The Treason of the Clerics | The Nation


The Treason of the Clerics

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When Foucault's Japanese hosts thanked him for the clarity of his exposition, he turned the compliment gracefully. Obscurity was unforgivable, he said; indeed it was "a form of despotism." Yet he had to admit that his own elucidations sometimes had the effect of cafouillage, of messing things up and leaving them more confused than ever. But at least he could never be accused of false or factitious clarity. He never emulated the kind of Freudianism that confidently discovers vast unconscious realities behind the carnival of false consciousness in which the rest of us live our lives. Nor did he yearn for the Marxist self-assurance that scolds a benighted political present by the light of a glorious future that has not yet dawned on anyone else. Foucault was never going to sign on to an a priori separation between those who are in the know and those who are not, and his cafouillage was not a feckless abrogation of intellectual responsibility so much as a principled avoidance of the arrogance of authority. He simply wanted to radiate uncertainty.

About the Author

Jonathan Rée
Jonathan Rée is the author of, most recently, I See a Voice: Deafness, Language and the Senses--A Philosophical...

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Shortly after returning from Japan, Foucault got another chance to travel in the non-European world. Protests against the Shah's regime in Iran had been intensifying since the beginning of the year, and by August 1978 millions of Iranians were participating in strikes and demonstrations. In September Foucault got himself a berth as special correspondent for the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, and went off to spend ten days with strikers and demonstrators on the streets of Iran.

In one of his earliest reports, he dissected the standard Western take on the crisis in Iran: that the Shah, though not the most fragrant of statesmen, embodied the forces of "modernization" and "secularization," and therefore had the future on his side, while the oppositionists were a rabble of backward peasants and religious fanatics who had yet to adjust to the reality of the modern world. Foucault's informants in Iran saw things very differently: As far as they were concerned, their struggle was against corruption rather than modernization. The "honest people" of the West might turn a blind eye to the "speculation, corrupt practices, embezzlement, and swindling that constitute the veritable daily bread of our trade, our industry, and our finances," but for the protesters that was no longer possible. Corruption in Iran was manifestly the "dynasty's way of exercising power and a fundamental mechanism of the economy"; but it was a parasite that was beginning to destroy its host. The modernization that had once seemed unstoppable was being derailed by corruption: "As a political project and as a principle of social transformation," Foucault wrote, modernization "is a thing of the past in Iran."

In early October, Foucault was describing groups of unarmed demonstrators who were stopping government troops in their tracks with shouts of "Islam, Islam!" and "Come with us to save the Quran!"--a living refutation, as he observed, of the Marxist adage that "religion is the opium of the people." He was at first surprised to find left-wing students clamoring for "Islamic government." But then he realized that the Shiite clergy was nothing like a Catholic hierarchy. It had no popes or cardinals nor any centralized system of authority, and if the mullahs were galvanizing a popular revolt against corruption, it was not because they were in command but because they were giving ordinary Iranians exactly what they needed: "a way of being together, a way of speaking and listening, a means of understanding each other and sharing each other's desires."

The protesters who were calling for Islamic government explained themselves to Foucault by speaking about an "ideal" or "utopia" fashioned from Islamic values as they understood them: the dignity of labor, respect for minorities, equality before the law and government accountable to the people. Foucault confessed that he was embarrassed and disappointed by what they said:

It is often said that definitions of Islamic government are imprecise. To me, however, they seemed to have a clarity that was completely familiar and also, it must be said, far from reassuring. "These are simply the catchphrases of democracy--of bourgeois or revolutionary democracy," I said. "We in the West have been repeating them to ourselves ever since the eighteenth century, and look where they have got us." But they immediately replied: "These catchphrases were part of the Quran long before your philosophers adopted them; in the industrialized Christian West they may have lost their meaning, but Islam is going to restore their value and their force."

Foucault was not persuaded, but as the students elaborated their "dreams" of Islamic government, it occurred to him that he was witnessing an outbreak of "political spirituality" similar to what swept through Europe in the time of Calvin or Cromwell. It might not amount to a political program, but still it was impressive in its way:

It impresses me as what you might call a "political will." It also impresses me as an attempt, in response to current problems, to politicize structures that are both social and religious. And it impresses me as an attempt to open up a spiritual dimension in politics.

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