Foucault and the Iranian revolution from multiple perspectives Essay

Pages: 15 (4586 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 1  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Political Science / Politics

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[. . .] Overly permissive attitudes towards religious fundamentalism of all types have allowed undercurrents of intolerance to perpetuate themselves throughout Europe and North America, as well as the Middle East and West Asia. It is one thing to celebrate religious and cultural diversity, but quite another to allow injustice, rape, and violence in the name of religion, culture, or identity. While Foucault cannot himself be blamed for this trend or tendency, the theories he promotes in his writings on Iran did bleed through to similarly minded postmodern political philosophers. The result was a correspondingly permissive trend in political science, political discourse, political policy, and political philosophy.

Although fundamentalism was not a new problem in 1978, the September 11 terrorist attacks of 2001 necessitated a reassessment of postmodernism. What is surprising is that Foucault himself could not place Iran into a broader historical or cultural context. Afary and Anderson claim that Foucault was overtly in denial. He was first in denial about his own ignorance of Iranian society and its diversity. Foucault, for example, believed that almost all of Iran was unified in support for the Ayatollah. Second, Foucault was in denial of history itself: of the problems inherent in Islamism, the systematic subjugation of subordinate classes of people, the use of religion as a means of social control. Not just in the Middle East but also in Europe and North America, religion has been used as a weapon of oppression and a means of generating and maintaining control. Religion can bolster political propaganda and generate counterproductive worldviews, clouding judgment and leading to the current trends in anti-intellectualism and anti-science.

Another irony in Foucault’s orientalism is that he acknowledged the Shah government’s use of surveillance—referring directly to the Shah’s “gaze,” in fact—but did not acknowledge his own Western/male/hegemonic gaze at Persian society. Foucault failed to see that the leftist and Marxist intellectuals in Iran, even those who had tacitly supported the Revolution because of what it meant for extricating the country from American control, would fail to infiltrate the Ayatollah’s political circle. In short, Foucault underestimated the power of religion in the Ayatollah’s regime, and the way religion is a source of demanding panoptic control. This is especially true in light of the religious regime’s control of women. During the Revolution itself, secular Iranian women were pressured into wearing a chador in order to show support for overthrowing the Shah. Foucault’s perception of a unified front was strongly misguided by these oppressive attempts to generate the illusion of uniformity. The Ayatollah quickly admitted to imposing a “separate but equal status” for women in Iran, also something that Foucault failed to recognize for what it was: legal subjugation and oppression (Afary and Anderson, “Revisiting” 1). Foucault’s inability to recognize the importance of gender as a tool of oppression almost undermines the author’s entire corpus of work.

Foucault’s support for the Iranian Revolution likely stems more from an anti-American worldview and sentiment than from a pro-Islam one. In his analyses of Iran, Foucault spends a considerable amount of time remarking on the role of the United States in creating the Shah’s regime, manipulating the government for self-serving and strategic goals. “Would the United States be ready to deprive itself of a position that...would allow them to intervene...or monitor the peace,” (Afary and Anderson 203). As Foucault is correct in his general assessment of the Shah and the American support of his regime, he still idealizes the revolutionary alternative. In his writing on Iran, Foucault claims that Persian Shi’ite Islam “never ceased to give an irreducible strength to everything from the depths of a people that can oppose state power,” (Afari and Anderson 203). Moreover, Foucault recognizes the importance of differentiating between Persian culture and Arab culture and also between Shi’ite Islam and Sunni. Yet his recognition of the diversity in Islam still leads to orientalism: “the light that is capable of illuminating the law from the inside,” (Afari and Anderson 205). Enamored with the prospect of an alternative to American or Soviet power, Foucault denigrates the capacity of Persian people to establish a secular government not dissimilar from that of 20th century Turkey.

