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'The madness of Islam' - Foucault's occident and the revolution in Iran

Article  in  Radical Philosophy · November 2004

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‘The madness of Islam’
Foucault’s Occident and the Revolution in Iran

Ian Almond

Indeed, if a philosophy of the future exists, it will When one considers the enormous influence of
have to be born outside Europe, or as a conse- Foucault and his rigorous historicizing analyses upon
quence of the encounters and frictions between
a whole generation of cultural studies scholars, the sig-
Europe and non-Europe.
nificance of what Islam and Islamic cultures actually
Michel Foucault in interview, 19781
mean in Foucaultʼs writings becomes doubly impor-
In looking through the half-dozen articles Foucault tant. Bearing in mind Edward Saidʼs own indebtedness
published on the Iranian Revolution, it is interesting (in his ground-breaking 1978 study Orientalism) to
to see beneath the title of one piece – ʻThe Mythical the Foucauldian notion of discourse – the central
Head of the Iranian Revoltʼ – a brief footnote: ʻThe role ʻdiscourseʼ plays in Saidʼs own classification and
title proposed by M. Foucault was “The Madness of analysis of modern British and French Orientalism – it
Iran”.ʼ2 La folie de lʼIran. There is no explanation for will be interesting to see how Islam features in the
why the title was rejected, no way of knowing whether writings of a thinker who, perhaps more than anyone
it was too dramatic, too ambivalent, or perhaps simply else, is responsible for the historical understanding of
misleading. La folie de lʼIran. It is a title which, after alterity.
all, might have been bereft of irony had it been written
by anyone but Foucault, Islam and mental derangement ‘We Westerners’
– the mad Mahdi, the crazed mullah, Christendomʼs Before even beginning to talk about Foucault and
epileptic Prophet – being a standard motif in Western Islam, however, we should first consider the place
responses to Islam. The obvious irony of Foucaultʼs of a much wider Orient in Foucaultʼs writings, an
title and the thoughts it unwittingly provokes (what Orient which includes China and Japan as well as
kind of madness did Foucault discern in Iran? How Tunisia and Iran. Two fairly obvious yet unignorable
different was it from the madness Foucault described points have to be made here: the importance of the
for us in the Hôpital Général, the kind of madness West in Foucaultʼs various projects, and the profound
controlled and treated by the likes of Tuke and Pinel? influence of Nietzsche upon Foucaultʼs evaluation of
What kind of histoire de lʼIslam would the author of non-European cultures. The word occident prolifer-
Histoire de la folie have written?) at once illustrate and ates throughout Foucaultʼs oeuvre. With the noun or
problematize Foucaultʼs relationship with Islam. On adjective, abstract or qualifier, chronos, topos or logos,
the one hand, like Nietzsche, Foucault will always be Foucault is forever reminding us of the Western spe-
aware of ʻthe thousand-year old reproach of fanaticismʼ cificity of his subject. The descriptions of his various
which has been directed at Islam and the perennial projects bear this out; whether it is the ʻanalysis … of
outsider status it has been given by the West;3 on the historical consciousness in the Westʼ (his description
other, the very European ʻoutsidernessʼ which Foucault of The Archaeology of Knowledge4), a ʻhistory … of
analyses and appropriates will simultaneously be of techniques of power in the Westʼ5 or his attempt, in
use. The complexity of Foucaultʼs approach to the The Order of Things, ʻto uncover the deepest strata
Islamic Other – be it Tunisian demonstrators or Iranian of Western cultureʼ,6 Foucault has always been careful
Shiites – lies in this consecutive (at times even concur- not to stray too far outside the limits of his tribe. This
rent) analysis and appropriation of Islamʼs alterity. A repetition of the word ʻOccidentʼ, as one might expect,
critique, in other words, of what makes Islam other,other is Foucaultʼs way of emphasizing the geocultural
but at the same time a use of such ʻothernessʼ which locatedness of the language-game he is studying, one
keeps Islam squarely in its place. more technique (among the many Foucault adopts) of

