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The Treason of the Clerics | The Nation

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The Treason of the Clerics

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It was now October 1978. The streets were resounding with calls for "Islamic government," but the Shah was still in his palace, and the spiritual leader Ayatollah Khomeini was biding his time in Paris and keeping his options open. Back home, liberal commentators were doing their best to fit the new political possibilities into the old progressive narratives. But Iran did not present the familiar lineaments of a struggle between pure-hearted youthful rebels and dark-souled reactionaries, and it was difficult to see it as another China, Cuba or Vietnam, or a second edition of Paris in 1968. Meanwhile, the very idea of "political spirituality" seemed like an anachronism that could never get any traction in the modern world.

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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Foucault, who had just returned to Paris, was not so sure. He admitted that he "knew very little about Iran," but it struck him that the entire Iranian population was acting like a massive political hedgehog with a single contradictory passion: the desire for a process that would somehow "prevent politics from gaining a foothold." The movement was clearly unsustainable, but that did not make it aberrant or deplorable. The idea of Islamic government would settle down eventually; it would prove to be either "a reconciliation, a contradiction, or the threshold of something new," but for the time being it was impossible to tell. "Let us admit," Foucault concluded in the middle of October, "that we Westerners would be in a poor position to give advice to the Iranians on this matter."

Two weeks later he was back in Iran. He was struck by the way the resistance was gaining ground not through military strength but through the power of information. Protests were sustained by a diffuse system of communication that the state could neither monitor nor control: Messages from unidentified sources were transmitted by telephones and sermons and above all by "the tool par excellence of counter-information": the audiocassette recorder. "If the shah is about to fall," he said, "it will be due above all to the cassette tape."

Everyone he spoke to expected Khomeini to come back soon, but Foucault was assured that "there will not be a Khomeini party; there will not be a Khomeini government." What the protesters wanted was not even a revolution as Westerners understood it: "Everybody is quite aware that they want something completely different," something whose consequences would come as a surprise to the political cognoscenti. The only certainty was that the new revolt of Islam was "irreducible" and unpredictable--"the form of revolt that is the most modern and the most insane."

Foucault's experiment in political journalism earned him rebukes in the French press from the very beginning. Maxime Rodinson, a venerable Marxist scholar of Islam, informed him wearily that an Islamic government was bound to usher in some kind of "archaic fascism." And an exiled Iranian feminist claimed that Foucault's interest in "political spirituality" was blinding him, like many other Westerners, to the inherent injustice of Islam, especially toward women. For the time being, Foucault refused to respond, but events seemed to be vindicating his critics. The Shah fled Iran in the early weeks of 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini returned in triumph and at the end of March an Islamic republic was ratified in a popular referendum: a classic case, it would seem, of a resurgence of reactionary authoritarian populism. Many of the possibilities that Foucault had canvassed were coming to nothing, and in April he published an open letter to the new Iranian Prime Minister, Mehdi Bazargan, expressing dismay at the abridgment of rights under the incoming "government of mullahs."

But while he remonstrated with his friends in Iran, Foucault never yielded an inch to his critics in Paris. Despite their accusations, he had not taken it upon himself to advocate Islamic government: He had simply recorded some of the aspirations of the protesters, while trying to dismantle the stale and defensive notions that filled the heads of Western observers. "The problem of Islam as a political force is an essential one for our time and for the years to come," he wrote, "and we cannot approach it with a modicum of intelligence if we start out from a position of hatred." At the end of March, when the veteran leftists Claudie and Jacques Broyelle called on him to confess his "mistake," he blew his top. He was appalled by the peremptory summons to confess his "errors," saying that it "remind[s] me of something, and of many things, against which I have fought." And if things were indeed turning out badly in Iran, that did not invalidate his remarks about how they might have been different; nor did it show that events were bound to revert to a familiar pattern and lose their capacity to surprise us. But Foucault was wounded by the taunts of his critics, and at the end of May 1979 he retired from the conflict. His adventure as a contrarian political journalist was at an end.

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