Il faut se rappeler que les chefs militaires allemands jouaient un jeu désespéré. Néanmoins, ce fut avec un sentiment d’effroi qu’ils tournèrent contre la Russie la plus affreuse de toutes les armes. Ils firent transporter Lénine, de Suisse en Russie, comme un bacille de la peste, dans un wagon plombé. Winston Churchill
It would of course be misleading to compare the action of the French in providing a constraint-free refuge for the Ayatollah Khomeini with the action of the Germans in the first world war in transporting Lenin in a sealed train to what was then Petrograd. Yet the fact remains that in allowing the Ayatollah to use France as a base for the decisive phase of his campaign against first the Shah and then the Bakhtiar government, the French have made an immense contribution to his cause. There is in fact no parallel to the French action in giving a political refugee all the facilities for engaging in a revolutionary campaign against a friendly government. Yet these facilities were extended with a liberal hand during the Ayatollah’s four-month stay in a village on the outskirts of Paris. His telephone service between his headquarters at Neauphle-le-Chateau and Teheran and, most important of all, the holy city of Qom, never failed and his daily orders and exhortations duly recorded beforehand and then re-recorded at the other end were distributed nation-wide the next day. His disciples were free to convert a village setting into something like a national shrine and his couriers could come and go without let or hindrance. It was almost as though his 14 years of exile had already ended once he had set foot in France. How did this astonishing situation come about? The answer is largely by chance and only partly by Quai D’Orsay machination. The Shah had paid heavy sums of money to the Iraqis finally to expel the Ayatollah from Baghdad — where he had spent the greater part of his exile — by a certain date. When the date finally came up the Ayatol lah’s intention was to move to Algiers. Unfortunately this coincided with Boumedienne’s long coma which preceded his death, and no-one in those circumstances in Algiers was prepared to take the decision to let him in. He therefore journeyed to Paris instead, equipped with an Iranian passport and the status of a political refugee. Although the French have never made any public statement to that effect they did in fact consult Teheran before allowing him to stay and Teheran gave its approval. There was an obvious reason for that — the Shah himself hoped to open fruitful negotiations with him and from that point of view it was preferable to have him in Paris than in Damascus or Algiers. That this version of events is true is confirmed by the fact that there has never been a peep of protest from Teheran regarding his presence here. From this point onwards the French began to pin their hopes on the Ayatollah, or at any rate not to make the mistake that Washington and London made, which was to continue a policy of outright support for the Shah. It must be remembered that the French had no particular reasons to be enamoured of the Shah. Giscard himself felt an aristocratic disdain for him and he was cordially detested by the French-speaking bourgeoisie of Teheran, with whom the French embassy found naturally the majority of its closest contacts, as he was indeed by the majority of the Iran embassy staff in Paris. Furthermore he had given France many a rude commercial setback. In those circumstances they were among the first to become convinced that the Shah’s days were numbered, and on the principle that it is an ill wind which does not blow someone some good they began to regard the Ayatollah’s stay in France as something of a windfall. The Quai D’Orsay became quite intoxicated with the idea and began to see in their uninvited guest the guarantor of France’s future in Iran. Meanwhile there were obvious immediate advantages to be gained from the Ayatollah’s presence in France. It provided for example a kind of safe-conduct guarantee for the French in Iran as well as rendering French property immune from attacks by rioters. The Air France offices in Teheran, for example, were never attacked while other foreign air line buildings were. (…) In short, by playing the generous host to the Ayatollah the French, instead of pulling off a diplomatic coup, have committed a major diplomatic folly. They might have hoped to play the role of mediators but it is unlikely that the army or Bakhtiar will accept them as such in view of their previous chumminess with their principal foe. Similarly, if the Bakhtiar-army alliance survives and consolidates it is unlikely in the extreme that the new rulers will be disposed to make France one of their favoured economic or political partners. It now looks as though, apart from the temporary protection of its interest in Iran, France will lose rather than gain from its involvement with the Ayatollah. It will be a heavy price to have paid for having broken the traditional rules governing the right of asylum and the obligations of reserve and discretion which France normally imposes on those whom it admits as refugees. The Spectator (1979)
On dit souvent que les définitions du gouvernement islamique sont imprécises. Elles m’ont paru au contraire d’une limpidité très familière, mais, je dois dire, assez peu rassurante. « Ce sont les formules de base de la démocratie, bourgeoise ou révolutionnaire, ai-je dit ; nous n’avons pas cessé de les répéter depuis le XVIIIe siècle, et vous savez à quoi elles ont mené. » Mais on m’a répondu aussitôt : « Le Coran les avait énoncées bien avant vos philosophes et si l’Occident chrétien et industriel en a perdu le sens, l’islam, lui, saura en préserver la valeur et l’efficacité ». Michel Foucault (À quoi rêvent les Iraniens ?, Paris, Le Nouvel Observateur, 1978, n°727, repris dans Dits et écrits, Gallimard, 1994, t.III, p. 692 – merci Lucien-Samir Oulahbib)
A l’aurore de l’histoire, la Perse a inventé l’Etat et elle en a confié les recettes à l’Islam : ses administrateurs ont servi de cadres au Calife. Mais de ce même Islam, elle a fait dériver une religion qui a donné à son peuple des ressources indéfinies pour résister au pouvoir de l’Etat. Dans cette volonté d’un gouvernement islamique, faut-il voir une réconciliation, une contradiction, ou le seuil d’une nouveauté ? (…) J’entends déjà les Français qui rient. Mais je sais qu’ils ont tort. Michel Foucault (« A quoi rêvent les Iraniens ? » Le Nouvel Observateur, 9 octobre 1978 – merci IRAN-RESIST).
