Mirror-Imaging the Mullahs: Our Islamic Interlocutors

In 1993, Bernard Hourcade, a geographer, sociologist, and Persianist who was the head of Iranian studies at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, got a bit of a shock. After completing lengthy negotiations on the first cultural and scientific exchange between France and the Islamic Republic, the Iranian delegation demanded the agreement open with the words: Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Rahim (“In the Name of God, the Compassionate and the Merciful”). The negotiations were supposed to be a friendly arrangement, something less formal than an accord. So the French were aghast that the Iranians, whom Hourcade and the other French scholars and diplomats had known for years, would demand the Koranic invocation. The Iranians understood well the secular ethos of France. Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, then the president of the Islamic Republic, was even then making a determined pitch for more French investment and trade.

Exasperated and operating independently from the French foreign ministry, Hourcade responded that Tehran would either withdraw this stipulation or Paris would begin booting Iranian scholars and scientists from France. Within twenty-four hours, the Iranians informed Hourcade that the Islamic Republic would not object to the removal of the Koran’s most famous lines.

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of Know Thine Enemy: A Spy's Journey into Revolutionary Iran and The Islamic Paradox: Shiite Clerics, Sunni Fundamentalists, and the Coming of Arab Democracy.

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