Reading Legitimation Crisis in Iran, by Danny Postel

reviewed by
Farzin Vahdat


In Persian there is a piece of proverbial wisdom that praises a statement, a report, an analysis, or even a book, for being brief—and thereby beneficial.  To a person who is not getting to the point, Iranians politely plead to be “brief and beneficial.”  Danny Postel’s book, Reading Legitimation Crisis in Tehran, does a good deal of justice to this Persian wisdom by succinctly broaching very important issues about the current political struggle in Iran and the attitude of western progressive forces to it.

At the very outset Postel’s book poses four essential and interrelated questions and then attempts to respond to them. Firstly, why are progressive forces in the U.S. and the west in general are so confused and silent about the clamor for political and social change that is currently taking place in Iran?  Secondly, why in the contemporary Iranian intellectual and political activism scenes it is “liberalism” and not Marxism, or one of its more contemporary successors such as post-colonial discourse, that enjoys currency?  Thirdly, how can we explain the rich and vibrant political and philosophical discourse that is developing in Iran and what lessons this development has for the western progressive forces? And finally, what sense can we make of Michel Foucault’s views of the Islamic revolution of late 1970s in Iran?

Postel mentions three barriers of language, geographical distance and the relative small number of Iranians in the US, as a partial explanation of the first question.  But these are relatively less important.  The core reasons for the American and western leftists’ being reluctant to embrace the cause of Iranians who are trying to bring about change in their country lies somewhere else.   The essential reason for this reluctance is that American progressives are used to advocate those causes that are fighting the Empire and their local lackeys.   The Left in the US has developed what Postel calls a “tunnel vision” that deems only the political and social movements that are fighting right wing oppressors who are supported by the United States, worthy of embracing—such as those in Central America in the 1980s.  The Iranian dissidents are fighting a government that is a “sworn enemy” of the Empire. 

What is more, the oppositional forces in Iran, are not couching their opposition in discourses such as Marxism, post-structuralism, post-colonialism, subaltern studies and different mixtures of these.  The Iranian progressive forces have by and large adopted western liberal-democratic discourse and its past and contemporary gurus to advance their cause.   These are very significant issues that have prevented the western progressive forces, if not opposing Iranians seeking change in their country, at least being aloof to them and their fierce struggle in recent years.  For the far left in the west, liberalism is a tool of imperialism and embodiment of Eurocentrism.  Why should they support a cause that utilizes a discourse that they deem to be at the core of what they are struggling against?  The Iranian reformists are then the friends of my enemy, and therefore, if not my enemy, they are not my friend either. 

Thus, Postel embarks on a valiant attempt to expose the fallacies that are lurking in this type of analysis.  First, he argues, “liberalism” in the context of contemporary Iran, is quite revolutionary.  The quest for human rights, women’s rights, civil liberties, pluralism, religious toleration, freedom of expression and multi-party democracy, are indeed nothing but a radical attempt to bring about liberation to majority of Iranians who have been in bondage to various forms of tyranny for centuries.  Secondly, Postel correctly points out, Iranian reformers are quite sophisticated when it comes to their understanding of the west.  They are aware and critical of Western domination and the hegemonic aspects of its discourse, but they are sophisticated enough to distinguish western imperialism from the empancipatory discourses and institutions that happen to have been developed in the west.  Moreover, it is quite significant that Iranian dissidents who come to west, for the most part, have not been seduced by the neocons.  On this issue it is important to note that Postel’s book is somewhat too sanguine and generous.  A very important exception to this general trend is the book Reading Lolita in Tehran, and some exile activist who have indeed bitten the bait of the neocons.

In a similar vein, Postel shows the ironical situation of the western left vis-à-vis Iran. Their very anti-imperialism is a form of imperialism in that it ignores and tarnishes the efforts of Iranian reformists to bring about change in their society.  And Postel provides a very enlightening example:  in a talk by Shirin Ebadi, a western leftist activist attempts to muzzle Ebadi saying that her criticism of abuses of human rights in Iran plays into the hands of the neocons and their desire to launch an attack on Iran.  