12 Radical Philosophy 128 (November/December 20 04)

avoiding any lapse into an unthinking universalism. that Foucaultʼs Orient is, in many respects, strangely
Foucaultʼs curious love affair with this term – ʻwe similar to that of Nietzsche. As we will see, a number
Western othersʼ,7 the ʻlimit-experience of the Western of characteristics which feature in Foucaultʼs remarks
worldʼ,8 not to mention such bolder assertions such as on Far Eastern societies – honesty, authenticity, col-
ʻWestern man is inseparable from Godʼ9 – is certainly lectivity, permanence/immutability – will also play a
the consequence of a particular caution, the sensitive central role in his work on Tunisia and Iran.
awareness of a certain vocabularyʼs limitations. Foucaultʼs West takes on a number of sometimes
However, the paradox which emerges, not simply subtle, sometimes blatant characteristics which vary
for Foucault but for anyone audacious enough to enact according to the Orient against which it is juxtaposed
a non-Eurocentric critique of European thought, is – China, Japan, Iran, Tunisia. Following Nietzsche, a
that Foucaultʼs perfectly laudable desire to delineate certain idea of Eastern honesty, as opposed to Western
the finite, Occidental boundaries of the collection of superficiality/self-denial, seems to colour Foucaultʼs
practices and systems he is studying inevitably leads Orient/Occident opposition. Whether this Oriental
to a subtle essentialization of the West (and implicitly authenticity comes in the form of Tunisian intellec-
the East). Whilst this essentialization is neither banal tuals not easily impressed by the name Sartre or of
nor obvious – it is, indeed, at times extremely original a more honest and open acknowledgement of suicide
and thought-provoking – it nevertheless betrays an among the Japanese,13 Orientals clearly possess an
indebtedness to a number of familiar motifs. Wherever honesty towards their societies – and their relationships
the West appears in Foucaultʼs texts, stock associations with one another – which distinguishes them from
of tragedy, individuality, inauthenticity and repression superficial, repressed Westerners. Moreover, in linking
invariably follow, notions which subtly assume the this Oriental openness and honesty with the ancient
absent Orient to be its inverse. Whenever the word Greeks and Romans, Foucault essentially repeats
ʻOccidentʼ occurs in Foucault, a certain gong is struck, Nietzscheʼs representation of the East as a symbol of
one whose Oriental echo cannot fail to be heard. how Europeans used to think, as a place where the
This is not necessarily either a criticism or a judge- Greek/Roman open affirmation of masculinity, sexual-
ment, both because Foucault was always articulately ity and hierarchy still remains intact. When Foucault
aware of the Western use of the Oriental artifice asks why ʻthe West has insisted for so long on seeing
– what he called ʻthe [Oriental] dream, the vertiginous the power it exercises as juridical and negative rather
point where all nostalgias and promises of return than as technical and positiveʼ,14 it is difficult not to
are bornʼ10 – and because, far from ʻessentializingʼ think of Nietzscheʼs Samurai, Persians and Arabs
the West, Foucault insisted at several points on his – those who, being unashamed of hierarchy, had a
desire to ʻdispense with thingsʼ, to ʻde-presentify healthier attitude towards power and ʻdidnʼt believe in
themʼ, emphasizing an interest not in the ʻrich, heavy, equality and equal rightsʼ.15
im mediate plenitudeʼ of entities but rather in the rules What follows is a West which, if more mendacious
and relationships between rules which enable us to than its Oriental counterpart, is also more complex.
perceive them.11 In moments such as his preface to the As one of the most original aspects of the Occident
second volume of The History of Sexuality, Foucault lies in the way it has formed an opposition between
was lucidly aware of the complications any discussion Reason and Unreason,16 a whole host of very differ-
of historical concepts or entities could bring and that ent complexities has arisen for the binary-thinking
the use of such terms ʻdoes not mark out impassable West as a result. We see this in the way individual
boundaries or closed systemsʼ. Rather, says Foucault, Western subjectivities are juxtaposed to more homog-
all such work can ever reveal are ʻtransformable enous Chinese collectivities, in Foucaultʼs remarks, for
singularitiesʼ.12 example, on the way a Western Confucius has never
Nevertheless, there is a strange irony in the well- really been possible:
intentioned yet repeated emphasis on Westernness in in contrast to that which took place in the Orient, in
Foucaultʼs work; in trying to limit and demarcate a particular in China and Japan, there has never been
critique in order to preserve its internal coherence, in the West (at least not for a very long time) a
one actually threatens the very stability one sought to philosophy which was capable of bringing together
the practical politics and the practical morality of
preserve. Foucaultʼs cautious insistence on the Western-
a whole society. The West has never known the
ness of his discursive histories actually invokes a equivalent of Confucianism, that is to say a form of
number of problematic differences. Moreover, one thought which, in reflecting the order of the world
of the biggest problems these differences suggest is or in establishing it, at the same time prescribes the

structure of the State, the form of social relation- means.21 It is a moment in Foucaultʼs work which
ships, individual conduct …[N]ever did Aristotle almost suggests an inwardness, an introspectiveness
play a role similar to that Confucius played in the in Western thought, another Occidental succumbing
Orient. There was never in the West a philosophical
to the illusion of depth and selfhood which the Orient
has wisely ignored.
This resembles not only Foucaultʼs description of the A third implicit feature of the West, in many ways
Iranian uprising as a single people crying with a single a consequence of this fascination with structure, is
voice, but also his uncritical repetition of Nietzscheʼs that it is inventive, creative, productive. In The History
observation that Plato, in Sicily, ʻdid not become of Sexuality, Foucault insists that this is not because
Muhammedʼ.18 One cannot escape the conclusion that the West has anything new or original to offer (ʻthe
Foucaultʼs Orientals (be they Confucians, Arabs or West has not been capable of inventing any new
Iranians) lend themselves to collectivities with greater pleasures, and it has doubtless not discovered any
ease than do Occidentals. In all fairness, the point is original vicesʼ22). In its puritanical repressiveness,
never explicitly stated; but in trying to delineate a however, it has ʻdefined new rules for the games of
difference in Eastern/Western political philosophies, powers and pleasures. In its desire to reify, structure
a rather curious notion of Oriental holistic collectivity and control the modes of sexuality, the Occident has
versus Occidental individuality seems to emerge, one
which brings with it all the familiar associations of
the West with individuality, self-assertion, activity and
the tragic. Foucaultʼs parenthetical remark – ʻat least
not for a very long timeʼ – also reinscribes the entire
passage within a certain timescale, counterposing
an unchanging Orient against a constantly inventive,
mutating Occident. This all-pervading harmony of
philosophy and state which Foucault feels to be repre-
sentative of modern China, a societal ethos permeating
every aspect, every particular, can no longer be found
in the West, which has long since moved on. In a com-
pletely unconventional way, Foucaultʼs Orient becomes
a paradise once again: the last Eden-like realm of a
very Nietzschean innocence, a place where the simple
power of the state to intervene and mould its subjectsʼ
reality is still seen as natural and unproblematic.
Because of the implicit (dare one say Rousseau-
istic?) proximity of the Orient to a more honest, open
acknowledgement of sexuality and power – evident,
for example, in Foucaultʼs praise of the ʻsubtle blend
of friendship and sensualityʼ found in relationships
between Arab men, a homoerotic sexuality ʻsubse-
quently denied and rejectedʼ in the modern West19
– the Occident which emerges in such texts as The produced ʻa proliferation of sexualitiesʼ, an ʻanalyti-
Order of Things and The History of Sexuality acquires cal multiplication of pleasureʼ, a ʻvisible explosion of
a number of fairly distinctive characteristics. One unorthodox sexualitiesʼ.23 The relentlessly structuring
such feature is a relentlessly structuring impulse in impulse of Western thought, in seeking to delimit and
eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ʻWestern cultureʼ, control a certain energy, actually serves as a condition
one which sees the word no longer as what it represents, for its creativity. All of which does make one wonder
but rather according to how it functions, what changes what kind of History of Sexuality Foucault would have
it undergoes and how it relates to the rules governing written for the East, if such a thing were possible.
the system it obeys.20 This emphasis on structure at the Foucault also draws on and elaborates the familiar
expense of the structured Foucault calls ʻa backward synonymy of the West with tragedy and the demise/
jumpʼ in Western thought, a focusing of attention more murder of God, an association which implicitly sug-
on what the word belongs to and away from what it gests the equally familiar Eastern impossibility of the

