Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Fouault, a Mullah Lover?

In the 37th issue of the New Politics, Janet Afary and Kevin Anderson offer their analysis of Foucault's relationship to the Iranian Revolution:

The Seductions of Islamism Revisiting Foucault and the Iranian Revolution

Selective excerpts:

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.
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.
Elsewhere in the English-speaking world, where Foucault's writings on Iran have been only selectively translated and the contemporary French responses to him not translated at all, his Iran writings have been treated more kindly. His last two articles on Iran, where he rather belatedly made a few criticisms of the Islamic regime in the face of the attacks on him by other French intellectuals, have been the most widely circulated ones among those that have appeared in English up to now. They are the only examples of his Iran writings to be found in the three-volume collection, The Essential Writings of Michel Foucault, issued recently by the New Press (Foucault 2000).
oucault carried out a probing analysis of the shah's regime in his October 1978 article for Corriere della Sera, "The Shah Is One Hundred Years Behind the Times."1 He wrote that in Iran, "modernization" took the form of the shah's authoritarian policies. Situating himself in a postmodern position, he argued that the shah's plan for "secularization and modernization," handed down by his father Reza Shah, a brutal dictator known for "his famous gaze," was itself retrograde and archaic. Here one can discern echoes of his Discipline and Punish, published three years earlier. The Pahlavi shahs were the guardians of a modernizing disciplinary state that subjected all of the people of Iran to the intense gaze of their overlords. Most notably, Foucault was criticizing the surveillance methods and disciplinary practices adopted by the regime of Muhammad Reza Shah and his notorious secret police, the SAVAK, whose methods and practices remained brutal and retrograde.

Later, in February 1979, just after Khomeini had assumed power, Foucault made an astute prediction in his article, "A Powder Keg Called Islam," also in Corriere della sera. He mocked the hopes of French and Iranian Marxists, who had believed that Khomeini would now be pushed aside by the Marxist Left: "Religion played its role of opening the curtain; the Mullahs will now disperse themselves, taking off in a big group of black and white robes. The decor is changing. The first act is going to begin: that of the struggle of the classes, of the armed vanguards, and of the party that organizes the masses, etc."
In ridiculing the notion that the secular nationalist or Marxist left would now take center stage and displace the clerics, Foucault made a keen assessment of the balance of forces. Indeed, he exhibited quite a remarkable perspicacity, especially given the fact that he was not a specialist on either Iran or Islam. Even more importantly, he noted, a new type of revolutionary movement had emerged, one that would have an impact far beyond Iran's borders and would also have major effect on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: "But perhaps its historic importance will not hinge on its conformity to a recognized �revolutionary' model. Rather, it will owe its importance to the potential that it will have to overturn the existing political situation in the Middle East and thus the global strategic equilibrium. Its singularity, which has constituted up until this point its force, consequently threatens to create its power of expansion. Indeed, it is correct to say that, as an �Islamic' movement, it can set the entire region afire, overturn the most unstable regimes, and disturb the most solid. Islam -- which is not simply a religion, but an entire way of life, an adherence to a history and a civilization -- has a good chance to become a gigantic powder keg, at the level of hundreds of millions of men."
As to the saintlike Khomeini's advocacy of "an Islamic government," Foucault was reassuring. He noted that "there is an absence of hierarchy in the clergy" and "a dependence (even a financial one) on those who listen to them." The clerics were not only democratic; they also possessed a creative political vision: "One thing must be clear. By `Islamic government,' nobody in Iran means a political regime in which the clergy would have a role of supervision or control. . . . It is something very old and also very far into the future, a notion of coming back to what Islam was at the time of the Prophet, but also of advancing toward a luminous and distant point where it would be possible to renew fidelity rather than maintain obedience. In pursuit of this ideal, the distrust of legalism seemed to me to be essential, along with a faith in the creativity of Islam." {{this makes me think of Pen Name}}
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.

...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'."
Foucault never responded directly to these various attacks on him in the reviews of Iran: la Révolution au nom de Dieu. Unlike some of the previous attacks on his writings, for example those by Sartre and de Beauvoir on his The Order of Things (1966), hardly anyone defended Foucault's Iran writings. One exception was the post-structuralist feminist Catherine Clément, who wrote in Le Matin that Foucault had simply "tried to discern what has escaped our intellectual expectations" and that "no schema, including that of �Human Rights' within our tradition, can be applied directly to this country, which makes it revolution from its own culture." Foucault published two more articles on Iran in April and May 1979, one of them for Le Monde, in which he made a few very mild criticisms of the revolution. Then he lapsed into silence over Iran.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

He understood better than most teh abject poverty of the Enlightenment ideas in regards to the value of human life and its dismal faliure to create an alternative morality (to Religious one).

He comprehended that the Iranian Revolution put God back squarely in human affairs and in the stream of history and he was courageous enough to admit all of that.

pen Name