Thursday, September 13, 2007

Iran, Islam, and Modernism/Post-Modernism

Those who are the most implacably opposed to the Islamic Republic tend to be modernists who consciously or unconsciously think of the mythical West as the telos of humanity. The silliest section among them, such as the Worker-Communist Party of Iran, go so far as to say that the Iranians must change their alphabet from Farsi to Latin, adopt the English language as a "prevalent language of education and administration," and change Iran's calendar to the Western one, as if such changes had anything to do with liberation:
Changing the Farsi alphabet

In order to help bridge the gap that separates Iranian society from the forefronts of scientific, industrial and cultural progress in the world today, and in order to help people benefit from the results of this progress and take a more direct and active part in it, the official Farsi alphabet should be systematically changed to Latin.

The party also calls for:
  1. English language to be taught from early school age with the aim of making it a prevalent language of education and administration.

  2. The Western calendar (the official calendar in use internationally today) to be officially recognized and to be used in official documents alongside the local calender.
(Mansoor Hekmat, "A Better World: Program of the Worker-communist Party," Adopted by the First Congress of the Worker-communist Party of Iran, July 1994, First English Edition, December 1997)
Their devotion to all things Western reminds me of Meiji Japan's Rokumeikan diplomacy, an attempt to impress Westerners that Japan was indeed Westernized and therefore deserving of equal rights on the international level, which failed anyway to help Japan revise unequal treaties that Western powers imposed on the country.

Modernists like Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson, moreover, blame post-modernism for the way Michel Foucault saw the Iranian Revolution as well as other approaches to Iran that do not fit into the framework of political liberalism, attributing to Foucault the views of Iranians he described without endorsing and even misrepresenting his view as a simple glorification of pre-modernity. In the process, they reproduce the Orientalist hierarchy. Babak Rahimi's criticism of their book Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islamism, published by H-Gender-MidEast in October 2006, is instructive.
what this book [Foucault and the Iranian Revolution] reveals is the rigidity of secular thinking, its blindness to its own tendencies toward exclusive and reductive thinking while dismissing alternative voices and conceptions of political ontology that may not mirror the secular political disposition. As Talal Asad has demonstrated, secular sensibilities not only signify a political doctrine that reifies the "secular" as a distinct historical category, but also perpetuate a Eurocentric form of domination in globalizing new systems of knowledge and new practices, including governance and rigid conceptions of "religion," as a distinct historical category. In a play of conceptual dichotomies, the authors engage in a similar line of secular conceptualization as they repeatedly fall afoul of some of the most reductive secular modernist ideas of modernity. The volume is swamped with the use of secular binary terminologies such as "tradition" versus "modernity," "traditional societies" (Iran) versus "modern societies" (France), and "Islam" versus "democracy." In some instances, the authors even uncritically interchange terms such as "secularization," "modernization," "westernization" and "modernity," as though these highly contentious terms can be easily assumed to be one and the same.
Foucault, in any event, was a far more level-headed realist and materialist than his modernist critics now or Iranian and Western Marxists then. The first institution he closely examined upon his arrival in Iran is its military: its history, its social composition, and other crucial factors that would determine the revolution's outcome ("The Army -- When the Earth Quakes," Corriere della sera, 28 September 1978, included in pp. 189-194 of Foucault and the Iranian Revolution).

To conclude, post-modernism, especially of the Foucauldian sort, given its criticism of the ideology of Progress, is indeed likely to be a better philosophy than modernism for intellectual reconciliation of Islam and democracy, but it will be even more useful if it is supplemented by the Walter Benjamin school of historical materialism.

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