Reality, Perception and the Iranian Revolution


Gender and the Seductions of Islamism
by Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson
University of Chicago, 2005

by Sandy McCroskey


When Michel Foucault arrived in Iran in September 1978 to begin what turned out to be a short-lived second career as a journalist, an earthquake had just obliterated forty villages. “Ten years ago to the day,” Foucault tells us, a quake destroyed the town of Ferdows in the same area. In its place arose two new towns.

“On one side, there was the town of administration, the Ministry of Housing, and the notables. But a little further away, the artisans and the farmers rebuilt their own town, in opposition to all these official plans. Under the direction of a cleric, they collected the funds, built and dug with their own hands, laid out canals and wells, and constructed a mosque. On the first day they planted a green flag. The new village is called Islamiyeh. Facing the government and against it, Islam: already ten years old.”

Throughout his life and work, Foucault had been deeply concerned with manifestations of “the will not to be governed,” with all forms of resistance to “this monstrosity we call the state,” whether in its capitalist (“the harshest, most savage, most selfish, most dishonest, oppressive society one could possibly imagine”) or socialist formations (though he remained affiliated with the socialist party in France). On the day before the shah finally fled Iran, Foucault gave a lecture (on liberalism—in the European sense—and “governmentality”) at the College de France, in which he posed the question: “Why is it necessary for the state to govern any given aspect of life at all?” The Iranian uprising could never have happened without the opposition of church and state and, from day one, Foucault never lets us forget that. To a degree, it should have been obvious: The vast majority of Iranians were Shi’ite Muslims; any mobilization of the masses would have to have the approval, at least, of the religious authorities. But there was clearly something here that could not be explained by Western theory on “revolution.” Religion appeared to be the primary instigating, guiding and unifying force.

Another seismic upheaval, Foucault tells us, had shortly preceded the quake: the Black Friday massacre of September 1, when the army mowed down at least 250 anti-shah demonstrators in Tehran. It was only the latest, and not yet the worst, in a series of such events; eventually the army would refuse to fire on their countrymen (and -women), but not before thousands became martyrs to the cause and—the way most of them looked at it—entered the gates of paradise. This willingness to sacrifice oneself deeply impressed Foucault. It is known that he had no philosophical objection to suicide (far from it)—as a personal choice that should be available to everyone, but also as a political act. “Death is power’s limit, the moment that escapes it,” he wrote in The Will to Know.

Foucault tells us that “the economic difficulties in Iran at that time were not sufficiently great for people to take to the streets, in their hundreds of thousands, in their millions, and face the machine-guns bare-chested.” So what set it off? Nationalist leftists, the far-left Fedayeen and Muhajedeen and indeed almost every social group in Iran were all opposed to the shah. But it was the willingness of so many to put their lives on that line in demonstrations organized by the Shi’ites (often taking the form of religious ceremonies mourning those previously fallen in the struggle), that ultimately brought down the regime—despite its fearsome army, despite its ruthless secret police, despite the backing of the entire world economic order, including the United States. Jimmy Carter was only then starting to tsk-tsk at the shah’s numerous and flagrant human rights violations. “In Iran the religious calendar sets the political schedule,” Foucault notes. Looking forward to the annual Muharram celebration, “the great ritual of penance,” Foucault could already see “exaltation in the martyrdom for a just cause,” when “the crowds are ready to advance toward death in the intoxication of sacrifice.”

Foucault saw the virtual absence of political maneuvering inside the movement, as well as the apparent lack of a political program to be implemented should it succeed, as evidence of a total rejection by the “collective will” of “politics,” tout court. He was well aware that after the departure of the shah this could change, overnight, though he liked to think it was part of the overall rejection of the past century of Iran’s dependence on the West. Of course, one reason the uprising manifested itself as “non-political” was that there was no political arena: Parties had been abolished in 1963 (the same year women were so magnanimously given the vote); the far-left militias had refused all discussion with the regime (they were “on strike against politics”). Now, of course, we know all too well what rushed in to fill the political vacuum after the shah fell.

