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Foucault's revolution
French philosopher's views on the 1979 revolution



May 19, 2005

From the introduction to Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islamism by Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson (University of Chicago Press, 2005).

Throughout his life, Michel Foucault’s concept of authenticity meant looking at situations where people lived dangerously and flirted with death, the site where creativity originated. In the tradition of Friedrich Nietzsche and Georges Bataille, Foucault had embraced the artist who pushed the limits of rationality and he wrote with great passion in defense of irrationalities that broke new boundaries.

In 1978, Foucault found such transgressive powers in the revolutionary figure of Ayatollah Khomeini and the millions who risked death as they followed him in the course of the Revolution. He knew that such “limit” experiences could lead to new forms of creativity and he passionately threw in his support. This was Foucault’s only first-hand experience of revolution and it led to his most extensive set of writings on a non-Western society.

Foucault first visited Iran in September 1978 and then met with Khomeini at his exile residence outside Paris in October. Foucault traveled to Iran for a second visit in November, when the revolutionary movement against the shah was reaching its zenith. During these two trips, Foucault was commissioned as a special correspondent of the leading Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, with his articles appearing on page one of that paper.

Foucault’s interest in the Iranian Revolution was much more than a journalistic curiosity. His earlier work had shown a consistent though subtle affinity for the Orient and the more traditional social norms of the East, as well as a messianic preoccupation with Eastern thought. Foucault believed that the demise of colonialism by the 1960s had brought Western thought to a turning point and to a crisis. During a 1978 encounter at a Zen temple in Japan, Foucault remarked that this was “the end of the era of Western philosophy. Thus if philosophy of the future exists, it must be born outside of Europe or equally born in consequence of meetings and impacts between Europe and non-Europe” (1999, p. 113).

Later that year, Foucault went to Iran “to be there at the birth of ideas.” He wrote that the new “Muslim” style of politics could signal the beginning of a new form of “political spirituality,” not just for the Middle East, but also for Europe, which had adopted a secular politics ever since the French Revolution. As he wrote in Corriere della sera in November 1978:

There are more ideas on earth than intellectuals imagine. And these ideas are more active, stronger, more resistant, more passionate than “politicians” think. We have to be there at the birth of ideas, the bursting outward of their force: not in books expressing them, but in events manifesting this force, in struggles carried on around ideas, for or against them. Ideas do not rule the world. But it is because the world has ideas (and because it constantly produces them) that it is not passively ruled by those who are its leaders or those who would like to teach it, once and for all, what it must think. This is the direction we want these “journalistic reports” to take. An analysis of thought will be linked to an analysis of what is happening. Intellectuals will work together with journalists at the point where ideas and events intersect. (cited in Eribon [1989] 1991, p. 282)

In addition to Corriere della Sera, Foucault wrote on Iran in French newspapers and journals, such as the daily Le Monde and the widely circulated leftist weekly Nouvel Observateur. Iranian student activists translated at least one of his essays into Persian and posted it on the walls of Tehran University in the fall of 1978. In spring 1979, the Iranian Writers Association published an interview with Foucault from the previous September on the concept of revolution and the role of the intellectual. All of Foucault’s writings and interviews on Iran are published in English in their entirety for the first time in the appendix to this volume, alongside those of some of his critics.

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. But this itself is curious. Why, given the wide accessibility in English of even his interviews and other minor writings, have these texts not previously been made available to the English-speaking public, especially given the wide interest in Foucault by scholars of non-European societies?

Many scholars of Foucault view these writings as aberrant or the product of a political mistake. We will suggest 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. We will also argue that Foucault’s experience in Iran left a lasting impact on his subsequent oeuvre and that one cannot understand the sudden turn in Foucault’s writings in the 1980s without recognizing the significance of the Iranian episode and his more general preoccupation with the Orient.

Long before most other commentators, Foucault understood that Iran was witnessing a singular kind of revolution. Early on, he predicted that this revolution would not follow the model of other modern revolutions. He wrote that it was organized around a sharply different concept, which he called “political spirituality.” Foucault recognized the enormous power of the new discourse of militant Islam, not just for Iran, but for the world. He showed that the new Islamist movement aimed at a fundamental cultural, social, and political break with the modern Western order, as well as with the Soviet Union and China:

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.... In fact, it is also important to recognize that the demand for the “legitimate rights of the Palestinian people” hardly stirred the Arab peoples. What would it be if this cause encompassed the dynamism of an Islamic movement, something much stronger than those with a Marxist, Leninist, or Maoist character? (this edition, p. 241)

He also noted presciently that such a discourse would “alter the global strategic equilibrium” (this edition, p. 241)

Foucault’s experience in Iran contributed to a turning point in his thought. In the late 1970s, he was moving from a preoccupation with technologies of domination to a new interest in what he termed the technologies of the self, as the foundation for a new form of spirituality and resistance to power. We argue that the Iranian Revolution had a lasting impact on his late writing in several ways.

