Angus Reoch reviews Foucault in Iran:, arguing that it is never useless to revolt and grappling with the contradictions of Western philosophy as they have emerged in the real world

Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi, Foucault in Iran: Islamic Revolution after the Enlightenment (Uni of Minnesota Press, 2016) 272pp.

Intellectuals are often punished for their originality, not by the ignorant masses but rather their enlightened peers. Attempts to countenance new conceptions of the world are often subjected to a Stalinist show-trial of devastating efficacy, with the author mocked, called out and often forced to recant their deviant views. This speaks less of human nature than it does the academy, which compels rogue scholars to account for their philosophical sins.

It is against this culture that Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi defends one famously recalcitrant thinker, Michel Foucault, whose qualified support of the 1979 Iranian Revolution earned him the ire of his contemporaries and the subsequent condescension of intellectual history. Largely written in response to the earlier title, Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seduction of Islam Ghamari-Tabrizi is less interested in the Frenchman himself, as opposed to rescuing Foucault’s genuine engagement with a non-European conception of modernity from the condescending eyes of posterity. In doing so, he has produced a vitally necessary work of critical theory which dismantles many historical inaccuracies and contemporary political myths that have emerged around them.


Prior to Ghamari-Tabrizi, the only book-length analysis of this curious moment in Foucault’s career, while providing important exegetical work, was thoroughly dismissive of the potential of Islamic politics to exist outside of the confines of an Enlightenment trajectory. As the inclusion of ‘seduction of Islam’ within the sub-title make clear, the kind of philosophical reductionism that intellectuals can never truly engage in real-life politics without disastrous consequences, or in their case, that Western intellectuals in pursuit of anti-hegemonic ideas will be ‘seduced’ by the soft bigotry of Eastern traditionalism. The authors, ‘looking back’ several decades after the Iranian Revolution and the death of Foucault, validate the criticisms of many of his contemporaries, mystified by Foucault’s support of the revolution, which an apparent blindness to gender issues, hoodwinked by the promise of ‘pre-modern’ forms of governance offered. Viewing the revolution has one great continuum, from initial revolt to reign of terror to complete theocracy, they conclude that in the light of history, Foucault is left lacking, and endlessly propagating Enlightenment values is all the Left can do. Even sympathetic critics like Slavoj Zizek regard Foucault’s political engagement as a ‘right step in the wrong direction’.

Yet Zizek’s ‘Defence of Lost Causes’ remains somewhat incomplete. What if the Iranian Revolution is best seen as something other than a ‘lost cause’? Why did it succeed where many other post-colonial revolutions failed? What answers could it provide into understanding revolutionary subjectivity? That is to say, what if Foucault’s ‘right step’ was actually in the correct direction?

Witnessing the late stages of the revolution in 1978 as a self-described ‘philosopher-journalist’ for Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, Foucault was a sympathetic observer who quickly came to the conclusion he was witnessing an event beyond his comprehension. He encountered a revolutionary spirit so pervasive and entrenched that he regarded it as a ‘political spirituality’, remarking that only in Iran had he ever encountered the Western political myth of the ‘general will’ (57-58). He asserted that there was something in the act of revolution beyond the mere progression of one political form to another: “the man in revolt is ultimately inexplicable. There must be an uprooting that interrupts the unfolding of history…for a man “really” to prefer the risk of death over the certainty of having to obey” (70-71). While the rise of the theocratic state in the wake of the revolution does demand philosophical accountability, Foucault was entirely justified in highlighting the radical, emancipatory nature of the revolutionary movement.

It is in the contemporary context that Ghamari-Tabrizi bases his premise of taking Foucault’s engagement with Iran seriously. He begins with a detailed analysis of the post-9/11 consensus of modernity, Islam and imperialism, and the political metaphysics behind it, crystallised in the debate surrounding the Iranian Revolution. Specifically, he diagnoses the contemporary condemnation of Foucault’s work as part of the broader historiographical bifurcation between ‘progressive, democratic, secular forces against reactionary, autocratic Islamists’ (4), an interpretation peddled by a broad coalition from neo-conservatives to radical leftists, who see Islam as the global threat to world order. In this narrative, it is ‘post-structuralists’ (a very loose term, essentially any thinker ambivalent to the accomplishments of the Enlightenment) such as Foucault who provide the political coverage through a nebulous ‘cultural relativism’, thereby excusing not only the atrocities of the Iranian Government but by extension the terrorist forces behind the September 11 attacks (9-16).

In response to such hyperbolic, fearful statements and the political climate which perpetuates them, Ghamari-Tabrizi delivers a stalwart defence of the contingency of politics against the imperialist teleology of Western modernisation. His first act is to dismantle the notion of an amorphous, Islamic mass which co-opted and ‘stole’ the revolution. He methodically demonstrates how, despite the significant work of liberals, leftists and Marxists in the events that would become the Iranian revolution (including the author himself, as a Marxist-Leninist partisan), the revolutionary movement, from its very early days, operated under the ubiquitous recognition of Ayatollah Khomeini as its leader-in-exile (19-53). Contrary to self-described secularist accounts, which refer to a revolution co-opted by radical Islamists and the clerical authorities, the revolutionary aim – something which excited Foucault – was always expressed in the nebulous terms of an ‘Islamic government’.