tragic. Of course, in the history of representations to that early, Oriental stage of the West which existed
of the Orient there have been various reasons why before the advance of Cartesian modernity.
Western writers felt the East to be somehow oblivious/ This East, forever unspoken, always ʻunthoughtʼ,
invulnerable to the tragic. Borgesʼs Averroes, we will lies like a palimpsest beneath the lines of Foucaultʼs
recall, ʻenclosed within the orb of Islamʼ, believed in text. In between such Spengleresque phrases as ʻthe
a universe ruled by an all-merciful, all-compassionate fate of the Westʼ, ʻour modernityʼ and ʻthe old rational
God, one which simply had no space for a word goal of the Westʼ,26 lies a silent Orient, tacitly taking
like tragodia. In contrast to this Oriental innocence, on like an obedient handmaid all the inverse qualities
Yeatsʼs serene Chinamen in ʻLapis Lazuliʼ, sitting assigned to it – stasis, serenity, freedom from theism
on their mountain top in tranquillity, are impervious and all the tragedy the absence of tragedy invokes.
to the tragic because of something they know, and
not because they have yet to grasp some dark truth Tunisia: first encounter with the Orient
about a hostile or indifferent universe. In between After having stayed in the French university long
enough to do what had to be done and to be what
these two very different Western explanations for the
one has to be, I wandered about abroad, and that
Oriental incomprehension of the tragic, Foucault steers gave my myopic gaze a sense of distance, and may
a sophisticated middle course: have allowed me to re-establish a better perspective
on things.27
God is perhaps not so much a region beyond knowl-
edge as something prior to the sentences we speak; Foucaultʼs belief that a philosophy of the future could
and if Western man is inseparable from him, it is only come from outside of Europe finds its most
not because of some invincible propensity to go concrete manifestation in the two years he spent at
beyond the frontiers of experience, but because his
the University of Tunis between 1966 and 1968. In our
language ceaselessly foments him in the shadow of
his laws.24 attempt to understand his representation of the Iranian
Revolution, Foucaultʼs stay in Tunisia is interesting for
Foucault goes on to quote Nietzscheʼs affirmation that a number of reasons. First, it replicates almost to the
to believe in grammar is to believe in God. Clearly, letter Nietzscheʼs own intention to spend ʻone or two
of all the structures the West has formulated, of all years in Tunisʼ, in order to rid himself of the ʻsenile
the new perversions and neuroses it has invented, the short-sightednessʼ (greisenhafte Kurzsichtigkeit) of
greisenhafte Kurzsichtigkeit
neurosis known as God is perhaps the most persistent. most Europeans and acquire a ʻsharper eyeʼ.28 Second,
In its insistence on the ʻinseparabilityʼ of man and it represents Foucaultʼs first (and only) residence in a
God, the passage takes on a mystical, almost Sufi-like Muslim country, and in some ways the experiences
quality – even if the bond which unites the mortal and Foucault records there will be repeated a decade later
the divine here is not that of a common source, but when he writes about Iran. Finally, it was during
rather that of a common illusion. Man and God are Foucaultʼs two-year stay in Sidi Bou Saïd that The
twin fictions, parallel effects of a very Western use Archaeology of Knowledge was written, adding yet
of language, not lovers or complementary manifes- another example to the history of intellectuals (Joyce,
tations of some transcendental, omnipresent Power. Auerbach, Bowles) temporarily exiling themselves
And yet this idea of a God, in all its unthinkability, from their own cultures in order to write about them.
is nothing more than an extension of what Foucault Although Tunisia was not technically Foucaultʼs first
calls ʻthe unthoughtʼ. What is peculiar to Western encounter with a Muslim country – he had previously
thought is how it is ʻimbued with the necessity of enjoyed several holidays in neighbouring Morocco – it
thinking the unthoughtʼ. The enigmatic source that was certainly the most sustained, and it took place at
feeds the Occidentʼs relentless desire for structure and a crucial point in Franceʼs own postwar history: the
configuration is the same that subsequently motivates political upheavals of 1968. Many years later, Foucault
the dismantling of these structures. The West, in other would be proud of having ʻnever participated in person
words, in its constant testing of the limits of language, in one of the decisive experiences of modern Franceʼ.29
in its inherent desire to think the unthought, creates And yet the epistemological advantages Tunisiaʼs
its Gods and subjectivities only to destroy them. When peripherality offered Foucault in his critique of Euro-
Foucault writes how ʻmodern thought is advancing pean thought-systems do suggest that, in many ways,
towards that region where manʼs Other must become the author of The Archaeology of Knowledge never
the Same as himselfʼ,25 it is tempting to see not merely mentally went to Tunisia. However visually appealing
something circular in this reunion of manʼs alterity is the image of Foucault calmly reading Feuerbach in
with his ipseity, but also a form of return to the East, the middle of a crowd of Arab children,30 or sending

