Iran President Hassan Rouhani at the Campidoglio palace in Rome, Italy, January 25, 2016 .
(photo credit: REUTERS)
This week’s European press is agape, its correspondents tripping over each other covering Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani’s historical state visits to Italy and France. The symbolism of his January 26 meeting with Pope Francis in Vatican City, both lurid and grandiose in its optics, must have sent chills down the spines of disappearing Near Eastern Christians; dwindling, bruised, besieged “first nations” who owe in no small part much of their decline to Iran’s decades-long aggressive illiberal practices throughout the region.
Yet in an abject gesture of cultural genuflection – or abdication, or protocolary etiquette, depending on the universe one wishes to live in – Italian officials opted to reward Rouhani for the harm that his government continues to breed around the world, removing alcohol from the menu of the state dinner given in his honor.
So much for the Gavi di Gavi to wash down that Roman Carbonara! Likewise the lewd nude statues of Rome’s Capitoline Museum had to undergo last minute genital mutilation (or, let us say obfuscation), lest their insolent (one mustn’t say “cocky”) pudenda lure the gaze of the Islamic Republic’s puritan-in-chief.
But, seriously? Is this a form of respect and diplomatic courtesy as it is being spun in European and American media circles? Or is it simple capitulation to the hectoring and intransigence of the leader of an obscurantist, cruel theocracy? What is it exactly that can be deemed “Islamic” or respectful of a “Muslim’s” sensitivities when a nation with the cultural heritage and culinary tradition of Italy is compelled to conceal its artifacts and libations for fear of awakening a foreign dignitary’s prurient demons, or offending his archaic mores? One cannot turn a corner on a Roman – or for that matter a Parisian – street without chancing upon a nude statue or a barely-dressed portraiture adorning some government building, a museum, a church, or a historical monument.
What is this world coming to? What else is lurking in the near-future of the West’s exhausted value systems? What shall be coming next? A veil over Eugène Delacroix’s La Liberté? A bronze Eros truncated from atop the Shaftesbury Memorial at Piccadilly Circus? A drained Trevi Fountain encased in cement?
I grew up in a country half of whose population was Muslim. But the narrow neurotic Islam as brandished for European eyes in Rouhani’s wake is not the Islam that I grew up with. One needn’t be overly old or nostalgic, wrote the late Fouad Ajami, to recall with affection a multi-cultural Lebanon where 18 different communities jostled and feuded for power and influence and relevance; where Lebanese beholden to the Muslim creed met their match in Lebanese Christians “who thought of their country as a piece of Europe at the foot of a splendid mountain,” and who savored the language and ways of France as if they were local fares. Lebanon lived in multiple worlds, observed multiple traditions, worshiped multiple gods, wielded multiple languages and belonged to multiple poles of attraction, to use an apt metaphor of Franco-Lebanese novelist Amine Maalouf. It was almost a Lebanese national duty to valorize and celebrate multiple religious identities and all their varied rituals. Lebanon’s diversity was the “blueprint of humanity’s future” wrote Maalouf.
And before wars came and crushed this, Lebanon’s ecumenism, tearing into tatters its liberal and libertine Levantine cosmopolitanism, Muslims and Christians and Jews and others celebrated each other’s feasts, ate at each other’s banquets, drank from each other’s wine cups and partook of each other’s customs and liturgies and culinary excesses without paying heed to what might have been canonically Islamic, or Christian, or Halal or Kosher. They celebrated what they felt was the human, the humane and the humanist in each of their respective creeds. The ostentatious orthopraxy of the zealot was never the strong suit of Muslims of that generation, hailing from that particular corner of paradise. To this day Lebanon’s leading meat wholesalers (who trade equally in prosciutto cotto and pork bellies alongside lamb-meat and beef) remain Muslim. Likewise among the country’s top vintners and wine merchants are many Muslims, and the country’s largest vineyards still lay in the heart of “Hezbollah-land,” in the Bekaa Valley, a region still under the effective rule of Iran’s proxy Hezbollah army.
