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The revolt as a space of possibility

Reflections on the freedom fight of the Iranian people

Roman Seidel

November 03, 2022 (Transl. 1.12.2022)

Revolts, viewed retrospectively, can be understood as decisive junctures in the so-called course of history. At the moment of its occurrence, however, revolt is a phenomenon of the present, a phenomenon that opens up a space of possibility within an indeterminate but limited window of time, which at the moment of this momentum (between revolt, revolution and/or suppression) seems to suspend all historical causalities and any teleological evaluation of history/events. In Iran, such a space of possibility has opened up; for eleven weeks now, people, above all women, have taken to the streets and, at the risk of their lives, keep this space open. Under the slogan “Women, Life, Freedom” (zan, zendegī, āzādī), the protests have developed an unprecedented dynamic that has already brought about profound changes, even though the regime is still standing, changes that might even justify the notion of a feminist revolution. How can one explain this absolute collective will of the movement, what is the significance of the pioneering roles of women and young people in it, what holds this movement together, and how can its global political dimension be reflected conceptually?

 

43 years ago, when the previous revolution took place in Iran, the philosopher Michel Foucault travelled to Tehran and, in his ” reportages d’idées” and some subsequent texts, not only tried to understand the events that led to the Iranian Revolution of 1979, but also, by way of observing these events closely, encouraged him to reflect on certain concepts.[i] Many of his observations are still relevant today, some of them, on the other hand, fit less to ongoing events in Iran. The following is not intended to re-evaluate Foucault’s writings on Iran, for which he has taken much criticism and blame; one can find several more elucidating writings recently published on that issue.[ii] Here, we will merely attempt to reflect on the current events based on two conceptualizations that Foucault seems to address in passing in his texts, “collective will” and “political spirituality”.

 

“Woman – life – freedom” as a positively charged collective will.

 

The absolute will to resist, to no longer accept the oppressive political order, and to bring a new social narrative to the streets in individual and collective actions of self-empowerment and liberation, despite massive state violence, is what currently astonishes all who turn their eye on Iran. Foucault, as well, encountered this collective will in Iran not as a concept or abstract idea, but as a phenomenon of the present on the streets.

 

When I arrived in Iran, immediately after the September [8, 1978,] massacres, I said to myself that I was going to find a terrorized city, because there had been four thousand dead. Now I can’t say that I found happy people, but there was an absence of fear and an intensity of courage, or rather, the intensity that people were capable of when danger, though still not removed, had already been transcended. (…) Among the things that characterize this revolutionary event, there is the fact that it has brought out— and few people in history have had this— an absolutely collective will. The collective will is a political myth with which jurists and philosophers try to analyze or to justify institutions, etc. It’s a theoretical tool: nobody has ever seen the ‘collective will’ and, personally, I thought that the collective will was like God, like the soul, something one would never encounter. I don’t know whether you agree with me, but we met in Tehran and throughout Iran, the collective will of a people. [257; 253]

 

What Foucault describes here could have also been written by an observer witnessing the events in Tehran these days, or in countless cities and towns throughout the entire country: the overwhelming feeling of actually seeing and experiencing the collective will of Iranians in its performance by a collective of protesting individuals in actu. A will that breaks through in a movement that is decidedly carried by women. At the same time, this will is directed more decisively against the system, against the ruling elite, against the Islamic Republic as a whole than at any time since the revolution of 1979. The protesters are no longer concerned with reforms within the framework of existing structures of rule, not with a rigged election (as in 2009), not just with better living conditions, with food or energy and fuel prices (as in 2017/2019), they are no longer concerned just with the demand for a little more leeway and better conditions for civil society, for activists and journalists, for schoolchildren and students. What we witness now is the plainspoken questioning of the political system. The civil society movements of the last 25 years, starting with the election of the reform-minded President Khatami (1997), did not openly question the system of the Islamic Republic, even though many of the activists already rejected the system at that time. The declared path was reform, but the regime classified any desire for political change as hostile to the system and always had only one answer at the ready: repression. Sustained reform was made impossible, reform minded politicians were removed from their public posts and put directly into prison or under house arrest, and protest movements were all brutally and seemingly effectively suppressed. The result was not only the suppression of internal opposition and the silencing of the reform discourse, but the widespread repression led, much as in the run-up to the 1979 Islamic Revolution, to the emergence and strengthening of an “absolute collective will” that now articulates itself quite decisively and openly and attaches itself to an object: it is about overcoming the ruling system, the abolition of the Islamic Republic.

