Posts Tagged ‘Iran’

Review: Foucault and the Iranian Revolution

September 15, 2016

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Copyright, Truthout.org. Reprinted with permission. Originally published on Sept. 13th, 2016

Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson’s Foucault and the Iranian Revolution presents a fascinating historical account of the process whereby the despotic Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi was overthrown by the Iranian masses in 1978-79, only to yield a dictatorial Islamist regime led by reactionary clerics. The transition to the Islamic Republic, ruled over by Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ruhollah Mūsavi Khomeini, found the unlikely support of Michel Foucault, the French philosopher well-known for his anti-authoritarian critique of Western modernity, who expressed great enthusiasm for the Shi’ite Islamist elements of the Revolution in a number of public articles he wrote about the fall of the Shah, as based on the two visits he made to Iran in 1978.

Afary and Anderson observe that, while many progressives and leftists — both in Iran and elsewhere — favored the Revolution against the Shah but could not countenance the notion of an Islamic Republic replacing such despotism, Foucault was less critical toward Khomeini and the possibility of clerical rule. The authors argue that Foucault’s attitude in this sense — rather than signify some aberration or lapse in judgment — indeed follows from his post-structuralist political theorizing, which rejects the Enlightenment and despairs at the historical possibility of emancipation. As such, Foucault and the Iranian Revolution serves as an important warning for Western radicals and intellectuals vis-à-vis revolutionary movements, anti-imperialism and political authoritarianism in the rest of the world. Moreover, it raises questions about the liberatory potential of post-structuralism, detailing how that tendency’s preeminent spokesperson so clearly betrayed Iran’s workers, women, LGBTQ citizens, dissidents and religious and ethnic minorities by romanticizing what French leftist Maxime Rodinson refers to as “a type of archaic fascism.”

In their investigation of Foucault’s relationship with the Iranian Revolution, Afary and Anderson situate the philosopher’s writings within the context of the rejection of modernity he advances in works like Madness and Civilization (1961) and Discipline and Punish (1975). In this way, the authors hold that Foucault privileges pre-modernism, irrationalism and traditionalism — and therefore patriarchal domination. In fact, Foucault was not very attuned to feminist concerns, as is clearly seen in the October 1978 essay, “What Are the Iranians Dreaming About?” Here, the writer uncritically cites the vision of a future Iranian Islamic state in which there would supposedly not be any “inequality with respect to rights” between men and women, but “difference, since there is a natural difference.” Beyond this, in certain ways, the Grand Ayatollah Khomeini can be said to typify the “will to power” developed by Friedrich Nietzsche, the authoritarian irrationalist whose thought was central to Foucault’s worldview, as was that of Martin Heidegger, the Nazi-friendly phenomenologist whose concept of “being toward death” resonated with Foucault. The authors have a point, then, in observing that “Foucault’s affinity with the Iranian Islamists […] may also reveal some of the larger ramifications of his Nietzschean-Heideggerian discourse.”

Psychologically and philosophically, Foucault found the 1978 mass-demonstrations against the Shah that re-enacted the historical drama of the battle of Karbala (680 CE) and the martyrdom there of Hussein ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad revered by Shi’ites, highly compelling. For Afary and Anderson, Foucault’s attraction to the Iranian Revolution can be explained by the common interests the philosopher shared with many of the insurgents in terms of traditionalism, anti-imperialism and death. During the Revolution, the mourning celebrations of Muharram and Ashura, which commemorate the death of Hussein ibn Ali, his family and followers at the hands of the Sunni Umayyad dynasty, saw Shi’ite Islam being interpreted to emphasize the righteousness of masses of people electing to give their lives for the cause of overthrowing the Shah. Indeed, the principal intellectual forerunner of the Iranian Revolution, Ali Shariati, stressed martyrdom as the defining element of Shi’ism: Alavid or “red Shi’ism” (that of Hussein ibn Ali) against Safavid (institutionalized) or “black Shi’ism.” Shariati’s view is that all generations are invited to give up their lives in the struggle if they cannot kill their oppressors.