And so, what has befallen Islam (or let us say Rouhani’s Islam) for it to have fallen on such hard times? How is it that a Muslim dignitary of a Muslim republic on an official visit outside the “Abode of Islam” deems his eyes too delicate for a chance encounter with his host’s unclothed marble artifacts; innocuous inanimate objects? How is it that his nose is too tender, or averse, to the aromas of wine? Ought Hassan Rouhani’s “religious special needs,” in the capital city of Christendom no less, be seen as innocent sensitivities of an innocent Muslim cleric, or might there be something more nefarious afoot? Is Rome’s yielding to Rohani’s antics in line with common diplomatic courtesies, or is this a form of submission and latter-day Dhimmitude – a Muslim cleric’s thumbing his nose at practitioners of a creed he considers inherently inferior? This all may very well be a tempest in a teapot, but the optics are supremely emblematic, especially to those “once bitten twice shy”; a delicious illustration of the superiority of Islam and an anthropomorphic incarnation of the Koranic Surat al-Umran 3:19, which stresses that “...the only true religion in the sight of Allah is Islam [...and that] he who disbelieves the Surats of Allah will find out that Allah is swift in calling to account”? This may very well be Islam, Rouhani’s Islam. But there is also the Islam of Surat al-Kaafiruun 109:6 which concedes that “unto each his religion.”
This diversity, indeed this delicious contradiction of Islam, is nowhere better illustrated than in an anecdote recounted in the late Shahab Ahmed’s posthumous What is Islam? In this monumental volume Ahmed begins by describing a dinner party that he’d attended at Princeton University some years ago. He was seated across from a Muslim scholar whose tableside-neighbor was a visiting European philosopher from the University of Cambridge. “The Muslim colleague was indulging in a glass of wine,” recalled Ahmed, which seemed somewhat troubling to the European guest. Unable to contain his perplexity, the Cambridge scholar intruded with a personal question. “Do you consider yourself a Muslim?” he asked. “Yes,” came his neighbor’s reply. “How come, then, you are drinking wine?” Prefacing with a compassionate smile, the Muslim colleague explained that “my family have been Muslims for a thousand years, during which time we have always been drinking wine... You see, we are Muslim wine-drinkers.” Puzzled by the reply, the Cambridge scholar reacted with an exasperated “I don’t understand!” “Yes, I know,” came the Muslim colleague’s answer, “but I do!” In sum, the West’s tenets of freedom of expression, pluralism and diversity ought not be subject to bargains, blackmails, censorships and restrictions to accommodate the phobias and obsessions of purveyors of religious obscurantism. One is not a lesser Muslim when one does not conform to what is deemed canonical Islam, Muslim orthopraxy, Muslim dietary restrictions and Muslim sartorial and grooming peculiarities. Before rushing to renounce their patrimony and surrender to Rouhani’s obscurantist atavisms, Italy’s chiefs of protocol might have done better considering “What is Islam?” taking into account that hedonism, Khamriyyaat (wine-poetry,) and even homoerotic literature had always occupied a place of prominence in the corpus of Muslim-Arabic literature, remaining in wide circulation throughout the Middle East long into the twentieth century. Rouhani and his creed may be outliers, and the caprices and compulsions of a spiteful intransigent ideology such as his, one that is unwilling to accept the aesthetic, intellectual, moral and culinary accretions of others – those of Western societies in particular, no less on Western soil – are not worthy of the misplaced deference conceded by Italian authorities.
The author is associate professor of Near Eastern Studies at Boston College. He is series editor of Lexington Books’ The Levant and Near East; A Multidisciplinary book Series, founding editor-in-chief of The Levantine Review, and author of Language Memory and Identity in the Middle East; The Case for Lebanon (Lexington, 2010), Charles Corm: An Intellectual Biography of a 20th century Young Phoenician (Lexington, 2015) and Another Middle East; An Anthology of Levantine Literature (Yale, 2017).