Gain Some Iranian Contracts, Lose Your Civilization

Published January 28, 2016

National Review Online

Twelve years ago, I wrote a small book, The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God, in which I argued that Europe’s fecklessness in the face of both its own domestic problems and the jihadist threat was the logical, if deeply disturbing, result of what I styled a “crisis of civilizational morale.” This indictment did not go down well on the banks of the Charles River, where the Harvardeminento Stanley Hoffmann cleared his Gallic throat, harrumphed, and informed the readers of Foreign Affairs that my book was a “rambling attack on contemporary European secularism [written] with a condescension exceeding that of Robert Kagan.” I hope Professor Hoffmann, prior to his death last September, never learned that Bob Kagan used to play third base on a softball team that had Scooter Libby at shortstop and me at second base; who knows what nightmares of conspiracy would have plagued his latter years?

In any event, I do wonder what Professor Hoffmann, from his present position on the Other Side, thinks of recent events in Italy, where the government of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi covered the nude sculptures in Rome’s Capitoline Museum, and then denied his dinner guests wine, in order not to offend the sensibilities of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani and thereby not inhibit Italy’s entrepreneurs from getting their share of the post-Iranian-nuclear-“deal” swag. For if those gestures of cravenness were not evidence of a crisis of civilizational morale in its terminal, or hospice-care, stage, I’m not sure what would be.

The tender-minded will, I suppose, suggest that Renzi’s surrender to the aesthetic and culinary mores of the seventh-century Arabian peninsula were gestures of respect for difference and, coupled with the fulsome reception President Rouhani received in the Vatican, signs of a new opening to interreligious dialogue with the dominant Iranian form of Shia Islam. Two incidents from the life of Pope St. John Paul II, who knew something about both civilizational morale and interreligious dialogue, ought to put paid to such self-demeaning rubbish.

When John Paul II authorized the cleaning of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, to complete the restoration of the Florentine genius’s work in the Sistine Chapel, a question arose: What to do with the braghe, the loincloths, or breeches, that post-Michelangelo prudes had painted over the nudes in his extraordinary composition? John Paul’s decision was to leave a few of the braghe in place, as a historical reminder to the future about the idiocies of the past, but to remove the rest and restore the work to its original glory. It was a decision of a piece with the pope’s epic sermon rededicating the chapel after the cleaning of the ceiling frescoes: John Paul spoke eloquently of the Sistine Chapel as the “sanctuary of the theology of the body:” an unparalleled celebration of man, woman, and their communion, all made in the image and likeness of God, and thus revelatory of deep truths about God himself. In that sanctuary, there was ample room for modesty and chastity; but there was none at all for prudishness.

The second illuminating incident occurred during John Paul’s epic March 2000 pilgrimage to the Holy Land. There was a small fuss emanating from some ultra-Orthodox quarters, which might have become a major media fuss, about whether the pope should wear his pectoral cross when he went to pray at the Western Wall of the Temple. I was in Jerusalem with NBC and called an old friend, Rabbi James Rudin of the American Jewish Committee, to come on air and sort this out. Rudin was perfect: True interreligious dialogue, he said, begins with taking “others” as they are, not imposing preconditions on the conversation by remaking the “other” in our own preferred image. So of course the pope should dress as he always did, and serious people, interested in serious interreligious dialogue, would understand precisely why. The controversy died aborning, the pope when he prayed at the Western wall dressed as he always did — and an indelible icon of genuine interreligious encounter was left in the world mind’s when John Paul II left a prayer-petition for the safety of the Jewish people, and for a deepened encounter between Christians and Jews, in one of the crevices of the Wall.

This is how adults used to behave, on both sides of what were, to put it gently, painful and deeply tangled historical relationships. This is how adults ought to behave, if they are genuinely interested in forging a new conversation, to the benefit of both parties, in the future. And this is precisely how President Rouhani and Prime Minister Renzi did not behave. Rouhani behaved like a petulant teenager, and Rienzi reacted to the Iranian’s bad behavior like a child cowed by a bully.

It is absurd to suggest that Hassan Rouhani and the real powers behind him in Iran — Supreme Leader Ali Khameini and the Revolutionary Guards — are interested in “showing a new face to the West” when they insist that Rouhani’s Italian hosts deny the best in Italy’s cultural heritage in order to appease Shiite sensibilities. It was a concession that a deeply cultured Shiite such as the late, great Fouad Ajami would have insisted that Renzi not make, precisely for the sake of reform in Iranian Shia Islam and of the different politics that might emerge from such a reform. Renzi’s concession was nothing other than a cowardly act of kowtowing, albeit a profitable one, if it in fact yielded, as news reports suggested, billions of dollars’ worth of Iranian contracts for Italian firms. But what price appeasement? Have the Thirties been completely forgotten? Does anyone in authority in Italian politics or commerce seriously contend that doing business with the world’s principal state sponsor of terrorism is going to blunt the Shia apocalypticism that underwrites Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons, or be of any serious aid to Iran’s hard-pressed democratic opposition?

It is equally absurd to suggest that any serious interreligious dialogue is possible with interlocutors who hold Christians in theological contempt, persecute Christians with impunity, punish the “crime” of apostasy or conversion with death, threaten Israel with annihilation, and speak of the United States as the “Great Satan” that must be eliminated in order for the promised post-apocalyptic world of human fulfillment to be born. No amount of bonhomie in the Vatican is going to move the mullahs of the Qum academies off the theological dime; only a frank recognition of the lethal degree to which the late Ayatollah Khomeini poisoned what was best in Shia Islam is going to create the conditions for the possibility of a real theological encounter between the Shia and Christians, to say nothing of Jews.

Hours before the ISIS-mounted massacres in Paris, I finished leading a week-long, Tikvah Fund–sponsored seminar in Jerusalem with some twenty Israeli, European, and American scholars, secular and religious; The Cube and the Cathedral had served as our basic text. We argued long and hard about the causes of Europe’s malaise, and the relationship between biblical religion and the democratic project, and I like to think there was mutual enlightenment all around. The following week, with both the seminar and the Paris horrors much on my mind, I was dining with the publisher of the book (which, despite Professor Hoffmann’s animadversions, sold nicely, and was translated into Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Polish). Perhaps it was time, I suggested, for a new edition, which would take its title from Kingsley Amis’s suggestion to Robert Conquest about a post-1991 edition of Conquest’s history of the recently-defunct Soviet Union: I Told You So, You [Bloody] Fools.

Recent events in Rome, involving nudes, wine, and the collapse of civilizational morale, suggest that the salutation in that proposed title may have been rude, but was not misplaced.

— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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