Purdue News

July 8, 2005

New book on philosopher Foucault's support for radical Islamism

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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – At a time when the United States is watching the religious and political changes in the Middle East, especially in Iran, two Purdue University professors are turning to writings published 25 years ago to develop a better understanding of radical Islamism – and the Western response to it – through the writings of the French philosopher Michel Foucault, who reported on the Iranian revolution.

In June, Janet Afary, an associate professor of history and women's studies, and Kevin B. Anderson, an associate professor of political science, published "Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islamism" (University of Chicago Press, $60 hardcover, $24 paperback). In the appendix, Foucault's first-hand reports on the 1979 Iranian revolution are translated, many of them 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. Our book is really the first complete resource in English that highlights his writings about Iran."

In the late 1970s Iranians who wanted to avoid cultural modernization and Westernization fueled revolt, Afary says. As a result, the shah was overthrown, and exiled Shiite leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned to establish an Islamic theocracy. During and after the 1978-79 revolution, the Western world for the first time began to take note of radical Islamism, especially after militants seized the U.S. 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 reported for the leading Italian newspaper "Corriere della sera" and for French publications, visited Iran twice and also met with Khomeini in Paris. However, the philosopher's writings were controversial because of their lack of criticism for the revolution and its Islamist leadership.

Much of Foucault's work is grounded in the problems of modernity in Europe. Foucault (1926-84) wrote that many forms of progress, as seen in medical and technological advances, were more about controlling people than liberating them.

"So, people ask, 'How could he be so uncritical about this revolution?'" Afary says. "Thus 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, Afary says. For example, all women were forced to wear traditional head coverings, and some homosexual men were executed under the Islamist regime, which tried to spread its influence abroad, Afary says.

"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," she says. "Because Foucault has become such an influential thinker in our times, and his work is so widely read and cited, it is important to address such concerns."

Support for research leading to Afary and Anderson's book came from the College of Liberal Arts' Research Incentive Grant and the college's Center for Humanistic Studies. The Purdue Research Foundation, the American Philosophical Society, the Soros Foundation and Northern Illinois University also contributed.

Afary also is the author of "The Iranian Constitutional Revolution, 1906-1911" (Columbia University Press, 1996). She is current president of the International Society for Iranian Studies. Anderson is author of "Lenin, Hegel, and Western Marxism" (University of Illinois Press, 1995).

"A quarter of a century later, but the issues argued about in 1978 and 1979 are still part of the discussion today," Anderson says. "Since 9/11 there has been a much larger discussion about how to respond to radical Islamism, 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."

Writer: Amy Patterson Neubert, (765) 494-9723, apatterson@purdue.edu

Sources: Janet Afary, afary@purdue.edu

Kevin Anderson, anderson@polsci.purdue.edu

Or call Amy Patterson Neubert at (765) 494-9723 to schedule an interview

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; purduenews@purdue.edu


Note to Journalists: Journalists interested in review copies of "Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islamism" should contact Ashley Cave, University of Chicago Press promotions manager, (773) 702-7490 or acave@press.uchicago.edu.


Related Web sites:
Purdue Department of History

Purdue Department of Political Science


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