«Foucault, Iran, and the Question of Religious Revolt Foucault is rarely considered a thinker concerned with the question of political revolt: ...»
Foucault, Iran, and the Question of Religious Revolt
Foucault is rarely considered a thinker concerned with the question of political revolt:
Questions concerning when and under what circumstances a given population might determine
its lot unbearable, and when this collective judgment might be justifiable. Of course, this lack of
attention to the question of revolution in Foucault reflects the very real fact that Foucault had
little to say in his major published writings about the phenomenon of revolution. In part, this reflects Foucault’s temperament: he has little to say about the topic of revolution because he is not interested in history on a grand scale. Although his texts do explore fundamental shifts in ideas, Foucault is no ordinary historian of ideas. Indeed, in The Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault is harshly critical of the traditional historian who seeks after the security of continuities in historical explanation: Foucault’s will be a history comprised of break, rupture, and discontinuity.1 On the face of it then it would seem that Foucault’s disdain for theories of historical continuity would make him sympathetic to theorists investigating the nature of armed insurrection and its historical significance. However, if Foucault’s allergy to historical continuity can ultimately be traced back to his suspicion of Hegelian and Marxian dialectical theories of history, then his suspicion of various attempts to explain history in revolutionary terms becomes comprehensible. In addition to being a philosopher who investigates historical rupture rather than historical continuity, Foucault is a philosopher who chooses to emphasize what he terms in Discipline and Punish the “microphysics of power” rather than its more spectacular manifestations.
Just as interpreters of Foucault’s work have not known what to make of his glorification of the Iranian Revolution and the appearance of the category of revolution in his analyses, until quite recently, scholars paid little attention to the place of religion in general and Christianity specifically in his writings. Although scholars have begun to make amends for this oversight by devoting interesting studies to the relationship between Foucault and Christian theology, generally interpretations of Foucault’s work have thought it antithetical to religious discourse.
Given Foucault’s very real aversion to revolutionary political theories and discourses and his general ambivalence with regards to religion, it is somewhat surprising to see Foucault explaining the Iranian Revolution in terms of these very theories and discourses, albeit with important differences. This paper re-examines what Foucault has to say about the revolutionary aspect of the Iranian Revolution in order to reconsider Foucault’s reticence concerning political revolution in his published writings. I argue that as a result of his writings on the Iranian Revolution, the customary picture of Foucault as a historian unconcerned with the question of revolution will need to be reevaluated. How might we might reconcile what Thomas Flynn calls Foucault’s philosophy of history with the topics he investigates in his journalism? The first section of my paper examines the relationship between religion and critique in Foucault’s later writings. I argue that Foucault’s fascination with the Iranian Revolution stems at least in part from his interest in religion as a vehicle for critique in the West and for revolution in the Middle East. The second section examines the role that revolution plays in Foucault’s writings on the Iranian Revolution and relates this back to themes of concern to Foucault during this period in his career. The paper concludes with a brief consideration of Afary and Anderson’s criticism that Foucault misunderstood Islam and as a result oversimplified the situation in Iran and glorified the revolutionary zeal expressed by the masses led by the Ayatollah.
1. Religion, Critique, and the Aesthetics of Existence in Iran and the West According to Foucault, it was only once the Shah abdicated power early in 1979 and the people of Iran could take finally to the streets and the barricades that European political theorists could finally find something recognizable in this strange revolution. Prior to this point, one could draw certain parallels between European political history and the contemporary situation in Iran, but it is only in February of 1979 that what was occurring in Iran become recognizable according to familiar (i.e. Western) categories. Significantly, Foucault compares the situation in Iran prior to the Shah’s removal from power with events from ecclesiastical history. In order to provide a familiar reference point for his readers, Foucault claims that the events in Iran can be understood
in terms of the revolutionary religious movements of the early modern period:
In the mosques during the day, the mullahs spoke furiously against the shah, the Americans, and the West and its materialism. They called for people to fight against the entire regime in the name of the Quran and of Islam. When the mosques became too small for the crowd, loudspeakers were put in the streets. The voices, as terrible as must have been that of Savonarola in Florence, the voices of the Anabaptists in Münster, or those of the Presbyterians in at the time of Cromwell, resounded through the whole village, the whole neighborhood.2 In a 1978 essay entitled “What is Critique?”, Foucault describes these Western religious movements in terms of the idea of critique as well.3 In this essay from 1978 (just several months prior to his texts on Iran), Foucault points out the essential ambiguities of religion relative to the questions of governmentality and critique. Understanding religious discourse is vital in order to understand modern subjectivity and the complicity between forms of religious subjectivization and the governance of life in late modern Western societies. But this complicity is only half the story, for various seventeenth century Protestant movements also played a critical role in contesting the rise of modern regimes of control. Ultimately, I believe it is the complexity of the relationship between religion and politics in the West that drew Foucault to events in Iran, and events in Iran may have in turn led Foucault to rethink the role of religious discourse in the formation of modern subjectivity.
