May 25, 1997 in Nation/World

Leader Has Liberal Dose Of Wisdom From Descartes To Pingpong, Khatami Defies Strict Stereotypes

Los Angeles Times

Some have called him the Ayatollah Gorbachev. He is not your typical Iranian mullah.

Aides and acquaintances say his idea of light reading - three hours a day - is philosophers Immanuel Kant and Rene Descartes. He regularly browses through Western newspapers and magazines, has lived abroad, speaks German and English in addition to his native Farsi and has written extensively on the topic of reconciling Islam to the modern world.

Oh yes, he plays pingpong too. Such is the unusual biography of the 54-year-old liberal scholar - who claims to be descended from the Prophet Mohammed - whom Iranians have chosen to be the seventh president of their Islamic Republic.

Walking away from the polls, voters frequently cited Mohammed Khatami’s personal character, integrity and intellect as important factors in their choice.

“He is an honest man, faithful to the rules of Islam … educated and open-minded,” schoolteacher Mahmoud Dehqhani said after voting Friday, a typical summation.

Friends who have known Khatami for years also paint a portrait of a man of unusual intelligence and sensitivity, interested in a wide range of views while remaining deeply committed to the Islamic revolution in which he has been active since he was a teenager.

Iranian journalist Ahmad Boorjhani, who worked for Khatami when he was culture minister in the 1980s and has remained close to him, said Khatami can best be described with the Farsi word “aghazadeh,” which means “a noble person.”

Before storming onto the political scene, Khatami had been in a low-profile position, serving as head of the national library and as a cultural adviser to the incumbent president, Hashemi Rafsanjani.

But he is best known to the Iranian public for his 10 years as minister of culture and Islamic guidance in the 1980s, a period during which he developed a reputation as a cautious liberal.

Khatami was known as a voice for relative tolerance in the arts. Filmmaker Dariush Mehrjouie recalled the time of his tenure as a kind of golden age, when directors and artists had fewer problems with censorship than today.

Among other things, he allowed the import of Western newspapers and periodicals. He also lifted a ban on women singing in public by permitting a concert by the Iranian singer Parisa - but only before an all-female audience. In the area of cinema, he allowed screenwriters to cast doubt, obliquely, on some government policies.

Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email