First posted January 02, 2015
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.
Foucault first visited Iran in September 1978 and then met with Khomeini at his exile residence outside Paris in October….
While many prominent French intellectuals had become caught up in the enthusiasm of the Iranian upheaval in late 1978, none to our knowledge followed Foucault in siding so explicitly with the Islamists against the secular Marxist or nationalist left. Others with more background in Middle Eastern history were less sanguine altogether, notably the leading French specialist on Islam, Maxime Rodinson. An historian who had worked since the 1950s in the Marxian tradition and the author of the classic biography Muhammad (1961) and of Islam and Capitalism (1966), his leftist credentials were very strong. Rodinson’s prescient three-part article entitled “The Awakening of Islamic Fundamentalism?” appeared on the front page of Le Monde in December 1978.
As he publicly revealed some years later, in this article Rodinson was responding to Foucault’s earlier evocation of a “political spirituality.” However, in a time-honored tradition of Parisian intellectual debate, Rodinson chose not to name Foucault. For those in France who had followed Foucault’s writings on Iran, however, Rodinson’s references in this December 1978 article were clear enough, as they undoubtedly were to Foucault himself. Rodinson poured cold water on the hopes of many on the left for an emancipatory outcome in Iran. He pointed to specific ways in which the ideology of an Islamic state carried with it many reactionary features: “Even a minimalist Islamic fundamentalism would require, according to the Koran, that the hands of thieves be cut off and that a woman’s share of the inheritance be cut in half. If there is a return to tradition, as the men of religion want, then it will be necessary to whip the wine drinker and whip or stone the adulterer…Nothing will be easier or more dangerous than this time-honored accusation: my adversary is an ‘enemy of God’.” Bringing to bear the perspectives of historical materialism, he wrote: “It is astonishing, after centuries of common experience, that it is still necessary to recall one of the best attested laws of history. Good moral intentions, whether or not endorsed by the deity, are a weak basis for determining the practical policies of states.” What lay in store for Iran, he worried, was not a liberation but “a semi-archaic fascism.”
By spring 1979, these controversies came to a boil. At the March 8, 1979 International Women’s Day demonstration, the repressive character of Iran’s new Islamist regime suddenly became quite apparent to many of the Iranian Revolution’s international supporters. On that day, Iranian women activists and their male supporters demonstrated in Tehran against an order for women to re-veil themselves in the chador worn in more traditional sectors of society. The demonstrations continued for five days. At their height, they grew to fifty thousand in Tehran, women as well as men. Some leftist men formed a cordon around the women, fighting off armed attackers from a newly formed group, the Hezbollah or “Party of God.” The demonstrators chanted “No to the Chador,” “Down with the Dictatorship,” and even the occasional “Down with Khomeini.” One banner read, “We made the Revolution for Freedom, But Got Unfreedom,” while others proclaimed “At the Dawn of Freedom, There Is No Freedom.” For their part, the Hezbollah chanted “You will cover yourselves or be beaten,” but their response was mainly nonverbal: stones, knives, and even bullets. After support demonstrations also took place in Paris, Simone de Beauvoir issued a statement of solidarity on March 19: “We have created the International Committee for Women’s Rights (CIDF) in response to calls from a large number of Iranian women, whose situation and whose revolt have greatly moved us…We have appreciated the depth of the utter humiliation into which others wanted to make them fall and we have therefore resolved to struggle for them.”…
Nouvel Observateur published, in its November 6 issue, excerpts of a letter from the pseudonymous “Atoussa H.,” a leftist Iranian woman living in exile in France, who took strong exception to Foucault’s uncritical stance toward the Islamists. She declared: “I am very distressed by the matter of fact commentaries usually made by the French left with respect to the prospect of an ‘Islamic’ government replacing the bloody tyranny of the shah.” Foucault, she wrote, seemed “deeply moved by ‘Muslim spirituality,’ which, according to him, would be an improvement over the ferocious capitalist dictatorship, which is today beginning to fall apart.” Why, she continued, alluding to the 1953 overthrow of the democratic and leftist Mossadeq government, must the Iranian people, “after twenty-five years of silence and oppression” be forced to choose between “the SAVAK and religious fanaticism?” Unveiled women were already being insulted on the streets and Khomeini supporters had made clear that “in the regime they want to create, women will have to adhere” to Islamic law. With respect to statements that ethnic and religious minorities would have their rights “so long as they do not harm the majority,” Atoussa H. asked pointedly: “Since when have the minorities begun to ‘harm'” the majority?
Returning to the problematic notion of an Islamic government, Atoussa H. pointed to the brutal forms of justice in Saudi Arabia: “Heads and hands are cut off, for thieves and lovers.” She concluded: “Many Iranians are, like me, distressed and desperate about the thought of an ‘Islamic’ government. . . . The Western liberal left needs to know that Islamic law can become a dead weight on societies hungering for change. They should not let themselves be seduced by a cure that is perhaps worse than the disease.” Foucault, in a short rejoinder published the following week in Nouvel Observateur, wrote that what was “intolerable” about Atoussa H.’s letter, was her “merging together” of all forms of Islam into one and then “scorning” Islam as “fanatical.” It was certainly discerning on Foucault’s part to note in his response that Islam “as a political force is an essential problem for our epoch and for the years to come.” But this prediction was seriously undercut by his utter refusal to share any of her critique of political Islam. Instead, he concluded his rejoinder by lecturing Atoussa H.: “The first condition for approaching it [Islam] with a minimum of intelligence is not to begin by bringing in hatred.” In March and April 1979, once the Khomeini regime’s atrocities against women and homosexuals began, this exchange would come back to haunt Foucault… read the full article: