I was tempted to pick a more grandiose and exaggerated title like: the decline and fall of Western civilization, or a more dramatic variation on Oswald Spengler’s book The Decline of the West, but then thought better of it and settled on the less gloomy but still sober; the diminished West.
This week the turbaned president of Iran Hassan Rowhani, a man steeped in Persia’s history and proud of its imperial legacy, visited Rome, Paris and Berlin. He sought new beginnings with the West, now that Iran has come out of the cold following its nuclear agreement with the P5+1 countries.
The man from the East knew that the multicultural and very accommodating West is more than eager to do business with a resurgent Persia, and contracts worth tens of billions of dollars were signed and sealed, but not over toasts at lavish banquets held in opulent halls with their exquisite paintings of voluptuous odalisques and nude statutes of Greek and Roman Goddesses, warriors and Emperors.
It was determined by the anxious powers that be in Rome that the immensely rich and beautiful cultural inheritance of the glorious Roman Empire represented by marble statutes of nude Deities and Emperors should be covered up, and that alcohol should not be served in the presence of Rowhani so that not to offend the (“Muslim”?) sensibilities of the visitor from Iran.
The meek Italian behavior symbolizes the diminishing power of the West, particularly western EuropeHisham Melhem
That brazen act of self-emasculation and obeisance took place at the Capitoline Museum, probably Rome’s richest repository of high art. It was the most abject act of self-negation and cultural surrender in recent times committed by a Western state that has inherited the artistic and cultural heritage of the greatest Empire in human history.
The meek Italian behavior symbolizes the diminishing power of the West, particularly western Europe in the face of bold challenges from the marauders of the apocalyptic ISIS, and the practitioners of hard power like Russian President Vladimir Putin whether in the Ukraine or in Syria, and the deferential treatment of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the very power behind killer Shiite sectarian organizations in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.
But Iran in the last few days gave us more than one jarring example of the weakness of the West, and the readiness of some politicians and those who live in the splendid isolation of academe to engage in appeasement in the name of political correctness, moral equivalence and respecting other’s traditions.
The West is weak, meek and geek
Looking at the statutes of Venus and other naked female figures of antiquity that stood there for centuries as a testimony to the creative genius of Western civilization, encased in white boxes, hidden as if they are symbols of decadence instead of high culture, one could only conclude that Western appeasement of intolerance, theocracy and oppression, particularly of those who wrap themselves with an ‘Islamic’ garb is the real decadence that needs to be exposed and undermined.
I immediately took to social media for a quick fusillade of sharp words, tweeting and posting on Facebook that “This is a new low in appeasement and hypocrisy. Rowhani should be exposed to high Western art. The behavior of the Italian government is pathetic; it shows once again that the West is weak, meek and geek.” Another one followed “And If Rowhani doesn’t drink alcohol (I am sure he knows the origin of alcohol) then serve him water or goat milk, while reminding him of Omar Khayyam’s Rubáiyát, where the great Persian poet wrote about his love of wine and other worldly pleasures”.
The Italian government justified its act of self-loathing by claiming that it shows “respect” for the Iranian visitor. If the social and cultural sensibilities of the Iranian president are to be respected, then what about respecting the sensibilities of millions of peoples in Iran and the world who are appalled by the Iranian regime’s continuing brutal assaults on civil and political liberties of Iranians, the persecution of religious and ethnic minorities in Iran, and more broadly Iran’s involvement in the internal affairs of its neighbors, particularly its crucial role in suppressing the Syrian uprising, which makes Iran morally, not to mention legally an accomplice to the death of 300.000 Syrians.
It was reported later that Rowhani did not request the cover-up of the statutes, but members of his delegation made the requests regarding the works of art and banning what those known for their delicate tastes call the “nectar of the Gods” also known in Italian as Vino.
Pray for me
The only hopeful sign in this sordid tale was the outrage it has created among Italians, who took to social media to mock and denounce the bankruptcy of their government. Giuseppe Musmarra, a political analyst, wrote: “Was there really a need for this humiliation?”
He expressed the views of many distressed Italians when he said: “Covering up the statues in the Capitoline Museum is to symbolically renounce our art and our culture and to abdicate every principle of secularism. It is the capitulation of a country. One can dialog, and one must, but it needs to be done with dignity.”
Are the principles of secularism and liberalism of Western visitors to Iran (and to other very conservative majority Muslim countries) usually respected? Certainly not. That kind of phony Italian “respect” accorded to President Rowhani reminds me of the fake solidarity some naïve western women display when they wear a hijab to symbolize their support and affinity with Muslim women.
