Bernard E. Harcourt | Introduction to Foucault on Iran: Revolt as Political Spirituality Waar komt Foucaults fascinatie voor Iraanse revolutie vandaan? Controversieel onderwerp.
December 11, 2017
Vooraf: (Source: Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson, Foucault and the Iranian Revolution
Foucault, unfortunately, was precisely seduced by the popular uprising in Iran, which he claimed might signify a new "political spirituality", with the potential to transform the political landscape of Europe, as well as the Middle East. Thus, for example, in his October 1978 article, "What Are the Iranians Dreaming About?", he adopted an almost mythic rhetoric to describe the revolutionary struggle:
"The situation in Iran can be understood as a great joust under traditional emblems, those of the king and the saint, the armed ruler and the destitute excile, the despot faced with the man who stands up bare-handed and is acclaimed by a people."
And he added reassuringly that nobody in Iran envisaged bringing about a political regime in which clerics would have a controlling or even supervisory role. Rather, the popular uprising was aiming towards a "utopia" or "ideal", which involved a notion of "advancing toward a luminous and distant point where it would be possible to renew fidelity rather than maintain obedience." He added that in pursuit of this ideal, "the distrust of legalism seemed to be essential, along with a faith in the creativity of Islam."
In the particulars, Foucault was effusive:
"Islam values work; no one can be deprived of the fruits of his labor, what must belong to all (water, the sub-soil) shall not be appropriated by anyone. With respect to liberties, they will be respected to the extent that their exercise will not harm others; minorities will be protected and free to live as they please on the condition that they do not harm the majority; between men and women there will not be inequality with respect to rights, but difference, since there is natural difference. With respect to politics, decisions should be made by the majority, the leaders should be responsible to the people, and each person, as it is laid out in the Quran, should be able to stand up and hold accountable he who governs.
On February 1st 1979, five million people were on the streets of Tehran to welcome back Ayatollah Khomeini after 14 years of exile. By the end of February, power effectively lay his hands and the hands of a revolutionary council. Former officials of the Shah's government were rounded up, and many were summarily executed. Public whipping was introduced for alcohol consumption. Libraries were attacked if they held books that were "anti-Islamic". Broadcast media was censored. As for women's rights, and Foucault's claim that there would not be inequality, only difference (whatever that actually means), on March 3rd, Khomeini decreed that women would be unable to serve as judges; on March 4th, that only a man could petition for divorce; on March 9th, women were banned from participating in sport; and on March 8th, as predicted by many more pessimistic voices, women were ordered to wear the chador.
(Source: Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson, Foucault and the Iranian Revolution.)
Michel Foucault identified in the Iranian uprising of 1978 a modality of religious political revolt and a form of political spirituality that privileged, in the secular realm, expressly religious aspirations.
What Foucault discovered in Iran was, in his words, a political spirituality: a mass mobilization on this earth modeled on the coming of a new Islamic vision of social forms of coexistence and equality.
Foucault described the mass mobilization in Iran as an Islamic uprising. He did not minimize in any way its Islamic religious foundations or modes of expression. On the contrary, Foucault framed the uprising through the lens of Ernst Blochs thesis, in The Principle of Hope (3 vols., 1954-1959), on the rise, in Europe, from the twelve to the sixteenth century, of the religious idea that there could come about on this earth a form of religious revolution (see Foucault, There Cant Be Societies without Uprisings, interview with Farès Sassine, August 1979). Foucault related the events in Iran to this religious model, originally formulated by dissident religious groups in the West at the end of the Middle Agesand which Foucault referred to as the point of departure of the very idea of Revolution. (Ibid.).
Foucault explicitly characterized the will of those Iranians in revolt with whom he had contact as taking the form of a religious eschatologynot the form of a quest for another political regime, nor in his words for a regime of clerics, but instead for a new Islamic horizon. (Sassine interview, 4) When those in revolt spoke of an Islamic government, Foucault maintained, what they had in mind were new social forms based on a religious spirituality, sharply different than Western models. (Sassine interview, 5-7) Foucault pointed to Ali Shariati as the thinker who had most clearly posed the problematic and formulated this vision. (Sassine interview, 10)
It is to this model of uprising as political spirituality, this modality of religious political revolt that we turn to in Uprising 6/13. By contrast to the modality of revolt that we discussed during our seminar Uprising 3/13 on the Arab Spring, the modality of revolt that Foucault identified in Iran in 1978-79 was expressly and primarily religious. Much (but of course not all, as evidenced once again by subsequent events) of the ideological wellspring in Tahrir Square was more secular, leaderless, and occupational: a form of disobedience against a secular authoritarian regimeat least as portrayed in much of the reportage and documentaries like Tahrir: Liberation Square, directed by Stefano Savona (2012). The situation was very different in 1978 Iran, at least on Foucaults assessment. And it gives rise to a different modality of revolt: a religious eschatological modality of uprising.