dried figs and dates in the post to the Klossowskis, What did Foucault find in Tunisia? From the few
the fact remains that Foucault wrote and said very remarks Foucault makes about the country and its
little about the country in which he spent two years inhabitants, one can identify three things straightaway:
– sometimes, in interviews, he appeared to forget that honesty, danger and energy. ʻFor a long time Iʼve
he had ever been there at all.31 This paucity of attention been unable to put up with the airs certain French
underlines the fact that Foucaultʼs stay in North Africa intellectuals give themselvesʼ, he said years later; ʻIn
was motivated not so much by what Tunisia was, but North Africa, everyone is taken for what they are
rather by what it was not. worth. Everyone has to affirm themselves by what
In retrospect, Foucaultʼs stay in Tunisia probably had they do or say, not by their renown.ʼ36 The remark has
a number of motivations outside the Nietzschean desire a certain existentialist flavour to it – North Africa and
for a different set of lenses. As Foucault, on more than authenticité bringing Camus most obviously to mind
one occasion, defined the crisis of Western thought as – although Foucault seemed relieved to have found a
nothing other than the end of imperialism,32 situating country where no one ʻbats an eyelidʼ ( fait un bond )
himself in a country which had just freed itself from a at the mention of Sartre. This classic flight from the
colonial oppressor would be the perfect vantage point fantasy of European oversophistication and falsity to
from which to examine the crisis. If the dissolution of that of non-European simplicity and candidness is
the rational, autonomous, thinking subject really is a obviously problematic, not least in the implication of
consequence of European ʻmanʼ losing his dominant, the enviable yet slightly primitive proximity of the
imperialistic identity in the decentring movement of North African to his feelings and body, in contrast
the postcolonial, then a newly independent country to the more mendacious and artificial distance the
such as Tunisia would allow one to experience this European tries to put between the two.
process first-hand. Foucault, it should be added, saw The idea emerges again when Foucault speaks of the
the colonial struggle in Tunisia as ongoing even after energy of Tunisian youth, particularly in the student
independence had come. The student struggle against demonstrations he had witnessed there. Although the
French-language ʻUniversity and scholastic authorityʼ, ʻMarxist background of the Tunisian students was not
although parallel with developments in France and the very profoundʼ, this lack of a theoretical approach was
United States, was also connected in North Africa with compensated by the ʻviolenceʼ, ʻradical intensityʼ and
the question of ʻneocolonialism and national independ- ʻimpressive momentumʼ of their actions. Whereas for
enceʼ.33 For Foucault, Tunisian students (in contrast their European counterparts, Marxism was simply ʻa
with their European and American comrades) were better way of analysing realityʼ, for the student move-
demonstrating not simply against capitalist power, but ments Foucault witnessed in Tunisia it constituted ʻa
also against capitalist colonialism. kind of moral energy, wholly remarkableʼ.37 A Tunisian
Curiosity, too, played a part. Not necessarily politics of the heart, rather than the head, seems to
Nietzscheʼs curiosity – ʻhow can other cultures help have impressed a Foucault weary of the endless arm-
me to view my own differently?ʼ – but rather the kind chair intellectualizing he had left behind in Paris.
of Neugier which would enable the creation of new Again the comment – like Nietzscheʼs praise of
selves: the ʻcuriosityʼ Foucault wrote of, towards the Islamʼs life-affirming nature and the Arab rejection of
end of his life, ʻin undertaking to know how, and up to democracy – is positive and well-intentioned; Foucault
what limit, it would be possible to think differentlyʼ.34 genuinely appears to have found something refresh-
Elsewhere, Foucault spoke of his Swedish and Polish ingly active about the political struggles he witnessed
experiences as giving him a taste of what were ʻat that in Tunisia. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see how,
time, the different possibilities of Western societiesʼ.35 for both thinkers, the journey from North to South
Tunisiaʼs radical difference, in this respect, probably involves, however subtly, a journey from mind to body,
represented one more strand in Foucaultʼs search for thought to feeling, cogitation to courage, academic
the limits of the possible, whether in terms of society, reflection to violent action. In this critique of a Euro-
philosophy or self. Although some of the more popular pean political milieu paralysed and stultified by the
criticism of Foucault over the years has been devoted very debates which should be liberating it (discussions
to exploring and speculating on the sexual dimension on hyper-marxisme and groupuscularisation38), the
of this ʻcuriosityʼ, it would be naive to deny that the Tunisians emerge as less intellectually burdened by all
Orient (in particular the Arab Orient) held a certain these theoretical complications. Inevitably, this leads
sexual fascination for Foucault, and may even have to a reversal of the ʻWest as Reality/Orient as Illusionʼ
been an ulterior motive in his trip to Iran. opposition; the real – real feelings, real action, real

danger, real beliefs – lies in the East, not in the parody was understandably mixed. Socialist commentators
of intellectual pretensions and academic ideologies were visibly uncomfortable at having to deal with a
Foucault has left behind. Foucaultʼs perception of the Third World, clearly anti-imperialist peopleʼs revolu-
European insulation from reality, the way he distin- tion which was nevertheless profoundly religious in
guishes between the real politics he saw in Tunis and nature. The question of whether oneʼs anti-capitalism
the superficial, pseudo-politics he criticizes in France, should be allowed to override oneʼs anti-clericalism
is emphasized in the element of danger he sensed in the was clearly a difficult one; the fact that Foucault, at
Tunisian struggle: ʻThere is no comparison between least for a while, permitted his to do so appeared to
the barricades of the Latin quarter and the real risk irritate many. Among the Left, most British and US
of getting, as in Tunisia, fifteen years in jail.ʼ Europe commentators appeared to acknowledge the United
once more represents safety, comfort and mendacity, Statesʼ ʻtwenty-five years of foreign-imposed dictator-
the implicit existentialist criticism here confirmed in shipʼ on Iran and SAVAKʼs ʻbrutal suppressionʼ of
the way Foucault speaks of Tunisia as a moment where the Shahʼs opponents, not to mention the recognition
he had to decide whether or not to voice publicly his of the genuinely widespread support of the people for
opposition to Bourguibaʼs regime. Hiding fugitives in the removal of the Pahlavi regime – what one commen-
his house and offering whatever support he could to tator called, anticipating Foucaultʼs own observation,
the underground student movement, Foucault could ʻa most amazing demonstration of a palpable, almost
describe his Tunisian years as the moment when he tangible popular willʼ.44 There were, understandably,
engaged for the first time in genuine political debate reservations concerning the fundamentalist nature of
– ʻnot May ʼ68 in France, but March ʼ68 in a third the Messianic figure of Khomeini – a figure who,
world countryʼ.39 in the words of one, ʻinvokes some mystical unityʼ
whilst refusing to accept the democratic pressures
Iran: the archaism of modernity
of ʻregional autonomyʼ for the varied groups within
Astonishing destiny of Persia. At the dawn of
Iranian society.45 The fate of Tudeh or the Iranian
history, it invented administration and the state: it
entrusted the recipe to Islam and its administrators
Marxist Party also worried many journalists, even if
supplied the Arab empire with civil servants. But initially many were encouraged by the early (and short-
from this same Islam it has derived a religion which lived) tolerance of the secular Left in the Khomeini
has not ceased, through the centuries, to provide an regime.46
irreducible force to all that which, at the base of a Certainly mainstream French responses to the event
people, can oppose the power of a state.40
varied in their subtlety and sophistication, from Eric
In both Tunisia and Iran, Foucault appeared to find an Rouleauʼs simplistic question to Khomeini in 1978
energy which had not been able to manifest itself so – ʻYou say that in Iran an Islamic Republic should be
intensely within the traditional boundaries of Christian established. This is not clear to us the French, because
Europe. In both countries, Foucault had been shocked a republic can exist without any religious foundation.
by the expression of a force, the irresistible strength What is your view?ʼ47 – to the Belgian journalist from
of an opposition whose very possibility he had not Le Monde Diplomatique who was able to evaluate
allowed for within European parameters. Keating is the high intellectual level of the younger mullahs who
quite right to discern ʻa largely unarticulated theory had been graduating from the Koranic universities.48
of resistanceʼ in Foucaultʼs Iranian writings;41 in many It should be said that none of the four popular myths
ways, Foucault experienced something in Iran he John L. Esposito discerns in Western responses to the
thought he ʻwould never encounterʼ in his life.42 And revolution in Iran (that it was narrowly, exclusively
yet, however similarly impressed Foucault was by the religious; that it was, before and after, confused and
students in Tunis and the demonstrations in Tehran, disorganized; that it followed a predictable, unsophis-
two important elements colour his observations on Iran ticatedly religious course; and, finally, that there were
differently with respect to the Tunisian experiences of no Iranian moderates) can be discerned in Foucaultʼs
a decade earlier: temporality and Islam. analyses, for which he nevertheless received much
Although general reaction to the Iranian Revolution criticism.49 As David Drake has already pointed out,
in the mainstream Western press was predictably some of this criticism was hypocritical – the journal-
concerned with economic stability – the New York ists Claudie and Jacques Broyelle, who were scathing
Times, Business Week and Euromoney all carrying in their contempt for Foucaultʼs sympathetic treat-
scare headlines of alarm for stock and oil prices43 ment of the revolution, had themselves been zealous,
– the response of the international, intellectual Left pro-Chinese Maoists a few years earlier.50 Although

