Daniel Defert | Foucault and Iran

By Daniel Defert

At first, I refused Bernard Harcourt’s proposal to speak again of Foucault’s papers on the Iranian Revolution. Since nearly forty years these papers have been read in “the shadow of the Islamic republic,” then of “Islamism as a global threat,” with the short exception of the Tunisian Arab Spring, when some of its major actors claimed that “They too have been students of Foucault in Tunis.”

But Bernard Harcourt sent me your book, Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi. This reading changed my mind for several reasons:

  • you have been a Marxist-Leninist involved in the movement;
  • you consider Foucault’s “astute” observation and depiction as a challenge;
  • you lay stress on the fact he perceived a threshold of novelty while most commentators perceived that was retrograde in the Iranian events;
  • you collect a quantity of new information about what preceded these 1978 autumn events, when conflicting forces were involved after the return of Ayatollah Khomeini;
  • you are critical of the falsifications of the book by Afary and Anderson and the “rock opera” of James Miller. (I have not read the first book: every masochism has its limits.)

So I was eager to meet you, I am in deep sympathy with your book but of course with a different knowledge of the context.

I want to bring into the debate some contextual elements about what Foucault was working on in 1978 before departing and about the Parisian context he had to face. 1978 has been an important year in Foucault’s intellectual work in progress and that accounts for his perception of the Iranian events.

My first question concerns the “Hegelian” biographical elements and the lasting influence you perceive until the late “hermeneutic of the self” (you could have referred to Kant and the French Revolution).
But your analysis is so subtle, so convincing, that it is difficult to raise strong objections.

Personally, I lived the period you describe in your book very intensely. On the one hand, with my Iranian Maoists students. Amongst them, some were friends of Ayatollah Teleghani’s children, and one was Dr Mossadegh’s great niece. One of them left Paris in December 1977 to join the movement. On the other hand, through the accounts of Foucault and Thierry Voetzel who accompanied him.

Besides, we have been more and more surrounded by enthusiastic Iranians: Salamatian, Karim Sanjabi, later came Bani Sadr, etc. It is still an emotional part of my personal history.

When the first edition of Madness and Civilization was reprinted (by Gallimard in 1972), Foucault refused to write a new preface: “A writer has no right to propose the grid-map or law for the interpretation of his writings.”

Foucault failed in giving the right interpretation of his Iranians essays and until his death these articles darkened his life. He has been constantly presented as an apologist of a theocratic retrograde world. He protested that he never met Khomeini, that he had no devotion for him. Your book demonstrates that, from the very first of his papers, he endorsed Khomeini’s strategy. There was no alternative: the monarchy had no future, the army could not make the decision, Islam was going to make it.

Foucault never regretted what he wrote. (You do not mention in your book his first article on the army, I did not find its English title in your book, although it has been, according to me, his fundamental article.)

Foucault’s major informant on Shiism was Grand Ayatollah Chariat Madari. He has been most influential for Foucault’s understanding of this branch of Islam, that was new to him, who had lived in rather secularized Sunnite Tunisia.

His second informant, and that may be more surprising for you, has been Ayatollah Behesti. Foucault met them both during his first journey in September 1978. I discovered only recently the importance of Behesti in the revolution. On this occasion, he presented himself to Foucault as one of his former student. We will see that later.

Foucault went to Iran twice, in 1978. First, from September 16th to September 24th, a week after the “black Friday.” The second journey took place from November 9th and November 15th, a few days after the so called “Weekend of Teheran,” which remains ambiguous (anti-Pahlavi and “anti-West”). So both journeys took place before the fall of the Shah’s regime. Foucault published 15 papers on this experience. Only eight of them may be considered as an eyewitness report although seven of them have been written in Paris. The indication “Teheran” has been added by the Corriere della Sera to make them more journalistic. Only the number 9 according to the chronology was written in Teheran.

Foucault’s project was defined, a few months before, without any connection to Iran. He wanted to treat new ideas as material events: where they appear, when they take place, how they progress, with which extension, how fast, through which groups. With these objectives in mind, he tried to meet the same people on both journeys.

