How Western Intelligentsia Pushed Iran into the Arms of Islamism
On February 11th the Islamist regime in Iran will be marking its 40th anniversary. Analysts of different stripes tend to interpret the 1979 Khomeiniist Revolution as the manifestation of the will of the people of Iran for freedom from the tyranny of monarchy and Western interference. That this revolution had a widely global drive that meant to pit the non-West against the West in the battleground that was Iran, is never mentioned. Western intelligentsia has strongly subscribed to this view of the revolution.
As such, some of the most influential Western intellectuals played a significant role in pushing Iran into the arms of Islamism to fulfil that ideological dream. As a case study, in this article I am going to focus on the foremost of those intellectuals, namely, the French philosopher and journalist, Michel Foucault. I will address Foucault’s stance on the Iranian revolution and his role in justifying Islamism, especially in the intellectual and academic circles of the West, and its impact on the current state of global affairs with regard to Iran.
The issue of Foucault and the Iranian revolution should be studied in the context of Foucault’s “spiritual” concerns as a thinker / academic; he struggled with that issue throughout his life. As a major thinker, Foucault felt a moral responsibility regarding the humanitarian disaster that took place in Iran. However, till the end of his life – he died in 1984 – he always refrained from admitting to blindly supporting Islamism.
Foucault’s interest in Islamism began in 1978, when the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera asked him to write a collection of articles about the revolution brewing in Iran. Foucault had spent time with the members of the militant leftist Confederation of Iranian Students/National Union and other opponents of the Pahlavi monarchy outside Iran. Considering his reputation as a famous leftist thinker, Foucault himself turned out to be a powerful platform for this group, and many of the things that he wrote in Coriére de la Sera essentially reflected their views.
Foucault then went to Tehran and met with “revolutionaries”, including Mehdi Bazargan (who shortly after, became the first Prime Minister of the Islamic regime), and the influential cleric Ayatollah Mohammad Kazem Shariatmadari. In Iran, Foucault observed the revolution closely and was swept up by the fervor and the selfless façade of the revolutionaries. When he returned to France, he immediately went to visit Khomeini in the village of Neauphle-le-Château near Paris where Khomeini was stationed as an exile at the time.
Throughout the whole period of his focus on the Iranian revolution, Foucault would strongly support and call it a great “spiritual revolution” that was meant to save humanity from the clutches of materialism and capitalism. Although he was taken to task in French intellectual circles as well as the French press, for taking such exaggerated stances on the Iranian revolution, Foucault would not stop supporting the Islamists.
Nonetheless, the violence of the Islamo-fascist regime eventually repelled even the enthusiastic Foucault. When the summary executions on the school rooftops in Tehran and the mass executions of the regime’s opponents in prisons – especially those who had leftist leanings – became public and their news started to make rounds in the international media, Foucault, who had been severely hurt intellectually and emotionally, wrote a letter to the prime minister of the interim government, Mehdi Bazargan, condemning the ongoing violence and massacre. It was from then onward that Foucault started to silently distance himself from Islamism and would avoid the subject until his death only a few years later.
Foucault was seeking Oriental spirituality to soothe what he regarded as the sheer materialism of the Occident. And he found it in the Islamist revolution of Iran; a tragic discovery, in the end.
The impact of Foucault’s experience with the revolution can be seen on his latter works, especially The History of Sexuality (1976-1984). In this three-volume study in the nature and origins of power and the body, he himself challenges some of his most controversial previous positions. Here, Foucault no longer regards capitalism as a totalitarian system, but despite all its shortcomings and constraints, he sees in capitalism a somewhat more positively.
Apparently, Foucault’s frustration with the “spiritual revolution” had sobered him up. If he had not died of AIDS at the not too old age of fifty-eight, given his intellectual caliber and strong analytical abilities it would not have been unlikely that he would have completely changed his mind on Islamism. Be that as it may, we are still grappling with the legacy of Foucault’s championing Islamism, all of which has furnished Islamists with the expertise to justify their positions in the West.
The leftists, who are inherently hostile to capitalism, have also been able to ally themselves with Islamists with a considerable degree of impunity and help promote their agenda in the West. It was almost from the very beginning of the revolution that employing Islamist professors and scholars became fashionable in the academic world of the West. The recruitment of Islamists in the centers of the Middle East Studies in Europe and the United States and promoting them in the influential Western media also became commonplace. That is while throughout all these years the liberal Iranians who call for a Western-style democracy in Iran and the normalization of relations with the West have been opposed and silenced with the spectre of “Islamophobia.”
As such, during the past forty years the global intellectual sphere regarding Iran has been firmly put in the clutches of Islamists and their left-wing allies. The result has been that the grounds were prepared for pushing Iran into the embrace of all kinds of oriental despots such as that of the Czar-like Putin and Maoist China. Apparently, the Russification project of Iran that the Czarist Empire failed to implement during the Qajar era (19th and early 20th centuries) has been finally completed in the Age of Islamism.
Today, a great opportunity has presented itself, in that the majority of the people of Iran and the Middle East are sick and tired of Islamism. Iran must be returned to the modern world. But to achieve that, Islamism must be rejected and seriously held answerable. And as the mayhem began in Iran, it is only appropriate that it should be extinguished in Iran.