by Sima Shakhsari
The recent issue of Foreign Policy on sex has instigated critical feedback from many who have rightly challenged racist and Orientalist representations of gender and sexuality in the Muslim and Arab worlds. Several critics have rightly pointed out that essentialist approaches to culture that rely on facile binaries of men/women, freedom/oppression, and West/East lack any meaningful analyses of geopolitics, economy, colonial and post-colonial formations, and historical nuances. Most of these responses, however, have focused onMona El Tahawy’s article, which reproduces discourses of violent Arab masculinity and victimized femininity.
Here, however, I want to take up Karim Sadjadpour’s “The Ayatollah Under the Bed(sheets),” an anecdotal character study-like article that seeks to understand the perverse mentality of the Iranian mullahs and the practicing Muslims who emulate them. Sadjadpour tells his readers that “for those in the West who seek to better understand what makes Tehran tick, the regime’s curious fixation on sex cannot be ignored.” He continues by warning us that “the outwardly chaste nature of Khomeinist political culture has perverted normal sexual behavior, creating peculiar curiosities—and proclivities—among Iranian officialdom.” Conflating the “regime” with “the mullahs” and deeming “the mullahs” to be characteristically perverted, Sadjadpour seems to suggest that the way to defeat “the regime” is to kick it where it hurts: its sex organ!
Both a war of position to gain hegemony and a war of maneuver for a (sexual) revolution, Sadjadpour’s article seems to be a part of a constant battle between the diasporic “experts” who seek to topple the “regime” and the Islamic Republic, which like many states, seeks to discipline and regulate the life of its citizens. While the role of the (sex)perts in this war is concealed, the “regime” in Sadjadpour’s article is reduced to the iconic perverted “ayatollah” who preys on the heterosexually-imagined Iranian people.
In this war zone, and in a time when the liberatory forces tell us that a sexual revolution is long due in the Middle East, I echo Maya Mikdashi and Sherene Seikaly and say, “let’s talk about sex!” But, as Foucault has taught us, I approach this “sex talk” with skepticism, asking why and how we talk about sex. How is sexuality put into discourse during the “war on terror” and how do complex international and transnational networks of people, information, and capital impose strategies of regulation and discipline? In other words, I am interested in the way that sex is a form of transnational governmentality in this neo-liberal and neo-colonial age. Governmentality, as defined by Foucault, is an ensemble that includes institutions, procedures, analyses, calculations, and strategies that enable a complex form of power (biopower). This form of power targets the population, uses political economy as its form of knowledge, and utilizes the apparatus of security in its normalizing work. According to Foucault, government is not just limited to political structures of states, but includes the way in which the behavior of individuals and groups might be conducted by non-state entities and individuals.
Sadjadpour’s article is an example of the way that “experts” participate in normalizing the sexuality of the Iranian population while taking part in the regime-change discourses that neoliberal, neocolonial and geopolitical agendas espouse.
Perhaps to make his sex talk “sexy,” Sadjadpour claims that “for a variety of reasons—fear of becoming Salman Rushdie, of being labeled an Orientalist, of upsetting religious sensibilities—the remarkable hypocrisy of the Iranian regime is often studiously avoided.” Unlike Sadjadpour’s claim, however, several feminist scholars such as Minoo Moallem, Afsaneh Najmabadi, and Homa Hoodfar, among others, have written about the state (and non-state) regulation of sexuality in pre and post-revolutionary Iran. These scholars have tackled a range of issues from colonialism to nationalism, fundamentalism, heteronormalization of sexuality in modern Iran, historical accounts of sexuality, and the post-revolutionary state’s control of sexuality. Minoo Moallem, for example, has written extensively about Islamic fundamentalism as a modern transnational movement (and not, as Sadjadpour claims, a pre-modern atavistic regime). Engaging the Islamic Republic as a modern nation-state that disciplines and regulates gendered and sexed identities, Moallem has shown how the hegemonic masculinity of the citizen/subject is a site of contradictions between the pious masculinity of the clergyman and the secular masculinity of the citizen. Let us not forget, however, that the Iranian state is not an exception in disciplining and normalizing the citizens. The tensions over gays in the military, gay marriage, birth control, and abortion in the United States are all examples of the state disciplining and normalizing practices.
