Islam as Revolution

Ayatollah Khomeini. Iran, 2005.

Ayatollah Khomeini. Iran, 2005.

If Foucault appeared to show enthusiasm for the Iranian passion plays and rituals during the revolution, it is perhaps because in them he saw practices of truth and ethical subjectivation that represented a more radical rejection than the ousting of the Shah; the rejection by a people not only of foreigners but of everything that had constituted, for years, for centuries, its political destiny.

The “political destiny” mentioned here is I think clearly the one imposed by Western powers and Western notions of modernisation in which such overt expressions of religiosity are consigned to history, not some kind of meta-historical narrative that Foucault is projecting onto Iranian culture.

For, as he claims during a conversation with Claire Briere and Pierre Blanchet in 1979, the Iranian people were not just demanding regime change but were saying “we have to change ourselves. Our way of being, our relationship with others, with things, with eternity, with God, etc., must be completely changed, and there will only be a true revolution if this radical change in our experience takes place”.

As is generally the case with Foucault’s work, it is a rupture in the ordinary course of history that he is seeking, not the movement of any progressivist grand-narrative form of history, even one opposed to Western progressivism. 

For Foucault, the principle danger was that the revolution would fall back away from the religious element that constituted its greatest strength and move towards a more secular bourgeois revolution of the European kind; a concern he expressed to Briere and Blanchet:

Many here and some in Iran are waiting for and hoping for the moment when secularisation will, at last, come back to the fore and reveal the good, old type of revolution we have always known. I wonder how far they will be taken along this strange, unique road, in which they seek, against the stubbornness of their destiny, against everything they have been for centuries, something quite different.

The risk of theocracy and what that may entail did indeed seem secondary to concerns about the nature of political life and government more generally. In a letter to Iranian interim government leader Mehdi Bazargan, Foucault quips, ”concerning the expression ‘Islamic government’, why cast immediate suspicion on the adjective ‘Islamic’? The word ‘government’ suffices, in itself, to awaken vigilance”.

Similarly, the hope expressed in that letter that by invoking Islam the government would place limitations on its sovereignty grounded in religious obligations now appears hopelessly optimistic. His view may well have been informed by his studies of the Reformation and the radical elements of that era such as the Anabaptists, Presbyterians of the 17th Century and even Catholic radical reformers such as Savonarola. 

All three are mentioned by Foucault in his article of 8 October 1978 in comparison with the thunderous speeches of the mullahs in Tehran. The romance of the messianic figure calling forth the apocalypse to sweep the threshing floor clean is one that clearly appealed to him. However, these radical elements that threaten the order of things to their very core are of a very different kind of religious rupture to that of an established governmental regime that grounds itself in a transcendent obligation. 

Ultimately, as the work of Giorgio Agamben has amply shown, all sovereignty whether secular or otherwise is grounded upon a transcendent principle of exception that rules out the popular will as an internalised point of restraint. Hobbes’ Leviathan holds both the Crosier and the Sword as the final arbiter of all matters secular and religious. Khomeini would come under the new constitution of the Islamic Republic to hold similar authority. 

Foucault was thus right to insist that the problem lay with the issue of government. However, he was mistaken in thinking the religious factor that fuelled the revolution would stand in opposition to future governmental rationality. In the end, they proved cosy bedfellows.

It is undoubtedly the case that Foucault’s experiences in Iran deeply affected the orientation of his work. The series of studies on governmentality that culminated in the lectures of 1978/79 titled The Birth of Biopolitics gave way after 1979 to new concerns with the constitution of subjectivity and what he called “technologies of the self” often involving extended engagement with ancient philosophy. The lectures at the College De France during the final three years of Foucault’s life are almost entirely devoted to the notion of epimeleia heautou (care of the self) and more broadly the relationship between philosophy and spirituality. 

One might even see these analyses as detailed clarifications of what was lost in translation in his writings on Iran. It would be too much to claim that the outcome of the Iranian revolution dampened his enthusiasm for the possibility of a radical rupture in Western modernity. However, the work he produced afterwards is in many ways a more modest and limited analysis of the possibilities of political spirituality and self-transformation, but no less useful and interesting as a result.

The numerous references to Foucault’s uncritical approach to his writing on Iran and his stubborn refusal to seriously acknowledge the dangers inherent in the uprising are refuted by what I think is his most telling and philosophical reflection on the Iranian movement and ‘revolt’ in general: 

It is certainly not shameful to change one’s opinions, but there is no reason to say that one’s opinion has changed when one is against hands being chopped off today, after having been against the tortures of the SAVAK yesterday.

No one has the right to say, “revolt for me, the final liberation of each man hinges on it”. But I do not agree with those who would say, “It is useless to revolt, it will always be the same.” One does not dictate to those who risk their lives in the face of power. Is it right to rebel, or not? Let us leave this question open. It is a fact that people rise up, and it is through this that a subjectivity (not that of great men, but that of anyone) introduces itself into history and gives it its life. 

Revolt does not guarantee redemption. Just as the man in revolt is ultimately inexplicable, all uprisings are similarly undecidable. It is to Foucault’s credit that at this time of undecidability he put himself on the side of the revolt, the rupture in history, rather than accept the Western blackmail of being either for or against some supposedly self-evident outcome.

Today, when again we face this same crisis in Syria and elsewhere, we should remember Foucault’s wager and remain watching a bit underneath history, a little behind politics, but always with those in revolt against arbitrary power.

The Charge of Orientalism

This article was originally published at Askesis. It is adapted with permission of the author.  Photograph courtesy of David Gallagher. Published under a Creative Commons license.