27 November 2011
Watani talks to Mojtaba Amani, head of the Interests Section of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Cairo
Throughout the Arab World, the concept of religious-led regimes has been the topic of much controversy. Seculars see religion as the realm of the soul, a private relation between an individual and his or her god, that has nothing to do with public life. The public domain, they argue, should be dominated by civil and human rights values. Proponents of political Islam, however, see the option of an Islamic State as one that will ensure justice on earth and eternal happiness in the afterlife.
Perhaps the most prominent among Islamic States on the ground is the Islamic Republic of Iran. Even though it is based on the Shia version of Islam, and Egypt is predominantly Sunni, many look up to Iran. For its part, Iran has never concealed the fact that it sees itself as a role model for all Islamic people. When the January Revolution in Egypt was still in its first week, Ayatullah Ali Khamenei delivered a speech in which he urged the Egyptian people to pursue their battle till they could “instate a popular regime based on religion.” Tellingly, Khamenei spoke in Arabic, a language Iranians are usually reluctant to use, infinitely preferring their native Farsi.
So what does the Islamic Republic of Iran have on its side or against it? Watani took its questions to Mojtaba Amani, head of the Interests Section of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Cairo.
What are the differences between Cairo and Tehran?
I don’t want to begin with differences; I would rather highlight what we have in common. Egyptians and Iranians are both peoples with ancient civilisations that go back thousands of years in time. The two countries have many common interests, economic and political, which—if properly exploited—can bring prosperity to the region. After the Egyptian Revolution last January, it became vitally important to start a new phase in relations with Egypt, especially after the ousting of Mubarak who used to respond to US dictates and embraced an unfriendly attitude towards Iran.
Do you believe that attitude was just because of the ‘US dictates’ or because Iran stands against Egyptian policies, and has even celebrated Khaled Islamboli, the assassinator of our former president Anwar Sadat, to the point of naming a street in Tehran after him?
This was used as a pretext to widen the gap between the two countries. As to honouring Islamboli, it has nothing to do with Sadat as once-president of Egypt, but as the man who signed a peace treaty with the Zionist entity, which is unwelcome by all Iranians. We also named a street after Soliman Khater, the Egyptian soldier who in the 1980s killed five Israeli soldiers on the border. He died in prison in Egypt in 1986.
I think Egypt and Iran have too many common interests to stop at naming a street after Islamboli.
So where do political and economic relations now stand between the two countries?
None can deny the significance of the other. Even in the absence of diplomatic relations, Egypt and Iran cooperate on several international fronts such as the Non-Aligned Movement, and the common stance vis-à-vis the nuclear disarmament of the Zionist entity. The volume of economic exchange between the two countries surpasses USD100 million annually, a sum which has the potential to multiply several times over.
As for tourism, the Mubarak regime banned Iranian tourists from coming to Egypt. But now things have changed. Some one and a half million Iranian tourists are waiting to visit Egypt.
Do you see all the Arab revolutions as Islamic?
All Arab countries are Muslim.
But we Christians are there.
Yes, you are there; actually most of the Christians in the Arab World are in Egypt.
However we cannot ignore the fact that all the Arab countries are Muslim. In Iran, we termed the Revolution Islamic, which does not mean that there is no place for others. In the Islamic Shura Council, for instance, there are Christians—Armenians, Catholics and Protestants; Jewish and Zoroastrians although their respective populations in Iran are minor compared with Muslims. Islam offers a hand of friendship to all religions; there is no hatred or persecution of Christians. We believe in respecting other religions; there are in Iran churches and temples for Jews and Zoroastrians.
Sunnis account for some 8 per cent of Iranians, whereas Christians, Jews, Baha’is and Zoroastrians make up 1 per cent of the population.
Do non-Muslims in Iran pay jizya (tax paid by non-Muslims living under Muslim rule)?
We have no such thing as the jizya. We have a tax system under which all Iranians are equal.
Is there any discrimination in jobs, which in some countries are banned to Christians or Jews?
