are thinking about the relationship between the state and religion."
"Iran needs a moderate (not radical) secularism; meaning freedom of all religious affairs without any restriction, including restriction of religious affairs in the public sphere. The French model won't work in Iran.
"We can find a lot of evolution and these evolutions (in thinking) originated in the Islamic state and I think this is the story of the future," Kadivar concluded about his native country, Iran, "one of the most dynamic countries in the world."
A clip from Mohsen Kadivar's discussion of the evolution of Iranian leadership. To see the full presentation, click here.
"It had two revolutions in less than 80 years, and the Arab Spring was fueled by the (opposition) Green Movement of Iran," he said. "I'm so optimistic about the future of Iran."
When asked by a member of the audience on where he saw the Iranian government in 5 or 10 years, he answered: "The process of secularization hasn't stopped, and there's no way can we stop it."
Kadivar said while youths constitute the majority of advocates of a secular state, "you can't neglect middle-aged proponents of a secular state."
Kadivar is in a rare position to discuss the thinking of Iranian's religious leaders. A visiting research professor at Duke, Kadivar spent more than a decade in Iran studying under the late Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, who bestowed on him the certificate of Ijtihad -- the highest degree in Islamic religious tradition.
That training gave him access to many important discussions. Montazeri, one of the leaders of the 1979 Iranian revolution, was supposed to be the successor to Ayatollah Khomeini, but was deposed by Khomeini for criticizing him on human rights issues.
Montazeri then spent six years under house arrest in the 1990s for criticism of the regime.
"We can see that the main opposition to the Islamic state from the beginning was the Grand Ayatollahs themselves," Kadivar said. "There have been at least five Grand Ayatollahs under house arrest during the time of the Islamic Republic of Iran."
Kadivar himself was imprisoned for 18 months and released in July 2000. He was charged with accusing the government of serial murders, and of "reproducing the absolutist authority reminiscent of Monarchic rule."
For the charges of dissemination of falsehoods and disturbing the public opinion, he was sentenced to a year in prison, and for the charges of propaganda against the Islamic Republic he was sentenced to six months in prison. He went into exile in 2008 and has been on the Duke faculty since 2009.
It wasn't until 2009, Kadivar said, that he came to believe that Iran should be a secular state.
"I thought that if we have any place for a dictatorship (the clerics) will abuse it, and we should close all their gates and those of dictatorship and abuse of power, especially political power, which is so sensitive, and we should restrict it."
When many Iranians took to the streets in the "Green Movement" to protest what they saw as fraud in the 2009 presidential elections, Kadivar sided with the protesters. He said his mentor Montazeri was the Green Movement's spiritual leader.
Kadivar remains a vocal critic of the current regime active in opposition groups.
Kadivar closed by saying that much of what he said at the talk about Iran's leaders could not be found "in any written record."
"When I wanted to write my books, I did not find any books, any articles on some of these persons, nothing in Tehran and Qom, which means they eliminated them, they omitted them from the history of the Islamic Republic. What you hear is for here. We should publish this and make people aware what happened in Iran."
His talk was part of the DUMESC (Duke University Middle East Studies Center)-DISC (Duke Islamic Studies Center) Spring 2012 Scholarly Seminar Series.