Religion and spirituality are not necessarily anathema to democracy, freedom, and equality. In practice, however, imbuing political institutions with religious authority creates rigid systems of law and order. Given the patriarchal nature of world religions, too, it is impossible to envision a genuinely egalitarian state that has a religious government. If patriarchy is encoded in religious texts, and those religious texts form the basis of even secular laws, then the subjugation of women will ensue. Foucault speaks of the potential to “open a spiritual dimension in politics,” (Afari and Anderson 208). Idealistic as it seems to welcome a spiritual tone in political discourse, it is impossible to do so also without isolating the large groups of those who do not hold the same spiritual beliefs, attitudes, or opinions. Foucault almost admits that prior to Islam, Persia created the social, cultural, and political institutions that helped it become a global empire. Yet no sooner does he admit to the need to separate mosque and state does he revert to orientalism: “it derived a religion that gave to its people infinite resources to resist state power,” (Afari and Anderson 208). It is impossible to resist state power from within an autocratic regime that by definition stifles dissent in order to perpetuate its rule.

There are several clear reasons why it is understandable that Foucault might have harbored some sympathies with the Iranian Revolution, given his postmodern worldview. Postmodernism critiques the tools and artifacts of modernity including the modern secular nation-state, the idealization of material, industrial, or technological progress, the almost deification of the legal and political systems of democracy. What Foucault saw in Iran was a similar disdain for the symbols of modernity, including a direct affront to the modern nation-state by creating a new, postmodern form of a theocracy. Reverting to a pre-modern state, Iran’s revolution was viewed as a reasonable solution to the shortcomings of modernity, a view held by both the Ayatollah and Foucault. Their respective male privilege allowed for the glossing over of the implications of perpetual patriarchy. Foucault also subtly supports the theme of authenticity: authenticity as it implies fundamentalist interpretations of Islam but also authenticity in individual reactions to capitalism or nationalism. When individuals become martyrs to a cause, they are acting authentically as well as celebrating the power of liminality.

In his writings, Foucault exposes his own disillusionment with secularism in general. By siding firmly with the Ayatollah on the need for a “spiritual dimension in politics,” Foucault shows that he perceives an emptiness in secular politics as if he misses the nebulous nature of decisions made according to whimsical and superstitious beliefs. Yet it is not an affection for superstition that necessarily drives Foucault’s fascination with Iran and Islam. Foucault equates secularism with Western hegemony, just as fundamental Islam does. Likewise, Foucault equates secularism with capitalism, which fundamental Islam also does. Foucault also equates secularism with hedonism, and believes that self-abnegation and denial are preferable paths towards resistance. Both Foucault and Iranian Islamism also shunned Marxism and left-liberalism because Marxism and liberalism simply replaced one form of power with another. Foucault never actually presents his views on the overarching goals of the Iranian Revolution, and does not clarify why he feels that irrational and religious sources of power and control are in any way preferable to the political institutions of the secular modern nation-state. If Foucault denies the power of the individual in favor of collectivism, he never says so, although doing so would seem to contradict his critique of state power.

For all his concern about the detrimental and devastating effects of unbridled state power and control, Foucault fails to recognize the Ayatollah as imposing a dreadful new order on the Persian people. Just as Marxism led to the erection of totalitarian state regimes instead of to egalitarian empowerment, the Iranian Revolution caused totalitarianism and authoritarianism. Foucault seems to believe that just because the Ayatollah was anti-communist as well as anti-Western and anti-modern that the Iranian Revolution offered a better alternative than any other option. It is possible that Foucault wrote his analyses because he had succumbed to propaganda messages, but it seems that the French philosopher actually does believe what he writes. As a result, Foucault’s reputation in France suffered. Because most of his writings on Iran were not translated into English, Foucault remains a darling of the Anglo academic world. Foucault’s discourse on power and control make perfect sense, and almost completely contradicts his view of the Iranian Revolution. Foucault might not be a feminist, but he did appreciate the ways power is wielded symbolically through sociological and political institutions, language, technology, and other tools of modernity.

Foucault’s focus on the authenticity of the Iranian Revolution showcases a fundamental… [END OF PREVIEW]

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