In 1973, Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci asked Mohammad Reza Pahlavi why Iranians withdrew into fearful silence whenever she mentioned him. He answered, “From exaggerated respect, I should suppose.” The French magazine Charlie Hebdo, eight of whose staff Islamist gunmen murdered last Wednesday, never exaggerated respect for anybody. One of its murdered cartoonists, Georges Wolinski, first put the Shah on the magazine’s cover in 1971, when he showed him welcoming the “King of the Idiots” to a celebration of Iranian monarchy at Persepolis.
While the magazine was beyond the Shah’s reach, it is worth noting that the “Charlie” of its title was French President Charles De Gaulle. The publication was founded in 1970 after the French interior minster effectively banned its predecessor publication for printing a joke about De Gaulle’s death.
It was not out of exaggerated respect for De Gaulle’s memory that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani avoided naming Charlie Hebdo when he obliquely condemned the Paris attacks last Friday. The killings put Iran in an awkward position. The gunmen’s claim to have “avenged the Prophet Muhammad,” revives memories of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1988 fatwa calling for the murder of British author Salman Rushdie, who satirized Muhammad’s life — and Khomeini’s — in The Satanic Verses. The attacks cast into juxtaposition Islamic taboos Iran still hopes to defend, and a revolutionary, anticlerical conception of free speech that may well appeal to Iran’s secular youth. They also remind Iran and the West of their common interests, since the gunmen, as Al Qaeda recruits, belonged to a Sunni jihadist movement that threatens both.
Thinking about the Paris attacks likely proved a dissonant experience for Rouhani. No friend of free speech, he worked for years a censor on the supervisory board of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, and sought tips on broadcasting from North Korea. He also supported Khomeini’s fatwa against Rushdie. And yet his remarks on Friday were fresh. By saying that “Those who kill and carry out violent and extremist acts unjustly in the name of jihad, religion or Islam provoke Islamophobia,” he echoed not Khomeini, but Khomeini’s rival, Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, who warned Khomeini that his extremism had “frightened the world” and made it think that “our only task here in Iran was to kill.” Montazeri, who was once Khomeini’s heir apparent as supreme leader, spent the rest of his life under house arrest for those comments.
Historian Michael Axworthy writes in his book Revolutionary Iran that Khomeini’s call for Rushdie’s murder may in fact have been his response to Montazeri’s remarks. While the British government managed to protect Rushdie himself, assassins motivated by Khomeini’s fatwa stabbed to death Hitoshi Igarishi, a Japanese scholar of Arabic and Persian literature who had translated The Satanic Verses, and tried to kill the book’s Italian translator Ettore Capriolo, and its Norwegian publisher William Nygaard. Like the targets of Khomeini’s fatwa, the murdered Charlie Hebdo staff had been marked for death prior to the attack — in this case by the Al Qaeda magazine Inspire, which happens also to have included Rushdie on its hit list.
While Rouhani’s use of the word “unjustly” might provide him a get-out if his domestic rivals challenge him on his views about Iran’s not-too distant past, he seems ready now to operate on the implicit assumption that Montazeri was right. Iran's leaders are finding that their ageing conception of revolutionary Shia Islamism pales next to the bloodthirsty vigor that characterizes a new generation of Sunni non-state rivals in their region, who frighten them almost as much as they frighten Europe and the United States. Whereas Khomeini might have cheered the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, his old comrades now see an international security landscape in which the help and sympathy of western states appalled by militant Islamist atrocities may yet be needed.
Even so, for leaders of an Islamic Republic, Islam’s founder Muhammad is not only a religious figure, but also a constitutional one. Those who criticize or ridicule his legacy unsettle the foundations of the state. Curiously, while Iran earlier registered its objections to Charlie Hebdo’s satires of Muhammad through foreign ministry spokesperson Marziyeh Afkham, who condemned “character assassination of respectful figures of religions and nations,” Rouhani has made little of the matter. Whereas just nine years ago Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stoked emotional displays over Muhammad cartoons published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, Rouhani seems to have accepted that most Western Europeans — and the French especially — do not do religious sanctity.
The Iranian judiciary’s attitude to Iranian citizens who transgress the same taboos, however, remains merciless. Last year, Iran sentenced to Soheil Arabi, a 30 year-old Facebook user, to hang for “insulting the prophet of Islam.” It remains unclear what he actually wrote, and the accusation pertains in part to material he shared from other accounts. Iran appears to have treated the matter as one of state security since intelligence agents linked to the Revolutionary Guards arrested Arabi, kept him in solitary confinement for months, and interrogated him at length. While to kill Arabi would be an extreme act committed in the name of Islam, here Rouhani’s use of the caveat “unjustly” comes to mind. To hang Arabi would be unjust, but Iran could claim that unlike the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, Arabi had gone through its justice system.
Iran is not the only country for which Islamic sanctities are a constitutional matter, nor is it the only country in its region that behaves hypocritically. Its chief Islamic rival, Saudi Arabia, has sentenced Raif Badawi to ten years in prison and public torture by 1000 lashes. Saudi Arabia, which is increasingly anxious about its citizens treating Islam with skepticism, convicted Badawi of “insulting Islam” after he created a website called Free Saudi Liberals. His public torture, which is to be carried out in increments over 20 weeks, began last Friday, just two days before the Saudi State Minister for Foreign Affairs, Nizar bin Obaid Madani, joined 40 world leaders attending a massive display of solidarity and grief in Paris, which was the largest in the city’s history.
The Charlie Hebdo killings have proved seismic. The size of the Paris demonstrations, along with the persecution of Arabi and Badawi, show that fearful silence surrounding these taboos is unsustainable. From Tehran to Paris to New York, authorities scramble to measure the new landscape. In Tehran, police prevented a journalists’ demonstration in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo just a day before their president condemned the attacks. France, having won itself a reputation for defending free speech, still struggles with the concept much as it did in the 1970s, and arrested a comedian, Dieudonné, on January 14 for appearing to sympathize with a terrorist. In the United States, the New York Times and The New York Daily news balked at presenting any images of Charlie Hebdo cartoons, even as Iran’s reformist news outlet, Shargh Daily, decided to risk it.