Foucault has been criticized for hypostatizing “a perfectly united collective will” behind the uprising. It is clear he was aware of differing and even competing tendencies: In his November 7 dispatch for Corriere della Sera, he gives as one factor in the instigation of what appears to have been an atypically violent student riot the “rivalry between the political and the religious groups. There was on everyone’s mind a sort of mutual challenge between revolutionary radicalism and Islamic radicalism, neither of which wanted to seem more conciliatory and less courageous than the other.” But this isn’t what interested him, particularly. In an interview he tells journalist Pierre Blanchet: “What I liked about your articles was that they didn’t try to break up this phenomenon into its constituent elements, they tried to leave it as a single beam of light, even though we know that it is made up of several elements.”

That collective will asked for “a sole and very precise thing, the departure of the shah. But for the Iranian people, this unique thing means everything… This political will is one of breaking with all that marks their country and their daily lives with the presence of global hegemonies.” For one thing, rampant corruption. Foucault is not talking about Iran, he’s talking about us, when he asks, “Do you know of a treatise on political economy, or of sociology, or history books, that offers a serious and detailed analysis of the speculation, corrupt practices, embezzlement, and swindling that constitute the veritable daily bread of our trade, our industry, and our finances?” In Iran, the regime was synonymous with corruption; that was simply the way things worked. One can wonder how many countries are different. In Iran, though, the shah’s shameless pillaging of his own people, dividing the spoils among his own family and favorites, was made possible by the generous sponsorship of foreign powers. To most Iranians, modernization had meant nothing but displacement and hardship. For the past hundred years they had trudged along, heads down, on a forced march to an alien future. Now they were again lifting their eyes… to the sky…

“Throughout this whole year, revolt ran through Iran, from celebrations to commemorations, from worship, to sermons, to prayers. Tehran honored the dead of Abadan, Tabriz those of Isfahan, and Isfahan those of Qom. White, red, and green lanterns were lit up after nightfall on big tree branches in front of hundreds of houses. It was the ‘wedding bed’ of the boys just killed. In the mosques during the day, the mullahs spoke ferociously against the shah, the Americans, and the West and its materialism. They called for the people to fight against the entire regime in the name of the Quran and of Islam. When the mosques became too small for the crowd, loudspeakers were put in the streets. These voices, as terrible as must have been that of Savonarola in Florence, the voices of the Anabaptists in Munster, or those of the Presbyterians at the time of Cromwell, resounded through the whole village, the whole neighborhood.”

Ealier in the report excerpted above, Foucault tells us that he had spoken with a sociologist about the role of Islam in the people’s daily lives, and, told that it is “a refuge,” he suspected his interviewee of toning down the truth for the sake of his Western ears. A reformed Marxist, Foucault was convinced by now that religion could be something other than “the opiate of the people.” He continues:

“Many of these sermons were recorded, and the tapes circulated throughout Iran. In Tehran, a writer who was not at all a religious man let me listen to some of them. They seemed to evoke neither withdrawal nor a refuge. Nor did they evoke disarray or fear.”.

I must have read this passage three times before it dawned on me that Foucault could tell us only what the tapes do not “evoke”—or even “seem to evoke”—because, not knowing the language, he can’t tell us what they do say

The answer Foucault most often heard to the question, “What do you want?” was “Islamic government.” Foucault clearly accepted the most optimistic interpretation of what this would mean. The mullahs, while not a “revolutionary force,” were not part of a hierachical structure; they acted as “photographic plates,” simply reflecting the people’s will. As for after the revolution—why, one must have “faith in the creativity of Islam.” At times, he waxes almost ecstatic: “What place can be given, within the calculations of politics, to such a movement, to a movement that does not let itself be divided among political choices, a movement through which blows the breath of a religion that speaks less of the hereafter than of the transfiguration of this world?”