While Shariati did not live to see the Revolution he inspired, the major uprisings of September 1978 followed his predictions, as scores of protesters were killed in the streets by the Shah’s security forces on “Black Friday” (September 8). Thereafter, general strikes were launched in various industries and the Shah’s end drew precipitously closer. Foucault was deeply struck by these mobilizations involving hundreds of thousands of people, seeing in them the total “other” of established Western society. Indeed, his enthusiasm for the advance of the Revolution through Islamist “political spirituality” led him to disregard the secularist and left-wing elements participating in the movement as less authentic than the expressly Shi’ite protestors, and in fact to declare that the collective political will of the Iranian people was entirely unified by political Islam and a generalized love for the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini.

In the aforementioned article regarding Iranian dreams, Foucault also embarrassingly reproduces a line from a cleric stipulating that Iran’s ethnic and religious minorities — Kurds, Jews, Baha’is, Zoroastrians — would be respected insofar as their lives did not “injure the majority.” This lapse, together with the anti-feminist sentiment Foucault reproduced in the same essay, led an Iranian woman named “Atoussa H.” to call him out publicly. In a letter to Le Nouvel Observateur published in November 1978, Foucault’s critic issued a warning about the philosopher’s romanticization of Islamism and the prospect of an Islamic State in Iran, noting that, “everywhere outside Iran, Islam serves as a cover for feudal or pseudo-revolutionary oppression.” Atoussa H. despaired at the prospect of having the reign of the bloody Shah merely yield to religious fanaticism. Foucault’s public reply to Atoussa H. was condescending and evasive — rather than respond to the woman’s concerns, Foucault accused her feminism of being Orientalist.

In his writings from late 1978, moreover, the intellectual provided significant ideological cover to Khomeinism, claiming the Shi’ite clergy to be non-hierarchical and reassuring his readers that “there will not be a Khomeini party” or a “Khomeini government.” Some months later, after the Shah’s abdication and the “victory” of the Revolution, Foucault announced that “religion’s role was [merely] to open the curtain,” and that now, “the mullahs will disperse.” Meanwhile, Rodinson publicly challenged Foucault’s delusions on Iran in Le Monde, arguing that the domination of the Revolution by clerical elements threatened to merely have one form of despotism be succeeded by another. In parallel, Iranian Marxists and the Fedayeen guerrillas made known their unease at the prospect of the same.

The oppressive nature of the clerical regime that Foucault had helped to legitimize became readily evident after February 1979. Upon his return from exile, Khomeini moved swiftly to overturn established laws protecting women’s rights, and on International Women’s Day, March 8, 1979, he announced that all Iranian women were obligated to wear the chador. Such actions led masses of women to mobilize on the very same day to denounce the incipient dictatorship, declaring ironically that, “In the Dawn of Freedom, We Have No Freedom.” Their courage as women rebelling against a new “revolutionary” order was hailed from afar by Simone de Beauvoir and Raya Dunayevskaya — but not by Foucault. Neither did the philosopher in question speak out after the new regime’s summary executions of political opponents and men accused of homosexuality became evident, to say nothing of the state’s attacks on the Kurds and Baha’is. Such silence led yet another critique of Foucault on Iran to be written, this time by Claudie and Jacques Broyelle. As they argue: “When one is an intellectual, when one works both on and with ‘ideas,’ when one has the freedom […] not to be a sycophantic writer, then one also has some obligations. The first one is to take responsibility for the ideas that one has defended when they are finally realized.”

Foucault’s public response to the Broyelles was as unsatisfying as his response to Atoussa H.: dismissive and opportunistic. While it is true that Foucault came in passing to acknowledge the chauvinistic and nationalistic aspects of the Iranian Revolution — and even questioned in the end whether it could be considered a Revolution, as it had installed a “bloody government of a fundamentalist clergy” — his stance toward Khomeini and the Islamic Republic was “fundamentally a stance of support,” as Afary and Anderson conclude. From June 1979, by which time the regressive nature of theocratic rule had become undeniable, to the time of his death in 1984, Foucault guarded silence on the question of Iran and the Revolution. Never did he recant his previous excitement about Shi’ite Islamism or plead forgiveness, much less express support for the Iranians who suffered so terribly under the very Islamic Republic for which he had served as an unwitting propagandist. On the contrary, Foucault in his writings on Iran advanced reactionary criticisms of human rights, democracy and feminism.

