Mirror-Imaging the Mullahs: Our Islamic Interlocutors

Article excerpt

In 1993, Bernard Hourcade, a geographer, sociologist, and Persianist who was the head of Iranian studies at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, got a bit of a shock. After completing lengthy negotiations on the first cultural and scientific exchange between France and the Islamic Republic, the Iranian delegation demanded the agreement open with the words: Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Rahim ("In the Name of God, the Compassionate and the Merciful"). The negotiations were supposed to be a friendly arrangement, something less formal than an accord. So the French were aghast that the Iranians, whom Hourcade and the other French scholars and diplomats had known for years, would demand the Koranic invocation. The Iranians understood well the secular ethos of France. Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, then the president of the Islamic Republic, was even then making a determined pitch for more French investment and trade.

Exasperated and operating independently from the French foreign ministry, Hourcade responded that Tehran would either withdraw this stipulation or Paris would begin booting Iranian scholars and scientists from France. Within twenty-four hours, the Iranians informed Hourcade that the Islamic Republic would not object to the removal of the Koran's most famous lines.

The episode, like the contretemps provoked by President Mohammad Khatami when he visited France in 1999 and Spain in 2002, and insisted that wine not be served at official banquets (the French and the Spanish cancelled the dinners rather than forego the wine), conveys a truth not so easy for Westerners to accept. Even on minor issues, religion--and in particular, the devout version of Islam that governments like Iran's embrace--can intrude, distort, and paralyze. The Koran says nothing about banning wine for non-believers, let alone non-believers living in their own lands, or that wine by its mere presence compromises the faithful. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who spent most of his life explicating and defending the Holy Law, upheld the religious right of Iranian Christians in Iran to produce and drink wine in their homes and in their churches. Yet here we were seventeen years later listening to a reformist cleric, who had loudly promoted a "dialogue of civilizations," demand that Frenchmen abstain from their national drink.

There is a lesson here: God may be kaput in most of the West, but he has hardly been reduced to the status of personal philosophy in Islamic lands. And, yet, our God-diminishing, mirror-imaging impulse keeps blinding us to Islam's place at the center of the political realm. The tendency to view Muslims through secular eyes, or to recast them and their faith into a version of Christianity ("Islam is a religion of peace"), is perhaps the greatest impediment to rational American policy. Whether it be clerical Iran's nuclear program, Pakistan on the brink, the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio, Saudi Arabia and its Wahhabis, or Egypt's ice-cold relations with Israel, religion offers the one indispensable prism through which to peer into the region. For if we cannot see the Middle East first and foremost on its own terms, which means, among other things, never forgetting that Muslim states define themselves as exactly that, then we will surely find ourselves caught in binds worse than Iraq.

In March 2003, the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency--the two institutions that enjoyed the most contact with Iraqis under Saddam Hussein--viewed Iraq as the most secular nation in the Arab world. Influential Iraqi expatriates, among them Ayad Allawi, Ahmed Chalabi, Adnan Pachachi, and Kanan Makiya, bolstered this view, suggesting further that a free Iraq could and should be led by Westernized Iraqis not known for their religious beliefs. In truth, Iraq under Saddam Hussein had become a profoundly religious place for Sunnis and Shiites alike. That no one seemed to realize this owes something to the fact that Iraqi intellectuals, usually smitten with some variation of Arab nationalism, socialism, or Communism, were not inclined to linger on anti-quated topics such as religion. …