File under “famous last words”: “By Islamic government, nobody in Iran means a political regime in which the clerics would have a role of supervision or control.” “Khomeini is not a politician. There will not be a Khomeini party; there will not be a Khomeini government.” So there’s no doubt Foucault was genuinely shocked when Khomeini consolidated his grip and the hands and heads started falling. He spoke out about the repression in an open letter to the (alas, only) nominal head of government Mehdi Bazargan, and reminded him of their conversations before the revolution, when Foucault was given many assurances about the positive effect religion would have in reining in (as opposed to reigning in) government. But he did not seem sufficiently contrite to many of his critics, and he is said to have lost friends over this.

Foucault clearly hadn’t sufficiently prepared for tackling this assignment. Although he had “read several books on Islam and Shi’ism,” it doesn’t seem he had often dipped into the supposed source, the Koran. Nor had he been informed of the contents of Khomeini’s 1943 treatise, Kashf al-Asrar (The Unveiling of Secrets), which spelled out exactly what the ayatollah would do upon accession to power over thirty years later. Oops!

How could Foucault not have gotten a hint of the authoritarian nature of traditional Islamic societies? In 1961, he wrote in Folie et dĂ©raison that the establishment of “communities of ethical uniformity” placed the nonconformist into “a relation to himself that was of the order of transgression, and a nonrelation to others that was of the order of shame.” Nothing in Foucault’s reportage is as troubling as his repeated invocation of the confused notion of “political spirituality.” When such mirages as this float before the eyes, one must wonder if, under the blazing Persian sun, the skin-headed savant forgot to wear a hat.


From September 1978 to May 1979, Foucault published eleven articles on Iran, nine in the Italian Corriere della Sera and two in Le Nouvel Observateur. He also gave interviews on the topic for a magazine in Persian and a French book. The Italian pieces didn’t appear in French until 1994, and it is only now that most of these articles, unique in Foucault’s canon, can be found in English—in the appendix to Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson’s Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islamism. The appendix also contains a couple of short (even snippy!) replies of Foucault to his critics, articles by his critics and some related documents on the feminist front. Especially worthwhile are the essays by the late Maxime Rodinson, who forthrightly tears into the hazy concept of “political spirituality” and from the beginning had no illusions about the “archaic fascism” in Islamism.

Although those interested in Foucault can only be grateful for this volume, Afary and Anderson do not do Foucault any favors in the strident commentary that takes up the first half of the book. They seem to believe that they have discovered Foucault’s philosophic Achilles’ heel, that his treatment of the events in Iran reveals flaws that compromise all his work.

Afary and Anderson’s most constant refrain is the dubious claim that Foucault’s work is pervaded with a dualism that privileges premodern over modern cultures. A reference to “the famous gaze” of the shah is rather facilely taken to be an allusion to a similar trope in Surveiller et punir (Discipline and Punish), with its contrast between the era when criminals expiated their debt to society in gruesome, ritualistic displays of physical punishment and death, and the modern age of the “panoptical” carceral society. Surely (I thought) they do not mean to imply that Foucault favored a return to the barbarism of eye-for-an-eye justice (as Khomeinism in practice turned out to be). The implication returns in the discussion of Foucault’s studies (concurrent with his interest in Iran) of Christian ascetic practices, in which he is said to have been more interested in the expression of penitence through bodily mortification than through verbal confession—”which Foucault criticized alongside modern disciplinary techniques”! (These penitence rituals are similar to the ancient practices of celebrants of Muharram, commemorating the founding myth of Shi’ism, the martyrdom of Hussein at the Battle of Karbala.)

This line of research is tied in, of course, with Foucault’s being a sadomasochistic perv, though it’s not clear how that is supposed to have affected his conclusions. As a matter of fact, Foucault argued for the abolition of all punishment—as utopian as that may sound. It is, at any rate, very questionable if Iranian society under the shah can be taken as epitomizing the carceral society drawn in Surveiller et punir from European models and experiences, in the ultimate development of which all good citizens will have internalized the tyrant’s gaze to such a degree that the state has no need of secret police or omnipresent spy technology to keep most people in line. In Iran, the ideology of the oppressor had never been adopted by the populace, and the shah needed every gun at his disposal—until even that wasn’t enough.