Post-Structuralism and Counterrevolution

The case of a renowned anti-authoritarian Western philosopher legitimizing the coming-to-power of a brutal theocratic ruling class in Iran raises a number of pressing questions. How could this have come to pass? In the first place, Afary and Anderson are right to observe that Foucault failed to grasp that “an anti-Western, religiously based system of power” could be as oppressive as fascism or Stalinism. His lapse in this sense owed in part to his ignorance and romanticization of political Islam in general and the thought of Ayatollah Khomeini in particular — for Khomeini in 1970 had already anticipated the despotism of the Islamic Republic with his text Velayat-e Faqih, which calls for clerical domination of the state. As has been mentioned above, as well, his attitude toward Iran was surely influenced by his affinities with traditionalist, non-Western elements.

In addition, nevertheless, Foucault’s unique philosophical proclivities likely played an important role. Post-structuralism rejects the “grand narratives” of socialism and historical progress, basing itself instead in the nihilist-irrationalist approach of Nietzsche, a thinker who argues in On the Genealogy of Morals that the French Revolution represented the victory of slave morality, ressentiment and the supposed power of “Judea” over Roman virility, centralism and imperialism. It is arguably Foucault’s pseudo-radical innovation of post-structuralism that set him apart from the rest of the global progressive movement on Iran; earlier that decade, in his debate with Noam Chomsky, the philosopher had already rejected anarcho-syndicalism. Moreover, according to Edward Said, he sided with Israel over the Palestinians, losing his close friend Gilles Deleuze in the process. In truth, one need only review Foucault’s shameful attitude toward a clerical-fascist regime that executed more than 20,000 citizens — many of them gay people and guerrillas — during the remainder of Khomeini’s lifetime to see the regressive qualities of his post-structuralism manifesting themselves clearly.

Beyond this, Afary and Anderson do recognize and commend Foucault’s activism and organizing in favor of prisoners, the Polish Solidarity Movement and the Vietnamese “boat people” fleeing Stalinist victory in Southeast Asia, but they argue that the Iranian Revolution formed a much more central commitment in the life of the philosopher. Foucault’s delusions regarding Iran mirror the serious errors expressed by several left-wing intellectuals in history — Albert Camus, for example, who rejected Algerian independence from the French Empire, or the numerous thinkers who lent their support to the Soviet Union and Maoist China — and they are well-critiqued by Dunayevskaya’s denunciation of observers of the Iranian Revolution who prioritized anti-imperialism over internal oppression. Such considerations remain very much germane today, particularly with regard to the catastrophe in Syria, where the Islamic Republic has played a most oppressive role together with Russia in propping up the fascistic Assad regime.

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“Statement of Purpose for the Alliance of Syrian and Iranian Socialists”

April 27, 2016
Bakunin Arabic

“I am truly free when all human beings, men and women, are equally free.” – Mikhail Bakunin

Reposting the “Statement of Purpose for the Alliance of Syrian and Iranian Socialists,” published on 15 March 2016:

Five years after the beginning of the popular Syrian Revolution which demanded democracy and human rights, the Syrian revolutionaries have been decimated through the combined military force of the Assad Regime, the Iranian regime with its sectarian militias, Russian air strikes and military assistance on the one hand, and the ultra-terrorist ISIS and other Salafist – Jihadist organizations on the other hand.   Nevertheless a partial reduction of airstrikes by Russia and the Assad regime in early March led to an immediate revival of mass protests of the democratic opposition across the country with banners such as the following in Idlib: “Our peaceful revolution is still in progress until toppling Assad and imposing justice all over Syria.”

