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Apologists of Totalitarianism: From Communism to Islam, Part III

Michel Foucault
by Ibn Warraq
(Feb. 2009)

 
Michel Foucault's uncritical admiration of the Islamists in Iran, from 1978 onwards, revives memories of the great tradition of the intellectuals of the Left who, at first, denied Stalin's Reign of Terror, and then minimized the atrocities, and finally acknowledged them in private but refused to denounce them in public. Robert Conquest gives the example of Sartre, who thought the evidence for the Stalin's forced labor camps should be ignored or suppressed in order not to demoralize the French proletariat.[1]

Michel Foucault visited Iran twice in 1978, just a few months before the Ayatollah Khomeini's return to Tehran in triumph in February, 1979, and wrote about his impressions mainly in the Italian daily Corriere della sera, but also in the French daily Le Monde, and the weekly magazine, Le Nouvel Observateur.

Many admirers of the French Intellectual tried to pass his Iranian writings off as temporary aberrations, variously described as "misreadings," "errors," "folly," "miscalculation", or "a fumble". But Mitchell Cohen asked, "Was Foucault's fumble just that, a fumble? Or was it, as postmodernists like to say, a symptom? I suggest that it was the latter. It was and remains a symptom of something troubling in the kind of left-wing thinking that mixes postmodernism, simplistic third worldism, and illiberal inclinations."[2]

Moreover, far from being aberrations, Foucault's prophesies, analyses, and endorsement of the Iranian Revolution were in total harmony with and related to his general philosophical positions and theoretical writings on the discourses of power and critiques of modernity.

Michel Foucault remained profoundly ignorant of Islam - its theology, its history, its Holy Book, the Quran, Shi'ism and its particular history in Iran; the slightest acquaintance with any of the latter would have saved him and his reputation from his blunders, naive pronouncements and illusions. He considered Khomeini an "Old Saint," and wrote "there will not be a Khomeini Party; there will not be a Khomeini government." He insisted, "One thing must be clear. By "Islamic government", nobody in Iran means a political regime in which the clerics would have a role of supervision or control. To me, the phrase "Islamic government" seemed to point to two order of things.

"'A utopia', some told me without any pejorative implication. 'An ideal,' most of them said to me. At any rate, 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. In pursuit of this ideal, the distrust of legalism seemed to me to be essential, along with a faith in the creativity of Islam.

"A religious authority explained to me that it would require long work by civil and religious experts, scholars, and believers, in order to shed light on all the problems to which the Quran never claimed to give a precise response. But one can find some general directions here: Islam values work; no one can be deprived of the fruits of his labour; what must belong to all (water, the subsoil) shall not be appropriated by anyone. With respect to liberties, they will be respected to the extent that their exercise will not harm others; minorities will be protected and free to live as they please on the condition that they do not injure the majority; between men and women there will not be inequality with respect to rights, but difference, since there is a natural difference. With respect to politics, decisions should be made by the majority, the leaders should be responsible to the people, and each person, as it is laid out in the Quran, should be able to stand up and hold accountable he who governs."[3]

Even a cursory glance at Khomeini's book Islamic Government, published a few years before he came to power, where he noted "all of Islam is politics," would surely have sobered Foucault up. Even in October, 1978 Khomeini did not disguise his hatred of non-Muslims, and it was clear his intention was to establish an authoritarian state based on Islam and the Koran. Thus it is hardly surprising if practically every prophesy in the above statement turned out to be gruesomely false. All the non-Muslim minorities - Zoroastrians, Jews, Christians, and Baha'is - suffered persecution, destruction of their places of worship, harassment, accusations of blasphemy, forced conversions, and summary executions. Space and time forbids more than a brief glance at just one of the beleagured minorities, the Baha'is. More than 200 Baha'is have been killed since 1978, thousands more imprisoned. They are regarded as apostates and "unptotected infidels," have no legal rights, and are not permitted to elect leaders of their community. They are denied jobs, and rights to inherit property. More than 10,000 Baha'is have been dismissed from government posts since 1979. All Baha’i cemeteries, holy places and community properties were seized soon after the 1979 revolution, and none have been returned; while many sites of historical significance to Baha’is have been destroyed, and so the sorry, sad, and tragic saga continues to this day.

Women are always the first ones to suffer whenever Islamic Laws are promulgated and enforced. Foucault dismissed feminists' warnings as to the direction the revolution was heading, describing the feminists as westernised and hence inauthentic, regarding such criticisms of Islam - as "Orientalist" in the pejorative sense. He seemed to be indisposed and incapable of grasping the nature of Islamic Law especially as it related to the rights of women. The limitations of their rights are enshrined in the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which explicitly reduces women to second-class citizens. A segregated health care system means that many women receive inadequate attention as there are not enough well-trained women doctors and nurses. A raped woman is liable to be executed or stoned to death for fornication. 

I apologize for all these details but they are necessary in order underline how horribly Foucault and other Western Leftists got it wrong, and show that while it was all an amusing intellectual game for irresponsible intellectuals intoxicated with their own theories, words and power, it was devastatingly serious for the victims of what Foucault enthusiastically called "political spirituality."

