The popular media theme that Iran “can’t be trusted” is often presented as being based on “intelligence” about the country. But sometimes pundits cut right to the chase, as Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen (9/29/09) did when he wrote in 2009, “These Persians lie like a rug.”
The New York Times (4/14/12) fancied that idea up just a bit in an April 14 piece by James Risen about Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader. “Seeking Nuclear Insight in Fog of the Ayatollah’s Utterances” was the headline, though for many, Khamenei has been very clear: He says Iran is not pursuing a nuclear weapon and such weapons violate his religion. But Risen’s suspicious because “Khamenei’s remarks are sometimes contradictory, and always subject to widely different interpretations.” And, Risen tells readers:
Complicating matters further, some analysts say that Ayatollah Khamenei’s denial of Iranian nuclear ambitions has to be seen as part of a Shiite historical concept called taqiyya, religious dissembling. For centuries an oppressed minority within Islam, Shiites learned to conceal their sectarian identity to survive, and so there is a precedent for lying to protect the Shiite community.
The “some analysts” who contend that Shiite Muslims are religiously predisposed to lie are conveniently unnamed. At least one historian with a name, the University of Michigan’s Juan Cole (Informed Comment, 4/16/12), responded to the piece, explaining that taqiyya is a centuries-old doctrine that allowed Shiites in Sunni-majority societies to deny their religious affiliation to protect their lives or their property. (Jewish and Christian theologists like Martin Luther have taken a similar moral stance on lying—Jewish Law, 2003.)
As Iran has long had a Shiite majority, taqiyya has lost its former rationale, Cole explained:
Imam Ruhullah Khomeini, who led the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, demanded that taqiyya be abandoned in favor of holy war or jihad. Shiite expert Rainer Brunner argues that pious dissimulation has “completely lost its importance” in contemporary, Shiite-majority Iran.
So the idea that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the theocratic leader of a Shiite-majority Islamic Republic, would give a dishonest fatwa about a key principle in Islamic law (the prohibition on killing innocent non-combatants in war) is a non-starter.
The notion that religious doctrine explains Khamenei’s statements, Cole concluded, is “just some weird form of Islamophobia, and policy-makers and analysts can safely disregard it.” That’d be easier to do if it weren’t in the pages of the New York Times.