Impossible, disent aujourd’hui certains qui estiment en savoir long sur les sociétés islamiques ou sur la nature de toute religion. Je serai beaucoup plus modeste qu’eux, ne voyant pas au nom de quelle universalité on empêcherait les musulmans de chercher leur avenir dans un Islam dont ils auront à former, de leurs mains, le visage nouveau. Dans l’expression ‘gouvernement islamique’, pourquoi jeter d’emblée la suspicion sur l’adjectif ‘islamique’ ? Le mot ‘gouvernement’ suffit, à lui seul, à éveiller la vigilance. Michel Foucault (Lettre ouverte, deux mois après, au Premier Ministre Mahdi Bazargan, – merci IRAN-RESIST)
While radical Islamism has many features and faces, everywhere it is antifeminist, everywhere it is authoritarian, and everywhere it is intolerant of other religions and other interpretations of Islam. These conservative, reactionary movements may be in conflict with a conservative Bush administration — but that doesn’t make them any less conservative or reactionary. The debate on Foucault helps to throw all this into high relief. Michel Foucault
Tout au long de sa vie, la conception de l’authenticité nourrie par Michel Foucault a consisté à observer des situations dans lesquelles les gens vivent dangereusement et flirtent avec la mort, source de créativité. Dans la tradition de Friedrich Nietzsche et Georges Bataille, Foucault aimait l’artiste qui dépasse les limites de la rationalité et il défendait avec fougue les irrationalités qui franchissaient de nouvelles frontières. En 1978, Foucault trouva de telles forces transgressives dans le personnage révolutionnaire de l’ayatollah Khomeiny et des millions de gens qui risquaient la mort en le suivant dans sa Révolution. Il savait que des expériences aussi «limites» pouvaient conduire à de nouvelles formes de créativité et il lui donna son soutien avec ardeur. Janet Afary et Kevin B. Anderson
Au moment où nos médias semblent s’étonner du « durcissement » de la Révolution iranienne, peut-être ne serait-il pas inutile de rappeler la part significative qu’anti-américanisme (pardon: « anti-impérialisme »!) aidant, a pu y jouer un pays comme la France.
D’abord, en donnant refuge à l’enragé Khomeyni mais surtout en y apportant sa caution par ses médias et ses intellectuels.
D’où l’intérêt de cet article du Boston Globe de l’an dernier qui revient sur les fameux articles de Michel Foucault qui, on s’en souvient, fit alors pour un journal italien le voyage à Téhéran et s’enthousiasma sur l’absolue « nouveauté » et « l’étrange et folle excitation » de la révolution khomeyniste.
Jusqu’à, emporté par son romantisme révolutionnaire (dont certes il se repentira en partie par la suite), s’inquiéter moins pour la fureur totalitaire que… l’embourgeoisement de la (première) Révolution Islamique !
The philosopher and the ayatollah
In 1978, Michel Foucault went to Iran as a novice journalist to report on the unfolding revolution. His dispatches — now fully available in translation — shed some light on the illusions of intellectuals in our own time.