In his Iran writings, Foucault emphasized the deployment of certain instruments of modernity as means of resistance. He called attention to the innovative uses Islamists made of overseas radio broadcasts and cassettes. This blending of more traditional religious discourses with modern means of communication had helped to galvanize the revolutionary movement and ultimately paralyzed the modern and authoritarian Pahlavi regime.

Foucault was also fascinated by the appropriation of Shi'ite myths of martyrdom and rituals of penitence by large parts of the revolutionary movement and their willingness to face death in their single-minded goal of overthrowing the Pahlavi regime. Later, in his discussion of an “aesthetics of existence” -- practices that could be refashioned for our time and serve as the foundation for a new form of spirituality -- Foucault often referred to Greco-Roman texts and early Christian practices. However, many of these practices also had a strong resemblance to what he saw in Iran.

Additionally, many scholars have wondered about Foucault’s sudden turn to the ancient Greco-Roman world in volumes II and III of History of Sexuality, and his interest in uncovering male homosexual practices in this era. We would suggest an “Oriental” appropriation here as well. Foucault’s description of a male “ethics of love” in the Greco-Roman world greatly resembles some existing male homosexual practices of the Middle East and North Africa.

Foucault’s foray into the Greco-Roman world might, therefore, have been related to his longstanding fascination with ars erotica and especially the erotic arts of the East, since Foucault sometimes combined the discussion of sexual practices of the contemporary East with those of the classical Greco-Roman society.

The Iranian experience also raises some questions about Foucault’s overall approach to modernity. First, it is often assumed that Foucault’s suspicion of utopianism, his hostility to grand narratives and universals, and his stress on difference and singularity rather than totality, would make him less likely than his predecessors on the Left to romanticize an authoritarian politics that promised radically to refashion from above the lives and thought of a people, for its ostensible benefit.

However, his Iran writings showed that Foucault was not immune to the type of illusions that so many Western leftists had held toward the Soviet Union and later, China. Foucault did not anticipate the birth of yet another modern state where old religious technologies of domination could be refashioned and institutionalized; this was a state that propounded a traditionalist ideology, but equipped itself with modern technologies of organization, surveillance, warfare, and propaganda.

Second, Foucault's highly problematic relationship to feminism becomes more than an intellectual lacuna in the case of Iran. On a few occasions, Foucault reproduced statements he had heard from religious figures on gender relations in a possible future Islamic Republic, but he never questioned the “separate but equal” message of the Islamists. Foucault also dismissed feminist premonitions that the Revolution was headed in a dangerous direction, and he seemed to regard such warnings as little more than Orientalist attacks on Islam, thereby depriving himself of a more balanced perspective toward the events in Iran.

At a more general level, Foucault remained insensitive toward the diverse ways in which power affected women, as against men. He ignored the fact that those most traumatized by the premodern disciplinary practices were often women and children, who were oppressed in the name of tradition, obligation, or honor. In chapter one, we root his indifference to Iranian women in the problematic stances toward gender in his better-known writings, while in chapters three and four, we discuss Foucault’s response to attacks by Iranian and French feminists on his Iran writings themselves.

Third, an examination of Foucault’s writings provides more support for the frequently articulated criticism that his one-sided critique of modernity needs to be seriously reconsidered, especially from the vantage point of many non-Western societies. Indeed, there are some indications that Foucault himself was moving in such a direction.

In his 1984 essay “What Is Enlightenment?” Foucault put forth a position on the Enlightenment that was more nuanced than before, also moving from a two-pronged philosophy concerned with knowledge and power to a three-pronged one that included ethics. However, the limits of his ethics of moderation with regard to gender and sexuality need to be explored and this is the subject of the last chapter of this book.

As against Foucault, some French leftists were very critical of the Iranian Revolution early on. Beginning in December 1978 with a series of articles that appeared on the front page of Le Monde, the noted Middle East scholar and leftist commentator Maxime Rodinson, known for his classic biography of Muhammad, published some hard-hitting critiques of Islamism in Iran as a form of “semi-archaic fascism” (this volume, p. 233). As Rodinson later revealed, he was specifically targeting Foucault in these articles, which drew on Max Weber’s notion of charisma, Marx’s concepts of class and ideology, and a range of scholarship on Iran and Islam.

In March 1979, Foucault’s writings on Iran came under increasing attack in the wake of the new regime’s executions of homosexual men and especially the large demonstrations by Iranian women on the streets of Tehran against Khomeini’s directives for compulsory veiling. In addition, France’s best-known feminist, the existentialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, protested the Khomeini regime’s suppression of women’s rights and sent a message of solidarity to Iranian women (this volume, pp. 246-247). However, Foucault refused to respond to the new attacks, issuing only a mild criticism of human rights in Iran that refrained from any mention of women’s rights or gay rights, before lapsing into silence on Iran.

Available on
Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islamism

Janet Afary is Associate Professor of Hisotry and Women's Studies at Perdue University. Homepage
Kevin B. Anderson is Associate Professor of Political Science at Perdue University. Homepage

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