Today New York Times columnist Roger Cohen (9/27/13) offered some reasons to be skeptical of what we’re hearing from Iranian president Hassan Rouhani. He is, after all, Muslim:
As the Iranians say, “Not everything round is a walnut”–and not every form of “heroic flexibility” is an olive branch. Iran always operates on at least two tracks; to do otherwise would be simplistic. Its Shiite religion permits, in some circumstances, the embroidering of the truth for the protection of the faith, a divinely sanctioned dissimulation. This is a land where straight talk and virtue are not widely seen to overlap.
Now, I prefer a different kind of skepticism, one that is not religiously based; I.F. Stone’s famous pronouncement that “all governments lie” is a better, less bigoted principle for evaluating world leaders.
Cohen is offering a more nuanced, shall we say, critique than Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, who once declared that “these Persians lie like a rug”–get it? But what’s he referring to, anyway?
We’ve touched on this before (FAIR Blog, 4/17/12; Extra!, 6/12). It would seem that Cohen is referring to an ancient Shiite concept called taqiyya (or pious dissimulation). As scholar Juan Cole explained (Informed Comment, 4/16/12), these references to an Islamic license to lie are misleading. He wrote that “in fact Islamic ethics forbids lying (kidhb),” and taqiyya was about self-preservation at a time of intense sectarian violence:
For Shiites, who were often a minority in early Muslim societies, the doctrine of pious dissimulation was permission to say that they were actually Sunni Muslims if saying that would save their lives or their big property.
Cole notes that Iran has been a majority Shiite country for the past several centuries, so the idea that Shiites would need to conceal their religious identity to avoid persecution is a stretch.
Jewish scholars and some Christians theologians such as Martin Luther have produced similar ethical doctrines about the acceptability of lying to prevent a greater evil. And antisemites have cited these Talmudic discussions to make the argument that Jews can’t be believed (ADL, 2/03).
But in mainstream media, you’re likely to see this kind of religious bigotry invoked against Iran, not Israel–or Denmark, for that matter. As Islam is seen as an exotic faith in US culture, otherwise sensible pundits are willing to believe that it offers a special pass when it comes to lying. As blogger Nima Shirazi (4/21/12) put it:
The claim that taqiyya permits (or even encourages) religious Muslims to lie for any reason whatsoever is simply not true–but its misinterpretation does reveal the Islamophobic tendencies of those who promote such falsehoods as a way to discount and discredit diplomacy on their way to war.