At a time when London has recently experienced suicide bombings and terrorist attacks kill collation soldiers in Iraq every day, two Purdue University professors are turning to writings published 25 years ago try to understand radical Islam, through the writings of the French philosopher Michel Foucault, who reported on the 1979 Iranian revolution that overthrew the Shah.
Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson have translated Foucault’s first-hand reports on the Iranian revolution for the first time. “Michel Foucault is one of the best known and most widely read philosophers of our time,” Anderson says. “There are hundreds of books and articles about Foucault and his influence in areas including history, philosophy, social sciences and education. However, his reporting on the Iranian revolution is not well known because his stint as a journalist during the Iranian revolution is often ignored.”
In the late 1970s Iranians who wanted to avoid cultural modernization and Westernization and return to a religious society ruled by the laws of the Koran overthrew the Shah, who was supported by the US government, and put exiled Shiite religious leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in his place. During and after the 1978-79 revolution, the Western world discovered radical Islamism for the first time, especially after militants seized the US embassy and held hostages from 1979 until 1981.
“Foucault understood early on that Iran’s revolution was going to be different from previous ones and that it would contribute to an Islamist movement that would change the role Middle East countries play in global politics in a substantial way,” Afary says.
Foucault, who died in 1984, visited Iran twice and also met with Khomeini in Paris. He wrote that many forms of progress, as seen in medical and technological advances, were more about controlling people than liberating them.
Afary says, “? he became enamored with the Iranian revolution because it was a different kind of revolution that challenged the Western model of progress.” Foucault was criticized for not acknowledging the oppressiveness of Iran’s new government toward women and homosexuals, as well as religious and ethnic minorities. For example, all women were forced to wear traditional head coverings, and some homosexual men were executed under the new Islamist regime, which tried to spread its influence abroad.
“Had Foucault been more attuned to women’s issues, then maybe he would have been more critical of the revolution and called for the protection of the rights of women and ethnic and religious minorities,” Afary says. “Since 911 there has been a much larger discussion about how to respond to [Islamist terrorism], and that’s why it’s important to read and understand Foucault’s writings on the events that first attracted the Western world’s attention to radical Islamism.”
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