Manijeh Moradian, This Flame Within: Iranian Revolutionaries in the United States (Duke University Press, 2022).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Manijeh Moradian (MM): I grew up during the period of intense anti-Iranian sentiment in the United States following the 1979 Iranian revolution and hostage crisis. I have vivid memories of the toll this took on my father, a working-class Zoroastrian Marxist who came to the United States in 1960 to attend university. Not only did he have to deal with racism, harassment, and discrimination once the United States and Iran were no longer allies, but he was also grieving for the loss of a previous era of revolutionary possibility and solidarity. As a leftist who was active with the Iranian foreign student opposition to the Shah, he had spent his first twenty years in the United States making common cause with other students, migrants, exiles, and leftists who were also trying to liberate their countries and communities from US imperialism and capitalism. I knew from his stories that there was a pre-1979 history of tens of thousands of Iranian student-visa holders in the United States, including a minority who oriented themselves against the global capitalist order that they were, ironically, charged with spreading. It was in the context of the US-Shah alliance and the modernization of Iran that these students came to the United States to be educated. They were supposed to put that education to good use remaking Iran into an advanced capitalist nation.
I wanted to write the story of those migrant subjects who opted for revolution instead. This was partly to fill in a gap in our understanding and periodization of the Iranian diaspora in the United States, partly to better understand the process by which people become revolutionaries, and partly to intervene in normative constructions of diasporic Iranian consciousness today. What does it mean to be nostalgic for a moment of Third World revolutionary hope rather than for the “good life” under the US-backed Shah? I wanted to problematize diasporic notions of loss and of nostalgia in order to illuminate ways of being Iranian in the United States that challenge, rather than reproduce, model minority citizenship. Most importantly, I wanted to bring a transnational feminist sensibility to this reckoning with a diasporic revolutionary past and with the role the left played in the Iranian revolution. I wanted to better understand why so much of the left, including returning foreign students, had uncritically supported the religious leadership of the revolution and how those who survived the Islamic Republic’s persecution hold that history today. Rather than simply reiterate a dominant narrative about the failure of the Iranian left, I wanted to take seriously the desire for freedom that animated a generation and consider how new generations might embody those desires differently.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
MM: The book focuses on the Iranian Students Association (ISA), which became the main vehicle for Iranian student opposition to the Shah in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. The ISA affiliated with the transnational Confederation of Iranian Students (National Union) or CISNU, which organized Iranian students primarily in Europe. My goal was to understand the formation, political development, strategies, and ideologies of this movement as well as the impact it had on non-Iranian student activists in the United States. This Flame Within addresses the mutual radicalization and cross pollination between the ISA and other student movements, an example of what I call “affects of solidarity.” I wanted to place the history of the diasporic Iranian student left in conversation with other contemporary student leftist movements and to investigate the internal culture of the ISA as a case study of Third World Marxist formations of the era.
In particular, the book explores the highly contradictory gender and sexual politics of the ISA, which enabled the participation and even leadership of women while simultaneously making that participation contingent upon adherence to masculinist notions of what it meant to be a revolutionary. Indeed, the very meaning of revolution, and the way it was imagined as a hierarchical phenomenon that would first overthrow imperialism and then attend to other, less important or secondary oppressions, was rooted in patriarchal ideas that were shared widely across leftist movements globally. I wanted to place the experience of Iranian women in the ISA within the larger context of Third World liberation struggles that gave rise to new forms of revolutionary feminism.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
MM: This is my first academic monograph. Before beginning my PhD program, I studied creative non-fiction and was working on a memoir about my family. The vast majority of Iranian American memoirs have been written by people whose families were from the upper classes in Iran, who lost wealth and status in the 1979 revolution. My Zoroastrian family were very poor when my father was young and they faced religious persecution under the Pahlavi regime and under the rule of the Islamists. My father became a Marxist in high school during the oil nationalization movement in the early 1950s and was a supporter of the 1979 revolution. I wanted to write about what it had been like to grow up in the United States as the daughter of this man and of my Jewish American mother. I wanted to complicate normative ideas of Iranian identity and politics in the United States. That theme has definitely carried over into my scholarly work!