The Boston Globe
June 12, 2005
« IT IS PERHAPS the first great insurrection against global systems, the form of revolt that is the most modern and most insane. » With these words, the French philosopher Michel Foucault hailed the rising tide that would sweep Iran’s modernizing despot, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi Shah, out of power in January 1979 and install in his place one of the world’s most illiberal regimes, the Shi’ite government headed by Ayatollah Seyyed Ruhollah Khomeini.
Foucault wasn’t just pontificating from an armchair in Paris. In the fall of 1978, as the shah’s government tottered, he made two trips to Iran as a « mere novice » reporter, as he put it, to watch events unfold. « We have to be there at the birth of ideas, » he explained in an interview with an Iranian journalist, « the bursting outward of their force; not in books expressing them, but in events manifesting this force, in struggle carried on around ideas, for or against them. »
While many liberals and leftists supported the populist uprising that pitted unarmed masses against one of the world’s best-armed regimes, none welcomed the announcement of the growing power of radical Islam with the portentous lyricism that Foucault brought to his brief, and never repeated, foray into journalism.
« As an Islamic movement it can set the entire region afire, overturn the most unstable regimes, and disturb the most solid, » Foucault wrote enthusiastically. « Islam — which is not simply a religion, but an entire way of life, an adherence to a history and a civilization — has a good chance to become a gigantic powder keg, at the level of hundreds of millions of men. »
Foucault penned seven dispatches for the front page of the leading Italian newspaper Corriere della Serra as well as subsequent articles in French. But until the publication this month of Kevin Anderson and Janet Afary’s « Foucault and the Iranian Revolution » (University of Chicago), which includes the first full translation of Foucault’s Iranian writings, few of the English-speaking scholars who have otherwise pored over everything Foucault wrote and said have dealt with the episode at length.
Foucault’s Iranian adventure was a « tragic and farcical error » that fits into a long tradition of ill-informed French intellectuals spouting off about distant revolutions, says James Miller, whose 1993 biography « The Passion of Michel Foucault » contains one of the few previous English-language accounts of the episode. Indeed, Foucault’s search for an alternative that was absolutely other to liberal democracy seems peculiarly reckless in light of political Islam’s subsequent career, and makes for odd reading now as observers search for traditions in Islam that are compatible with liberal democracy. But at a time when religion is resurgent in politics and Western liberals are divided between interventionists and anti-imperialists, Foucault’s peculiar blend of blindness and insight about the Islamists remains instructive.
. . .
When Foucault went to Tehran, he was France’s dominant public intellectual, famous for a critique of modernity carried out through unsparing dissections of modern institutions that reversed the conventional wisdom about prisons, madness, and sexuality. In his most famous work, « Discipline and Punish, » Foucault argued that liberal democracy was in fact a « disciplinary society » that punished with less physical severity in order to punish with greater efficiency. More broadly, his counternarrative of the Enlightenment suggested that the modern institutions we imagined were freeing us were in fact enslaving us in insidious ways.
In the fall of 1978, an escalating series of street protests and violent reprisals and massacres by the Iranian police had placed the shah and the Iranian populace on a collision course. The uprising consisted of a broad coalition, including Communists, student leftists, secular nationalists, socialists, and Islamists. But by late 1978, the Islamists — directed by Khomeini from Paris, long a center for Iranian exiles — were the dominant faction. The shah abdicated in January 1979, and Khomeini returned to rapturous rejoicing on Feb. 1, 1979.
Foucault was virtually alone among Western observers, Anderson and Afary argue, in embracing the specifically Islamist wing of the revolution. Indeed, Foucault pokes fun at the secular leftists who thought they could use the Islamists as a weapon for their own purposes; the Islamists alone, he believed, reflected the « perfectly unified collective will » of the people.
The Iranian Revolution, Anderson and Afary write, appealed to certain of Foucault’s characteristic preoccupations — with the spontaneous eruption of resistance to established power, the exploration of the limits of rationality, and the creativity unleashed by people willing to risk death. It also tied into his burgeoning interest in a « political spirituality » (by which he meant the return of religion into politics, a suspicious phenomenon in rigorously secular France) whose rise was then still obscured by the Cold War. These preoccupations made Foucault both more sensitive to the power of political religion, but also more prone to soft-pedal its dangers. In his articles, Foucault compared the Islamists to Savonarola, the Anabaptists, and Cromwell’s militant Puritans. The comparisons were intended to flatter.
