[Reader-list] review of book on Foucault and Iran revolution

aasim khan aasim27 at yahoo.co.in
Tue Dec 20 11:23:57 IST 2005

Hi everyone,

I came across this article in the Frontline...A book
review.thought it raised some points of
consequence..Also i remembered there were a couple of
debates on 'Orientalism' on the reader list.
I feel there is sense of threshhold in all these
debtaes.But not a closed boundry.... at all times
there are openings and new threshholds for the ideas
to move on.Wonder what the book would be like.
Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the
Seductions of Islamism by Janet Afary and Kevin
Anderson; The University of Chicago Press, 2005; pages
312, cloth $60, paper $24. 

MICHEL FOUCAULT'S anti-imperialist and anti-modernist
philosophy is emblematic of post-modern thought. His
characteristic archaeological method, with its careful
and meticulous deconstruction of modern life,
excavates and lays bare the "micro power" systems
implicit in modern existence and has long been the
darling of Western leftists and post-colonial
theorists alike. 

Foucault's suspicion of utopianism, his hostility to
grand narratives and universals and his stress on
difference and singularity fuel the engines of
cultural relativist discourse. It is predictable,
therefore, that when Janet Afary and Kevin Anderson
embark on a deconstruction of the follies of Michel
Foucault, specifically his near uncritical celebration
of the Iranian Revolution, in their book Foucault and
the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of
Islamism, they disconcert many Western leftists. 

The reactions to the book, such as the review by
Jonathan Ree in The Nation, have been intriguing
exercises in exposing the cherished image of
post-modernists and Western leftists as self-styled
champions of the "other". Their incantations in
defence of Foucault represent their discomfort at
being the subject of critique that has been
traditionally reserved for "orientalists" whose
transgressions in "writing the other" were so
popularly articulated by Edward Said over 20 years

The book is an engaging and arduously assembled
critique of Michel Foucault's previously un-translated
writings on the Iranian Revolution written for the
Italian newspaper Corierre de la Sera (1978-80). In
it, Afary and Anderson lay bare how certain important
themes in Foucault's own philosophy challenge the
much-celebrated Foucauldian immunity to romanticised
notions of "an authoritarian politics that promised
radically to refashion from above the lives and
thought of a people for its ostensible benefit". Afary
and Anderson take their readers through the
theoretical and philosophical foundations of
Foucault's thought, painting assiduously the
philosopher's mental landscape, its gradations of
thought and valleys of doubts. They explicate the
bases of Foucauldian philosophy: the centrality of
power in Foucauldian discourse; Foucault's
descriptions of modern power as "pervasive" and
insidious, seeping through the web of all social
political and economic relations "down to the very
depth of society". Afary and Anderson go on to point
out, again to the chagrin of some, that while the
dualism in Foucault's work centred around the modern
and the pre-modern, his descriptions of "pre-modern"
were often Eastern and a "counter-discourse that
appropriated oriental lore in opposition to Western
strategies of control". Foucault's counter-discourse,
they allege, reifies the oriental (presented as the
pre-modern), in stark opposition to the traditional
orientalists who denigrated the barbarism and
uncivilised "otherness' of Eastern thought. It is thus
a final and complete reversion of its modern
predecessor. Having laid the philosophical foundations
of Foucault's thought, Afary and Anderson transpose on
the presented philosophical landscape, the historical
event that is the subject of the treatise. Hence, the
cataclysmic reaction between the anti-modern
philosophy of Foucault and the anti-modern but
unassailably theocratic movement precipitated by
Ayatollah Khomeini is exculpated. On the one hand is a
philosopher whose world view is a scathing and
seething reaction against the modern world; on the
other, a theocratic leader whose rallying cry managed
to appropriate the unifying rhetoric of
anti-imperialism to institute a draconian and
repressive order in Iran. 

In recounting the evolution of the Iranian Revolution,
Afary and Anderson pay careful attention to its
Constitution as a particularly modern movement. The
discussion of Ali Shariati, the leftist intellectual
whose ideas were later appropriated into the rhetoric
of revolution, represents how Western existential
thought was synthesised into Islamist discourse to
produce a starkly anti-traditionalist version of Shia
Islam. The recasting of the martyrdom of Hussein (a
paradigmatic story known to every Shia Muslim) in
revolutionary terms relating to contemporary politics
and the overthrow of the Shah, the epitomisation of
jehad and death as the ultimate life experience
uniting the martyr with his divine destiny, are all
presented with attention to their synthetic and hybrid
ingenuity and their contrast to traditional Shia modes
of understanding rituals of mourning during Muharram. 

In tracing the transformation of traditionally
significant epithets of Shia Islam, Afary and Anderson
bring attention to the question of whether the
"pre-modern" East truly exists outside the philosophic
imagination of the Western Left represented here by

Having established the modern and synthetic nature of
the rhetoric of the Revolution, Afary and Anderson
present the piece de resistance, Foucault's actual
writings on the Iranian Revolution (these are
presented in their entirety in the appendix of the
book). Foucault's enthusiastic embrace of the
ritualistic, anti-modern and anti-imperialist face of
the Revolution appears almost naïve in "its uncritical
stance" towards the politics of Islamism. Equally
shocking is Foucault's inability to envision within
the Islamist project the repressive and autocratic
regime that eventually emerged under the Ayatollah. 

