Foucault and the Iranian Revolution

Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islamism
By Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson
University of Chicago Press, 2005

Michel Foucault, one of the most celebrated philosophers of the twentieth century, was also one of the most controversial because of his refusal to divorce his passions from his principles. The whole of his career was devoted to questioning the myth of the all-knowing, disembodied and dispassionate observer — Plato’s philosopher-king, Descartes’s cogito — and his writings were in many ways a product of just this outlook. Though a rigorous historian, Foucault was skeptical of the positivist fantasies upon which historian’s claims to truth were based. Though a respected scholar who occupied France’s most prestigious chair in philosophy at College de France, he was still given to doubt and auto-criticism. “In a sense,” he once said in a fit of self-mockery, “all…my life I’ve been trying to do intellectual things that would attract beautiful boys.”

To say that Foucault’s thoughts and actions were intertwined is not to suggest that the manner in which they relate is necessarily obvious. Unfortunately, this is precisely the impression that Janet Afary and Kevin B Anderson give in their Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islamism. The book investigates an under-explored chapter in Foucault’s fifty-seven years of life: his support for Iran’s 1979 revolution, which deposed the Shah and led to the founding of the Islamic Republic, ruled by the Ayatollah Khomeini until his death in 1989. It details how Foucault’s support of Tehran’s student uprisings and mass protests were the product of his identification with radical Shiism and his critique of modernity more generally.

The authors make their argument by pursuing two lines of approach: First, they recount Foucault’s own statements about the political situation in Iran; second, they consider the ideas that informed his teachings as well as those of his Islamic counterparts. They argue that martyrdom and self-sacrifice, existentialism and poststructuralism, and a tacit identification with European fascism were central preoccupations in both contexts. “Foucault was…intrigued by the relationship between the discourse of martyrdom and the new form of political spirituality to which the Islamists aspired,” they write. “He held that the Western [sic] world had abandoned this form of spirituality ever since the French Revolution. Furthermore,” the authors point out that the principles of “authentic Islam” that informed postwar Islamic radicals were strongly influenced by the writings of Martin Heidegger, whose early work on death was also important for Foucault during the 1950s.

The distortions and oversimplifications in this book are too great to name. Though Foucault’s enthusiasm for the Iranian Revolution was undeniable, and while his response to Persian feminists was reprehensible at best, to suggest that his writings on Iran give us a key to understanding his critique of modernity is completely unfounded. As the authors point out, Foucault visited Iran on only two occasions, once for nine days and once for seven. He was ignorant of the region, and exoticized and stereotyped its traditions by fetishizing what he observed to be its “erotic” and primordial character. Yet to suggest (as Afary and Anderson do) that such remarks somehow reflect the mind of a fundamentally “antimodern” or “anti-Enlightenment” thinker is to ignore the fact that throughout the twentieth century, French intellectuals were often summoned to comment on situations of which they knew very little.

Conversely, the authors similarly fail to paint a picture of Iran that captures the role that nationalism, widespread corruption and the will to self-determination played in shaping domestic affairs prior to the revolution. Rather than factoring the British and American involvement in manipulating the country’s political life over the course of the twentieth century, or even looking closely at the economic and social problems that were the hallmark of the Shah’s tenure, they suggest that the revolution was largely born of cultural and intellectual forces — an oversimplification at best.

The most bothersome aspect of this book is that it divides all thinkers and ideas into starkly opposed and monolithic camps. Afary and Anderson tacitly conflate Heidegger’s affinity for National Socialism with Foucault’s identification for radical Shiism, which is ahistorical and Eurocentric in the extreme. Though learned scholars in their own right — Afary is an Iranianist and historian, Anderson is a political theorist and sociologist — it is striking how much their rhetoric resembles the “us versus them” machinations of the current Republican administration. The author’s brandish words like “secularism” and “religion” without acknowledging how intertwined the two terms have been throughout history. Was it not Max Weber who showed that Enlightenment liberalism would have been unthinkable if not for the rise of the “Protestant ethic?” They also seem to have an axe to grind with poststructuralism. Their suggestion that reading Sartre, Kierkegaard and Heidegger may have given rise to radical strains of Islam is kind of like saying that masturbation will make you blind: It is primarily a scare tactic, one rooted in a deep-seated antipathy for any project that seeks to question the legacy and history of Enlightenment modernity.

Foucault and the Iranian Revolution’s only redeeming quality is that it contains translations of Foucault’s writings on Iran in its appendix. The rest of the book is truly a testament to how the rhetoric of fear that has defined US foreign policy since September 11 has even reshaped the discourse of the intellectual left: Afary and Anderson’s unwillingness to confront the inner tensions and nuances implicit in Foucault’s thinking and writing is to be seen in the context of our continuing desire for black and white, easily digestible readings of recent history, and the increasing rift between France and the United States on the question of the Middle East. Just as we now have “freedom fries,” we also have a deeply partisan analysis of a leading French intellectual that lends further legitimacy to the logic of preemption that has guided US foreign policy for the last four years. Indeed, Afary and Anderson’s book fails sufficiently to account for colonialism’s complicity in shaping Iran’s ideological and social context. Foucault may have been wrong to side with the revolutionaries (which, by the way, included secular intellectuals as well as the clerical class and bazaaris), but the lessons to be drawn from this episode require a level of historical and conceptual sophistication that this book simply fails to provide.