In 1978-79, Foucault published a series of long-form essays, part editorial, part reportage, in the Italian newspaper Corriere della sera regarding the uprising in Iran. His first editorial, The army, when the earth quakes, was published on September 28, 1978, after he returned from his first trip to Iran from September 16 to 24, 1978. By that timeby the end of September 1978martial law had already been declared in Iran, following several months of uprisings and the brutal repression and mass murders of demonstrators by the Shahs army. Foucault published another five essays in October and early November, before returning to Iran from November 9 to 15, 1978. After that second trip, Foucault published three more essays in the Corriere della sera, the final one appearing on February 26, 1979. By that time, the Shah was deposed, having left for exile mid-January 1979, Khomeini had returned to Teheran and formed a new government, and Mehdi Bazargan was heading the country. Only a month later, at the end of March 1979, the country voted by referendum for an Islamic republic. Foucault published his last intervention on Iran, a capstone editorial in Le Monde, titled Useless to revolt?, on May 11-12, 1979. Foucault also gave several interviews over the period, and engaged in other debates, with a final interview in August 1979.
From the opening essay (The army, when the earth quakes, Sept. 28, 1978), practically in the first opening paragraph, Foucault identified Islam as the symbol, node, and magnet for power resistance to the Shah. The Shah, on one side, is represented by terms such as the administration, the government, the ministry, the official plans, and simple the power [le pouvoir]; and is associated with the notables and the United States (D&E3 #241, 664, 668-69). The US, which restored the Shah to power, is portrayed as the dominating force in Iranwith 30 to 40 thousand American advisers to the Shahs army, pervasive American military equipment, and the imposition of an American order in Iran. As a high military official, in the opposition, confided to Foucault, the Americans dominate us. (668)
The other pole is lislamIslam: Facing the government and against it, Islam: for ten years already. (664). Islam is symbolically represented by that cleric, an anonymous cleric (not Khomeini, who does though already appear in the next paragraph), who leads and organizes the artisans and farmers, and together who respond to the earth quake and destruction of their village by building a mosque. (664) The only other force present is the specter of communism: the 80 military officers executed for being communist, the apparent international communist uprising that is not, the government propaganda against communism. (667) But the mounting uprising remains the street, the merchants of the bazaar, employees and the unemployed all under the sign of Islam. (667, emphasis added)
This central oppositionthe American Shah versus an Islamic popular movementmotivates Foucaults interpretation of the events in Iran. And it is precisely the Islamic movement that he believes alone could overtake the army: of the two keys that might control the army, the one that seems more adapted for the moment is not the one, American, of the Shah. It is the one, Islamic, of the popular movement. (669)
These themes run through the essays. The theme of Islam as the only possible form of opposition in a Cold War context where communism in Iran has been crushed by American domination in the face of the Soviet specter. It is within that geopolitics that Foucault identifies and develops a theory of political spirituality. A thesis about the Iranian uprising as a religious political form, modeled on religious eschatology:
Their hunger, their humiliations, their hatred of the regime and their willingness to overthrow it, they inscribed it all within the bounds of heaven and earth, in an envisioned history that was religious just as much as it was political. [
] Years of censorship and persecution, a political class kept under tutelage, parties outlawed, revolutionary groups decimated: where else but in religion could support be found for the disarray, then the rebellion, of a population traumatized by development, reform, urbanization, and all the other failures of the regime? (Useless to Revolt?)
The resulting modality of revolt that Foucault identified and developed in the Iranian context of 1978-79 was framed by the relation between political uprising and religious eschatology. (Sassine interview, 2) And it was, for Foucault, an important discoverynot just in its descriptive accuracy, but also in its normative potential. For, as Daniele Lorenzini correctly emphasizes, This was what Foucault was looking for: a mass uprising, in which people stand up against a whole system of power, but which isnt inscribed in a traditional (Western) revolutionary framework.