 

This collective will, which is currently manifesting itself and making itself heard loudly on the streets, at universities and – this is particularly new and astounding – even in schools throughout Iran, is by no means expressed solely in negative demands. The mantra of the protests, “zan, zendegī, āzādī” (women, life, freedom), which was in the course of this movement chanted for the first time in Kurdish (Jîn, Jiyan, Azadî), namely at the funeral of Mahsa Jina Amini, whose killing in the custody of the morality police set this wave of protests in motion, is anything but an arbitrary compilation of catchwords. These three terms sum up central insights of a process of emancipation and awareness of the Iranian civil society in their context. The fact that the demand for freedom, for the recognition of basic liberal rights, is combined with the call for “life” is by no means trivial in the Iranian context. For not only can a dignified life not be realized without freedom, the prerequisite for freedom is that the life of every individual be recognized as an inviolable value. Something that is not at all given in the system of the Islamic republic, in which every citizen is threatened with arbitrary repression and even deadly violence by the security apparatus for even the most reserved criticism or “misbehaviour”. When Iranians chant “life,” it is also a protest against the all-too-central role of death (marg) in the ideology of the Islamic Republic, which in its slogans, repeated for decades, not only wishes death (marg bar …) on the “enemy” (doshman, another central ideological concept),[iii][iv] but also seems to value the death of its own citizens – through the ideologization, indeed the abuse, of the Shiite belief in martyrdom – higher than their lives.

 

If the central slogan of the nationwide protest movement, which is continuing since over two months now despite massive repression, is preceded by the term “women,” this too is not merely a spontaneous reaction to the killing of young women by state violence, but is born of the realization that the connection between life and freedom just described cannot be realized if part of the population, women and girls, are systematically deprived of the rights, discriminated against and downgraded by the state. It is the recognition that a demand for women’s rights cannot be seen as a concession, but as a condition of possibility for a life in freedom for all. At the same time, it is a recognition of all women and girls in Iran who have been publicly demanding their rights for decades and who, against all odds and always threatened by arbitrariness, have fought for an astonishing visibility in diverse areas of society (e.g. education, business, science, sports), so that they now lead the protest movement in the consensus of all. It is thus a feminist protest movement in the best sense of the word, since on the one hand the feminist demands are seen as part of the collective will, and on the other hand (as the author “L” writes in a philosophical reflection on the character of the protests) the figurative, iconic presence of the female body is central within the protests.

 

The collective will of the Iranians, which can be experienced in public throughout the country today, was thus preceded by a process of (self-)enlightenment of large parts of Iranian society. It is not out of place here to think of Kant’s well-known Enlightenment Essay in order to grasp the phenomenon, indeed the Iranian path from education and reform to revolt. Kant’s dictum of the “emergence from self-inflicted immaturity,” his famous definition of the concept of enlightenment, has taken place against all odds among large segments of Iranian civil society. Decades of resistance, tireless criticism of the prevailing conditions, the daily practice by schoolchildren of reading, speaking and writing between the lines, the ever-perfecting search for and occupation of free spaces of expression, the constant reinvention of forms of protest and communication have trained them to “use their own understanding (Verstand)”. Thus, large segments of Iranian civil society cannot be accused of either “laziness” or “cowardice,” which in Kant’s essay are the main reasons for self-inflicted immaturity, because they did not entrust thinking and forming judgments unsuspiciously to the “guardians” (“Vormünden”). Discussions about the significance of, say, liberal values and their absence in political reality have been going on intensively for decades in Iran, in the context of public spaces that constantly opened up and closed quickly, as well as in virtual and private spaces; they were also the driving force behind the reform movement.