Six papers constitute a “self-defense” because critiques started with the publication of the very first paper on the army. But the majority of the critiques emerged, of course, after the return of Ayatollah Khomeini, with the worldwide discovery that a revolution was taking place in Iran. First, in March 1979, with the demonstrations of feminists and later on with the first executions and the beginning of the terror, when Foucault wrote his open letter to Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan (April 1979). Mr Bazargan had accepted to be Foucault’s interpreter in Chariat Madari’s meeting.

I insist on the fact that Foucault eye-witnessed an uprising and not a revolution, he constantly insisted on that distinction.

He listed the differences between the two events:

  • no visible or preeminent class struggle;
  • no self-defining proletariat even when he visited Abbadan strikers;
  • the people were not looking for arms;
  • “bare hands” was his most impressive experience.

In his paper “What Are the Iranians Dreaming About?,” a synthesis of two papers published in the Corriere della Sera, but this one for the French Nouvel Observateur, Foucault wrote: “Neither in Teheran, nor in Qom the people expressed a desire of revolution but they mentioned constantly a yearning for an Islamic government.”

Only after the return of Ayatollah Khomeini, Foucault wrote: “A revolution happened in Teheran.” He listed a few distinctive features: violence, barricades, the departure of the Shah, but still he concluded: “Is it sure?”

However, when Foucault came back from one of these journeys, he said to his friends: “No longer speak of third world.” This sentence remained enigmatic. I suppose these events were the threshold of a new mapping of the world, a pure event. Maybe he supposed the opposition between the two other worlds was behind us. In Foucault’s “Response to Atoussa H.,” he insisted on the fact that we have to treat Islam with respect. He discovered a new political actor was now on the scene. In the debate with Claire Brière and Pierre Blanchet, he listed again the main features of a revolution: contradictions within the society, existence of a vanguard, and what impressed him the most was the expression of the unanimous will of the people. Even if now historians may discover these characteristic features.

In his last paper, “Is It Useless to Revolt?,” he wrote: “Once arrived the age of revolution – since two centuries revolution has overhanged history, organized our perception of time, polarized our hopes.”

For him we were just coming out of this age. We were entering into a new experience of politics and events.

“But an uprising is an enigma.”

Such enigmas were exactly what Foucault was working on in 1978.

We possess a chronology of his work in progress through his lectures at the Collège de France.

In 1976, Foucault delivered 13 lectures under the title “Society Must Be Defended”. War was one of the major theme, or more precisely the question: Is it accurate to analyze power relations through the paradigm or the pattern of war? Is war – either war between races, as it used to be from the 16th to the 18th century, or war between classes as it started in the 19th century – a good model?

After a sabbatical year in 1977, Foucault announced the continuation of its questioning under the title Security, Territory, Population, from January to April 1978. But suddenly on February 1st he adopted a totally new approach: “I want to study the genealogy of the modern state.” It seems to me that religions have invented most of these techniques of government.

What is a religious technique of government? It is to conduct the conduct of others.

Foucault called the conduct of others’ conduct “governementality”. He started with Christian governementality. In this context, revolts against power were religious counter-conducts or Dissent. He devoted important lectures on Joachim de Flore, Savonarole, the English and German Dissent. Dissent generally has recourse to Holy Scriptures, to their forgotten or hidden meaning opposed to the present clerical organization.

Foucault absorbed quantities of readings on Dissent between 1977 and 1978 but devoted one entire month to read about Iran when he decided to start his project of journalism after the burning of the REX cinema in Abbadan in August 1978. Between August and September, he read Paul Vieille, the introducer and translator in France of Ali Shariati. Foucault, who had read Henri Corbin before, as the translator and specialist of Heidegger, came back then to his Iranian work.

Massignon? I am not sure Foucault had read him on this occasion, but he was a close friend of Dumézil.

His first article, “The Army – When the Earth Quakes,” shocked immediately the boss of the Corriere della Sera who called Foucault asking him to change his conclusion. What has Foucault argued? Iran has, in fact, no national army even if it was supposed to be the fifth in the world. According to Foucault, different military bodies or troops equipped with different, very sophisticated weapons do not build an army. The Shah used his armies to function as a police. But the population and the soldiers were starting fraternizing. Foucault concluded: “They share the same faith in Islam, therefore the army will not make the decision, the decision belongs to Islam.” The boss of the Corriere della Sera protested that the army had killed thousands of people on Djaley square during the Black Friday. Foucault soften his conclusion, but did not change his spirit. I could see the limits imposed to a journalist while they could be transgressed by an intellectual. But this same possibility generates a sort of aggressiveness within a journalistic milieu. The Nouvel Observateur, a friendly left non-communist French weekly magazine, critical toward Foucault’s analysis, sent to Teheran Guy Sitbon who brought back good news: “A constitutional regency with the Shabanou was being prepared.” Foucault laughed: “These journalists take a dinner with three officials for an investigation.”

