Foucault and Iran 1979

November 2, 2016 in General

Engaged intellectuals have a long and inglorious history of failing to see the malignancy of allegedly benevolent political regimes and movements that ultimately turn out to be violently despotic. In a recent Philosophers Magazine article online, the socialist Webbs’ enthusiasm for Stalin and the Soviet Union even extended to a defence of the show trials of the 1930s (“The Soviet government was right, even from the standpoint of humanity alone.”). And while he was a brilliant playwright, Berthold Brecht supported the repressive communist regime of East Germany, even as it invited Soviet tanks in to quell a workers’ revolt in 1953. We could also add Noam Chomsky’s curious obliviousness to the atrocities perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia during the late seventies. To this depressing roll call of naiveté and denial, one must also necessarily add French post-structuralist icon Michel Foucault (1926-1984) and his enthusiasm for the Iranian revolution, evident in a series of articles he wrote for French and Italian newspapers in late-1978 and early-1979.

No-one could doubt the violence, brutality and injustice of the rule of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran. Three decades of corrupt, opulence and ruthless authoritarian rule sparked the popular uprising that finally led to the end of the absolutist monarchy in Iran in February 1979. However, it was equally clear to most informed political observers that the particular Shia insurgency which had replaced this repressive state of affairs also had ominous attributes of its own. Atoussa H, an Iranian feminist writing in Le Nouvel Observateur, for example, noted in November 1978 that some of the Western Left appeared to believe that Islam was desirable, even if the aforementioned Left intellectuals themselves never wanted to live under Islam. However, claimed Atoussa H, “many Iranians are like me, distressed and desperate about the thought of an “Islamic” government. We know what it is. Everywhere outside Iran, Islam serves as a cover for a feudal or pseudo revolutionary oppression… The Left should not let itself be seduced by a cure that is perhaps worse than the disease.”

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 mystical rhetoric in order to evoke the Shia Iranian 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, betraying miscomprehension of the nature of Shia governance and the role of the umma. Rather, Foucault thought, the popular uprising was akin to that described by German marxist historian Marc Bloch as 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 his illusions about the allegedly progressive nature of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Foucault betrayed no awareness of the actual historical and social origins of the phenomenon.

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 applaud the return Ayatollah Khomeini after fourteen years of exile within Paris. By the end of February 1979, power had effectively been centralised in his hands, although shared by a revolutionary council. Former officials of the Shah’s government were imprisoned and 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 belief that there would be no gendered inequality, only “difference” was also betrayed. On March 3rd, 1979 Khomeini decreed that women were now barred from servinng as judges; On March 4th, he proclaimed that only a man could petition for divorce. On March 9th, women were banned from participating in sport. Before that, onMarch 8th, as predicted by many more pessimistic voices, women were ordered to wear the chador. Abortion was prohibited and homosexuality was a capital offence


Jeremy Stangroom: “Michel Foucault’s Iranian Folly” Philosophers Magazine: 15.10.2016:

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