Foucault did not condemn this mode of political spiritualityto the contrary, he wrote about it with respect and admiration for those who rose up and risked their lives against their oppressors. Foucault did warn that Islamwhich is not simply a religion, but a mode of life, a belonging to a history and to a civilizationrisks constituting a gigantic powder keg, at the scale of hundreds of millions of people. Since yesterday, any Muslim state can be revolutionized from within, from the basis of its secular traditions. (A Powder Keg Called Islam, D&E3 #261, 761). But he traveled to Iran without hostility, rather with sympathy for the uprising. (Sassine interview, 8)
For that, Foucault was excoriated by the French press and by his peers. To this day, Foucault is criticized vehemently for not having taken a position against the Islamic uprising. The book by Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson takes that position, guided by the opening question Why, in his writings on the Iranian Revolution, did he give his exclusive support to its Islamist wing? and by its argument that Foucaults choice reveals deeper problems about his Nietzschean-Heideggerian influence. The controversy continues to the present, with the most recent publication, in 2016, by our guest, Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi, of Foucault in Iran: Islamic Revolution after the Enlightenment (University of Minnesota Press, 2016), offering a dramatically opposite reading. On this recent controversy, I will here leave the last word to Talal Asad:
One may recall here a remark Foucault once made in relation to the Iranian revolution: Concerning the expression Islamic government, why cast immediate suspicion on the adjective Islamic? The word government suffices, in itself, to awaken vigilance. Naive critics of Foucault have taken his interest in the Islamic Republic of Iran as evidence of his romance with political Islam (in response perhaps to his early criticism of the left-wing romance with revolution). But they are mistaken. Foucaults reaction to the Iranian revolution is his concern (as so often in his writings) to think beyond clichés and, in particular, to formulate questions about how truth is manifested in connection with the exercise of self on self, the relations between the truth and what we call spiritualityatopic that preoccupied him in his last years. In the comment about the Iranian revolution he is posing a question about the modern states practice of sovereignty and the sovereign subject in that state. The modern state (including varieties of the liberal state) is held together not by moral ideals and social contracts but by technologies of power, by instrumental knowledge, and also, importantly, by the way it requires dependence on and demonstration of truth (traitors are those who conceal the truth).
At the time, in 1979, Foucault responded to his critics. In both an essay in Le Monde, Is it useless to revolt? published on May 11-12, 1979, and in several interviews at the time, Foucault argued that one cannot judge others when they revolt against their oppression and that one cannot judge another who revolts by the outcomes of the ensuing political developments. One should not engage in critical thought about political practice from a position of hindsight. (I believe that the Arab Spring now lends additional support to this position).
In perhaps his most direct response, drawing on his histories of the asylum and of the prison, Foucault wrote:
One does not dictate to those who risk their lives facing a power. Is one right to revolt, or not? Let us leave the question open. People do revolt; that is a fact. And that is how subjectivity (not that of great men, but that of anyone) is brought into history, breathing life into it. A convict risks his life to protest unjust punishments; a madman can no longer bear being confined and humiliated; a people refuses the regime that oppresses it. That doesnt make the first innocent, doesnt cure the second, and doesnt ensure for the third the tomorrow it was promised. (Useless to Revolt?)
In this sense, political spirituality becomes part of the counter-conduct that Foucault explored and developedand that Arnold Davidson discusses so well in his essay In praise of counter-conduct: After rejecting the notions of revolt, disobedience, insubordination, dissidence and misconduct, for reasons ranging from their being notions that are either too strong, too weak, too localized, too passive, or too substance-like, Foucault proposes the expression counter-conduct.
It is here, in his last writing on Iran, that Foucault most clearly articulated what he called his own theoretical ethic: It is antistrategic: to be respectful when a singularity revolts, intransigent as soon as power violates the universal. (Useless to Revolt?)
Respectful of the individual who rises up, in order to keep ones indignation and intransigence for the power that represses. What a remarkable statementand an excellent place to start our seminar on Foucault on Iran: Revolt as Political Spirituality.
Welcome to Uprising 6/13!