Afary and Anderson’s language is often just plain silly: “In distancing himself from the possibility of attaining absolute knowledge [for shame!], and the Hegelian dialectic of mutual recognition, Foucault instead celebrated the French author Marquis de Sade.” Foucault’s fascination with self-sacrifice is condemned with a flip of a limp bit of jargon, “the discourse of death.”

Although on several occasions they commend the astuteness of Foucault’s perceptions—for example, when he countered assessments of Khomeini as a flash in the pan who had come to the fore only because of the impotence of the parties, driven underground—somehow the very same sort of observation is taken by them as evidence of both Foucault’s perspicacity and despicableness: “Foucault stood out in his celebration of the dominant Islamist wing, including the latter’s rejection of Western Marxist and liberal notions of democracy, women’s equality, and human rights.” Suffice to say that Foucault never “celebrated” the oppression of anyone. You see what a lot of mischief that little, uncalled-for “including” can do. Thus goes this inquisition, where Foucault’s text is stretched out of shape on the rack of the authors’ preconceptions.

They pull a similar trick when they say that “Foucault’s support for the new wave of Islamist uprisings that started in Iran in 1978, what he called this ‘powder keg’ set against the dominant global powers, was not entirely uncritical.” This would be “support,” however qualified, for events Foucault would never see, as he wrote nothing (“lapsed into silence,” in our authors’ formulation) about this part of the world after May 1979, and died in 1984.

To drive home the enormity of Foucault’s transgression, there is an epilogue bringing us up to September 11, 2001. To be sure, Foucault foretold that the dominant West’s confrontation with that other, Muslim world could be the source of many conflagrations to come, though when he spoke of Islam “setting the whole region afire,” it seems he was thinking of nationalist revolts. There are to date only two other countries that have fallen under radical Muslim control since 1979 (or can we count Iraq yet?), and they got that way not at all in a manner similar to the Iranian “people power” revolution. War-ravaged Afghanistan fell to the Sunni Taliban army in 1996, while in Sudan Islamist rule was imposed through a succession of military coups in the 1980s. It is not known if Foucault had an inkling that Islamist revolt would evolve into the borderless terrorism of a global jihad—itself another form of totalitarianism—but it is highly unlikely that he would have applauded the fall of the Twin Towers as “the high point of the spectacle,” as did that idiot Jean Baudrillard (trotted out here to somehow invalidate Foucault’s ideas, though his work has nothing at all to do with Foucault’s).

Afary and Anderson quote, with seeming approval, Le Monde editor Alain Minc’s scurrilous reference to Foucault as an “advocate of Khomeinism…and in theory of its exactions” [emphasis added]. Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn and their ilk are attacked for attempting to put a little blame on US foreign policy—well, one could have predicted that.

A section of A&A’s book contains the sensational-sounding heading “Foucault’s Meeting with Ayatollah Khomeini and ‘Political Spirituality'”. Who wouldn’t want to be a fly on that wall? We read that “Foucault was granted a meeting with Khomeini at his residence outside Paris.” But the extract from Didier Eribon’s Foucault biography that follows does not actually say that. It refers to “a visit to Neuphles,” where Khomeini was in retreat, during which Foucault saw the ayatollah’s son and son-in-law display a touch of tolerance by insisting that a German journalist not be sent away even though she was not wearing a veil. Nor does Foucault come any closer to Khomeini elsewhere in the section. In a footnote to his brief treatment of the Iranian affair, James Miller cites Eribon as a source for the statement that “Foucault never met Khomeini; he did go…to Neuphles-le-Chateau outside Paris, where Khomeini was in exile between October 7, 1978, and his eventual return to Iran the following year; but all [Foucault’s] group got to see was Khomeini walking in the distance.” I haven’t read Eribon, but my money’s on Miller here.