Do these Western women know that some Muslim women are harshly persecuted in some Muslim countries if they resist wearing hijab or if the way they wear it is not seen by the custodians of religious purity as sufficiently pious.
To make matters worse, Pope Francis met with Rowhani for 40 minutes at the Vatican, during which the Iranian President asked the Pontiff to pray for him. It will take more than prayers to cleanse the numerous sins of the President and the state of Iran. The Pope ostensibly wanted to discuss “peace” with Rowhani and the plight of Christian communities in the Levant and Mesopotamia; I wonder if he asked him to what extent Iran’s military intervention is responsible for the death or exodus of Christian Syrians.
Luckily, The Iranian President on his way to Paris discovered that French tolerance for multiculturalism has its limits. It stops with le VIN. It was reported that President Francois Hollande decided to cancel a lunch with President Rowhani because he refused Rowhani’s request to remove wine from the menu. After this bit of good news, I tweeted that I was; “Tempted to sing La Marseillaise. Lunch between the French and Iranian leaders is Cancelled over serving Vin, Vino,خمر،شراب”
Are the Dark Ages over?
While President Rowhani was selling Iran’s supposedly moderate, smiley face, his more unsentimental, unsmiling boss Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei questioned the historical authenticity of the holocaust in a video he posted on his official website. That was his way of commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day.
The three-minute video, titled Are the Dark Ages Over?, features rapid images of Palestinian victims of Israeli violence, with Khamenei’s voice over asking who support the Zionists, then he answers himself that the Americans are behind them even when they claim that they are opposed to ISIS, for they are lying.
Then the video moves to another series of fast images in the background of Auschwitz concentration camp, the most infamous of Nazi camps, along with photos of well-known holocaust deniers in handcuffs. Then Khamenei intones “no one in European countries dares to speak about the holocaust while it is not clear whether the core of this matter is reality or not… Even if it is a reality, it is not clear how it happened.”
Ayatollah Khamenei wants to correct this state of “ignorance” in the world, saying “we should be awake. You dear brother, dear people of Iran, Muslims in the great Islamic Ummah and officials in different countries, should know that we can stand up against the ignorance.” Clearly, the dark ages are not over Ayatollah Khamenei!!
After watching the video and wishing that I did not, I tweeted “where is the outrage among the apologists of the Islamic Republic?” I did not hear or read any condemnations from American officials or for that matter from many scholars and academicians who make their living deciphering what the likes of Ayatollah Khamenei say when they decide to speak.
It is as if the repeated denials of the holocaust by former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has lessened the impact of such an abomination.
The last Jarring message from Iran was the humiliating treatment of the captured American sailors who accidentally entered Iran’s waters, something I wrote about last week in this space. Secretary Kerry, was effusive in his gratitude to his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif for helping secure the prompt release of the sailors. It is as if Kerry did not see the video of the sailors on their knees with their hands behind their heads.
Unless I missed it, there were no strong protests to the Iranians, except expressions of anger and frustration by both secretaries of state and defense John Kerry and Ashton Carter when answering questions from the American media. It is very hard to get Kerry angry and forceful enough to be convincing as the strong diplomat of a strong nation.
Khamenei meanwhile was effusive in his praise of the Revolutionary Guard Corps elements who captured the sailors telling them, “this event should be considered God’s work.” Once again Iran acted like a superpower and the U.S. acted like the regional power. This was one event that was watched with a sense of schadenfreude by those who hate the U.S. in and outside the Middle East.
These examples of appeasements and grudging respect for the Iranian regime do not signal the beginning decline and fall of Western Civilization, but they do signal some serious flaws in Western, mostly European, attitudes toward their potential adversaries or even their enemies. It seems that with the exception of the French not too many Europeans are willing to fight for anything. Pacifism is on the rise in Europe and in the welfare state many are tempted to cut military spending.
It was a wakeup call for American officials when they realized that some European countries continued to decrease their military budgets even after Russia’s land grab in the Ukraine. A 2014 win/Gallup International survey showed shocking statistics about the unwillingness of Europeans to even defend themselves.
Only 29 percent of French citizens polled, 27 percent of British citizens and 18 percent of German citizens said they were willing to fight for their country. However, 68 percent of Italians said they would refuse to fight for their country. This is music President Putin can easily dance to.
Western civilization is not about to fall, and the Barbarians are not about to breach the ramparts, but the Italian government this week reminded us that even the mighty Roman Empire declined for a long time before it collapsed in a whimper.
Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem