Thursday, July 01, 2004

Foucault's enthusiasm for Khomeini - The totalitarian temptation revisited

[New Politics, vol. 10, no. 1, whole no. 37, Summer 2004]

The Seductions of Islamism
Revisiting Foucault and the Iranian Revolution
Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson

February 2004 marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Iranian Revolution. From September 1978 to February 1979, in the course of a massive urban revolution with millions of participants, the Iranian people toppled the regime of Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (1941-1979), which had pursued a highly authoritarian program of economic and cultural modernization. By late 1978, the Islamist faction led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had come to dominate the antiregime uprising, in which secular nationalists, democrats, and leftists also participated. The Islamists controlled the slogans and the organization of the protests, which meant that many secular women protesters were pressured into donning the veil (chador) as an expression of solidarity with the more traditional Iranian Muslims. By February 1979, the shah had left the country and Khomeini returned from exile to take power. The next month, he sponsored a national referendum that declared Iran an Islamic republic by an overwhelming majority. Soon after, as Khomeini began to assume nearly absolute power, a reign of terror ensued.

Progressive and leftist intellectuals around the world were initially very divided in their assessments of the Iranian Revolution. While they supported the overthrow of the shah, they were usually less enthusiastic about the notion of an Islamic republic. Foucault visited and wrote on Iran during this period, a period when he was at the height of his intellectual powers. He had recently published Discipline and Punish (1975) and Vol. I of History of Sexuality (1976) and was working on material for Vol. II and III of the latter. Since their publication, the reputation of these writings has grown rather than diminished and they have helped us to conceptualize gender, sexuality, knowledge, power, and culture in new and important ways. Paradoxically, however, his extensive writings and interviews on the Iranian Revolution have experienced a different fate, ignored or dismissed even by thinkers closely identified with Foucault's perspectives.

Attempts to bracket out Foucault's writings on Iran as "miscalculations," or even "not Foucauldian," remind one of what Foucault himself had criticized in his well-known 1969 essay, "What Is an Author?" When we include certain works in an author's career and exclude others that were written in "a different style," or were "inferior," we create a stylistic unity and a theoretical coherence, he wrote. We do so, he added, by privileging certain writings as authentic and excluding others that do not fit our view of what the author ought to be: "The author is therefore the ideological figure by which one marks the manner in which we fear the proliferation of meaning" (Rabinow 1984).

Throughout his life, Foucault's concept of authenticity meant looking at situations where people lived dangerously and flirted with death, a site where creativity originated. In the tradition of Friedrich Nietzsche and Georges Bataille, Foucault embraced the artist who pushed the limits of rationality and he wrote with great passion in defense of irrationalities that broke new boundaries. In 1978, Foucault found such morbid transgressive powers in the revolutionary figure of Ayatollah Khomeini and the millions who risked death as they followed him in the course of the revolution. He knew that such "limit" experiences could lead to new forms of creativity and he passionately threw in his support. This was Foucault's only first-hand experience of revolution and it led to his most extensive set of writings on a non-Western society.

Distinctive Positions

Foucault first visited Iran in September 1978 and then met with Khomeini at his exile residence outside Paris in October. He traveled to Iran for a second visit in November, when the revolutionary movement against the shah was reaching its zenith. During these two trips, Foucault was commissioned as a special correspondent of the leading Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, with his articles appearing on page one of that paper. He published other parts of his writings on Iran in French newspapers and journals, such as the daily Le Monde and the widely circulated leftist weekly Nouvel Observateur. Student activists translated at least one of his essays into Persian and posted it on the walls of Tehran University in the fall of 1978.

Foucault staked out a series of distinctive political and theoretical positions on the Iranian Revolution. In part because only three of his fifteen articles and interviews on Iran have appeared in English, they have generated little discussion in the English-speaking world. Many scholars of Foucault view these writings as aberrant or the product of a political mistake. We believe that Foucault's writings on Iran were in fact closely related to his general theoretical writings on the discourses of power and the hazards of modernity.

Long before most other commentators, Foucault understood, and this to his credit, that Iran was witnessing a singular kind of revolution. Early on, he predicted that this revolution would not follow the model of other modern revolutions. He wrote that it was organized around a sharply different concept, which he called "spiritual politics." Foucault recognized the enormous power of the new discourse of militant Islam, not just for Iran, but globally. He showed that the new Islamist movement aimed at a fundamental cultural, social, as well as political break with the modern Western order, as well as with the Soviet Union and China.