A section of Postel’s book focuses on why certain discourses are attractive to Iranian students, activists, reformist, and intellectuals and certain other discourses are not.  What Iranians at this point are attracted to are Kant, Hegel, the Frankfurt School thinkers, Habermas, Hannah Arendt, Karl Popper, Isaiah Berlin, just to mention a few.   Marxism, post-colonial discourse, post-structuralism, post-modernism, Foucault, Derrida (with the exception of certain aspects of their work) do not generate much interest in Iran.   Marxism, in Iranian’s experience, like many other parts of the world, has brought mostly dogmatism, tyranny and Soviet and Soviet-style domination for Iran.  The post-colonial discourse doesn’t make much sense in Iran’s context either (but Postel treats this issue rather in passing and in my view this very important question deserves much more elaborate treatment).  Post-colonial discourse emanates mostly from the historical experience of the sub-continent and as a whole is alien to the Islamic world for various reasons.  Post-colonialism is an attempt to fashion an identity for those parts of the world which were savagely colonized by the west and has to oppose the west for existential reasons.  But Iran, and many parts of the Islamic world have not shared this experience.  The west for Iranians is not all negative, and they appreciate its emancipatory aspects.  Iranians are very interested in the notion of human subjectivity and agency which constitute the very foundation of modernity and democracy.  In contrast to many parts of the formerly colonized parts of the world, Iran as a Muslim country has a very strong sense of subjectivity and agency built into its very metaphysical foundations.  Post-colonial discourse, which in its attempts to deconstruct the west undermines the notion of human subjectivity, is very alien to Iran’s metaphysical foundations.  I wish Postel would have elaborate somewhat more on this issue in this book. 

But Postel addresses an issue that is close to this question in his treatment of Foucault and his misunderstanding of Iran.  Foucault went to Iran during the height of revolution and myopically saw what he wanted to see to corroborate his anti-humanist theories.  Foucault quixotically viewed Iranian revolution as the revolution against modernity that he would have loved to see take place in the west.  But as he mistook the Shah’s regimes as the embodiment of modernity he misunderstood the Islamic revolution as the anti-modern revolution of our time.  He did not realize that Iranian revolution was in fact the proto-modernist revolution of Islamic puritanical Protestantism. Unfortunately Postel makes the same mistake that Foucault made in regarding Iranian revolution as anti-modern, of course Foucault celebrated it while Postel laments it. Because of the very fact that Iranian Islamic revolutionary discourse of the 1960s and 70s which created the Islamic Republic of the 80s subscribed to a form of indirect human subjectivity and agency, mediated by the Subjectivity and Agency of God, it is nothing but the beginning of modernity in the Iran and in fact in the Islamic world.  This is an important issue that needs to be recognized. 

Another important issue that needs to be addressed in a book such as Postel’s which attempts defends certain notions of liberalism is to distinguish between different shades of liberalism.  One may think of categories such as “bourgeois liberalism” and “democratic liberalism,” the first and foremost seeing liberty in terms of freedom of to engage in economic activity without any restraint, while the second places more emphasis on different types of rights.

On the whole I think this is very timely book that addresses a crucial question in our time, namely, the solidarity and sympathy that the progressive forces in the west and the United States can extend to their counterparts in Iran.  The progressive forces, the NGO’s and intellectuals can do much more that just opposing a war in Iran; they can and should actively get involved in supporting the reforms in Iran.  Postel’s plea in this direction is quite helpful and persuasive.  We can fruitfully compare the current situation of Iran to that of the last years of Soviet time and the failure of the progressive forces in the west to support the movement of the people in the Soviet societies and the disastrous consequences thereof.  Hence the importance of Postel’s warning and plea.


Farzin Vahdat is a sociologist interested in critical theory and the development of modernity in the West and the Middle East. He teaches sociology at Vassar College and is the author of God and Juggernaut: Iran’s Intellectual Encounter with Modernity. He is currently co-editing a book on the future of the reform movement in Iran.