Almost half a million people, mostly Sunni Arab Syrians, have been killed mainly by the Assad regime.  The population faces a situation that is worsening daily.  Russian air raids, Hizbullah and Iranian supported ground forces as well as the December 18, 2015 United Nations Security Council Resolution backed by the U.S., Russia, China, France and Britain have all given new life to the Assad Regime.

At the same time, the Saudi monarchy and the Iranian regime are intensifying their competition for control over the region by fanning the flames of religious sectarianism.   The Turkish government has in turn intensified its attacks on and repression of the Kurds in Turkey and northern Syria and also plays a role in promoting religious sectarianism in the region.  President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has praised Hitler’s “presidential system” as a model of “efficiency.”

The Syrian refugee crisis, with over 8 million refugees inside and over 4 million refugees outside Syria has become a much larger version of the Palestinian al-Nakba.  The European Union is setting refugee quotas, closing its gates and implementing an agreement with Turkey based on which Turkey would take more refugees in exchange for 3 billion Euros and a possible future membership in the European Union.  This is clearly not a solution.  Neither Turkey nor any other country in the Middle East region is willing to admit over 12 million refugees and give them the possibility of a decent life.

As Syrian and Iranian socialists, we call on you to join us in taking a stand against this inhumanity and for finding real solutions:

First, we refuse to accept the myth that the Assad regime is the lesser of the two evils and that stabilizing it will end the war in Syria or stop the rise of ISIS and other Jihadists.  On the contrary, the Assad regime is responsible for the majority of the deaths which are now estimated at half a million.  This regime’s destruction of the democratic forces embodied in the Syrian revolution has created a fertile ground for the rise of ISIS and other Salafist-Jihadist groups.

Secondly, given the fact that both the Assad regime and ISIS are capitalist, racist, misogynist governments, no viable alternative to them can be shaped without tackling the class/ethnic/religious divisions and gender discrimination that are present in the Middle East.

Thirdly, while we insist on upholding a principled position of support for the Kurdish national liberation movement and its struggle for self-determination in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran, we think it is also necessary to challenge many of those on the left who separate the struggle for self-determination of the Kurdish people in Syria from the dynamics of the Syrian revolution.  It was the 2011 Syrian revolution that made it possible for the autonomous cantons in Rojava to come into existence.  Without a Syrian revolution there can be no democratic Rojava.  The latest evidence of the coordination and collaboration between the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian regime and the Russian air force is alarming and does not bode well for the Kurds. The liberation and emancipation of the Kurdish people is linked to the liberation and emancipation of the people of the region.

It is time for Syrian and Iranian socialists to work together to challenge class, gender, ethnic and religious prejudices and speak to the struggles of women, workers, oppressed nationalities such as Kurds and Palestinians, oppressed ethnic and religious minorities, and sexual minorities.  It is time for us to restate socialism as a concept of human emancipation not only opposed to the regional and global capitalist-imperialist powers but also as an affirmative vision distinguished from the totalitarian regimes that called themselves Communist in the former Stalinist Soviet Union and Maoist China. […]

Science Fiction and Radical Politics: An Interview with Kim Stanley Robinson

April 12, 2016

Aurora

In the current issue of CounterPunch magazine (volume 23, number 1 [March 2016]), I have an interview with radical sci-fi novelist Kim Stanley Robinson, winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards and the author of more than twenty books, including the Mars trilogy, Forty Signs of Rain, The Years of Rice and Salt, 2312, and Aurora.  We discuss political philosophy, religion, history, existentialism, commitment, ecology, and nature, among other things.  An excerpt follows below; the interview in full can be accessed by purchasing the issue or subscribing regularly to CounterPunch.