The Iranian experience also raises some serious questions about Foucault's thought. First, it is often assumed that Foucault's suspicion of utopianism, his hostility to grand narratives and universals, and his stress on difference and singularity rather than totality, would make him less likely than his predecessors on the left to romanticize an authoritarian politics that promised radically to refashion from above the lives and thought of a people, for their ostensible benefit. However, his Iran writings showed that Foucault was not immune to the type of illusions that so many Western leftists had held toward the Soviet Union and later, China. Foucault did not anticipate the birth of yet another modern state where old religious technologies of domination could be refashioned and institutionalized; this was a state that combined a traditionalist ideology (Islam) with the anti- imperialist discourse of the left, but also equipped itself with modern technologies of organization, surveillance, warfare, and propaganda.

Second, Foucault's highly problematic relationship to feminism becomes more than an intellectual lacuna in the case of Iran. On a few occasions, Foucault reproduced statements he had heard from religious figures on gender relations in a possible future Islamic republic, but he never questioned the "separate but equal" message of the Islamists. Foucault also dismissed feminist premonitions that the revolution was headed in a dangerous direction. He seemed to regard such warnings as little more than Orientalist attacks on Islam, thereby depriving himself of a more balanced perspective toward the events in Iran. At a more general level, Foucault remained insensitive toward the diverse ways in which power affected women, as against men. He ignored the fact that those most traumatized by premodern disciplinary practices were often woman and children.

Third, an examination of Foucault's writings provides more support for the frequently-articulated criticism that his one-sided critique of modernity needs to be seriously reconsidered, especially from the vantage point of many non-Western societies. A number of Middle Eastern intellectuals have been grappling with their own versions of the Enlightenment project over the past century. The questions in the Middle East are quite concrete. Should such societies, which are often dominated by secular or religious despotic orders, ignore the juridico-legal legacies of the West? Or can they combine aspects of Foucault's theory of power and critiques of modernity with a modern secular state? This is an issue that is hotly debated in many Middle Eastern countries today, especially in Iran and within Iranian exilic communities. Indeed, there are some indications that Foucault himself was moving in such a direction at the end of his life. In his 1984 "What Is Enlightenment?" essay (Rabinow 1984), he put forth a position on the Enlightenment that was more nuanced than before.

The Significance of Gender

In the two and a half decades since 1979, the tremors set off by the Iranian Revolution helped in no small way to spark an international series of Islamist movements. Radical Islamists have taken power or staged destructive civil wars in a number of countries, from Algeria to Egypt and from Sudan to Afghanistan, in the latter case with U.S. support. These regimes and movements have been responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths and for numerous setbacks to women's rights throughout the Muslim world. Islamism gained such power and influence during a period when equally retrogressionist Christian, Hindu, and Jewish religious fundamentalist movements were also on the rise, all of them inimical to women's rights. The September 11 attacks were a dramatic and horrific example of the dangers of such religious fanaticism.
Two questions for today emerge from Foucault's Iran writings. First, were these writings aberrations, largely the product of his ignorance of Iranian history and culture? This is what Maxime Rodinson suggested in his critiques of Foucault. We think not. We note that de Beauvoir and other French feminists took a markedly different stance, one that holds up better today, although they had little specialist knowledge of Iran. We suggest that Foucault's Iran writings reveal, albeit in exaggerated form, some problems in his overall perspective, especially its one-sided critique of modernity. In this sense, the Iran writings contribute something important to our understanding of this major social philosopher.

A second issue for today concerns the whole issue of religious fundamentalism, more important than ever to debates over the crisis of modernity since September 11, 2001. The international left's failure to chart an adequate response to religious fundamentalism is not Michel Foucault's problem alone. It is ours today as well. And this is no easy task, just as in past decades it was not easy to chart a leftist perspective independent of Stalinism and Maoism. As Maxime Rodinson later wrote, with a measure of Gallic humanism: "Those who, like the author of these lines, refused for so long to believe the reports about the crimes committed in the name of the triumphant socialism in the former Tsarist Empire, in the terrible human dramas resulting from the Soviet Revolution, would exhibit bad grace if they became indignant at the incredulity of the Muslim masses before all the spots that one asks them to view on the radiant sun of their hope. Michel Foucault is not contemptible for not having wanted to create despair in the Muslim world's shantytowns and starving countryside, for not having wanted to lose hope, or for that matter, to lose hope in the worldwide importance of their hopes." And, as we have seen above, hope needs to be tempered by a critical spirit cognizant above all of the significance of gender in an era of religious fundamentalism.

[Read the whole thing HERE. And for one example of Foucault's admiration for the "political spirituality" represented by Khomeini, written early in the revolutionary process (October 1978), see HERE.]