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The Misunderstood Muslims


In the fall of 1978, Michel Foucault traveled to Iran for Corriere della Sera to write about growing mass protests against Reza Shah Pahlavi’s regime. Famous for his theoretical analyses of European attitudes toward madness, hospitals, and prisons, Foucault knew little, by his own admission, about Persian or Islamic history; and he hadn’t previously been a journalist or reporter. Nevertheless, as he put it, “we have to be there at the birth of ideas.”

In Iran, where millions of demonstrators and strikers appeared united by their hatred for the American-backed Shah and admiration for Ayatollah Khomeini, Foucault claimed to see a new form of “political spirituality.” He wrote admiringly of how the “Grand Ayatollahs” had “caused an entire people to come out into the streets,” expressing “a perfectly unified collective will.” He claimed to be witnessing the “first great insurrection against global systems, the form of revolt that is the most modern and the most insane.”

It is clear now that Foucault’s view of events in Iran were shaped by his own distaste for the political and economic systems—industrial capitalism, the bureaucratic nation-state—created by the revolutions of the West and spread by Western imperialists around the world in the previous two centuries. Earlier that same year he had told a Zen Buddhist priest that Western thought was in crisis.1 Contemptuous of the capitalist West, “the harshest, most savage, most selfish, most dishonest, oppressive society one could possibly imagine,” Foucault was no more enamored of communism, which had attracted many intellectuals of his generation in France.

As Foucault saw it, to live in a world shaped by these two modern ideologies was to be trapped in a vast and elaborate system of control and supervision; it was to subject one’s existential and spiritual life to an impersonal and all-powerful state. With its brutal secret police and army, Iran under the Shah was an extreme version of the modern state that Foucault saw as a prison. Indeed, it was not much of a leap to think of Iran as the victim of the new forms of greed and violence underpinning the modern world.

Although never a European colony, the oil-rich country had been dominated by British and Russian imperialists since the nineteenth century. In 1953, the CIA, working alongside British intelligence officers, toppled its nationalist government and installed the Shah in power. The Shah imposed grandiose schemes of industrialization and urbanization on his largely peasant population. Although the Shah’s attempt to Westernize Iran created a middle class, it also uprooted millions of people from their traditional homes and forced them to live in urban slums.

Most Iranians, who saw the corrupt and repressive Shah as a tool of American interests, sought political redemption through their faith. Foucault was deeply impressed by this mingling of religion and politics: how, as Iranian-born Reza Aslan writes in his stimulating survey of Islamic history and thought, No God but God, although “nearly every sociopolitical organization in Iran” came together in an “anti-imperialist, nationalist revolt against a corrupt monarchy,” it was an exiled cleric, Khomeini, who emerged as the most visible face of protest.

Foucault was undeterred by Khomeini’s deeply reactionary views. As Islamic fervor increased in Iran and the Shah’s departure seemed imminent, Foucault exulted over what he saw as “the last moments” of “the attempt to modernize the Islamic countries in a European fashion.”

An entire century in Iran—one of economic development, foreign domination, modernization, and the dynasty, as well as its daily life and its moral system—is being… totally rejected.

Foucault wasn’t sure of what might take its place in Iran—or what form of government Khomeini, returning from exile in Paris, would prefer. But he admired the Shiite Islam that “transforms thousands of forms of discontent, hatred, misery, and despairs into a force.”

As it turned out, Khomeini kept Iran’s authoritarian state more or less intact. Far from expressing a political spirituality, he installed clerics in powerful positions, and began to use the Shah’s methods—secret police, torture, execution—against his real and perceived opponents, and on a larger scale than the Shah’s. Writing after Khomeini imposed severe restrictions on women’s dress and movement, Foucault appeared less keen on the political potential of Shiism. He acknowledged that “the power that a man exerts over another is always dangerous,” and he referred briefly to the “bloody government of a fundamentalist clergy” and to “the subjugation of women.”

Foucault did not write about Iran or Islam again. He now appears to have been one of those intellectuals who, without knowing much about local conditions, support revolutions or regime changes in the hope of vindicating their cherished ideas of how human societies ought to be. Nevertheless, his insights into the role of Islam in modernizing societies remain relevant today.

Foucault could see how the experience of deprivation, loneliness, and anomie made many Muslims in urban centers turn to rather than away from Islam; how there was little “protection” for the millions of uprooted Muslims except in “Islam, which for centuries has regulated everyday life, family ties, and social relations with such care.” Foucault could also see how, in the absence of any democratic politics, Muslims used Islamic themes of sacrifice and martyrdom to challenge despotic and corrupt rulers who claimed legitimacy in the West as modernizers and secularizers.

Foucault also managed to see that this Muslim revolt was unlikely to be confined to Iran. The West had deemed modernization and secularization as the highest aim for Muslim societies ever since it began to dominate them in the nineteenth century. But the process, now advanced by Westernized postcolonial elites, of uprooting people from their traditional cultures and forcing them into Western-style cities and occupations was only likely to produce more converts to political Islam. It was why Foucault believed that “Islam—which is not simply a religion, but an entire way of life, an adherence to a history and a civilization—has a good chance to become a gigantic powder keg, at the level of hundreds of millions of men.”