In an interview with an Iranian journalist conducted on his first visit, in September 1978, Foucault made plain his disillusionment with all the secular ideologies of the West and his yearning to see « another political imagination » emerge from the Iranian Revolution. « Industrial capitalism, » he said, had emerged as « the harshest, most savage, most selfish, most dishonest, oppressive society one could possibly imagine. » The failure of Communism, for which Foucault had no great sympathy, left us, « from the point of view of political thought, » he argued, « at point zero. »
« Any Western intellectual with some integrity, » he continued, « cannot be indifferent to what she or he hears about Iran. »
To Anderson, a political scientist at Purdue University, Foucault’s reckless enthusiasm for the Islamists seemed to contradict his public image. « We think of Foucault as this very cool, unsentimental thinker who would be immune to the revolutionary romanticism that has overtaken intellectuals who covered up Stalin’s atrocities or Mao’s, » he said in a recent interview. « But in this case, he abandoned much of his critical perspective in his intoxication with what he saw in Iran. Here was a great philosopher of difference who looked around him in Iran and everywhere saw unanimity. »
The authors dissect the shortcuts and evasions that led Foucault into his distinctive stance. For example, he accepted at face value the idiosyncratic reading of Islam promulgated by Ali Shariati, an Iran-born, French-educated sociologist who promulgated a militant Islamist ideology identifying martyrdom as the only true path to salvation. He also spoke of an Islamist ideology shot through with Western elements as if it were a unified and absolute Other. He accepted a mythological rendering of Shi’ism as a historical religion of resistance, when, in fact, it was imposed by authoritarian force upon Iran in the 17th century and had collaborated with authoritarian power more often than it had resisted it.
And Foucault never considers the rights of women in Islam until his very last disillusioned missive, which appeared in Le Monde in May 1979. When an Iranian woman living in exile in Paris named « Atoussa H. » wrote a letter to Le Nouvel Observateur in November 1978 castigating Foucault for his uncritical support of a solution that could prove to be worse than the problem, he airily dismissed her claims as anti-Muslim hate-mongering.
In the event, Foucault’s enthusiasm for the revolution rapidly turned to disappointment. Early on, Foucault assured his readers that « by ‘Islamic government’ nobody in Iran means a political regime in which the clerics would have a role of supervision or control, » and that « there will not be a Khomeini government. » A month after the Iranian electorate overwhelmingly voted to designate Iran an Islamic republic under Khomeini, the repression of women, political dissenters, and non-Muslim minorities that would characterize the regime was unleashed. In fall 1978, Foucault had praised the revolution’s distrust of legalism. But in spring 1979, Foucault wrote an open letter to Khomeini’s Prime Minister Bazargan, urging respect for the legal rights of the accused.
. . .
Foucault, who died in 1984, refused to engage in public mea culpas, despite the fierce debate that broke out in France over his ideas about Iran. His final word on the affair, a 1979 essay titled « Is It Useless to Revolt?, » acknowledged the revolution’s wrong turn but reaffirmed the principle of revolt. Afary and Anderson, however, speculate that his later engagement from public issues and his revision of his earlier intransigence toward the Enlightenment were the signs of a man chastened by experience.
There is a long tradition of Western intellectuals going abroad to sing the praises of revolutionaries in distant lands and finding in them the realization of their own intellectual hopes. But the irony of Foucault’s embrace of the Iranian Revolution was that the earlier intellectuals who had sung hymns to tyrants tended to share a set of beliefs in the kind of absolutes — Marxism, humanism, rationality — that Foucault had made it his life’s work to overturn. Rather than pronounce from on high, Foucault sought to listen to what he took to be the authentic voice of marginal people in revolt and let it speak through him. In practice, this turned out to be a distinction without a difference.
Anderson says that the debate over these 25-year-old writings has relevance when some leftists focus more energy on criticizing an administration they scorn than on speaking against a radical Islamist movement that also violates all their cherished ideals.
« It’s not that radical Islamism is getting a pass from Western progressives and liberals, but it is the case that many are not being critical enough, » says Anderson. When certain polemicists are spreading simplistic ideas about « Islamo-Fascism, » he continues, « there’s a tendency to say that this isn’t so. But the fact is that while radical Islamism has many features and faces, everywhere it is antifeminist, everywhere it is authoritarian, and everywhere it is intolerant of other religions and other interpretations of Islam. »
« These conservative, reactionary movements, » Anderson says, « may be in conflict with a conservative Bush administration — but that doesn’t make them any less conservative or reactionary. The debate on Foucault helps to throw all this into high relief. »
Other Foucault scholars also see an enduring value in his turn toward political spirituality. James Bernauer, a Jesuit priest who teaches philosophy at Boston College and has written several books on Foucault and theology, sees in the late Foucault’s embrace of spirituality a resource for thinking about how to integrate politics and religion.