The power of the revolutionary movement came from a particularly Shi’ite form of liberation theology, as developed by the revolution’s core ideologue, Ali Shari’ati. Shari’ati’s thought was a highly unorthodox revisionism, influenced by phenomenology and existentialism, which allowed him to recast Shi’ism’s as a perpetual struggle against an oppressor: ‘[He] viewed Islam as a contested discourse the reality of which must be determined in revolutionary praxis’ (93). In appropriating Leftist political struggles in the formulation of a distinctly Shi’ite subjectivity, Shari’ati laid the foundations for the ‘political spirituality’ which Foucault, much to his surprise, encountered in Tehran.

Religion was the expression of the movement, but not its fault line. The revolutionary movement was far more defined by the divide of reformist/revolutionary, in which the liberal secularists were generally promoting the liberal motto ‘let the king reign but not rule’, as opposed to the real radicals, Islamists and Marxists, who despite their differences recognised their common anti-colonial struggle (76-82). This was not well understood at the time. The Shah and the secret police themselves were incapable of understanding earlier revolts in 1975 as anything but the expression of communist infiltration (23-25), a sentiment which crucially justified domestic repression as part of the Cold War dynamic. In a world history defined by competing notions of progress, the Iranian Revolution’s singularity was mystifying to many.

Yet its character as a reactionary, ‘stolen’ or even fascistic revolution soon came to rise, in large part due to the intervention of Western feminism in a revolution which they could only understand through an Orientalist lens. Despite many critics being Iranian themselves, albeit typically ex-pats, their secular identity precluded them from understanding Islam as anything but an amorphous, ahistorical conservative dogma. Arguing textually rather than sociologically, one critic’s calling out of Foucault’s misplaced sympathy “invited [him] to give primacy to a truncated passage in the Qur’an at the expense of the lived experiences of Iranian women who participated in demonstrations by the millions” (116).

The notion of the oppressed Iranian woman – at least during the revolutionary period – arose considerably in international circles with the looming spectre of compulsory hejab legislation. Putting aside Western philosophy’s problematic engagement with the veil in general, or the notion of it as a site of resistance to colonial ‘openness’, Ghamari-Tabrizi demonstrates that Iranian women, as a significant bulk of the revolutionary movement, were capable of articulating their own political struggles against the conservative clergy in the context of a greater revolutionary struggle (125-135). Iranian women wielded great power and were capable of articulating their gender-consciousness outside of the liberal-colonial ideology of femininity which they had experienced under the Shah. To this end, they actually brought the proposed law to an end, at least at the time. This expression of agency was lost to many women who flew in from New York and Paris, most notably Kate Millett, whose shambolic reportage comes off as comical – wildly misspelling common Persian names while literally commenting upon a slight mispronunciation of her own – as much it marginalises the subjectivity of non-white women.

In its moment, without recourse to the condescending gaze of posterity, the Iranian Revolution was a moment of unadulterated singularity. It involved a wholesale transformation of Iranian political subjectivity, a revolutionary indeterminacy expressible through the signifiers of Shi’ism which allowed a multi-faceted base to express a genuinely unified political expression. While contradictions would emerge later, as with any revolution, it was not the result of masked or repressed differences in the revolutionary act itself. Awareness of this would lead Foucault into his inward studies of the self, as the source of this indeterminable output. Yet it was in defence of this singularity that Foucault was inspired, having witnessed a wholesale transformation in political subjectivity, such that it produces a revolt without the ‘day after’ the revolution, when normalcy returns and the parameters of political possibility have been reinstated. Far from an Orientalist appreciation of Eastern ways, Foucault took the dialectical step of appropriating these lessons into a revisionist Western political project, of which he was only able to lay the foundations before his death in 1984.

This book excited this reviewer to an unprofessional extent because it represents an honest attempt to engage with the contradictions of Western philosophy as they have emerged in the real world. It does not attempt to argue ‘Foucault was right’ – this would be to miss the point – but rather demonstrates one of very few incidents in which a Western philosopher successfully articulates the possibility of a world outside of a European purview. In a climate where political debate operates between the two poles of ‘how many Muslims do we bomb’ or ‘how much are Muslims just like us nice white people’, there is something deeply subversive about an account of history which transcends boundaries to which we have long glued ourselves.

Foucault in Iran is part of an extended dialogue within academia, in which critical theorists are attempting to decode themselves from an epistemology formed in the act of imperialism. Ghamari-Tabrizi rightly credits Susan Buck-Morss’ pioneering essay, ‘Hegel and Haiti’ (2000) as a founding influence in this regard. As she argues, we must take these contradiction of Western political theory seriously: it is founded upon the basis of freedom even as it articulated political economies of unprecedented, mass slavery. Nonetheless, it requires decentring rather than abandonment: “Universal history engages in a double liberation, of the historical phenomena and of our own imagination: by liberating the past we liberate ourselves” (Hegel, Haiti and Universal History, 149).

As philosophers we have been responsible for an epistemic subjugation without which it is difficult to imagine any sustainable political legitimacy, let alone a justification for slavery, imperialism or war. The successful decolonisation of critical theory is giving us the tools to analyse and reinterpret out past, allowing us to see what rubble lays in the ruins of progress. Foucault in Iran is not simply a good work or even a brave one, it is a thoroughly necessary exemplar of contemporary academia. Every book should be this good.

Angus Reoch is a Sydney-based writer, whose interests include political theory, social orders and austerity politics. He tweets on @jazzcriminal and blogs about political theory at https://sovereigntyinspace.wordpress.com/

2 thoughts on “Foucault in Iran

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