Foucaultʼs positive, at times even esoteric, response51 reminded ʻus Europeansʼ of the cultural finiteness of
to the events in Tehran was by no means representative our idea of revolution.
of the French intellectual Left, it was far from unusual. Although Foucault follows Nietzsche in his depic-
The French Communist Party (PCF) had long courted tion of a ʻlife-affirming Semitic religionʼ, he does
controversy during the 1970s with their sympathy both not set this image of a life-loving Islam against a
for Third World revolutions and Soviet policy, from negative, life-denying Christianity (as the author of
their opposition to Giscardʼs threat to occupy Lebanon The Antichrist did). What we see, rather, is the invoca-
in 1975 to their support for the Russian invasion of tion of similar revolutionary figures from the history
Afghanistan in December 1979.52 Various members of Western Christendom: Cromwellʼs Presbyterians,
of the Tel Quel group – Barthes and Kristeva among Savanarola, the Anabaptists of Münster.57 Once again,
them – had travelled to Maoist China to observe the Islam becomes an example of how Europe used to
new society, although Philippe Sollersʼs reaction to think, a nostalgic glimpse of the European past through
Khomeiniʼs revolution was, and would continue to the Islamic present. In several places this idea becomes
be, explicitly negative. ʻWe wish to illuminate history quite explicit:
from the exception – and not from the rule or the That sense of looking, even at the price of oneʼs
communityʼ, he declared in 1980, and events such as life, for something whose possibility the rest of
the Rushdie Affair only served to strengthen Sollersʼs us have forgotten since the Renaissance and the
conviction of the Iranian Revolution as one more form great crises of Christianity: a political spirituality.
of tyranny (a tyranny, moreover, whose origins he was I already hear the French who are laughing, but I
know that they are wrong.58
later to locate in the terror of Robespierre).53
In reading Foucaultʼs articles on the events of 1978, It is as if Foucault, in travelling to Iran, is travelling
one is struck by how closely Foucaultʼs Islam resembles back in time. The possibility of a transcendental faith
that of Nietzsche: life-affirming, medieval, militaristic, which can move things in this world, rather like the
this-worldly, possessing a ʻregime of truthʼ closer to intimately homoerotic bonding between Arab men,
that of ʻGreeks … and the Arabs of the Maghrebʼ.54 belongs to a set of practices in which ʻweʼ Europeans
The Islam we encounter in articles such as ʻTehran: no longer believe. Implicit in Foucaultʼs remarks on
Faith against the Shahʼ enjoys a near synonymy with North Africa but never quite articulated is the apparent
life, consciousness and vitality: standing of Iran and Tunisia outside the temporality
of Europe. The location is, in one respect, a positive
Do you know the phrase which is most mocked
by Iranians nowadays? The phrase which seems one: because structures in Iran have remained ʻindis-
to them the most ridiculous, the most senseless, sociatively social and religiousʼ, the possibility of
the most Western? ʻReligion is the opium of the a spiritual dimension to the political quotidian has
people.ʼ Up to the present dynasty, the mullahs remained intact. And yet Foucaultʼs point is not merely
preached in their mosques with a rifle by their
a sociological one; in the context of his writings, the
East becomes imbued once more with a tremendous
There is almost a delight here in the exceptionality of positivity, the retainer of a forgotten vitality, the pre-
Islam, the radical difference of a belief-system which server of a wisdom which has long since trickled away
cannot be easily accounted for by the universalist pre- through European fingers.
tensions of European political thought. What Foucault This emphasis on the irreducibility of the Iranian
seems to foreground in his Iranian articles, more than phenomenon – on the way a Muslim country can
anybody else, is the utter unexpectedness of Islam, its completely overturn Western conceptions not only of
incongruity with traditional, secular, left-wing political modernity but of how countries become modern – is
analysis, revealing one of the most grandiose phrases seen again in the way Foucault uses Iran to invert a
in European political thought to be nothing more than familiar dualism:
a certain remark, made at a certain time, in a certain I had then the sensation of understanding that these
place. (Recall Foucaultʼs own notorious remark, which recent events did not signify the gathering together
would earn him the contempt of a generation of Marx- of the most reactionary groups before a brutal
ists, ʻMarxism exists in nineteenth-century thought modernization; but the rejection, by an entire people
and an entire culture, of a modernization which is
like a fish in water.ʼ56) Most probably, Foucault saw
in itself an archaism.59
Iranʼs blatantly religious revolution as an opportu-
nity to remind Marxists of their own epistemological The frequent references to Tocqueville, ʻregimeʼ
finitude. Iran, the passage seems to be saying, has and laïcisation underline the main drift of Foucaultʼs