« Religious discourse has an enormous power to move people to take action, to see beyond their immediate self-interest, » Bernauer says. « And Foucault had an ability to see this, to see past the pervasive secularism of French intellectual life, that was quite remarkable. For better or worse, political spirituality is with us, and Foucault was one who helped us to focus our sights on it. »
Wesley Yang has written for The New York Observer, Newsday, and The New York Times.
Traduction anglaise de l’article du Nouvel obs:
What Are the Iranians Dreaming About?
« They will never let go of us of their own will. No more than they did in Vietnam. » I wanted to respond that they are even less ready to let go of you than Vietnam because of oil, because of the Middle East. Today they seem ready, after Camp David, to concede Lebanon to Syrian domination and therefore to Soviet influence, but would the United States be ready to deprive itself of a position that, according to circumstance, would allow them to intervene from the East or to monitor the peace?
Will the Americans push the shah toward a new trial of strength, a second « Black Friday »? The recommencement of classes at the university, the recent strikes, the disturbances that are beginning once again, and next month’s religious festivals, could create such an opportunity. The man with the iron hand is Moghadam, the current leader of the SAVAK.
This is the backup plan, which for the moment is neither the most desirable nor the most likely. It would be uncertain: While some generals could be counted on, it is not clear if the army could be. From a certain point of view, it would be useless, for there is no « communist threat »: not from outside, since it has been agreed for the past twenty-five years that the USSR would not lay a hand on Iran; not from inside, because hatred for the Americans is equaled only by fear of the Soviets.
Whether advisers to the shah, American experts, regime technocrats, or groups from the political opposition (be they the National Front or more « socialist-oriented » men), during these last weeks everyone has agreed with more or less good grace to attempt an « accelerated internal liberalization, » or to let it occur. At present, the Spanish model is the favorite of the political leadership. Is it adaptable to Iran? There are many technical problems. There are questions concerning the date: Now, or later, after another violent incident? There are questions concerning individual persons: With or without the shah? Maybe with the son, the wife? Is not former prime minister Amini, the old diplomat pegged to lead the operation, already worn out?
The King and the Saint
There are substantial differences between Iran and Spain, however. The failure of economic development in Iran prevented the laying of a basis for a liberal, modern, westernized regime. Instead, there arose an immense movement from below, which exploded this year, shaking up the political parties that were being slowly reconstituted. This movement has just thrown half a million men into the streets of Tehran, up against machine guns and tanks.
Not only did they shout, « Death to the Shah, » but also « Islam, Islam, Khomeini, We Will Follow You, » and even « Khomeini for King. »
The situation in Iran can be understood as a great joust under traditional emblems, those of the king and the saint, the armed ruler and the destitute exile, the despot faced with the man who stands up bare-handed and is acclaimed by a people. This image has its own power, but it also speaks to a reality to which millions of dead have just subscribed.
The notion of a rapid liberalization without a rupture in the power structure presupposes that the movement from below is being integrated into the system, or that it is being neutralized. Here, one must first discern where and how far the movement intends to go. However, yesterday in Paris, where he had sought refuge, and in spite of many pressures, Ayatollah Khomeini « ruined it all. »
He sent out an appeal to the students, but he was also addressing the Muslim community and the army, asking that they oppose in the name of the Quran and in the name of nationalism these compromises concerning elections, a constitution, and so forth.
Is a long-foreseen split taking place within the opposition to the shah? The « politicians » of the opposition try to be reassuring: « It is good, » they say. « Khomeini, by raising the stakes, reinforces us in the face of the shah and the Americans. Anyway, his name is only a rallying cry, for he has no program. Do not forget that, since 1963, political parties have been muzzled. At the moment, we are rallying to Khomeini, but once the dictatorship is abolished, all this mist will dissipate. Authentic politics will take command, and we will soon forget the old preacher. » But all the agitation this weekend around the hardly clandestine residence of the ayatollah in the suburbs of Paris, as well as the coming and going of « important » Iranians, all of this contradicted this somewhat hasty optimism. It all proved that people believed in the power of the mysterious current that flowed between an old man who had been exiled for fifteen years and his people, who invoke his name.