 Talal Asad, Thinking About Tradition, Religion, and Politics in Egypt Today, Critical Inquiry 42 (Autumn 2015), p. 206.
 Arnold Davidson, In praise of counter-conduct, History of the Human Sciences, 24(4):25-41 (2011), at p. 28. As Davidson argues, this relates closely to the critical attitude, which he defines as a political and moral attitude, a manner of thinking, that is a critique of the way in which our conduct is governed, a partner and adversary of the arts of governing (Foucault, 1990: 38). Ibid., p. 37.e
An excerpt from
Foucault and the Iranian Revolution
Gender and the Seductions of Islamism
Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson
What Are the Iranians Dreaming About?
"They will never let go of us of their own will. No more than they did in Vietnam." I wanted to respond that they are even less ready to let go of you than Vietnam because of oil, because of the Middle East. Today they seem ready, after Camp David, to concede Lebanon to Syrian domination and therefore to Soviet influence, but would the United States be ready to deprive itself of a position that, according to circumstance, would allow them to intervene from the East or to monitor the peace?
Will the Americans push the shah toward a new trial of strength, a second "Black Friday"? The recommencement of classes at the university, the recent strikes, the disturbances that are beginning once again, and next month's religious festivals, could create such an opportunity. The man with the iron hand is Moghadam, the current leader of the SAVAK.
This is the backup plan, which for the moment is neither the most desirable nor the most likely. It would be uncertain: While some generals could be counted on, it is not clear if the army could be. From a certain point of view, it would be useless, for there is no "communist threat": not from outside, since it has been agreed for the past twenty-five years that the USSR would not lay a hand on Iran; not from inside, because hatred for the Americans is equaled only by fear of the Soviets.
Whether advisers to the shah, American experts, regime technocrats, or groups from the political opposition (be they the National Front or more "socialist-oriented" men), during these last weeks everyone has agreed with more or less good grace to attempt an "accelerated internal liberalization," or to let it occur. At present, the Spanish model is the favorite of the political leadership. Is it adaptable to Iran? There are many technical problems. There are questions concerning the date: Now, or later, after another violent incident? There are questions concerning individual persons: With or without the shah? Maybe with the son, the wife? Is not former prime minister Amini, the old diplomat pegged to lead the operation, already worn out?
The King and the Saint
There are substantial differences between Iran and Spain, however. The failure of economic development in Iran prevented the laying of a basis for a liberal, modern, westernized regime. Instead, there arose an immense movement from below, which exploded this year, shaking up the political parties that were being slowly reconstituted. This movement has just thrown half a million men into the streets of Tehran, up against machine guns and tanks.
Not only did they shout, "Death to the Shah," but also "Islam, Islam, Khomeini, We Will Follow You," and even "Khomeini for King."
The situation in Iran can be understood as a great joust under traditional emblems, those of the king and the saint, the armed ruler and the destitute exile, the despot faced with the man who stands up bare-handed and is acclaimed by a people. This image has its own power, but it also speaks to a reality to which millions of dead have just subscribed.
The notion of a rapid liberalization without a rupture in the power structure presupposes that the movement from below is being integrated into the system, or that it is being neutralized. Here, one must first discern where and how far the movement intends to go. However, yesterday in Paris, where he had sought refuge, and in spite of many pressures, Ayatollah Khomeini "ruined it all."
He sent out an appeal to the students, but he was also addressing the Muslim community and the army, asking that they oppose in the name of the Quran and in the name of nationalism these compromises concerning elections, a constitution, and so forth.
Is a long-foreseen split taking place within the opposition to the shah? The "politicians" of the opposition try to be reassuring: "It is good," they say. "Khomeini, by raising the stakes, reinforces us in the face of the shah and the Americans. Anyway, his name is only a rallying cry, for he has no program. Do not forget that, since 1963, political parties have been muzzled. At the moment, we are rallying to Khomeini, but once the dictatorship is abolished, all this mist will dissipate. Authentic politics will take command, and we will soon forget the old preacher." But all the agitation this weekend around the hardly clandestine residence of the ayatollah in the suburbs of Paris, as well as the coming and going of "important" Iranians, all of this contradicted this somewhat hasty optimism. It all proved that people believed in the power of the mysterious current that flowed between an old man who had been exiled for fifteen years and his people, who invoke his name.