 

But if such an “emergence from a self-inflicted immaturity” is counteracted by an externally-inflicted immaturity, i.e., a state-inflicted immaturity, if the state constantly narrows down the space of the public use of reason and ultimately declares all critical expressions to be a private use of reason, which, according to Kant’s essay, may be restricted in the sense of maintaining public order, then all efforts at reform come to nothing. When a society like Iran’s experiences the cognitive dissonance between inner maturity through self-enlightenment and externally-induced immaturity enforced by repression over decades, a consensus begins to emerge and that collective will gains potential energy, an unconditional will that strives to get rid of the causes of imposed immaturity. Kant’s scepticism about the right of resistance and revolution can then no longer be sustained, and all it takes is a spark to bring the will into the streets.

 

Mahsa Jina Amini’s death was this spark, and it was and is women who got the protests rolling this time. Another fundamental social segment is the young Generation Z, whose parents experienced the founding of the Islamic Republic as small children at best, but who, thanks to social media, have a very precise idea of what living conditions the Global North has to offer. For this generation, too, reflections on basic understandings of concepts such as freedom, autonomy, welfare and what their absence means for Iranian society have already become an intellectual matter of course on which the vividly share their opinions. A video by 16-year-old Sarina Esmaelzade from Karaj near Tehran is just one example of the maturity of this generation, which, in addition to the desire for freedom and joy that is to be expected at this age, is capable of thinking very politically and seriously about social conditions. All of this, as well as the reflection on the experiences of previous generations, has also strengthened the collective will of young people, and in particular has driven girls and young women onto the streets to rebel against the headscarf and, as a consequence, against the system of the Islamic Republic with the slogan “Women, Life, Freedom” and under the thunderous applause and support of boys and men. That this is life-threatening in Iran is known to all. Sarina Esmaelzade was killed by repressive forces on September 23, 2022, while participating in a demonstration in Karaj.

 

In the face of this massive and arbitrary violence, what keeps the “collective will” already observed by Foucault on the streets these days? What is the reason that this time it does not allow itself to be suppressed by the brutality of batons, the use of firearms, arrests, extortion and massive threats against activists and relatives, of those abducted and killed in the course of the demonstrations? What force makes the protests persist and take the form of a nascent revolution? What keeps people together in the face of danger and repression?

 

Cohesion by Experience of Injustice as Political Spirituality

 

Beyond the will itself, is there a force transcending the subject and uniting individuals that gives the subject, each individual protestor, the ability to step out of the isolation of surveillance and accept danger to one’s life for the sake of life? Foucault tried to explain it in 1978/79 with a concept for which he received much criticism: political spirituality. In preparation for his trip to Tehran, he had familiarized himself with the spiritual dimensions of Shia and Sufism by reading Corbin and Massignon, which for Corbin constituted a spiritual “Islam iranien.” The cult of martyrdom, the revolt of the militarily hopelessly outnumbered Imam Hussain and his followers against the tyranny of the ruling Umayyad caliphs and their martyrdom at Kerbala (680), has always been an identity-forming narrative of the Shia. It also played a significant role in the revolutionary movement of 1978/79. Foucault saw this religious grounding, anchored in intellectual history, as a force that helped sustain the revolutionary movement.

 

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. [209]

 

The accusations of some of his critics that he had fallen for the ideology of the Islamists with the concept of political spirituality or even supported them can be refuted with a look at his texts and interview statements, but at the same time it is also clear that he was not intensively concerned with the ideological dimension of Islamism, even if he did comment on it critically, because it was not what interested him in Iran.[iv] Particularly in view of current events in Iran, however, one can ask whether it was actually a priming in Shiite spiritual Islam that justified the phenomenon of political spirituality as a driving force of revolt at that time.

 

Presumably, then as now, it is a much more fundamental phenomenon that requires not a particular religious narrative but a collective experience of injustice, or rather a collective awareness of the presence of myriad individual experiences of injustice. Experiences that are inscribed in the psyche and body of individuals individually, through the (co-)experience of humiliation, degradation, threat, violence. Experiences, however, that are the same or at least similar from subject to subject and thus form a collective that, in the momentum of rebellion, can give each individual subject the strength, the courage and the protection to say, “I must and I can resist, free myself and initiate change.” Understood in this way, political spirituality is the power generated by that sense of belonging, a sense of community that is created through a web of images, gestures, slogans and protests, and through the violence experienced daily that can affect anyone and everyone. The images of women taking off their headscarves or burning them, the collective singing of protest songs (Bella Ciao) or the “anthem” of the protest movement #barāye, which – composed by Shervin Hajipour from tweets – was clicked 40 million times within a few hours, the short video sequences of the courageous appearance of female protesters, Students, passers-by, schoolgirls, stored and disseminated on social networks, are as much part of that web of communal experience as the scenes of violence and death, which though directed precisely against the producers of these images only consolidate their anger and determination.