Everyone in Paris, and I suppose also in the US, feared that a sort of Nasser, or Khadafi, or even Videla was to stem from the army with the support either of USSR or of the US. From the very beginning, this solution was excluded by Foucault.

He had to face three other long lasting controversies:

1) Uprising or revolution?

2) Religion and politics. In a secularized country or “pays de la laïcité,” as France is supposed to be, religion is either a private domain not to be confused with politics or an ideology, that is to say, a provisional false coverage of other interests. Such an ideology disappears when real targets or interests are at stake: economy or energy. Last year, only Jean Birnbaum, the chief editor of the literary section of Le Monde, wrote a book Un silence religieux: La gauche face au djihadisme (Seuil), which devoted a full chapter on Foucault’s analysis.

3) The third controversy is Islam. Foucault dared write: “Now we have to consider Islam seriously,” and his readers later associated Islam and political spirituality. After Foucault’s death, one of his colleagues at the Collège de France asked me: “Is it true he converted to Islam?”

Two respected historians of the 18th century, Keith Michael Baker and Roger Chartier, wrote in the collective volume Foucault and the Writing of History (Blackwell, 1994), edited by Jane Goldstein: “The French Revolution has traditionally been seen as the implementation of the emancipatory logic of the Enlightenment” (p. 188). “The French Revolution was present but not central in most of Foucault’s first books, in none of them a global rupture.” French Revolution did not liberate insane people from the “Grand Enfermement,” but it did invent psychiatric asylums. Prisons appeared after the Revolution when disciplinary power extended its corporal techniques from prisons to schools, hospitals, and fabrics, while the power conceived in terms of sovereignty was contested.

So many conflicting social forces, ideas, and strategies lead to the consequence that no revolution may be described neither as following one unique strategy nor as a liberation.

In April 1979, a week after his letter to Mehdi Bazargan, Foucault reviewed a book by his friend Jean Daniel, chief editor of the Nouvel Observateur, about his political experiences and souvenirs in those terms: “What is at stake in this book: thirty years which have taught us not to give our support to any revolution, even if we may understand every revolt”.

The Dits et écrits collect different texts where Foucault repeat the same statement: the target of social conflicts in the 19th century was essentially economic exploitation, this target is now domination (political, economic, sexual). The Iranian unanimous target was the departure of the Shah.

When Foucault wrote Discipline and Punish, the target of power was to discipline bodies; he formalized the notion of “bio-power” in 1976, emphasizing the pressure of this disciplinary power on life and population. With the new concept of governmentality, Foucault was concerned with the conduct of the soul for its salvation. Subjectivity and subjectivation were more and more pregnant in his texts.

“The Faith Against the Shah,” his third paper on the Iranian events, brings us testimony of his enthusiasm not for revolution, but for Islam. The political capacity of Islam, the force of a religion. He claimed that religious community is the only resource for most of the people; that for centuries Islam has been organizing everyday life (therefore, it has nothing in common with an imported ideology you must enforce on the population); and that even the students, supposed to have received a modern education, supported the Islamic government.

During his second flight, Foucault was invited into the cockpit by the commandant of that Iranian airline, just after the arrival of Khomeini in France: “Your country is in charge of the treasure of our nation. Take care of him.” Foucault was impressed by the fact that a man looking like an American, formed to highest techniques, placed his hope in this old man that we considered so old fashion and out of time.

Foucault received his first lesson of Shiism from Grand Ayatollah Chariat Madari. Your book, Behrooz, presents him as one of the three major Ayatollahs in Iran, Khomeini being still exiled in Iraq. You present him as a quietist, Ayatollah Khomeini put him rapidly aside as soon as he came back to Iran.

Chariat Madari exposed Shiism as a Dissent, at least this was Foucault’s understanding.