The nature of this current has intrigued me since I learned about it a few months ago, and I was a little weary, I must confess, of hearing so many clever experts repeating: « We know what they don’t want, but they still do not know what they want. »
« What do you want? » It is with this single question in mind that I walked the streets of Tehran and Qom in the days immediately following the disturbances. I was careful not to ask professional politicians this question. I chose instead to hold sometimes-lengthy conversations with religious leaders, students, intellectuals interested in the problems of Islam, and also with former guerilla fighters who had abandoned the armed struggle in 1976 and had decided to work in a totally different fashion, inside the traditional society.
« What do you want? » During my entire stay in Iran, I did not hear even once the word « revolution, » but four out of five times, someone would answer, « An Islamic government. » This was not a surprise. Ayatollah Khomeini had already given this as his pithy response to journalists and the response remained at that point.
What precisely does this mean in a country like Iran, which has a large Muslim majority but is neither Arab nor Sunni and which is therefore less susceptible than some to Pan-Islamism or Pan-Arabism?
Indeed, Shiite Islam exhibits a number of characteristics that are likely to give the desire for an « Islamic government » a particular coloration. Concerning its organization, there is an absence of hierarchy in the clergy, a certain independence of the religious leaders from one another, but a dependence (even a financial one) on those who listen to them, and an importance given to purely spiritual authority. The role, both echoing and guiding, that the clergy must play in order to sustain its influence-this is what the organization is all about. As for Shi’ite doctrine, there is the principle that truth was not completed and sealed by the last prophet. After Muhammad, another cycle of revelation begins, the unfinished cycle of the imams, who, through their words, their example, as well as their martyrdom, carry a light, always the same and always changing. It is this light that is capable of illuminating the law from the inside. The latter is made not only to be conserved, but also to release over time the spiritual meaning that it holds. Although invisible before his promised return, the Twelfth Imam is neither radically nor fatally absent. It is the people themselves who make him come back, insofar as the truth to which they awaken further enlightens them.
It is often said that for Shi’ism, all power is bad if it is not the power of the Imam. As we can see, things are much more complex. This is what Ayatollah Shariatmadari told me in the first few minutes of our meeting: « We are waiting for the return of the Imam, which does not mean that we are giving up on the possibility of a good government. This is also what you Christians are endeavoring to achieve, although you are waiting for Judgment Day. » As if to lend a greater authenticity to his words, the ayatollah was surrounded by several members of the Committee on Human Rights in Iran when he received me.
One thing must be clear. By « Islamic government, » nobody in Iran means a political regime in which the clerics would have a role of supervision or control. To me, the phrase « Islamic government » seemed to point to two orders of things.
« A utopia, » some told me without any pejorative implication. « An ideal, » most of them said to me. At any rate, it is something very old and also very far into the future, a notion of coming back to what Islam was at the time of the Prophet, but also of advancing toward a luminous and distant point where it would be possible to renew fidelity rather than maintain obedience. In pursuit of this ideal, the distrust of legalism seemed to me to be essential, along with a faith in the creativity of Islam.
A religious authority explained to me that it would require long work by civil and religious experts, scholars, and believers in order to shed light on all the problems to which the Quran never claimed to give a precise response. But one can find some general directions here: Islam values work; no one can be deprived of the fruits of his labor; what must belong to all (water, the subsoil) shall not be appropriated by anyone. With respect to liberties, they will be respected to the extent that their exercise will not harm others; minorities will be protected and free to live as they please on the condition that they do not injure the majority; between men and women there will not be inequality with respect to rights, but difference, since there is a natural difference. With respect to politics, decisions should be made by the majority, the leaders should be responsible to the people, and each person, as it is laid out in the Quran, should be able to stand up and hold accountable he who governs.
It is often said that the definitions of an Islamic government are imprecise. On the contrary, they seemed to me to have a familiar but, I must say, not too reassuring clarity. « These are basic formulas for democracy, whether bourgeois or revolutionary, » I said. « Since the eighteenth century now, we have not ceased to repeat them, and you know where they have led. » But I immediately received the following reply: « The Quran had enunciated them way before your philosophers, and if the Christian and industrialized West lost their meaning, Islam will know how to preserve their value and their efficacy. »
When Iranians speak of Islamic government; when, under the threat of bullets, they transform it into a slogan of the streets; when they reject in its name, perhaps at the risk of a bloodbath, deals arranged by parties and politicians, they have other things on their minds than these formulas from everywhere and nowhere. They also have other things in their hearts. I believe that they are thinking about a reality that is very near to them, since they themselves are its active agents.
