Thursday, June 16, 2005

Foucault and Islam

Via Arts & Letters Daily: "What Are the Iranians Dreaming About?", a newspaper article written by French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault at the beginning of the Iranian revolution in 1978, and a Boston Globe article on Foucault and the Iranian Revolution, a new book by Kevin Anderson and Janet Afary on -- you guessed it -- Foucault and the Iranian Revolution.

Actually, Anderson and Afary's book has a subtitle: Gender and the Seductions of Islamism, although you'd never know it from reading Wesley Yang's article in the Globe -- he doesn't mention gender at all. I don't know Foucault's writings on Iran terribly well, apart from the write-up in Mark Lilla's The Reckless Mind -- which I described at the time as "a turd of a book" -- so I don't know exactly what the gender angle is all about.

Still, though, Yang seems to have an axe to grind in his pretty brutal criticism of Foucault's position on the Iranian revolution, which sometimes distorts his readings of M.F. He often quotes Foucault out of context. For example, he writes:

Early on, Foucault assured his readers that "by ‘Islamic government' nobody in Iran means a political regime in which the clerics would have a role of supervision or control," and that "there will not be a Khomeini government." A month after the Iranian electorate overwhelmingly voted to designate Iran an Islamic republic under Khomeini, the repression of women, political dissenters, and non-Muslim minorities that would characterize the regime was unleashed.
There's a strange attribution of double liability here, as though Foucault if responsible both for being wrong about "Islamic government" and for his support of it, or rather even for the consequences he did not support but rather denounced. Also, when you read Foucault's article on the Iranian revolution, it's clear that when he uses the phrase "Islamic government," he's referring to the explicitly "utopian" (i.e., unrealistic but profoundly moving) democratic and spiritual fantasies ("songe," or "dream") of the Iranian people. Here's the quote in full (from "What Are the Iranians Dreaming About?":
"What do you want?" It is with this single question in mind that I walked the streets of Tehran and Qom in the days immediately following the disturbances. I was careful not to ask professional politicians this question. I chose instead to hold sometimes-lengthy conversations with religious leaders, students, intellectuals interested in the problems of Islam, and also with former guerilla fighters who had abandoned the armed struggle in 1976 and had decided to work in a totally different fashion, inside the traditional society.

"What do you want?" During my entire stay in Iran, I did not hear even once the word "revolution," but four out of five times, someone would answer, "An Islamic government." This was not a surprise. Ayatollah Khomeini had already given this as his pithy response to journalists and the response remained at that point.

What precisely does this mean in a country like Iran, which has a large Muslim majority but is neither Arab nor Sunni and which is therefore less susceptible than some to Pan-Islamism or Pan-Arabism?...

One thing must be clear. By "Islamic government," nobody in Iran means a political regime in which the clerics would have a role of supervision or control. To me, the phrase "Islamic government" seemed to point to two orders of things.

"A utopia," some told me without any pejorative implication. "An ideal," most of them said to me. At any rate, it is something very old and also very far into the future, a notion of coming back to what Islam was at the time of the Prophet, but also of advancing toward a luminous and distant point where it would be possible to renew fidelity rather than maintain obedience. In pursuit of this ideal, the distrust of legalism seemed to me to be essential, along with a faith in the creativity of Islam.

Again, at least from this rather limited sample of writing, Foucault doesn't seem to be smitten with a "reckless enthusiasm" for the revolution or radical Islam. Rather he seems to be on the one hand quite skeptical of the revolution, especially of the possibility (which Yang blames him for) that the government could fall into familiar oppressive and totalitarian forms, and on the other, intrigued and fascinated by the idea that a new yet somehow wholly anti-modern political movement could be emerging in the revolution -- i.e., that the Iranian revolution could be the equivalent French or Russian revolutions now, in our times, but a revolution that is somehow against modernity itself.Yang quotes Foucault again: "Any Western intellectual with some integrity," he wrote, "cannot be indifferent to what she or he hears about Iran." I wonder if we fail, as Foucault, despite his lack of hindsight into the subsequent history, to give what happened in Iran in 1978 and 1979 enough credit -- a sudden, unexpected flare at the beginning of the end of the cold war, it may well be the signal event of our times, albeit a signal whose full meaning is not yet known, one which is, like Nietzsche said of the death of God, still on the way.

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