article – that what he is seeing is, in effect, a reversal Tunisians) to the ʻmeasureless violence of madnessʼ of
of the French Revolution. Once again, Iran provides an the deranged in Foucaultʼs earlier work, the ʻdelirious
opportunity to upset the comfortable, entirely Hegelian excitement of insanityʼ (to use Tukeʼs words61) which
timeline of Europe and its relentless progress towards we see depicted in Madness and Civilisation? The mad
modernity. The energy of the Islamic revolution, in energy of the Islamic revolution, as it resists the control
this sense, becomes a disruptive energy, a positive and containment of the West and reverses history with
moment of discontinuity. By labelling modernity an its own vigorous self-description, offers the same kind
ʻarchaismʼ, Foucault turns a mullah-led revolt against a of disruptive threat to Western structures as ʻthe free
Westernizing oligarchy into a complete rejection of the terror of madnessʼ did, in Foucaultʼs book, for the
Western arche, a fundamental disagreement on where institutions of the eighteenth century.62
history begins, and where it must necessarily end. As
an example of bio-power or a latent theory of resist- Déjà vu
ance, Iran serves this purpose in the wider context In essence, Foucaultʼs use of the Orient poses the same
of Foucaultʼs writings: a collapser of Occidental tele- problems for us as Nietzscheʼs: how to respond to the
ologies, a provincializer of Western historiography, an unconventional use of a conventional stereotype of
unexpected blip in the complacent calculations of the Islam in a critique of Western modernity? Of course, in
modern secular historian. one sense the madness of Foucaultʼs Iran has nothing
This idea of the Islamic Revolution as a dislocative, to do with the kind of madness which has always been
subversive force with regard to ʻOccidentalʼ temporal- stereotypically attributed to mad mullahs and fanatical
ity brings in another aspect of Islam in Foucaultʼs arti- Mohammedans. Foucaultʼs now famous interpreta-
cles: namely, its madness. The madness of Iran – the tion of the eighteenth-century treatment of madness
forces us to understand in
a different way the folie
he attributes to the Islamic
Revolution – a folie of irre-
pressible energy, rather than
mental derangement or delu-
sions of grandeur. Perhaps
it is irrelevant to ask how
far Foucaultʼs description of
madness is an ironic pun
on his own work, and how
far he is playing with a
familiar history of Islamic
stereotypes. An ironic (and
therefore charitable) reading
of the madness Foucault
suppressed, writhing, uncontainable energy of a people attributes to Iran is dependent on a familiarity with
yearning to break free from Western hegemony – lies Foucaultʼs specific use of the word, relying on a most
unarticulated beneath all his descriptions of chanting un-Foucauldian idea of author intention in order to
crowds, singularly energetic demonstrations, indis- see the irony. To choose this path is certainly not
solubly collective wills. In certain passages, however, mistaken, but when doing so two points must be borne
the point becomes explicit: in mind. First, in linking madness with Islam, Foucault
effectively draws on an already extant store of motifs
This is the uprising of men with their bare hands
who want to lift off the formidable weight which concerning Islam, even in the act of subverting them.
weighs on each of us, but especially on them, those Second, the intended audience of Foucaultʼs article,
petroleum workers, those farmers on the outskirts of by no means academic, undermines the sophistication
empires: the weight of a global order. It is perhaps of Foucaultʼs gesture and suggests, perhaps, a more
the first major insurrection against the planetary sys-
practical populism in Foucaultʼs journalism strikingly
tem, the most modern and maddest form of revolt.60
absent in the more careful prose of Foucaultʼs theory.
But in what, exactly, does the madness of Iran Some of the flashier phrases in the newspaper articles
consist? How close is the wild energy of Iranians (and – ʻPersia at the dawn of historyʼ, for example, or the

description of Islam as a ʻgiant powder-kegʼ63 waiting (ʻwhat struck me in Iran is that there is no struggle
to explode – would seem to underline this very practi- between different elementsʼ; ʻwe met, in Tehran and
cal use of imagery in Foucaultʼs popular writing. throughout Iran, the collective will of a peopleʼ67) in
Examining Foucaultʼs representation of Islam the wider context of what Foucault had already said
and Islamic cultures in his writings, there remain about Oriental collectivities, be they Tunisian, Arab
two characteristics which remind us that, for all his or Chinese. To a large extent, any self-awareness
subtlety and intelligence, we are still reading the of his status as a traveller is absent from Foucaultʼs
thoughts of a Western thinker about the East. Both of observations on Iran.
these characteristics reflect two standard Orientalist A final comment on the passage, emphasizing the
responses to the Islamic Orient: namely, an impression latent Westernness of Foucaultʼs approach to an Islamic
of its wholeness and absence of individuality, and culture, concerns his description of ʻforms of life
an equally strong conviction of the permanence and which have been immobile for a millenniumʼ. Islamʼs
immutability of its institutions. Foucault frequently synonymy with the medieval – the Orient as a topos
refers to the unity and solidarity of the Iranian Revolu- where time came to a halt somewhere near the end of
tion both in interviews and in his articles, appearing the fifteenth century – has been a constant feature of
to have been struck by the unanimity of ʻan absolutely all the writers considered up to now. Foucault more
collective willʼ64 to the extent that he overlooks any or less dates the ʻfreezingʼ of Iranʼs institutions with
sense of individuality or internal struggles in the the arrival of Islam in Persia – a concept of Islam, in
uprising: other words, inherently resistant to change. It is worth
reflecting, however, on Foucaultʼs choice of the word
The paradox is that it constitutes a perfectly unified
ʻimmobileʼ, a term which has its own history in his
collective will. It is astonishing to see this im-
mense country, with a population scattered around writings; not simply because in an article published
two huge desert plateaux, this country which has six weeks earlier Foucault already speaks of the ʻrigour
been able to offer itself the latest sophistications in [and] immobility of Islamʼ,68 but rather because of a
technology next to forms of life which have been much earlier passage at the end of the preface to The
immobile for a millennium, this country bridled
Order of Things, in which he remarks:
by a censorship and the absence of liberties which
has shown, despite everything, such a formidable In attempting to uncover the deepest strata of
unity. It is the same protest, the same will which Western culture, I am restoring to our silent and
is expressed by a doctor in Tehran and a mullah in apparently immobile soil its rifts, its instability, its
the provinces, by a petrol worker, a postal employee flaws; and it is the same ground which is once more
or a student in a chador. This will has something stirring beneath our feet.69
disconcerting about it.65
Foucault will never ask himself whether the immo-
As in Tunisia, Foucault is struck by the, doubtless bility he discerns in the history of Iran, the thousand-
un-Western, energy and conviction in the protests he year-old unchanging stasis he attributes without any
witnesses. Even so, a certain unease, a sensation of reservation to the history of an ʻEasternʼ country, may
strangeness, momentarily punctuates Foucaultʼs other- not be as deceptive as the ʻapparentʼ immobility he
wise positive and fascinated description of events. The wishes to question in Western thought. The measure
curious – one almost feels unheimlich – intensity of of suspicion necessary for such a step, the degree of
the collectivity Foucault narrates has a mystical air to scepticism required in order to restore an originary
it – indeed, Foucault had already written of the ʻpower complexity to an ʻapparentlyʼ straightforward and
of a mysterious currentʼ66 between Khomeini and his static culture, presupposes an acknowledgement of the
people – an uncanniness by which Foucault himself sophistication of that culture – a quality that Foucaultʼs
seems unsettled. More importantly, especially for a Islam does not appear to possess. In its essential
thinker as self-critical as Foucault, there appears to be structure the Iran of 1976 lies in the same time and
no element of self-doubt in his analysis. At no point in place as that of 976; its rigour and immobility, far
any of the articles does Foucault wonder whether his from being illusory, are fundamental. If the apparent
conviction of the oneness, the unity of what he saw immobility of Western culture hides a complex growth,
may have been facilitated by his utter unfamiliarity a clandestine series of mutations and evolutions, an
with the culture he was observing. This is not to under- occult, multidimensional play of developments and
mine what Foucault asserted – the Iranian Revolution instabilities, the immobility of Islam possesses no such
was an impressive example of a peopleʼs revolution depth, nor will it yield any paradoxical complications
– but simply to place this emphasis on homogeneity upon further investigation.