 

Ever-emerging, mimetic acts, moments of self-liberation – especially by female figures – reproduce, renew, and multiply the knots in this power grid of resistance. This web of energy, spreading across the country, is cross-class and cross-generational, and is decisively shared by ethnic minorities (Kurds, but also Baluchis, Arabs, and Azaris). It is decentralized and energized by individual moments of what appears to be a self-organizing system. Perhaps the force that flows through this power grid is what – based on Foucault – one might call political spirituality: That collective yet immediate awareness of a sense of belonging (hambastegi) and that the momentum of change has come. Such a collective energy has the potential to interrupt the course of history and to suspend historical and political causalities, to commence new causalities out of spontaneity, out of freedom. One more time Foucault:

 

Uprisings belong to history, but in a certain way, they escape it. The movement through which a lone man, a group, a minority, or an entire people say, “I will no longer obey,” and are willing to risk their lives in the face of a power that they believe to be unjust, seems to me to be irreducible. This is because no power is capable of making it absolutely impossible. Warsaw will always have its ghetto in revolt and its sewers populated with insurgents. The man in revolt is ultimately inexplicable. There must be an uprooting that interrupts the unfolding of history, and its long series of reasons why, for a man “really” to prefer the risk of death over the certainty of having to obey. If societies persist and survive, that is to say, if power in these societies is not “absolutely absolute,” [60] it is because behind all the consent and the coercion, beyond the threats, the violence, and the persuasion, there is the possibility of this moment where life cannot be exchanged, where power becomes powerless, and where, in front of the gallows and the machine guns, men rise up. [263-64]

 

This time it is the women who have risen first. Who liberate their bodies, stage them as protesting bodies and thereby breathe new life not only into their own bodies, but into the protest as a whole. A liberation that – in the moment of rebellion – produces unprecedented images of life and can – at the same time – mean death. This readiness to accept the danger of death, however, is no exaltation of death over life. Unlike in the case of ideologically charged actions of martyrdom, the protesters are not concerned with a death appreciation (marg-āgāhī) in the action, not with elevating the afterlife above life in this world. They are concerned with an appreciation of a life that has already been alive in their collective imagination for a long time and that they finally want to achieve in the here and now and unconditionally. So, it is precisely about what is embodied in the slogan “Women, Life, Freedom.”

 

 

Momentum: Revolt as a space of possibility

 

The decentralized nature of the revolt and its character of a self-organizing system that is not directed by individual leaders or groups seems to be the decisive strength for which the regime was not prepared in this intensity. At the same time, analysts are now asking, can a quest for political change be successful when there is no clear opposition, no political agenda on the table, no political system in the background, for instance one provided by diaspora communities, that could take the place of the current one? Can it succeed when at the same time it is known that the security apparatus is uncompromising and intervention from abroad is neither desired nor in sight? Who is to determine Iran’s fate after a possible overthrow?

 

Foucault’s reflections on revolt as a phenomenon of the present that defies previous historical causality and teleology, mentioned at the beginning and also appearing in the last quotation, make it possible here to understand the phenomenon of nascent revolutions. Through the absolute collective will and supported by a power grid covering the country, which could perhaps be described as a form of political spirituality, a space of possibility is opened up by the courage and perseverance of the protesters, in which even the hitherto hardly conceivable becomes conceivable. A space of possibility in which the unity of the movement makes not only regime change thinkable, but also the emergence of a political system that could take up features of the movement, such as the representation and participation of ethnic minorities, religious and ideological diversity, plurality of opinions, media and gender designs, and not least – perhaps more decisively than anywhere else – a feminist orientation in politics. Why? Because the suppression of all these values is not only part of the regime’s DNA, but the decades-long advocacy of these values by the civil society and the high risks taken to achieve them are part of the collective experience of injustice, of collective trauma.