Foucault can no longer hold (provided he ever did) that religion is simply the realm of benighted superstition standing in the way of progress, nor can it be seen as simply restrictive ideological mask.4 Religion both contributes to the production of certain forms of modern subjectivity and provides the means to critique these various forms of subjectivity. At various times and in various circumstances, religion has different meanings. In accordance with his historical nominalism and aversion to grand theory, Foucault attempts to look at the various social and political manifestations of religious sentiment, and it is here that one finds an essential source for Foucault’s fascination with the events in Iran. The significance of these events for Foucault lies in the intersection between practices of spirituality and political institutions and the impact of this intersection.
Foucault saw the Shiite sect of Islam as opening a space for critique in Iranian society that could be understood as at least somewhat analogous to that of various Protestant movements in early modern Europe. He reports that within the context of Iranian society, Marx’s famously dismissive dictum that “religion is the opiate of the people” makes no sense. If one takes seriously the idea, as Foucault evidently did, that religion can provide a critical function within society, then the idea that religion can only provide individuals with a convenient excuse from thinking tells at best only half the story. Still, one should not lose sight of the complexity of the phenomenon, for within a European context, religious practices were key in the emerging
disciplines of governmentality. This is clear from the following passage:
The Christian pastoral, or the Christian church insofar as it deployed an activity that was precisely and specifically pastoral, developed this idea—unique, I believe, and completely foreign to ancient culture—that every individual, whatever his age or status, from the beginning to the end of his life and down to the very details of his actions, ought to be governed and ought to let himself be governed, that is to say, directed toward his salvation, by someone to whom he is bound in a total, and at the same time meticulous and detailed, relation of obedience.5 Foucault makes clear in various texts during this period that the Christian practices of the self were in many ways precursors to modern practices of governmentality i.e. the configuration of power and knowledge characteristic of the modern state.6 To cite another example, in “‘Omnes et Singulatum’: Toward a Critique of Political Reason” Foucault notes that the Christian pastoral instituted practices whereby the individual subordinated herself to a spiritual guide. This spiritual obedience required that the contents of one’s soul be laid bare through public confession, hence, the knowledge of the individual was both specific to the individual yet complete. Foucault argues in this essay that if we wish to understand precisely how the modern subject came to be, we must understand this individuating knowledge was manifest in premodern Christian societies.
Although Foucault acknowledges his lack of expertise in the area of Iranian politics and religion (and therefore his perspective is necessarily partial and distorted), a source of his
fascination with Islam lies in the relationship between the state and religion:
Persia has had a surprising destiny. At the dawn of history, it invented the state and government. It conferred its models of state and government on Islam, and its administrators staffed the Arab Empire. But from the same Islam, it derived a religion that, throughout the centuries, never ceased to give an irreducible strength to everything from the depths of a people that can oppose state power (Afary and Anderson, 203).
In his essay “ ‘Omnes et Singulatim,’” Foucault had shown how the techniques of the self practiced throughout the ancient Greek and Roman world was transformed by Christian practices of the self, as well as how these Christian practices of the self prefigured certain disciplinary regimes of modern governmentality. His writings on Islam evince a respect for what this passage cites as an irreducible quality of Shiism—that its adherents’ belief in the coming of the Mahdi (roughly equivalent to the Messiah in various Judeo-Christian traditions, according to Afary and Anderson)7 gives them critical tools to oppose what Foucault terms the ‘archaic modernity’ of the Shah. The difference between a messianic tendency that fosters quietism and a retreat from the world and that of the Shi’ite sect is that it is the faithful that will bring about the coming of the Mahdi.8 The Shi’ite clergy fuses the religious with the political. There is a messianic streak in the Shi’ite sect of Islam that amounts to a profound dissatisfaction with the status quo. However, while this dissatisfaction does not manifest itself as an attitude of quietism or utter resignation with this world in favor of the next, it should not be mistaken for revolutionary ardor either. The duty of the religious believer is to defend, even through martyrdom if necessary, the faithful against the evil of the state.9 Foucault must have been impressed with the contrast between this form of religious belief and the ideal self-relation in medieval Christianity. In Fearless Speech, Foucault elaborates on the Christian conception of askesis, understood as the specific work one practices upon oneself in order to constitute oneself as an ethical subject. In these lectures, he enumerates
two ways that the Christian practices of askesis differ from their Greek predecessors:
But the Greek conception of askesis differs from Christian ascetic practices in two ways:
(1) Christian asceticism has as its ultimate aim or target the renunciation of the self, whereas the moral askesis of the Greco-Roman philosophies has as its goal the establishment of a specific relationship to oneself—a relationship of self-possession and self-sovereignty; (2) Christian asceticism takes as its principal theme detachment from the world, whereas the ascetic practices of the Greco-Roman philosophies are generally concerned with endowing the individual with the preparation and the moral equipment that will permit him to fully confront the world in an ethical and rational manner.10 However, this passage only underlines Foucault’s previous observation that the configurations of subjectivity formulated in the Christian context of the early Middle Ages were essentially an escape from the cares of this world and a retreat into the refuge of the self. It is only at the beginning of the modern period that Christianity becomes capable of contesting the various scientific disciplines that sought to control populations—it was only at the beginning of the modern period that members of the various sects of Christianity begin to refuse what they saw themselves becoming. This is roughly the parallel that Foucault detected in the critical possibilities inherent in Shi’ism.
2. A Strange Revolution The form the Islamic revolution in Iran takes is not unique. Both Eastern and Western societies
exhibit this intersection between revolt and religion: