Shi'i Naratives of Karbala and Christian Rite of Penance: Michel Foucault and the Culture of Iranian Revolution, 1978-1979

This article was published in Radical History Review, Issue 86, pp. 7-35, Spring 2003

In 1978-79, in the course of a massive urban revolution with several million participants, the Iranian people toppled the government of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (r. 1941-79), who had pursued an authoritarian program of nationalism as well as economic and cultural modernization. By late 1978, the Islamist faction had come to dominate the antishah protests, in which secular nationalists and leftists also participated. The struggle against the shah was now cast as a reenactment of the historic battle between Hussain (grandson of the prophet Muhammad) and his opponent Yazid in the month of Muharram in 680 C.E. in the desert of Karbal (Iraq). Soon, in the name of national unity, the secular, nationalist, and leftist demands of the demonstrators were articulated in religious garb and through rituals commemorating the death of Hussain. The Islamists controlled the revolutionary slogans and demanded that the more secular women protesters don the veil as an expression of solidarity with the more traditional women.