Yet despite this broad-ranging and critical feminist scholarship on gendered and sexed identities in modern Iran, it is only hegemonic accounts of sexuality that garner attention in mainstream media and academic circles. These sensationalized narratives often juxtapose an untamed, perverse, traditional, rural, and religious sexuality to a sanitized, modern, and urban Iranian sexuality. Conflated with tradition, Islamic sexuality comes to mean bestiality, sodomy, pedophilia, and polygamy, while a heteronormative (and more recently homonormative) sexuality is constructed as modern and revolutionary. We are told by sexperts that young urban Iranians are challenging the “theocratic regime” by having sex in the private sphere. In this framework, talking about sex or having sex (of the acceptable form) becomes a sign of resistance to the Iranian “regime.”
Thus the marketability of accounts of sexuality is predicated on the binary of repressed sexuality in Iran and freedom of sexuality in the “West.” (Debates that followed the publishing of half-naked pictures of Golshifteh Farahani in a French magazine are examples of this trend). As many scholars have pointed out, women (and increasingly queers) become markers of freedom or oppression within colonial discourses. During the war on terror, native informants who write about the oppression of women and queers in the Muslim and Arab worlds have increasingly become best-sellers and star academics who act as neoliberal self-entrepreneurs, circumvent the tenure processes, and work as “experts” in think tanks that are closely connected to academic institutions.
Interestingly, despite the strategic political appropriations of queers among these (arguably homophobic) groups and individuals, Sadjadpour seems to have missed the chic of queer bandwagon. He denounces “sodomy” and bestiality (which he equally abhors) as abnormal obsessions of Khomeini, suggesting these deviant practices to be familiar to the backward and anti-modern mullah. He claims that:
[s]cholars of Shiism—including harsh critics of Khomeini—emphasize that such themes were the norm among clerics of Khomeini’s generation and should be understood in their proper context: Islam was a religion that emerged out of a rural desert, and the Prophet Mohammed was himself once a shepherd.
There is much to be said about the elitism, nationalism, and anti-Arab sentiments implicit in this statement. In this anti-regime brand of the Iranian nationalistic discourse, “mullahs” become representatives of the Arab other, and the Iranian revolution of 1979 becomes the signifier of a “second Arab invasion.” Needless to say, representations of a temporally fixed Islam and depictions ofperverted Islamic masculinity are consistent with Orientalist discourses that inform the rampant Islamophobia of the war on terror. Maya Mikdashi and Sherene Seikaly rightly point out that Sadjadpour dismisses “the centuries old tradition of practicing Muslims asking and receiving advice on sexual and gender practices.” In fact, Sadjadpour is fixated on the backwardness and deviance of the religious advice on sex. Of course, it does not take an expert of Islamic jurisprudence to know that most practicing Muslims constantly negotiate Islamic codes of conduct though the concept of ijtihadand interpretation. It is exactly because of this concept, for example, that not too long after the 1979 revolution, Khomeini issued a fatwa deeming sex reassignment surgeries to be religiously permissible. Not surprisingly, Khomeini uses normalizing concepts borrowed from modern medical and psychological discourses of his time (and not the Prophet Mohammad’s time!), including Harry Benjamin’s The Transsexual Phenomenon. In fact, modern medical and psychological discourses and religious ones are not necessarily contradictory, but often congruent in normalizing the modern citizen/subject.
Relying on binaries of modern/tradition, secular/religious, public/private, and state/society, Sadjadpour misses the messy overlaps between these discursive oppositions, thus positing a unified traditional Islamic state against a modern homogenous Iranian society, captive to the monstrous and pre-modern sexuality of mullahs. Sadjadpour agrees with Mehdi Khalaji, a Washington-based think tank “expert” who claims that “Islamic jurisprudence hasn’t yet been modernized. It’s totally disconnected from the issues that modern, urban people have to deal with.” Yet, according to Sadjadpour, because there is no separation of religion and politics in Iran (as though this distinction is clear in liberal democracies such as the United States), this perverted Islamic sexuality is dangerously trickling down to the public sphere and dragging Iran down the temporally regressive path: “Because religion is politics in a theocracy like Iran, uninformed or antiquated notions of sexuality aren’t just confined to the bedroom—they pervade the country’s seminaries, military barracks, boardrooms, courtrooms, and classrooms.”