JSC: Many of your works deal centrally with history, whether actual, alternate, or speculative-futural. In The Years of Rice and Salt [2002], you present several different compelling interpretations of human and natural history: for example, the image of a rising gyre, “dharma history,” or “Burmese history”—“meaning any history that believed there was progress toward some goal making itself manifest in the world,” or “Bodhisattva history,” which “suggested that there were enlightened cultures that had sprung ahead somehow, and then gone back to the rest and worked to bring them forward—early China, Travancore, the Hodenosaunee, the Japanese diaspora, Iran—all these cultures had been proposed as possible examples of this pattern […].” In Aurora (2015), moreover, you mention the idea of history being parabolic, cyclical—as in Hindu cosmology—or as resembling a sine wave or an S-curve. It would seem to me that we are at the apex of the parabola, or just after it on the downward curve, such that we must somehow invert it, transforming it more into an S-curve shape. Which view(s) of history do you think best represent(s) the history of humanity?

KSR: I like thinking about historiography, and the various patterns or shapes that people have ascribed to history so far, but as we don’t have any counter-examples to what’s happened, and the entire sequence of world history seems quite contingent and non-repetitive, even non-patterned, I think we can only regard these theories as highly fanciful, and use them as ways to suggest how to act now.

I like Marx’s basic pattern or sequence of capital accumulation and class warfare, and Arrighi’s elaboration of it, describing capitalism’s expanse from Genoa to Holland to Britain to America. I also like Hayden White’s analysis suggesting that all theories of history fit with suspicious accuracy a few extremely basic narrative patterns from literature (going right back to oral storytelling of the paleolithic). This makes all historical patterns look suspect, as being stories we like to tell ourselves, and very simple stories at that.

Various trajectories of technology, culture, and the planet itself all mesh together into what we call history, so a shape for history itself is very hard to see. Still it is probably worth trying, as a way of organizing our political hopes and purposes. It could be said that the attempt to do history at all is itself a utopian project, as we try to organize our efforts in the present. One utopian shape to history is the rising gyre; things cycle, as with Arrighi’s capitalism, but at each turn of the cycle, it gets bigger or moves into in a different modality. Another is the logistic curve, the S curve, repeated upward in stepwise fashion as we marshall new abilities and get better at enacting global civilization. Often I think of history as a pursuit is just another kind of fiction, a genre — a good genre, including lots of summarization and analysis as compared to dramatization, an emphasis I like. More than most fiction, this genre makes an attempt to fit with what really happened in the past, which is hopeless in some ways, but valiant. Thus a kind of realism, and all realisms are always artificial, but interesting. So history is a great genre of literature, a cousin to novels.

JSC: There are also clear existential-psychological dimensions to your novels. In The Years of Rice and Salt, you portray Khalid and Iwang, the drivers of the Samarqand Awakening of science, arguing with the Sufi Bahram in the bardo, or the Tibetan vision of the afterlife, after they had been killed by a resurgent plague. Khalid channels Shakespeare’s Earl of Gloucester: he declares that the gods “kill us for sport” and impugns Bahram for the latter’s devotion to love amidst the power of a world-historical course so indifferent to human happiness, while Bahram in turn stresses that courage underpins love, hope, and the commitment to struggle. Perhaps the existential dimension is most present in Aurora, particularly once the surviving crew reaches Tau Ceti and realizes the dream of settling any of its planets to be illusory. Despair grips the survivors, and many turn to suicide. Thus a cruel fate confronts them: now what, if anything, they ask?

KSR: Existentialism is the best way to express all this. I take it this way: the universe is meaningless, but has cast up the human species by a kind of miraculous accident: here we are, brief dust devils of awareness. The only meaning this cosmic accident has is what we make up for it ourselves. If we can make a meaning, good. But inevitably it’s the creation of mortal and transient creatures, so it’s not easy to see how to make a truly hopeful and inspiring meaning. Trying for one can feel better than not trying; sometimes much better. Even very satisfying. Certainly history, which makes each of us part of a larger story that outlasts us as individuals, is one of these attempts at meaning — as are all the religions. But again, the creation of meaning is another work of fiction-making. Possibly a life of writing novels has made everything (philosophy, religion, history) look like literature to me. Sorry; my religion, I suppose.