Among their most egregious errors, Afary and Anderson quote at length a passage from an April 1978 lecture in Tokyo as presenting Foucault’s own account of shifting attitudes toward sexuality in the West over past centuries. Those with a little familiarity with Foucault’s History of Sexuality, even from reviews, might recognize that Foucault was only recounting the standard story about such things, the reigning paradigm that he would now proceed to shatter, if his listener would just sit tight for the rest of the seminar.

Foucault’s treatment of matters pertaining to sexuality and social control is far more nuanced than Afary and Anderson seem able to grasp. And ain’t that a shame, for a book with the portentous (and academic-sexy) subtitle “Gender and the Seductions of Islamism,” which might lead us to think that A&A have pinpointed the critical blind spot in Foucault’s worldview, on which all the book’s themes will converge. It doesn’t quite work that way.

The authors’ most serious accusation is that Foucault didn’t care about women’s rights. It is true that in the context of the Iranian revolution, he said precious little about them. He mentions “the subjugation of women” in his last article on the topic, in May 1979, but it doesn’t figure in his open letter to Prime Minister Bazargan, except as understood to be part of “human rights.”

There is a chapter headed “Debating the Outcome of the Revolution, Especially on Women’s Rights,” but where was the debate? Kate Millet and other feminists traveled to Iran, and reported that women’s rights were in execrable shape. They were apparently attacked for this by some French leftists—but not by Foucault, who didn’t disagree that things had taken a bad turn after the revolution.

It is true that before the ascent of Khomeini to power he seemed blissfully unaware that the righteous Islamists would often flog a woman for not donning the veil. If we give him the benefit of the doubt on that, he still could not have been ignorant that women in a traditionally patriarchal culture would not have the same privileges as men—perhaps this was too obvious a fact for Foucault to feel it needed restating in his own ever-provocative prose. Another explanation is that he may have regarded it as presumptuous for him to pass judgment on another culture. One may consider this as a kind of Orientalism-in-spite-of-itself, in which Foucault would be in the illustrious company of no less enlightened a gent than Edward W. Said—whom Afary and Anderson show mocking Simone de Beauvoir as “silly” and full of herself when, during a March 1979 meeting in Paris on the Palestinian-Israeli situation, she spoke about her upcoming journey to Iran with Kate Millet and inveighed against the forced wearing of the chador. (The text of a speech Beauvoir gave after the trip is included in the appendix.)

When Foucault said, in his letter to Bazargan, that he was sure the Iranians were tired of receiving “such noisy lectures” from the outside world, he could have been referring to Millet, Beauvoir and others. It’s just vague enough; you can’t be sure.

One is tempted to connect a few dots in the chapter on “Male Homosexuality in Mediterranean and Muslim Societies.” When Iranian feminists spoke out against the traditional ways of homosexuality in their country (with the prevalence of passive/dominant relations, often with a significant age difference), did Foucault consider this another case of one culture attempting to impose its values on another? But this would only be wild speculation. The chapter contains much on same-sex relations between males in the Muslim world that sheds some light on why Foucault could be shocked to discover that the Koran commands that homosexuals be executed. Afary and Anderson give us a darkly comic account of the night when he was presented with this information, chapter and verse. (It is not known whether this was during Foucault’s first or second visit to Iran.)

But all this could be beside the point. Foucault makes only passing mention of anti-Semitism among the Iranian Islamists, just enough to let us know he was aware of it. Now, Foucault himself was the farthest thing from an anti-Semite. His estrangement from the more anti-Zionist Gilles Deleuze was caused in part by their disagreement on Israel/Palestine. Yet he suggested that Khomeini’s movement could gain in strength by putting the liberation of Palestine on the agenda (one wonders, wasn’t it already?). It should be clear that he was not endorsing every Islamist position—no more than he was converting to Islam. Afary and Anderson call the Iranian episode “the most passionate and significant political commitment of Foucault’s life”—with the admitted, and extremely significant, exception of his work in the early 1970s with the Groupe d’Information sur les Prisons, which he founded. And “commitment” is perhaps too strong a word for Foucault’s stance vis-a-vis Iran, which Foucault himself, speaking to his students in the cooler confines of the College de France on the eve of what history would call the Iranian Revolution, typified as “wishful participation.”

The reader who knows something about Foucault may lose patience with Afary and Anderson in the first couple chapters. I do urge readers to turn first to Foucault’s own report, unmediated; but there is some valuable information to be dug out of the remainder (some of which has, obviously, informed this review).

For example, Foucault writes briefly of one Ali Shariati, Khomeini’s predecessor as leader of the fundamentalist movement, who had died two years earlier but whose “shadow…haunts all political and religious life in Iran today.” Foucault tells us that Shariati studied in Europe, had contacts with various strains of revolutionary, socialist thought and brought back to his country the message that Shi’ism’s true meaning was “in the sermons of social justice and equality that had already been preached by the first imam [Ali].” From Afary and Anderson we learn that Shariati was influenced by Heidegger, who was also very important to Foucault; Heidegger’s concepts of existential choice and authenticity are said to have inflected a reinterpretation of Shi’ism.

Alavid Shi’ism—a pure Shi’ism of Ali—was to replace the “Safavid Shi’ism” institutionalized by the Safavid Dynasty in the seventeenth century, when Shia became (perforce) the faith of the nation. Shariati began to teach (and we can’t blame the atheist Heidegger for this) that becoming a martyr was the one sure path to paradise and, adding a new tone of vindictiveness, the one sure way to damn your enemies to hell. According to Afary and Anderson, in Shariati’s interpretation of the founding myth of Shi’ism, Hussein’s martyrdom was “not the type of death through which God forgave the sins of humanity, it was one that pointed toward revenge, a death that marked the enemy as a horrible sinner.” (I am assuming, of course, that Afary and Anderson’s reading of Shariati is more accurate than their reading of Foucault.) Foucault also does not mention the strain of anti-Semitism that Afary and Anderson tell us ran through Shariati’s thought, and one must wonder how deeply he had read in the man’s works.


I think that Foucault wrote nothing else about Iran after May 1979 simply because, well, it was over. He’d said all he had to say in his last article, “Is It Useless to Revolt?” where he insisted that to call the revolt meaningless because it ultimately failed was as illegitimate as the mullahs’ justification of their reign by the blood of the martyrs.

In his last years Foucault turned his attention to Stoicism and the concept of self-creation through a purely individual ethics that would function as “a very strong structure of existence, without any relation with the juridical per se, or with an authoritarian system or a disciplinary structure.” His ethics had, of course, been a personal one already in 1979, “antistrategic,” as he wrote. “One must be respectful when a singularity arises and intransigent as soon as the state violates universals.” He was always on the lookout for the chinks in power’s armor, for “what must unconditionally limit” politics. Confronting the uprising that he considered to have world historical importance (and who will say that it didn’t?) as “perhaps the first great insurrection against global systems,” he considered it a duty to listen, as one should listen to anyone who pits his life against overwhelming power, to the madman at the end of his rope, to the criminal who would dash across the bullet-strafed yard. One is not required, he added dryly, “to stand in solidarity with them.” After all, he called this form of rebellion “the most modern and the most insane,” and he wanted to call the article in which this line appears “Iran’s Madness” (editors!). But note that the most mad form of rebellion is not said to be necessarily a specifically Muslim rebellion: It is simply the “revolt against global systems.” It could mean, in fact, the global justice movement. In which case it is me, I sincerely hope, and I hope it is you.

So let us not say that Foucault didn’t listen, just because he got taken in. That’s a risk you run when you listen. The other always speaks a different language.

Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Dec. 1, 2005
Reprinting permissible with attribution