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
MM: My hope is that this book will be meaningful—and readable—for people in and out of academia. I consider the book an intersectional feminist reinterpretation of the past but also an act of intergenerational transmission of memory, affect, emotion, and hope. For folks interested in the historically troubled relationship between national liberation and women’s liberation, there is a key chapter that follows ISA members who returned to Iran in 1979 to participate in the revolution. I dwell on a few fleeting days of a mass women’s uprising in Tehran in March 1979 in order to investigate the competing discourses and visions of revolution on offer. Rather than counterposing feminism and national sovereignty, this women’s uprising produced what I call an “intersectional anti-imperialism” as an alternative to masculinist and hierarchical versions of anti-imperialism that were dominant across the political spectrum. This book is for everyone interested in the project of social transformation and interested in engaging with the lived experience of revolutionary activity and subject formation. In the current moment of a new feminist revolutionary movement in Iran, I hope this book will be read by everyone concerned with how to practice diasporic solidarity.
J: What lessons does your book offer for Iranians in diaspora today who want to support the new revolution in Iran?
MM: I think there are two key lessons to draw out from the history and legacy of the ISA as a diasporic leftist formation in the United States. The first is about making connections across different liberation movements and understanding what is happening in Iran in a regional and global context, rather than in isolation. The second is about how we conceptualize the meaning of words like “revolution” and “freedom.” The movement for “women, life, freedom” in Iran has placed the issue of equality for women and for ethnic and religious minorities at the center of the uprising. This is unprecedented, inspiring, and tenuous. It will take persistent efforts to ensure that issues of gender, sexual, religious, and ethnic freedom do not become marginalized. Class inequalities are also at the heart of this revolt and should not be overlooked because poverty is a major obstacle to meaningful forms of freedom. This Flame Within offers a conceptual framework for contending with multiple, overlapping sources of oppression at the same time, including the brutality of domestic dictatorship and imperial aggression. A key lesson is that freedom has to mean more than just getting rid of a terrible authoritarian regime; it has to involve a commitment to dismantling hierarchy and oppression at every level of society.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
MM: Currently, I am developing a new project that fuses the genres of literary non-fiction and art criticism. I am interested in how the realms of visual and performance art have enabled Iranian queer and feminist diasporic critique of the normative categories of the US-Iran conflict and the war on terror. I am interested in cultural production that helps us imagine a way out of the binaries between Islam and the West and that evokes transnational and intersectional notions of justice.
Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, pp. 11-14)
Affects of Solidarity
In the course of my research, I found that former ISA members had not only engaged in actions geared toward overthrowing the Shah, but also participated in a wide range of other movements. This is how Jalil Mostashari, a former ISA member at Michigan State in the mid-1960s, described his activities: “The Black struggle was a part of the total international struggle for me. It was not only them. Sometimes the UAW [United Auto Workers] needed people on their picket line in Detroit. When Arab students had an action, we would participate in it. When we had an action, they would participate in it. Eritreans would come with us. Afghan students would come with us. Some people from Bengal—they were leftists—they would come with us.” When I asked him what motivated this level of commitment to so many different causes, he looked me in the eyes, held my gaze, and spoke with the gravity of someone expressing a sacred truth: “If you want people to sympathize with you, you have to sympathize with them at the time of their need. You cannot just say things; you’ve got to believe it, really, in your heart. You have to have this flame within you that can warm others. You cannot say it with your tongue; it doesn’t move anybody.” This book takes its title from Jalil’s words and from the description of the relationship between affective energy and political action embedded within it. To “believe” something “really, in your heart” describes an affective state that blurs the mind/body divide structuring Western enlightenment notions of subjectivity. To have “this flame within” is to embody a politics of solidarity as animating energy that burns, warms, and moves people toward others with whom they sense something shared.
I developed the concept “affects of solidarity” to describe embodied attachments to the liberation of others. Affects of solidarity are generated when revolutionary affects, or desires for revolution, circulate and converge across different populations and movements. It is important here to distinguish between affects of solidarity and emotions like pity or guilt that might accompany altruism, bringing new political possibilities into being. Solidarity does not automatically eradicate or transcend those divisions and can sometimes reproduce them, but it can also reroute our affiliations and attachments away from dominant hierarchies and toward new forms of connection.