The point here is not to repeat familiar discussions European vocabulary as their predecessors. That in
of Foucaultʼs alleged Eurocentrism or Orientalism attempting to write about the Other, we invariably end
(from Spivak, Said et al.70). It is, rather, to emphasize up writing about ourselves has become in itself a cliché
the surprising extent to which Foucault had already of Orientalist studies. What remains remarkable is the
decided, in his remarks on Iran, what he was going manner in which one of the principal figures respon-
to experience there. Foucaultʼs perception of the mad sible for delineating and demonstrating this situation
energy of Iranians, the extra- (one might even say anti-) of epistemological finitude so visibly failed to escape
temporality of their gesture, the affirmative nature of it in his own work.
their religion, the millennia-long immobility of their
culture, the absolute homogeneity of their collectivity, Notes
are all perceptions whose epistemological conditions 1. Michel Foucault: Dits et écrits: 1954–1988, ed. Daniel
lie not in what Foucault actually saw in Iran, but Defert and François Ewald, Gallimard, Paris, 1980, 4
volumes, vol. III, pp. 622–3. All citations from Dits et
rather in what he had previously read in Nietzsche
écrits are my own translation. I am indebted to Ferda Ke-
and seen in Tunisia before ever setting foot in Tehran. skin of Bilgi University for allowing me to see the only
Unconsciously or not, the Islamic Orient Foucault finds French edition of this text I could find in Istanbul.
in Iran is the same Islam we find in The Antichrist and 2. Ibid., vol. III, p. 713.
3. Ibid., vol. III, p. 708.
The Genealogy of Morals – the same energy, the same 4. Ibid., vol. I, p. 587 (1967).
affirmative rejection of modernity, the same subversion 5. Ibid., vol. III, p. 592 (1978).
of Christo-European temporality, the same association 6. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things, Routledge,
with Greeks and Romans – an impression of Iran London, 2002, p. xxvi.
7. Dits et écrits, vol. III, p. 704.
whose positivity was both preceded and coloured by 8. Ibid., vol. I, p. 161.
the experience of Tunisia, ten years earlier. 9. The Order of Things, p. 325.
We have spoken against the desire to ʻjudgeʼ 10. Dits et écrits, vol. I, p. 161.
11. Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge,
Foucault or label him ʻOrientalistʼ – not because
trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith, Routledge, London, 2002,
Foucaultʼs treatment of Islam and Islamic cultures do p. 52.
not deserve such an adjective (they do) but because 12. The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow, Penguin, Har-
to label a series of texts in such a way does not mondsworth, 1991, p. 335.
13. Dits et écrits, vol. III, p. 670; vol. IV, p. 526.
really help us understand how such beliefs perpetuate 14. ʻTruth and Powerʼ, Foucault Reader, p. 62.
themselves. Nevertheless, it is difficult not to feel 15. Friedrich Nietzsche, Zur Genealogie der Moral, ed.
some astonishment at the ease with which Foucault Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari, Gesamtausgabe,
appears, for example, to be interested in Nietzscheʼs vol. VI/2, Berlin, 1968, p. 289. For more on Nietzscheʼs
relationship to Islam, see my own article ʻNietzscheʼs
description of Mohammed as an Arab Plato primarily Peace with Islam: My Enemyʼs Enemy is My Friendʼ,
because Nietzsche said it, regardless of whether it German Life and Letters, vol. 55, no. 1, 2003.
may be a valid description or not. Said has already 16. Dits et écrits, vol. I, p. 161.
17. Ibid., vol. III, p. 538 (1978).
examined how self-referential the corpus of European
18. ʻNietzsche, Genealogy, Historyʼ, Foucault Reader, p.
Orientalism actually was – how writers such as Burton 76. See Nietzsche, Gesamtausgabe, vol. V/1, p. 296.
or Flaubert would draw on Galland or DʼHerbelot to 19. David Macey, The Lives of Michel Foucault, Vintage,
justify a remark or observation (a phenomenon he London, 1994, p. 185.
20. The Order of Things, pp. 305–6.
refers to as ʻaccumulativeʼ Orientalism). Foucaultʼs
21. Ibid., p. 306.
conviction of the Orientʼs immobility, untameable 22. ʻThe Repressive Hypothesisʼ, Foucault Reader, p.
nature and essential homogeneity are all gestures 327.
which come straight out of the nineteenth century, 23. Ibid.
24. The Order of Things, p. 325.
out of a hegemonic European tradition of comment 25. Ibid., pp. 356, 358.
on the Orient; his linking of Khomeiniʼs uprising with 26. Ibid., pp. 356, 357, 354.
the French Revolution, moreover, is a gesture taken 27. Gérard Fellous, ʻMichel Foucault: “La philosophie ʻstruc-
turalisteʼ permet de diagnostiquer ce quʼest aujourdʼhui”ʼ,
directly from Hegel.71 When one considers Derridaʼs
La Presse de Tunis, 12 April 1967, p. 3; cited in Macey,
sidelining of Islam in his essay on world religions,72 The Lives of Michel Foucault, p. 185.
or Baudrillardʼs use of Oriental stereotypes in The 28. The expression is found in a letter to Köselitz, 13 March
Gulf War Did Not Take Place (Saddam the Carpet- 1881: ʻAsk my old comrade Gersdorff whether heʼd
like to go with me to Tunisia for one or two years.… I
seller, etc.), what begins to emerge is the extent to want to live for a while among Muslims, in the places
which thinkers of postmodernity, in their encounters moreover where their faith is at its most devout; this
with the world of Islam, appear to draw on the same way my eye and judgement for all things European will