It is first and foremost about a movement that aims to give a permanent role in political life to the traditional structures of Islamic society. An Islamic government is what will allow the continuing activity of the thousands of political centers that have been spawned in mosques and religious communities in order to resist the shah’s regime. I was given an example. Ten years ago, an earthquake hit Ferdows. The entire city had to be reconstructed, but since the plan that had been selected was not to the satisfaction of most of the peasants and the small artisans, they seceded. Under the guidance of a religious leader, they went on to found their city a little further away. They had collected funds in the entire region. They had collectively chosen places to settle, arranged a water supply, and organized cooperatives. They had called their city Islamiyeh. The earthquake had been an opportunity to use religious structures not only as centers of resistance, but also as sources for political creation. This is what one dreams about [songe] when one speaks of Islamic government.
The Invisible Present
But one dreams [songe] also of another movement, which is the inverse and the converse of the first. This is one that would allow the introduction of a spiritual dimension into political life, in order that it would not be, as always, the obstacle to spirituality, but rather its receptacle, its opportunity, and its ferment. This is where we encounter a shadow that haunts all political and religious life in Iran today: that of Ali Shariati, whose death two years ago gave him the position, so privileged in Shi’ism, of the invisible Present, of the ever-present Absent.
During his studies in Europe, Shariati, who came from a religious milieu, had been in contact with leaders of the Algerian Revolution, with various left-wing Christian movements, with an entire current of non-Marxist socialism. (He had attended Gurvitch’s classes.) He knew the work of Fanon and Massignon. He came back to Mashhad, where he taught that the true meaning of Shi’ism should not be sought in a religion that had been institutionalized since the seventeenth century, but in the sermons of social justice and equality that had already been preached by the first imam. His « luck » was that persecution forced him to go to Tehran and to have to teach outside of the university, in a room prepared for him under the protection of a mosque. There, he addressed a public that was his, and that could soon be counted in the thousands: students, mullahs, intellectuals, modest people from the neighborhood of the bazaar, and people passing through from the provinces. Shariati died like a martyr, hunted and with his books banned. He gave himself up when his father was arrested instead of him. After a year in prison, shortly after having gone into exile, he died in a manner that very few accept as having stemmed from natural causes. The other day, at the big protest in Tehran, Shariati’s name was the only one that was called out, besides that of Khomeini.
The Inventors of the State
I do not feel comfortable speaking of Islamic government as an « idea » or even as an « ideal. » Rather, it impressed me as a form of « political will. » It impressed me in its effort to politicize structures that are inseparably social and religious in response to current problems. It also impressed me in its attempt to open a spiritual dimension in politics.
In the short term, this political will raises two questions:
1. Is it sufficiently intense now, and is its determination clear enough to prevent an « Amini solution, » which has in its favor (or against it, if one prefers) the fact that it is acceptable to the shah, that it is recommended by the foreign powers, that it aims at a Western-style parliamentary regime, and that it would undoubtedly privilege the Islamic religion?
2. Is this political will rooted deeply enough to become a permanent factor in the political life of Iran, or will it dissipate like a cloud when the sky of political reality will have finally cleared, and when we will be able to talk about programs, parties, a constitution, plans, and so forth?
Politicians might say that the answers to these two questions determine much of their tactics today.
With respect to this « political will, » however, there are also two questions that concern me even more deeply.
One bears on Iran and its peculiar destiny. At the dawn of history, Persia invented the state and conferred its models on Islam. Its administrators staffed the caliphate. But from this same Islam, it derived a religion that gave to its people infinite resources to resist state power. In this will for an « Islamic government, » should one see a reconciliation, a contradiction, or the threshold of something new?
The other question concerns this little corner of the earth whose land, both above and below the surface, has strategic importance at a global level. For the people who inhabit this land, what is the point of searching, even at the cost of their own lives, for this thing whose possibility we have forgotten since the Renaissance and the great crisis of Christianity, a political spirituality. I can already hear the French laughing, but I know that they are wrong.
