American university protests and Foucault's reflections on Iran

American university protests and Foucault's reflections on Iran

Before expressing admiration for the protests of American university students advocating for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, it is prudent to critically examine the impressions left by rapid responses to events, people, and historical phases.

A prevalent analogy today likens the current student movements at major US academic institutions to the anti-Vietnam War protests of the late 1960s.

While this comparison is alluring, it unfortunately lacks both accuracy and context, rendering it inadequate for forecasting the outcomes of today’s student activism.

Originally, the 1960s demonstrators, emerging from the heart of American society, were deeply intertwined with their ethnic and social backgrounds. In contrast, today’s university protests are significantly represented by new immigrants.

Moreover, whereas only a minority of youths in the 1960s expressed support for the Viet Cong, focusing instead on ending civilian casualties and advocating for US withdrawal from Vietnam, today's protesters appear to openly support Hamas.

Their vision for the future of Palestine and its people remains nebulous, articulated only through vague chants for "freedom," "independence," and "stopping the genocide."

The critical distinction, however, lies in what the Vietnam War symbolised domestically in the US—the loss of tens of thousands of young Americans in a conflict far removed by continents and oceans, which profoundly impacted the nation’s political, economic, and cultural fabric.

This contrasts starkly with a conflict involving foreign powers that might hold limited significance to the average American citizen, particularly in an election year marked by severe polarisation between the major political parties, the Democrats and the Republicans.

The May 1968 protests in French universities led to President Charles de Gaulle's resignation but left the political structure unchanged.

The sit-ins within university courtyards and gardens were ignited by the testimony of Columbia University's president before a congressional committee.

She criticised slogans adopted by some students and faculty, which the committee members viewed as incitements to harm Jews and as expressions of anti-Semitism.

These actions provide fodder for the American extreme right and staunch supporters of Israel, as the protests are perceived as part of what is commonly referred to in the US as "cancel culture" and "Woke" ideology, typically associated with the left.

The extreme right accuses the "woke" left of undermining American values and society by aligning with immigrants and various ethnic and religious minorities, including Arabs, Muslims, Blacks, and others.

However, our primary interest does not lie here; rather, it is in the manipulation and political machinations that become the battleground.

To understand similar instances of student activism, we can revisit historical precedents such as the May 1968 protests in French universities, which led to President Charles de Gaulle's resignation but left the political structure unchanged.

Another instance is the student demonstrations in Lebanon during the early 1970s, which foreshadowed the subsequent civil war.

Similarly, French philosopher Michel Foucault extolled the Iranian revolution, presenting it as a break from the Western tradition of interpreting social movements through purely economic or nationalist lenses.

Extolling the "courage" of student sit-ins and demonstrations at institutions like Columbia and Yale lacks a clear understanding of the potential impact such movements could have on the conflict in Gaza.

The author of History of Madness argued that resistance to the Shah's regime embodied a "political spirituality" that empowered millions of Iranians to confront oppression and injustice.

Foucault provided extensive commentary and interpretations of these events, and he lived long enough to witness how this "political spirituality" eventually pursued its adherents—executing, imprisoning, or exiling them.

In fact, the belief that spiritual motivations, as Michel Foucault—who visited Iran twice—argued, could transform into tangible political influence within the Iranian clergy, reflecting the deep-seated desires of the majority who opposed the Shah, resembles the hopeful assumption that a few thousand American university students can sway the Joe Biden administration's stance on Israel.

This comes shortly after US forces intervened by shooting down drones and missiles Iran launched towards Israel.

In other words, extolling the "courage" of student sit-ins and demonstrations at institutions like Columbia and Yale, which challenge both the academic and broader political "establishment" and its extensive influence, overlooks two crucial aspects.

Firstly, it lacks a clear understanding of the potential impact such movements could have on the conflict in Gaza and the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Secondly, it fails to address how these movements might be leveraged within American partisan politics amid the growing and increasingly radical polarization of right and left ideologies within the US political landscape.

Michel Foucault, a leading thinker and philosopher of the 20th century in Europe, was far from naive.

However, as many of his readers and followers noted, his views on the Iranian revolution seemed to reflect his personal desire to see the overthrow of the prevailing ideologies of his era, much as he sought to challenge established norms through his writings.

Similarly, high expectations are often prematurely set on movements that merit more careful consideration before they are heralded with enthusiasm.

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