There is no discrimination but, since non-Muslims are few in number; they would not be democratically elected to representative councils or chosen as ministers. There is no religion box in official Iranian identity papers; a person’s religion is recognised through his or her name which usually denotes the religion he or she belongs to.
What are the procedures to build a church in Iran? Is there any sectarian violence there?
If the government and local councils see the necessity for a new church or temple, it is built. If not, it does not get built. And there is no sectarian violence at all.
Is Islamic sharia imposed on non-Muslims in Iran?
In family affairs, Islamic sharia is not applied to non-Muslims, whereas in communal issues, sharia is applied to all. For instance, all women in Iran have to don hijab—the Islamic veil—in public. But non-Muslims are free not to wear it in churches or in their homes. But on the street the hijab is a must.
Is it hijab or chador?
No, we do not impose a chador, we only require a head covering for all women to be alike, in order to avoid discrimination. Otherwise, women who do not wear the veil would be easily identified as non-Muslims, which goes against our non-discriminatory principles.
Some Islamic streams in Egypt believe that applying Islamic hudoud (penalties, including stoning adulteresses, flogging adulteresses, or cutting off the hands of thieves) will put an end to crime. Did applying hudoud in Iran put an end to the high crime rate?
Applying hudoud restricted crime, but hudoud should be dealt with very carefully and should be only decided by a religious scholar. Unlike what is generally believed about Iran, hudoud are applied very restrictively and only after a thorough court ruling and complicated procedures.
But we have already learnt from reports published in Paris Match and The Economist of a high crime rate in Iran. Applying hudoud did not put an end to drug addiction and prostitution, did it?
I did not say that applying hudoud ended crime, I only said that it prevented or restricted crime. Of course humans err everywhere; Notwithstanding, Iran has a low crime level compared with other countries.
How do you explain why many Egyptians are wary of a religious state?
Egyptians should not be wary of Islamic rule. After the Islamic revolution in Iran and the merging of politics and religion, scientific and economic evolution took a leap forward. Iran is now highly developed in satellite science, as well as in the atomic and cloning fields.
Does ‘cloning’ comply with Islamic sharia?
Yes, animal, not human, cloning.
Do you mean that scientific progress is related to applying Islamic sharia?
All religions endorse science. The Shi’ite sect in particular strives to reconcile sharia on one side and evolution and human needs on the other. If human beings need to clone animals, religious scholars endeavour to give Islam’s opinion. Such is the case with everything new that occurs in human life. Religious scholars are always suggesting new ways to look at sharia.
You talked about scientific evolution in Iran, but what about literary evolution and the most famous writers? Is there any censorship on creativity in Iran?
There is no censorship on film making, but the State monitors the suitability of the film to the community. Films that incite sedition, make crimes look appealing, or transmit incorrect teachings, are all banned. The same applies to books; there is no prior censorship on their writing, but they are dealt with the same way as films. Zahra Husain is among our most prominent writers. She wrote a book on the Iraqi-Iranian war, which was reprinted 100 times.
Some people believe that Iranian cinema and drama have invaded Egypt as some measure of cultural normalisation. What do you think?
You cannot restrict culture; it is like water, it seeps in from different paths. Culture is different from politics. You can choose to have political relations or not, but culture has many ways such as Internet, and no censorship or restrictions can stand against it.
What about the allegation that Iran is trying to spread the Shi’ite sect in Egypt?’
Those who make this accusation only do so because they consider Shia as apostate. They do not disapprove the spread of other Islamic streams in Egypt.
As Watani conducted the interview with Mojtaba Amani, several Internet news sites circulated news of Pastor Youssef Nadarkhani, a Christian convert, who had been handed a death sentence for a charge of apostasy.
The Iranian actress Marziah Vafamehr, star of 2009 film My Tehran For Sale, was sentenced to 90 lashes and a year in prison for appearing in an Australian film showing her without head covering. Finally, she was released however last October.
Watani called and emailed Mr Amani for a comment, but he gave no reply.