There are those who are certain that the message sent to Iran by President Obama can only be a strategic and moral error, that will confirm the rulers of Iran in their arrogance and hatred and folly. But there is another conceivable interpretation that is not quite so bleak. The signal to Iran, the obvious attempt to flatter Iranians about their “great civilization” — mention of art, literature, and “innovation” — is done not in a message on a Muslim holiday, but on Nowruz, a pre-Islamic holiday that the Islamic Republic of Iran has been unable to stamp out, though in the past it has tried to limit the “enthusiasm” of the celebrants.
In other words, the message from Obama is crafted to appeal to Iranian pride, but pride about what? Not pride in Islam, but pride in art (which art? The mosques only?), in literature (and the careful mention of Sa’adi was meant to appeal to Iranian pride), when everyone knows that Firdowsi, Sa’adi, Hafiz, and Omar Khayyam are all part of a constellation of Persian poets identified not so much with Islam, as with being beyond, or indifferent to, or in some cases hostile, if not to Islam, then at least to the cultural and linguistic imperialism of the Arabs.
The missive was composed, I assume, with two audiences in mind. One was the official audience of the Iranian government, a hideous government that had to be called, because of protocol, by its official title the “Islamic Republic of Iran.” But the other, more important intended audience, to whom an appeal was being made, were those in Iran who take pride in, and can be reminded of, the pre-Islamic or non-Islamic achievements of Persian civilization. Mention of art and literature puts the hearers in mind not only of Sa’adi, but of all those others, puts hearers in mind of Persepolis, and the pre-Islamic civilization of Iran. And the fact that all of this is in the context of wishing Iranians well on Nowruz, a holiday that is not Islamic, and that has attracted the ire of those Muslims who wish to stamp out observance of non-Islamic holidays, was deliberate.
There was a subtle subtext in this message, the one that is not at all favorable to the Islamic Republic of Iran, but rather attempts to camouflage a message to “the Iranian people” (i.e., those who are capable of thought in Iran). This message takes the occasion of a non-Islamic holiday, one deplored by Islamic clerics, to also show an awareness of and to lavish praise upon features of Iranian history that are not at all necessarily tied to Islam and, in many cases are pre-Islamic, or non-Islamic, or openly hostile to the “invaders” — the Arabs — who brought the “gift” of Islam to Iran. For example, while only a single line of Sa’adi is quoted, the Persian audience will be flattered, but also then bethink themselves, and the names of other Persian poets will come to mind. Sa’adi himself, a singer of bulbuls and romance and roses in far-off Gulistan. Firdowsi, of the “Shahnameh,” who helped preserve Iran from Arab cultural and linguistic imperialism. And those praisers of romance and wine will also come to mind. Both Omar Khayyam in his quatrains (rubaiyaas) and Hafiz in his ghazals, he of the same Shiraz as Sa”adi, are both far more Persian. And Khayyam was even a free-thinker.
Art is mentioned in the message from Obama. But what will Iranians think about when they encounter this word “art” in a message from the President of the United States? Everyone knows that Islam bans most forms of artistic expression. Everyone knows that, where art exists in Muslim lands — save for Qur’anic calligraphy, and mosque architecture and adornment — it exists despite, in defiance of, the prohibitions of Islam. So Iranians will read that word “Art” and they will no doubt be put in mind, most immediately, either of the great art of the pre-Islamic civilization of Iran, such as the monuments at Persepolis (now threatened by the Islamic regime), or of other art — Persian miniatures. Why, imagine the difficulty any American President would have in a message to Saudi Arabia, attempting to praise the non-existent art of that bleakly Islamic land.
No, I think a good case can be made that the message is an attempt to undermine the Islamic Republic of Iran, by praising Iran in terms that emphasize, every step of the way, the non-Islamic or extra-Islamic features of Iranian civilization — even praising Iran for “innovation” — which, of course, is both a word and a practice that officially Islam frowns on. The calculation is: with prideful Persians, flattery may get you somewhere.