The nature of this current has intrigued me since I learned about it a few months ago, and I was a little weary, I must confess, of hearing so many clever experts repeating: "We know what they don't want, but they still do not know what they want."
"What do you want?" It is with this single question in mind that I walked the streets of Tehran and Qom in the days immediately following the disturbances. I was careful not to ask professional politicians this question. I chose instead to hold sometimes-lengthy conversations with religious leaders, students, intellectuals interested in the problems of Islam, and also with former guerilla fighters who had abandoned the armed struggle in 1976 and had decided to work in a totally different fashion, inside the traditional society.
"What do you want?" During my entire stay in Iran, I did not hear even once the word "revolution," but four out of five times, someone would answer, "An Islamic government." This was not a surprise. Ayatollah Khomeini had already given this as his pithy response to journalists and the response remained at that point.
What precisely does this mean in a country like Iran, which has a large Muslim majority but is neither Arab nor Sunni and which is therefore less susceptible than some to Pan-Islamism or Pan-Arabism?
Indeed, Shiite Islam exhibits a number of characteristics that are likely to give the desire for an "Islamic government" a particular coloration. Concerning its organization, there is an absence of hierarchy in the clergy, a certain independence of the religious leaders from one another, but a dependence (even a financial one) on those who listen to them, and an importance given to purely spiritual authority. The role, both echoing and guiding, that the clergy must play in order to sustain its influence-this is what the organization is all about. As for Shi'ite doctrine, there is the principle that truth was not completed and sealed by the last prophet. After Muhammad, another cycle of revelation begins, the unfinished cycle of the imams, who, through their words, their example, as well as their martyrdom, carry a light, always the same and always changing. It is this light that is capable of illuminating the law from the inside. The latter is made not only to be conserved, but also to release over time the spiritual meaning that it holds. Although invisible before his promised return, the Twelfth Imam is neither radically nor fatally absent. It is the people themselves who make him come back, insofar as the truth to which they awaken further enlightens them.
It is often said that for Shi'ism, all power is bad if it is not the power of the Imam. As we can see, things are much more complex. This is what Ayatollah Shariatmadari told me in the first few minutes of our meeting: "We are waiting for the return of the Imam, which does not mean that we are giving up on the possibility of a good government. This is also what you Christians are endeavoring to achieve, although you are waiting for Judgment Day." As if to lend a greater authenticity to his words, the ayatollah was surrounded by several members of the Committee on Human Rights in Iran when he received me.
One thing must be clear. By "Islamic government," nobody in Iran means a political regime in which the clerics would have a role of supervision or control. To me, the phrase "Islamic government" seemed to point to two orders of things.
"A utopia," some told me without any pejorative implication. "An ideal," most of them said to me. At any rate, 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.
A religious authority explained to me that it would require long work by civil and religious experts, scholars, and believers in order to shed light on all the problems to which the Quran never claimed to give a precise response. But one can find some general directions here: Islam values work; no one can be deprived of the fruits of his labor; what must belong to all (water, the subsoil) shall not be appropriated by anyone. With respect to liberties, they will be respected to the extent that their exercise will not harm others; minorities will be protected and free to live as they please on the condition that they do not injure the majority; between men and women there will not be inequality with respect to rights, but difference, since there is a natural difference. With respect to politics, decisions should be made by the majority, the leaders should be responsible to the people, and each person, as it is laid out in the Quran, should be able to stand up and hold accountable he who governs.
It is often said that the definitions of an Islamic government are imprecise. On the contrary, they seemed to me to have a familiar but, I must say, not too reassuring clarity. "These are basic formulas for democracy, whether bourgeois or revolutionary," I said. "Since the eighteenth century now, we have not ceased to repeat them, and you know where they have led." But I immediately received the following reply: "The Quran had enunciated them way before your philosophers, and if the Christian and industrialized West lost their meaning, Islam will know how to preserve their value and their efficacy."
When Iranians speak of Islamic government; when, under the threat of bullets, they transform it into a slogan of the streets; when they reject in its name, perhaps at the risk of a bloodbath, deals arranged by parties and politicians, they have other things on their minds than these formulas from everywhere and nowhere. They also have other things in their hearts. I believe that they are thinking about a reality that is very near to them, since they themselves are its active agents.
It is first and