First published in Le Nouvel Observateur, October 16-22, 1978
10 February 1979
Paris: It would of course be misleading to compare the ,action of the French in providing a constraint-free refuge for the Ayatollah Khomeini with the action of the Germans in the first world war in transporting Lenin in a sealed train to what was then Petrograd. Yet the fact remains that in allowing the Ayatollah to use France as a base for the decisive phase of his campaign against first the Shah and then the Bakhtiar government, the French have made an immense contribution to his cause. There is in fact no parallel to the French action in giving a political refugee all the facilities for engaging in a revolutionary campaign against a friendly government. Yet these facilities were extended with a liberal hand during the Ayatollah’s four-month stay in a village on the outskirts of Paris. His telephone service between his headquarters at Neauphle-le-Chateau and Teheran and, most important of all, the holy city of Qom, never failed and his daily orders and exhortations duly recorded beforehand and then re-recorded at the other end were distributed nation-wide the next day. His disciples were free to convert a village setting into something like a national shrine and his couriers could come and go without let or hindrance. It was almost as though his 14 years of exile had already ended once he had set foot in France.
How did this astonishing situation come about? The answer is largely by chance and only partly by Quai D’Orsay machination. The Shah had paid heavy sums of money to the Iraqis finally to expel the Ayatollah from Baghdad — where he had spent the greater part of his exile — by a certain date. When the date finally came up the Ayatol lah’s intention was to move to Algiers. Unfortunately this coincided with Boumedienne’s long coma which preceded his death, and no-one in those circumstances in Algiers was prepared to take the decision to let him in. He therefore journeyed to Paris instead, equipped with an Iranian passport and the status of a political refugee. Although the French have never made any public statement to that effect they did in fact consult Teheran before allowing him to stay and Teheran gave its approval. There was an obvious reason for that — the Shah himself hoped to open fruitful negotiations with him and from that point of view it was preferable to have him in Paris than in Damascus or Algiers. That this version of events is true is confirmed by the fact that there has never been a peep of protest from Teheran regarding his presence here. From this point onwards the French began to pin their hopes on the Ayatollah, or at any rate not to make the mistake that Washington and London made, which was to continue a policy of outright support for the Shah. It must be remembered that the French had no particular reasons to be enamoured of the Shah. Giscard himself felt an aristocratic disdain for him and he was cordially detested by the French-speaking bourgeoisie of Teheran, with whom the French embassy found naturally the majority of its closest contacts, as he was indeed by the majority of the Iran embassy staff in Paris. Furthermore he had given France many a rude commercial setback. In those circumstances they were among the first to become convinced that the Shah’s days were numbered, and on the principle that it is an ill wind which does not blow someone some good they began to regard the Ayatollah’s stay in France as something of a windfall. The Quai D’Orsay became quite intoxicated with the idea and began to see in their uninvited guest the guarantor of France’s future in Iran. Meanwhile there were obvious _immediate advantages to be gained from the Ayatollah’s presence in France. It provided for example a kind of safe-conduct guarantee for the French in Iran as well as rendering French property immune from attacks by rioters. The Air France offices in Teheran, for example, were never attacked while other foreign air line buildings were.
Could it be possible that at this point the Ayatollah became something of a blackmailer, threatening French lives and property in Teheran with his rioters if the French sought to limit his freedom of action? It is not impossible and indeed there is good reason for believing that this is actually what happened when disenchantment with the Ayatollah began to set in among senior French Foreign Office officials. This disenchantment became clearly evident when M. Francois-Poncet, formerly the head of Giscard’s Elysee staff, replaced M. Guiringaud as Foreign Minister.
Indeed M. Francois-Poncet recently confessed privately that he thought it was high time the Ayatollah displayed his talents elsewhere. The disillusion began to seep through as the French made efforts to engage the holy man in political discussions. They found to their dismay that they were talking to a religious fanatic who really meant what he said when he talked of an Islamic republic. Gradually French hopes dwindled and finally expired as they realised that by talking like this he was either dashing his own chances or, if he succeeded, then he was a menace to all except the Soviet Union, which could be expected to pull some irons for itself out of the Iranian fire.
The view that the Bakhtiar government would pop like a champagne cork on the Ayatollah’s return was hastily replaced by fervent hope that the government would survive. In short, by playing the generous host to the Ayatollah the French, instead of pulling off a diplomatic coup, have committed a major diplomatic folly. They might have hoped to play the role of mediators but it is unlikely that the army or Bakhtiar will accept them as such in view of their previous chumminess with their principal foe. Similarly, if the Bakhtiar-army alliance survives and consolidates it is unlikely in the extreme that the new rulers will be disposed to make France one of their favoured economic or political partners.
It now looks as though, apart from the temporary protection of its interest in Iran, France will lose rather than gain from its involvement with the Ayatollah. It will be a heavy price to have paid for having broken the traditional rules governing the right of asylum and the obligations of reserve and discretion which France normally imposes on those whom it admits as refugees.