 

Bright minds and ideas are available in Iran for this purpose; if they have not had to go into exile, they have tried to assert themselves against all opposition from the power apparatus as voices of civil society, as journalists, human rights activists, university lecturers, teachers, bloggers. Many of them have paid a high price for this. They can hardly be blamed for not organizing themselves politically in the face of repression. The beginnings of such organization were relentlessly suppressed after the end of the reform movement. However, they can be trusted to organize quickly as soon as the opportunity arises.

 

Of course, one can always find reasonable arguments for the probability of failure, be it that of the protest movement or due to an impending internal power struggle or even civil war. But what is gained by conjuring up these scenarios? Many things are possible in Iran right now, including a social order that could serve as a model on a global level. To dismiss the belief in this, for example, from a European observer’s perspective and, despite all justified concern about impending disaster, to agree on a basic scepticism about the prospects for success, or even to agree on the formula “stability” before freedom, would not only be a cynical attitude toward the Iranian freedom movement, which at the moment is drawing its strength from the conviction “change is possible,” but it is also a failure to recognize that the not-knowing-what-will-be can also include an “it-can-be”, which can be only achieved by leaving room in one’s mind for the possibility of success. When people already speak of a feminist revolution, they are not (yet) referring to political changes that have not (yet) occurred, but to a profound social change that has taken place and provides the basis for possible social models of a future Iran.

 

Moreover, notorious scepticism about the movement’s prospects for success in the face of rising authoritarianism in the world is a foolish attitude of fatalism. Right now, the Iranian people, through your resistance, are doing far more than we are willing to recognize against the autocratic threat currently brewing over Europe, indeed the entire Global North. In the geographic centre of the axis of authoritarian ideologies between Russia and China, in Iran of all places, a society is rising up to stand up for values that are today in neither Europe nor North America safe from anti-democratic, populist and extremist forces. In other words, authoritarianism now threatens the existence of these values for majority societies as well, because they have always not been equally valid for marginalized groups, even in the Global North.

 

The fact that revolts open up a space of possibility does not mean a guarantee for the absence of disaster; they merely challenge us – in accordance with the principle of hope – to think of concrete utopias as possibilities, as being-in-possibility, which may first and foremost change the fate of a society that is rising up, but as a consequence can also represent a momentum on a global level that, if seen and applied, is an opportunity to stand up to authoritarianism. A sustained and deepening solidarity with the Iranian freedom movement thus means more than a declaration of sympathy with the protesters in Iran; it is a political stance of global scope. In other words, the space of possibilities that the Iranians are currently holding open at the risk of their lives concerns us all.

 

 

[i] Foucault’s Idea Reportages is a series of essay-reportages that Foucault first published on behalf of the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, followed by articles and interviews in French newspapers until Foucault finally stopped commenting on the subject. The reportages and subsequent texts are reprinted in Volume III of Dits et Ecrits of the Werkausgabe [Dits et Écrits. 4 vols. Paris: Gallimard 1994]. The indications of the quotations used here, refer to the translation of Foucault’s essays in Janet Afary and Kevin Anderson, Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islamism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

[ii] Here we refer to the following publications: Leezenberg, Michiel. ‘Power and Political Spirituality: Michel Foucault on the Islamic Revolution in Iran’; Ghamari-Tabrizi, Behrooz. Foucault in Iran: Islamic Revolution after the Enlightenment. Muslim International. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016; Sarasin, Philipp. ‘Turning Times. Michel Foucault and the Iranian Revolution – Contemporary History’. Accessed 3 November 2022. https://geschichtedergegenwart.ch/zeitenwende-michel-foucault-und-die-iranische-revolution/; Beukes, Johann. Foucault in Iran, 1978-1979. AOSIS, 2020. https://doi.org/10.4102/aosis.2020.BK203

[iii] The slogan “marg bar xy” (death to xy) is perhaps the most commonly used slogan at state-organized rallies, where “xy” can optionally be filled by any enemy (especially the US and Israel). In the current protests, the slogan, chanted by demonstrators in the streets or shouted from windows mostly at night, is directed against the political leadership itself marg bar dictator (death to the dictator). This intensity and straightforwardness is unprecedented in the history of the Islamic Republic.

[iv] Leezenberg, Ghamari-Tabrizi, Sarasin, Beukes.