Rouhani is different in that he not only understands the sensitivities of Muslims, he is acutely aware of the sensitivities of Westerners whom he feels he needs in order to allow Iran to develop and prosper.
Rouhani on Charlie
Rouhani condemned the massacre accusing the terrorists of increasing Islamophobia with their deeds. His condemnation was tempered slightly by the content of Charlie: “A magazine which is used as a weapon of prejudice is always full of bullets of insult and certain people sow the seeds of hatred and others harvest vengeance under the name of religion but with the sickle of massacre.” Hatred in the name of religion is fuelled by hatred in the name of freedom of speech.
He went to great lengths to separate the sensitivities of Muslims who felt insulted by the satire of Charlie Hebdo from the sensitivities of Westerners who were horrified from the reactions of Muslim extremists to the freedom of speech.
A good way to understand Rouhani’s mindset on the sensitivities of this issue is to read and listen to his own words his reactions to similar issues in the past.
Rouhani on Rushdie
In order to understand his mindset on this issue, one should listen to Rouhani’s take on the fatwa against Salman Rushdie and the furor it created in the West: “It’s not a matter of the civil rights of a Western citizen…it is a cultural war…according to their point of view, the problem is that a sentence has been issued for an individual who is a citizen of another country…Our response is that the fatwa is a religious decree…we as a government have not issued an order to assassinate this person, so it cannot be said that we have broken international laws, but we say this is the duty of Muslims. And this duty is determined by God.”
In short, he understands why the fatwa is so abhorrent to Westerners but he also understands why the fatwa had to be issued and respected.
Rouhani on “Freedom”
For Rouhani, freedom has to be tempered and controlled in order to not turn into anarchy: “People (in Iran) are completely free to express their thoughts. Of course, there are laws and rules in every country. There is a court, and if anyone disobeys the law, then it is the law that deals with that person…if we don’t abide by the law, it would be a shambles. We have to distinguish between freedom and shambles“.
That is why issuing a death sentence to Iranian blogger Soheil Arabi for (re)posting a criticism of the Prophet is legitimate. According to Rouhani, Arabi transgressed the law knowingly and therefore should be held accountable as a criminal because freedom, he believes, must be limited and controlled: “Danger is when, God forbid, there is a group that considers itself equal to Islam, a group that considers itself equal to the Revolution, a group that considers itself equal to the guardianship of the Supreme Jurisconsult and introduces [another] group against religion, against Revolution, against the guardianship of the Supreme Jurisconsult. All problems originate from this point.”
Once again, Rouhani seems to understand the upside of freedom but he warns that too much freedom leads to the unraveling of the fabrics of society in general and Islamic society in particular.
Rouhani on the future of Iran
Rouhani first and foremost has a clear understanding of the power of diplomacy: Diplomacy, is the art of understanding a region…estimating its strength and position, and finding opportunities critical to exploit.” But more importantly, Rouhani has a vision for the future of Iran: “In 20 years, our dominant discourse should be “progress and development” – if the dominant discourse is security, then the economy, and science and technology, cannot be the first priorities“.
This form of development is dependent on foreign investment which shies away from Tehran’s traditional focus on security and arrogant attitude of self-sufficiency: “Our difficulty with foreign investment is that the world sees our country as a security risk. We have paid a very high price economically.” In his mind, the future of Iran is dependent on de-isolation and foreign investment and not on self-sufficiency as Khamenei arrogantly tries to portray.
But Rouhani is also a devout Muslim who believes in Iran’s role in leading Islam: “The leader of the Islamic movement is Islamic Iran…the Imam’s (Khomeini) line, path, and thought rules over the hearts of all free Muslims and movements. The eminent leader of the Revolution, his eminence Ayatullah Khamenei…is the leader of the world of Islam today. His message, his words, his cries, his line, his path is the guiding direction for Islamic movements.” Iran’s future is not only in development but in leading Islam globally.
In a way, Rouhani symbolizes the crux of the problems that Iran is going through: his head is facing toward the West but his heart is in Islamic rule.