In one particularly damning passage Foucault says:
"One thing must be clear. By `Islamic government'
nobody in Iran means a political regime in which the
clerics would have the role of supervision or
control." When challenged by critics, Foucault
emphasises the crucial place of "political
spirituality" in Iran and laments the loss of such
spirituality in early modern Europe whose possibility,
he wrote, "we (the Europeans) have forgotten ever
since the Renaissance and the great crises of
Christianity". The embrace of the Islamist rhetoric,
with its beguiling attire of tradition, spirituality,
anti-modernism and anti-imperialism, coalesces
successfully with Foucault's own work prior to his
writings on Iran. While the authors acknowledge that
Foucault never explicitly recognised in his writings
the search for a tangible anti-modernity, tangibility
and concretisation being the death of the uncertainty
he so celebrated, the juxtaposition of his philosophy
with his journalistic endeavours in Iran presents
Foucault's perhaps unconscious but nevertheless
observable predilection towards discovering a manifest
extra-political and anti-modern reality. 

A striking and perhaps most troublesome exchange is
Foucault's exchange with the Iranian feminist referred
to as Atoussa H. Foucault's blindness to the
repression promised and eventually perpetrated on
Iranian women by Khomeini is the strongest retort to
the blindness of his appraisal of the Revolution. The
scathing critique of Foucault's inability to give due
consideration to gender-based critiques of the
revolution, to place any legitimacy in the protests of
Iranian women forced to leave the workforce and don
black chadors, to find not at all disturbing the
introduction of laws that allowed polygamy and reduced
women to half persons in matters of testimony and
inheritance, presents a picture that is deeply
troubling and irksome. It is heightened tragically by
the authors' presentation of Foucault's response to
the exiled Atoussa H. in which he wrote that the woman
could not understand the power and importance of the
Revolution because she approached it with a "hatred"
that blinded her to its importance. 

Read narrowly, the response represents quite simply a
disregard for a political position by a journalist
espousing a contrary political stance, but as Afary
and Anderson successfully allude, Foucault's
particular response to Atoussa H. represents broadly
the problems with cultural relativism and its relation
to gender politics in general. It brings attention to
the problems inherent in understanding the "other"
through the Foucauldian lens, one which suggested that
an Iranian's own opposition to the anti-modern stance
of the Revolution was inherently inauthentic. 

Interestingly, the debate continues today at the fault
lines of interaction between liberal Western legal
regimes and group rights initiatives in multicultural
societies in Western Europe and Canada. Similar views
have been expressed by proponents of Sharia courts in
Ontario, Canada, who implicitly place authenticity in
static notions of culture and disregard gender-based
critiques against the implementation of Sharia as
inauthentic and as products of Western imperialism. 

THE critics of Foucault's stance towards the Iranian
Revolution are interesting also because of their own
position on the Western political and intellectual
spectrum. Maxime Rodinson, France's leading authority
on Islam at the time and an implicit critic of
Foucault's effervescence in evaluating the Iranian
Revolution, has been described by many of Foucault
supporters as an "orientalist". It is this labelling
that leads us to the central question that the book
seems to ask: If "orientalist" discourses about Islam
and the "other" were borne from, as Edward Said put
it, a desire to facilitate the political project of
colonialism and project essentially a "false" image of
Arabs and Muslims, then what can be made of the stance
towards the "other" represented by Foucault? Is this
"other" orientalism the penchant to reify those
aspects of the East that appear pre-modern, untainted
by modernity or better still, a fitting antithesis to
the modern world a better alternative? 

Anderson and Afary's endeavour casts critical light on
these very questions. In the quest for understanding,
is the post-modern glorification of the "other" a
valuable corrective to the repressive orientalist
discourses that preceded it? Does either do justice to
the reality of engaging the "other" devoid of
predeterminations? Foucault's Iranian escapade seems
particularly to raise these questions. As Anderson and
Afary illustrate, the very notion of pre-modernity
itself is a glorified fiction motivated possibly by
the post-modern dissatisfaction with their own world,
a world that takes for granted the advances of
modernity in terms of individual freedom. Their thesis
exposes the limits of cultural relativism in its
inability to give credence to real desires for freedom
and liberation that may be stymied by culture
traditions reified for their apparent pre-modernity or
"otherness" in relation to modernity. In essence,
Afary and Anderson expose the "other" orientalism, a
phenomenon perhaps as dangerous and disconcerting in
its passive encouragement of fictive and retrogressive
notions; their value is coined not in the cultures
where they exist but in that of a West that
nostalgically laments their loss. 
Rafia Zakaria is a Ph.D student in Political Science
at Indiana University, Bloomington

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