Ultimately, Sadjadpour’s point is that the key to the liberation of Iran is not bombs, but sex! Revolution is achieved through taming the unruly sexuality of the mullahs who are obsessed with bestiality and sodomy, and encouraging “modern” and normal sexuality among youth, whose ‘”frustrated” and “pent-up” sexual energy would otherwise turn into unhealthy and dangerous acts (Basiji youth are pathologized as violent beings whose frustration comes from not “screwing”!)
Elsewhere, I have discussed the production of expertise in think tanks as part of insurance technologies to manage the “risk of terrorism.” These strategies involve the production and division of populations into those who pose the risk of “terrorism” and those who are threatened by it. The experts’ job is to produce, predict, calculate the probability, and eliminate the risk that threatens the interests and values of the “international community.”
Interestingly, Sadjadpour’s speculations about the outcomes of a repressed and perverted sexuality (terrorism) and his choice of “experts” are in line with this management strategy. Not surprisingly, the expert Sadjadpour introduces as a “scholar of Shiism,” is Mehdi Khalaji. A disrobed seminary student, Khalaji got a job at a US propaganda radio service in Prague and migrated to the United States. Despite his lack of formal academic credentials, Khalaji has been working at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think-tank that seeks to protect Israeli state interests. Given his choice of “experts,” Sadjadpour’s recommendation that “the sexual manias of Iran’s religious fundamentalists are worthy of greater scrutiny, all the more so because they control a state with nuclear ambitions, vast oil wealth, and a young, dynamic, stifled population” is quite predictable.
It is also not surprising that Sadjadpour blames unhealthy sexual behavior on the Iranian regime’s repression and internet censorship. There is no doubt that the Iranian state is increasingly limiting access to the internet through filtering, censorship, and harassment of internet users. Yet, US concernwith internet censorship and its campaigns to lift what Obama has termed Iran’s “electronic curtain” in Iran are hypocritical, to say the least. While the United States’ government has worked diligently to circumvent internet censorship in Iran, it has imposed its own filtering criteria. Sadjadpour is correct in pointing out that pages containing the word “sex” (including Essex University) are filtered in Iran. Yet, he fails to mention that it is not just the Iranian state that is obsessed with the sex life of its people. For years, the US government has been contracting private companies such as Anonymizer to send free anti-filtering proxies to Iranian internet users. The US provided proxies, however, block certain words to prevent moral deviation. Incidentally, for a long time, in order to discourage Iranians from surfing gay porn sites, US sponsored proxies filtered the word “ass.” Apparently, the US freedom/security apparatus did not realize that its filter-breaking proxies were filtering all words that contained the letters “a-s-s,” including the American Embassy!”
The irony of it all is that while the liberatory forces are so concerned about rights and freedom in Iran, harsh sanctions that deprive the Iranian population from food and life-saving medicine are not considered human rights violations. As I have discussed before, as a trope, the “people of Iran” constitutes a population, which is produced through the discourse of rights, while being subjected to death exactly because of those rights. In fact, the protection of the rights of the Iranian population is presented as the raison d’être of sanctions and/or war. Shuttling between biopolitics and necropolitics, the Iranian population is subjected to the normalizing techniques of liberal democracy, while being disposable as that which contains the threat of terrorism. Not reduced to bare life, but produced through the discourse of rights, the Iranian population lives a pending death (through economic sanctions or the hovering threat of a military attack) in the name of rights. As enticing as it is to be enthusiastic about the alleged “sexual revolution” in Iran, the politics of rightful killing renders the hippie motto “make love not war” meaningless, when making love is implicated in a war machine that marches to the tune of “killing me softly with your rights.”