Liberals of the Cold War era and the Postmodern Left of 21st Century, exemplified by Foucault, have many points in common. First, both disdain the very idea of objective truth, and thus are committed to the doctrine of relativism. James Burnham in his "Suicide of the West" quoted the prominent American philosopher Thomas V. Smith (1890-1964) who was Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago, Illinois State Senator (1936-1938), and also Congressional Representative, (1938-1940). T. V. Smith wrote, "this inability finally to distinguish [truth from falsity, good from evil, beauty from ugliness] is the propaedeutic for promotion from animal impetuosity to civilized forbearance. It marks the firmest foundation for the tolerance which is characteristic of democracy alone." T. V. Smith cites Justice Holmes as a major source of the influence of this doctrine of relativism, "As Holmes put it, we lack a knowledge of the 'truth' of 'truth.'" Professor Smith attacks all classical theories of objective truth, and declares: "No one of these theories can adequately test itself, much less anything else."

The idea of objective truth is only the rationalization of private, subjective "feelings of certitude...; and certitude is not enough. It more easily marks the beginning of coercion than the end of demonstration...." And, Burnham remarks, since final truth cannot be known, we must keep the dialogue eternally going.[4]

Foucault, like many postmodernist philosophers, also favors relativism and like T. V. Smith, finds the Enlightenment notions of rationality and objective truth "coercive."
In an interview that he gave in late 1978, Foucault underlined the "otherness" of the Iranian people, since they are not Westerners, the Iranians "don't have the same regime of truth as ours...".[5]

"When the Western liberal's feeing of guilt," wrote Burnham, "and his associated feeling of moral vulnerability before the sorrows and demands of the wretched become obessesive, he often develops a generalized hatred of Western civilization and his own country as a part of the West"[6]. Foucault was exultant at the prospects for an Iranian Revolution precisely because he saw the Islamist movement as an "irreducible form of resistance to Western hegemony"[7], and as a rejection of a European form of modernity. When he was attacked for his article quoted at length above, Foucault claimed in self-defense that he had also written that some of the pronouncements of the Islamists were "not too reassuring".[8] But if examine closely what his doubts were, we uncover Foucault's utter dishonesty. Foucault wrote, "the definitions of an Islamic government ...seemed to me to have a familiar but, I must say, not too reassuring clarity. 'These are basic formulas for democracy, whether bourgeois or revolutionary', I said. 'Since the eighteenth century now, we have not ceased to repeat them, and you know where they have led' ".[9] So what Michel Foucault was warning us and the Islamists themselves against was not the dangers of clerical authoritarianism, but the dangers of a liberal democracy! Michel Foucault's postmodernist and post-structuralist attacks on the West inexorably lead to an uncritical admiration of Islamism, despite, and in some cases because of, the latter's rejection of liberal democracy, women's rights, and human rights in general. He called the industrial capitalism of the West as "the harshest, most savage, most selfish, most dishonest, oppressive society one could possibly imagine".[10]

When confronted with Iranians who were less religious than the Islamists, more leftist, or otherwise "western," Foucault always dismissed them as less authentically Iranian.[11] He refused to acknowledge that there were staunch secularists among the opposition to the Shah, and even brushed aside the reservations of Ayatollah Shariatmadari for an Islamic Republic. The Iranian Revolution as it was unfolding under his very eyes was, for Foucault, an expression of an undifferentiated collective will. [12]

Along with an uncritical admiration of Islamism, Foucault indulged in what his fervent disciple, Edward Said, would accuse others of, that is, Orientalism in the pejorative sense. Foucault idealised, exoticized, romanticized the East. Foucault constantly privileges what he calls the premodern social order, assumed to exist in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, over the modern, rational, Western one. "Rationality" is a pejorative word for Foucualt who condescendingly implies that Orientals were superior precisely because they were incapable of rational thought, with its destructive tendencies.[13]


[1] Robert Conquest. The Great Terror. London, 1968.pp.678-679.
[2] Mitchell Cohen. An Empire of Cant. Hardt, Negri, and Postmodern Political Theory in Dissent, Summer 2002, p.17.
[3] Quoted in Janet Afary and Kevin B.Anderson. Foucault and the Iranian Revolution. Gender and the Seductions of Islamism. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005,p.206
[4] James Burnham. Suicide of the West. An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism. Chicago: Regnery Books, 1985 [Ist edn. 1964] pp.75-76
[5] Quoted in Janet Afary and Kevin B.Anderson. Foucault and the Iranian Revolution. Gender and the Seductions of Islamism. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005,p.259
[6] James Burnham. Suicide of the West. An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism. Chicago: Regnery Books, 1985 [Ist edn. 1964] p.201
[7] Janet Afary and Kevin B.Anderson. Foucault and the Iranian Revolution. Gender and the Seductions of Islamism. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005,p.15
[8] Quoted in Janet Afary and Kevin B.Anderson. Foucault and the Iranian Revolution. Gender and the Seductions of Islamism. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005,p.210.
[9] Michel Foucault. What Are the Iranians Dreaming About , Le Nouvel Observateur, October 16-22, 1978, quoted in Janet Afary and Kevin B.Anderson. Foucault and the Iranian Revolution. Gender and the Seductions of Islamism. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005, p.206.
[10] Dialogue between Michel Foucault and Baqir Parham, reprinted in Janet Afary and Kevin B.Anderson. Foucault and the Iranian Revolution. Gender and the Seductions of Islamism. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005, p.185.
[11] Janet Afary and Kevin B.Anderson. Foucault and the Iranian Revolution. Gender and the Seductions of Islamism. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005,p82.
[12] Janet Afary and Kevin B.Anderson. Foucault and the Iranian Revolution. Gender and the Seductions of Islamism. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005,p.83
[13] Janet Afary and Kevin B.Anderson. Foucault and the Iranian Revolution. Gender and the Seductions of Islamism. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005,pp.105,129.

 


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