Political power in Iran had been exerted by depraved Arab califs, whereas Shiism fashioned itself as a form of counter-power. Religion had to exert a critical advisory role, the clergy had to interpret the law while waiting for the return of the hidden imam.

Chariat Madari did not anticipate nor admit an assumption of the political power by the Mullahs. Foucault agreed with this conception in keeping with his long enthusiasm with Dissent.

Foucault never met Khomeini in spite of some pressure made by Bani Sadr in Paris. He drove once to Neauphle le chateau to eyewitness the daily ritual of the Ayatollah crossing the small provincial street to seat in a garden under an apple tree to speak or listen to Iranians flooding from all over Europe.

This mythical image of the old man under a tree met the French people’s imagery of King St Louis doing his people’s justice under an oak tree in Vincennes.

During his First stay in Teheran Foucault received a mysterious message in his hotel: “I would like to expose our project of an Islamic government. A limousine will pick you up tomorrow evening at 8pm at your hotel. I require the greatest carefulness.”

A very polite man about the age of Foucault was waiting for him in the suburbs of Teheran: “Monsieur le professeur, I was your student in Hamburg. I am close to Ayatollah Khomeini. I am able to explain you our program.”

I think this conversation is the second part of the paper titled: “What Are the Iranians Dreaming About?” It describes an Islamic government. Foucault does not name his interlocutor but he mentioned “une autorité religieuse” who exposed him the project. In this part of the article, Ali Shariati is mentioned, introduced, I think, by this “autorité religieuse”. I do not remember if Foucault gave me his name, but three years later the press announced the murder of some members of Khomeini’s government and published some pictures. Foucault pointed to one of them: “This is my student in Hamburg.” It was Ayatollah Behesti.

The French press pretended they were assassinated by the extreme left because they represented religious extremism. Only last year an Iranian TV team (the filmmaker Jamshid Bayak Tork, who realized the film “Bare Hands”) came home for an interview about Foucault in Iran. I told the story, they stopped shooting and explained “Ayatollah Behesti was the left side of Khomeini, with those people the pace of the revolution would have been different. They have been assassinated by those that you, Western people, call moderates and who now conduct Iran.”

We checked if Beheshti could have been in Hamburg when Foucault was teaching there in 1959. We Found “Beheshti, head of the Iranian Shiite community in Hamburg between 1958 and 1962” He was the guy!

Behrooz, you do not develop the influence of Behesti, you just mention “one of the founders of the Islamic republic party, vicechair of the Constitution Assembly.” He advocated the issue of women’s rights to run even for every elected office of the government (including the office of president). The film team supposed he would have succeed to Khomeini.

We have to pay attention to the second part of the article devoted by Foucault to the Islamic government:

  • It will benefit of the network of all the Islamic institutions, mosques and so on as centers for political decisions.
  • Coran does not pretend to have solution for everything but has some key principles on which to rely.
  • Labor is protected and valorized (see Rodinson).
  • Common goods (biens communs) belong to the people: that is to say water and everything under the soil (petrol).
  • Minorities will be respected.
  • No inequality of rights between men and women, only differences.
  • Those in charge of political responsibilities will have to account to the people.

Foucault concluded: “The description was clear, I did not feel reassured.”

The same article mentions that an undercurrent went through Shiism since the beginning of Iranian Islam. Less institutional, more spiritual, a mysticism recently reactivated by Ali Shariati. And now spirituality is being transformed into a political force. Islam is also a will, a will for justice and equality. Foucault observed the bare hands of the people expressing a unanimous will confronting the deadly repressive forces of the state.

Physical courage and will are essential values for Foucault.

In his homage to the Iranian people, Foucault was also confronting the bourgeois skepticism of the Nouvel Observateur and its French audience repellent to any religious movement and addressee of this article.

It was a provocation to speak of political spirituality when we accept the utmost risk (death) for one’s value, one’s freedom, or one’s creed.

Une vie autre,” Foucault used that expression for political activism as well as for religious asceticism or for an artistic way of life. He used this notion of political spirituality for the first time in Iran but it was not fundamentally a religious notion. Later on, speaking about his former Tunisian students who faced the risk of 13 years of prison for their political convictions, Foucault used it again. They were Marxists.

But the expression was shocking for the secularized French left. Nevertheless, Foucault received a few positive letters even from Claude Roy, a former communist writer, and from a “gauchiste urbaniste” who said: “Le père Foucault a encore de la ressource.”