be sharpenedʼ; in Briefe, ed. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino 51. Some have suggested the influence of Christian Jambet
Montinari, Berlin, 1975, vol. III/1, §68. and Guy Lardreauʼs LʼAnge (Grasset, Paris, 1976), an
29. Dits et écrits, vol. IV, p. 59. almost Gnostic examination of the idea of rebellion,
30. Macey, The Lives of Michel Foucault, p. 188. drawing on Lacan, Lin Piao and early Christian thought.
31. See Dits et écrits vol. IV, pp. 56, 526. See in particular the chapter entitled ʻMeditation sur le
32. Ibid., vol. III, p. 622. pariʼ pp. 55–68.
33. Ibid., vol. III, p. 806. 52. See Ronald Teirsky, ʻThe French Left and the Third
34. Cited in James Miller, The Passion of Michel Foucault, Worldʼ, in Simon Serfaty, ed., The Foreign Policies of
Simon & Schuster, New York, 1993, p. 36. the French Left, Westview Press, Boulder CO, 1979, p.
35. Dits et écrits, vol. IV, p. 527. 74; Drake, Intellectuals and Politics in Postwar France,
36. Ibid., vol. III, p. 670. p. 156.
37. Ibid., vol. IV, p. 79. 53. Danielle Marx-Scourgas, The Cultural Politics of Tel
38. Ibid., vol. IV, p. 80. Quel, Penn State University Press, University Park PA,
39. Ibid., vol. IV, pp. 80, 79. 2002, pp. 176, 188.
40. Ibid., vol. III, p. 688. 54. Ibid., p. 223.
41. Craig Keating, ʻReflections on the Revolution in Iran: 55. Dits et écrits, vol. III, p. 686.
Foucault on Resistanceʼ, Journal of European Studies 56. Cited in Miller, The Passion of Michel Foucault, p.
27, 1997, p. 182. 152.
42. From the interview with Foucault by Claire Briére and 57. Dits et écrits, vol. III, p. 686.
Pierre Blanchet, ʻIran: the Spirit of a World without 58. Ibid.
Spiritʼ, trans. Alan Sheridan, in Lawrence D. Kritzman, 59. Ibid., vol. III, p. 680.
ed., Politics, Philosophy and Culture: Interviews and 60. Ibid., vol. III, p. 716.
Other Writings, Routledge, London, 1990, p. 211–24. 61. Cited in ʻThe Birth of the Asylumʼ (from Madness and
43. See Paul Sweezy and Harry Magdoff on the Iranian Civilization), in Foucault Reader, p. 143.
Revolution, Monthly Review, February 1979, p. 22. 62. Ibid., p. 145.
44. New Statesman, 30 November 1979, p. 334; Monthly 63. Dits et écrits, vol. III, pp. 688, 760.
Review, February 1979, pp. 4, 12. 64. Kritzman, Interviews and Other Writings, p. 215.
45. Fred Halliday speaking on Azer Turks in Tabriz in 65. Dits et écrits, vol. III, p. 715.
ʻRevolt of the largest minorityʼ, New Statesman, 14 66. Ibid., vol. III, p. 690.
December 1979, p. 929. 67. Kritzman, Interviews and Other Writings, pp. 216,
46. ʻSince the virtual pogrom launched by pro-Khomeini 215.
groups in August, there has been a gradual reappearance 68. Dits et écrits, vol. III, p. 685.
of socialist and secular organisations. (What encourage- 69. The Order of Things, p. xxvi.
ment have they had, even from the Westʼs social democ- 70. See Robert Youngʼs Postcolonialism: An Historical In-
racies?)ʼ, New Statesman, 30 November 1979. p. 334. troduction, Blackwell, Oxford, 2002, p. 397.
47. Cited in John L. Esposito, The Iranian Revolution: Its 71. In his 1831 Philosophy of History, Hegel repeatedly
Global Impact, Florida International University Press, links ʻMahometan fanaticismʼ with Robespierre; see Phil-
Miami, 1990, p. 65. osophy of History, trans. J. Sibree, Dover, New York,
48. See Claude Van Engelandʼs article in Le Monde Diplo- 1956, pp. 356–7.
matique, 11 December 1978. 72. See Derridaʼs ʻFaith and Knowledge: The Two Sources
49. Esposito, The Iranian Revolution, p. 320. of “Religion” at the Limits of Reason Aloneʼ, trans.
50. See David Drake, Intellectuals and Politics in Postwar Samuel Weber, in Gianni Vattimo, ed., Religion,
France, Palgrave, London, 2002, p. 157. Routledge, London, 2000, pp. 1–77.

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