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. 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 …

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