Making sense of Foucault on the Iranian Revolution, 26 years later

The French philosopher Michel Foucault’s writings on the Iranian Revolution remain his most troubling. Foucault welcomed the “spiritual politics” ushered in by the revolution.

In a 1978 Nouvel Observateur article on Khomeini and an Islamic state, he wrote:

“One thing must be clear. By ‘Islamic government,’ nobody in Iran means a political regime in which the clergy would have a role of supervision or control. . . . It is something very old and also very far into the future, a notion of coming back to what Islam was at the time of the Prophet, but also of advancing toward a luminous and distant point where it would be possible to renew fidelity rather than maintain obedience.”

The piece was attacked at the time, notably by the Left. A leftist Iranian exile denounced the choice between “the SAVAK and religious fanaticism”. Maxine Rodinson, the great Marxist historian of the Middle East who saw in the Iranian revolution the beginnings of “a semi-archaic fascism”, practically called Foucault ignorant.

This brief article tries to make sense of the episode and see what lessons it holds for today.

“Two questions for today emerge from Foucault’s Iran writings. First, were these writings aberrations, largely the product of his ignorance of Iranian history and culture?. . . [The second] concerns the whole issue of religious fundamentalism, more important than ever to debates over the crisis of modernity since September 11, 2001.”