Unknown to Foucault, the powder keg was about to be set alight, even as he traveled across Iran, in neighboring Afghanistan. Here, a Communist regime propped up by the Soviet Union tried to modernize hastily what it saw as a feudal and backward society. The subsequent backlash from radical Islamists was supported by the United States, and turned, with the help of Pakistan’s Islamist dictator General Zia-ul-Haq and Saudi Arabia, into the first global jihad in Islam’s long history.

Islamic Fundamentalists or radical Islamists had long existed in such countries as Pakistan, Egypt, and Algeria; they often articulated popular opposition to Western imperialists in the Middle East and South Asia, and then acquired greater support as postcolonial elites claiming to be nationalist and socialist proved to be corrupt and despotic.

But it was the experience of training and fighting together during the decade-long anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan that bound the Islamists together into an international community. It defined their enemy more clearly than before—the materialist and imperialist civilization of the West in which both Communists and capitalists were complicit—and stoked their fantasy of a global Muslim ummah (community).

Over the last two decades, Islamists returning from Afghanistan have declared jihad against Westernized and Westernizing elites in their respective countries. More recently, they have successfully attacked what many of them see as the main patron of their corrupt ruling classes: the West, most particularly the United States and its close allies. Their ideology, disseminated through videos, Web sites, and audio recordings, seems to have as many takers among Muslim immigrants in Europe as among their home populations. Indeed, as the recent bombings in London suggest, millenarian Islam may have a special appeal among uprooted Muslims struggling to invent new sources of moral and religious authority in their secular surroundings.

The eruption of jihadi rage and hatred in New York and London—in what appeared to be serenely self-absorbed worlds until September 11, 2001—seems to bewilder many people in the West, especially those unaware of the roots of present-day jihadis in the cold war. Many journalists and political commentators trying to find out “why they hate us” conclude that Islam itself is, as Boris Johnson, editor of The Spectator, wrote after the recent bombings in London, “the problem”—the ultimate source of the nihilistic violence unleashed on the West. These critics of Islam often risk appearing as literal-minded as the jihadis while scouring the Koran for arguments in favor of violence, misogyny, and despotism.

Defenders of Islam in turn describe it as a religion of peace and compassion, pointing to the Ottoman Empire, which was hospitable to Jewish minorities expelled from Catholic Europe. Politicians mindful of Muslim sensitivities take a slightly diplomatic variation on the belief that Islam is the main issue. President Bush speaks often of “good” and “bad” Muslims. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has apparently read the Koran three times, blamed the recent bombings in London on a “perverted interpretation” of Islam. Thus bad theology rather than bad politics appears responsible for terrorist attacks that were widely anticipated after Britain joined the American invasion of Iraq.

What these views of good, bad, and moderate Muslims assume is that Islam possesses some core, unchanging values which can explain sufficiently the culture, politics, and even the specific intentions and motivations of its followers in any historical situation: the status of minorities in the Ottoman Empire as well as the status of women in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and the inner life of a present-day suicide bomber.

An Islam unchanged across several continents and centuries also underpins Samuel Huntington’s influential vision of “Islamic civilization”—an autonomous and self-contained world that knew wealth and power long before the West did but has been locked since the eighteenth century in what Bernard Lewis calls “a downward spiral of hate and spite, rage and self-pity, poverty and oppression.”2

Both Lewis and Huntington speak primarily of Arab Muslims, although three fourths of the world’s Muslim population lives outside the Middle East, in countries such as Bangladesh, Turkey, and Indonesia, that are arguably more democratic than some of their non-Muslim neighbors. More than a hundred million Muslims live in India, the world’s biggest democracy, and vote strategically in every election. Broad generalizations about Islam and Muslims may not help clarify why Muslim Malaysia does better economically than Buddhist Thailand; why literacy rates for women in cleric-ruled Iran rose from 28 percent to 80 percent between 1976 and 1996; or why many Muslim women in officially secular Turkey demand the right to wear head scarves.

Nevertheless, many books, magazine articles, and Op-Ed pieces in the West continue to try to define who Muslims are and what ails them and to prescribe what they ought to be or do in order to live within or with Western civilization. Writing in The New York Times soon after September 11, Salman Rushdie asked Muslims to depoliticize their religion and confine it to “the sphere of the personal.” “The world of Islam,” he wrote, “must take on board the secular-humanist principles on which the modern is based.” “It is essential,” Thomas Friedman asserted after the recent bombings in London, “that the Muslim world wake up to the fact that it has a jihadist death cult in its midst.”

  1. 1

    If philosophy of the future exists,” Foucault said, “it must be born outside of Europe or equally born in consequence of meetings and impacts between Europe and non-Europe.” See Religion and Culture, edited by Jeremy R. Carrette (Routledge, 1999), p. 113.

  2. 2

    What Went Wrong: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response (Oxford University Press, 2002) p. 159.

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