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To report history in the making, Michel Foucault travelled to Tehran in 1978.
He had a commission from Corriere della sera, the prestigious Italian newspaper,
to write a series of articles about the unfolding revolutionary process.
He landed in Tehran two days after “Black Friday,” during which the army
was believed to have massacred 5,000 people. Foucault was impressed by the
courage of the undeterred protestors who kept pouring into the streets in defiance of a powerful regime. These articles, sympathetic to the movement and
its leading force, Shi’a Islam, received a scornful response from his secular
French colleagues. He was accused of being anti-modern, nihilistic, ignorant,
and a man beguiled by a revolutionary effervescence.
After the establishment of the Islamic Republic and the consequent bloody
battles leading to the concentration of power in the hands of the militant religious
revolutionaries, Foucault’s detractors put concerted public pressure upon
him to repent for his “mistaken” judgments. This major “French” controversy
failed, however, to attract much attention in English-speaking circles until the
appearance of Janet Afary and Kevin Anderson’s Foucault and Iranian Revolution:
Gender and Seduction of Islamism (University of Chicago Press:
2005). Highly critical of Foucault’s “romantic” depiction of the revolutionary
movement, these two authors also found in his reports an occasion to attack
his early, post-structuralist writings, interpreting them as anti-modern. The
book’s overt critique of Foucault rested upon the intellectual pillar of the Enlightenment
discourse, with its teleological and secularist approach to history.
Needless to say, Afary and Anderson were also critical of Islam’s public role,
not only in the revolution but also beyond ...