Later on, when Islam started to present itself as a global threat, political spirituality has been treated as a joke.

A few days after the arrival of Khomeini in France, the Catholic Council in Rome elected its own Ayatollah: Karol Wojtyla. Foucault was enthusiastic: this election had a political global significance. Wojtyla was disciple of Cardinal Spira from Krakow, an admired figure of the anticommunist resistance when Foucault was working in Poland.

Later on, Foucault supported the Catholic trade union Solidarność.

A few months before the Iranian events, Foucault read with enthusiasm Ernst Bloch’s book Le Principe Espérance that describes the retirement of hope out of Western society while it is still existing in other parts of the world. Foucault admitted having been influenced by this book while witnessing the Iranian Uprising.

I would like to conclude my paper with a few remarks to the incipit of the fifth chapter of Behrooz’s book, “Was ist Aufklärung?”

Behrooz, you write: “Foucault revisited the question of Enlightenment not because of a late conversion to humanism but because his experience of the Iranian Revolution offered him a novel context to rethink it. Rather than a sign of remorse from his defense of the revolution, Foucault read the Iranian Revolution back into Kant’s Was ist Aufklärung?” (p. 159).

Your incipit is provocative:

  • Foucault experienced an uprising not a revolution
  • Foucault’s text “What Is Critique?” was written in May 1978. Foucault was not aware of the Iranian Revolution. At that time, he understood the transcendental critique of Kant as an attitude. A will not to be governed. Or not to be governed that way, or by those people. A desire to be governed differently. This was in a conference given to the French Society for Philosophy. Foucault had developed some parts of it in his lectures at the Collège de France Security, Territory, Population. The origin of the critical attitude had to be found in the history of religious fights in the February 8th, 15th, 22nd 1978 lectures, where he developed the notion of pastoral governmentality, that is, the conduct of individuals by priests towards their own salvation. So, for Foucault, Aufklärung was not a specific period of our history, but a trans-historical attitude.

Yet, your reading of Foucault’s texts is correct: Aufklärung is not a periodization of an universal time, but an Ausgang or a way out of the pace of history. It is an attitude towards the present, an ethos. This mention of the present time is the new element introduced in the 1982 version of this text.

According to Kant, this way out of history concerns “Menscheit”. Does it mean “humankind” or does it mean “what makes a person human”? Foucault’s choice is the relation to the self or self-fashioning as a way to behave, a voluntary choice. Such a voluntary choice is made by a few, a small fraction of humankind. A choice made by those who perceive what is heroic in the present time. Kant insisted that such a choice requested spiritual and institutional conditions. For Foucault, it is a form of asceticism.

This insistence on self-fashioning subjectivation that appears in the version of the text you mention seems to me in direct relation with Foucault’s work on sexuality during this period from 1980 to 1984 rather than the lasting effect of the Iranians’ unanimous will. Again, I would read “What Is Enlightenment?” as the framework in which Foucault perceived the Iranian uprising rather than its consequence.

Now we can compare both versions of Foucault’s text (the one of 1978 and the one published in 1984). The first one has been recently re-edited by Henri-Paul Fruchaud and Daniele Lorenzini.

We have to remember that these conferences started in May 1978 and were part of a debate with the Frankfurt School, more precisely with Habermas. Foucault was clarifying his conception of rationality, history, and critique while he was supposed to share a teaching position with Habermas at Berkeley.

Foucault wanted to give to the question answered by Kant a new meaning: “Who are we now?” This was a very general question not directly inspired by recent events. Foucault was altogether very receptive to contemporary events and at the same time very difficult to astray from his own intellectual project.

What Foucault really conceptualized in Iran was his notion of political spirituality with the feeling that it was really changing our present history. Of course, he associated this political force of religion with Islam. But it was in fact the acceptance of risking one’s life that was at stake rather than religion. In the long run, this expression has been associated with terrorism and almost appeared as a joke.

Next February, The Confessions of the Flesh will be published. This new book concerns the first Church Fathers. I hope your President will not start Christian terrorism at the same time. It would be very bad for Foucault’s reputation.


  1. Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti could not have been a student of Foucault in Hamburg in 1959! Beheshti left for Hamburg in December 1965.

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