Feb 3rd, 2016, 11:36 AM

Misguided Outrage Over French Wine and Italian Statues

By Alice Preat
Image Credit: Youtube (Jim Beckwith)
The real issues behind Rouhani's state visit to Europe, beyond covered-up Roman statues and French wine at the Elysée Palace.

Iran's head-of-state Hassan Rouhani visited Rome and Paris last week to rebuild economic ties between Iran and European countries -- and to repair Iran's image following a deal with the EU to limit its nuclear program in return for the lifting of the economic sanctions. While the trip marked a new beginning for diplomatic relations between Iran and the West, many were talking about nude statues and French wine. 

In Rome, Rouhani met with Pope Francis and Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi at the Vatican's Capitoline Museum. Prior to his arrival, it was decided that the museum's famous nude statue of the goddess Venus should be covered up in deference to the leader of Iran's Islamic Republic. The Italian government's decision to cover up the statues sparked astonishment and outrage in the media. Critics called the decision self-censorship, a betrayal of our fundamental Western values, a cowardly gesture made only to placate the leader of an Islamic Republic for strictly economic reasons. The backlash quickly exploded on social media. Angry tweets and Instagram posts of nude statues used the hashtag #statuenude.

The Iranian leader got a somewhat different reception in Paris. Rouhani's entourage had requested that wine not be served a state dinner at the Elysée Palace. French President François Hollande flatly rejected this request, insisting that there would be no meal without wine. The French proposed a state breakfast instead, but Rouhani evidently found that a bit too on-the-cheap. So in the end, he had to settle for a meeting without food or drink -- a sort of "state coffee". It was, in fact, a replay of the previous state visit to Paris by an Iranaian leader. In 1999, Mohammad Khatami arrived in Paris on an official visit making all sorts of similar demands about wine -- and he too had to settle for a snack with no booze. 

French public reaction to the French's handling of the situation was of course approving. Most praised and supported Hollande's decision to refuse to host a state dinner without French wine on the table.  


                                                                                   Image credit: Flickr (Suvodeb Banerjee)

In Italy, public reaction to the Italian government's decision to cover nude statues raises deeper issues. First, the main argument was that it was an act of cowardice and self-censorship that compromised Western democratic values and beliefs, that we should be able to proudly express and stand behind our cultural heritage, our freedom to create and receive expression even in the form of nudity, especially in art. This argument can easily be explained. Nude Roman statues (and wine) are both symbols of these liberal values, which we hold so close to our hearts, especially during these troubled times when we feel attacked and stripped of our right to freedom and secularism. While that is all understandable, it is much too easy to stop there and to hide behind freedom of expression and Western values to create a massive polemic around this issue. We have to look past these two episodes -- in Rome and Paris -- and ask ourselves why we should feel outrage. Ultimately, both the statue cover-up and the table wine requests were only about symbols. By focusing on these symbolic issues we have neglected much more fundamental questions.

If we (European citizens) truly believe that to cover a nude statue or not serving wine during a diplomatic dinner is to compromise our core values, how is it acceptable to make a diplomatic and economic deal to benefit both our (Italian and French) governments and economies but also Iran's, a country whose beliefs, system and values we are entirely opposed to? Don't some of our core European and democratic values include the right to live, the right of women to be treated as equals to men, the right to freedom of expression? These values are clearly not shared by Rouhani and the Iranian government, so it should not be acceptable for us to compromise these extremely important values to serve economic and capitalistic goals, if it is not acceptable to compromise on a nude statue and a little wine during a meal for one single day.

The latter are solely cultural traditions that have become part of our values, but are not truly values in and of themselves, unlike human rights. I believe these matters should be a greater priority. We cannot accept one (the invitation extended to Rouhani to make a state visit to promote economic relations) but then express outrage at another, more trivial, issue such as nude statues and dinner wine.



This controversy is based on cultural tensions -- specifically, a refusal to adapt to Islamic values and beliefs and the conviction that the Islamic world should adapt to and accept ours. This 'superiority complex', this idea that because our democratic values are more advanced, our way of life should be enforced everywhere, is never going to bring progress. Indeed, in order to better Europe's global relations with Iran and the Islamic world, as well as to fight terrorism, we have to start to accept the differences between our two cultures, and to understand the inestimable value of letting others exist rather than trying to suppress and fight them. Without getting into a philosophical debate about acceptance of the 'other', we cannot logically say that, when the Italian and French governments invited President Rouhani to visit Rome and Paris for diplomatic and economic reasons, they (and we) were unaware his and his representatives' beliefs regarding nudity and alcohol. We knew, as a matter of fact, that Shi'a Muslims are forbidden by their holy Quran and Sharia law to be exposed in any way to nudity or alcohol, as it is considered a great sin.

Since we were aware of this, and willingly invited the Iranian leader to visit our countries, how can we possibly not adapt our values and behavior to his if the goal of their visit is ultimately a benefit to us and to them? If one believes that it is acceptable to have invited Rouhani in the first place, they must agree that the Italian prime minister's decision to cover up the nude statues is actually nothing to be outraged about, but rather a shrewd act of respect and sensitivity towards the beliefs and values of his guest with whom we wants to do business. The refusal of President Hollande to not serve wine at the Elysée dinner, though perceived as principled and courageous, was actually an act of hypocrisy if we look at it with the same approach in mind. The clever and wise decision on their part was to avoid the cultural clash altogether by proposing a meal-less meeting, where the question of alcohol did not need to be raised. 



These deeper issues ultimately force us to come to the realization that the outrage around Rouhani was misguided -- and an extremely superficial reaction to complex matters. These two incidents also present us two reflections, with the constant key word here being 'systematic'. Indeed, no matter our beliefs or values, if we truly consider ourselves to have intrinsically good morals, ethics and values in our Western, liberal and democratic belief system, we must agree that we have to stand behind and apply these values in a systematic manner.

The first reflection is that we are presented with is a question of morals, and what we truly believe in: if we are willing to defend wholeheartedly our liberal and democratic values and proudly brand ourselves and our countries with these values, we then cannot accept or support the fact that both the Italian and French government invited the leader of a country whose very core values are not compatible to ours. This would mean being outraged and triggering a global discussion around this recent diplomatic and economic deal altogether.

The second reflection regards the cultural clash and conflict between Islamic and Western values. If we truly believe in secularism, democracy, freedom and human rights, we simply cannot cherry-pick beliefs and values we will tolerate based solely on affect and opinion. The key word here is systematic. We cannot accept and tolerate kosher meat but refuse to skip wine for the course of a meal with the only reason being that it goes against our cultural traditions. And more importantly, we cannot expect over a billion people to tend to our values and beliefs while we refuse to adapt and accept theirs.

It is too easy to follow the masses. The media and European citizens have a duty to address and consider the deeper and more complex issues at the core of these anecdotal events, rather than to stand on the tip of the iceberg proclaiming freedom of expression. We must encourage, and be encouraged, to practice what we preach and be systematic about our 'opinions' on issues that have as much significance as these questions do.