By paying attention to affects of solidarity we can better understand how the power of solidarity “from below” emerges. If affect refers to our ability to be affected or changed by the world, and also our ability to effect change, then the question becomes: how and under what conditions is affect mobilized toward acts of solidarity? There may be a material basis for different groups of people coming to identify with one another and act collectively, such as a common interest in fighting a company that pollutes the environment and busts unions (for example, the “Teamsters and Turtles” coalition of union members and environmentalists that opposed NAFTA). But this kind of coincidence of immediate, material interests is not always present or necessary for solidarity to occur. There was no immediate, material interest at stake when Iranian students marched with their American counterparts against the US war in Vietnam as they were not in danger of being drafted. I argue that the affective states mobilized and generated through acts of solidarity have the power to redefine the very notion of “interests,” to change how we perceive our needs, desires, and commonalities. Affects of solidarity encompass a range of sensations and orientations toward the Other that are compelling precisely because they facilitate a new feeling of mutuality, connection, and collective power. This is how affective attachments to the well-being of others become rewarding and transformative, even among people who may previously have understood themselves to hold disparate or conflicting concerns.
The element of mobility that characterizes affect is perhaps most crucial to my formulation. Affects of solidarity accumulate and circulate, building in intensity and picking up new meanings as they move. Affects of solidarity draw people together from widely differing contexts and facilitate joint political action across the boundaries of race, class, gender, sexuality, religion, language, and nationality. They describe the affective state or mood that made Third World internationalism possible. Iranian student activists in the US were deeply affected by the conditions they encountered in diaspora, by the rebellions underway on and off college campuses. Depending on where they landed, ISA members had the opportunity to participate in mass movements against racism and war. Their activities constitute a missing piece of Afro-Asian studies historiography, bringing West Asian solidarity with African American and African liberation into focus. Like their American activist peers, Iranian students were influenced and inspired by the proliferation of Third World anticolonial movements and searched among them for models to adapt and follow. In turn, ISA members contributed to the shared feelings of militancy and solidarity among a larger leftist milieu by exposing the hidden brutalities of the alliance between the US and the Shah, and, along with Arab and Arab American students, by placing West Asia and North Africa on the map of activist affiliation and concern. In this way, they deepened and expanded an internationalist political culture that thrived by making connections between domestic and imperial forms of subjugation and by linking vastly different sites of resistance. These connections were sometimes material—as when the Shah was funneling weapons to suppress anticolonial struggles in Southern Africa—and always affective.
Among the most active Iranian students, Third World Marxism became the primary interpretive lens for their experiences in Iran and in the US. Even though the ISA was imagined as a coalition representing the interests of all Iranian foreign students, by the late 1960s many leading ISA activists were also affiliated with a handful of underground leftist parties. These parties followed various interpretations of Marxism-Leninism and Maoism. Some supported guerilla struggle while others looked to rural peasant movements or to the urban working class as the agent of change. By 1975, the competing influences of these parties, and disagreements among them, would cause the ISA to split. Despite this fragmentation, the Iranian anti-Shah student opposition would continue to grow and to deepen its connections with other revolutionary movements. The fact that the ISA came to be dominated by Third World Marxism created a shared ideological framework with the rest of the US Third World Left, facilitating what Cynthia Young has called the “multiple translations and substitutions” necessary to “close the gaps between First and Third World subjects.” My argument is that analogies between the conditions faced by inhabitants of racialized urban space in the US and those of the colonial countryside, between Black and Brown Americans and the peasantries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, were lived and felt as affects of solidarity, and that this force allowed disparities and inconsistencies to recede in the construction of a deeply rewarding revolutionary imaginary.
However, even as affects of solidarity crossed national, racial, and other sites of difference, they did not necessarily transcend them. In the 1960s and 1970s, affects of solidarity did not attach equally to all liberation movements. Notably, feminist and gay liberation movements were not common for the ISA. Rather than idealizing solidarity, this study explores these gaps and contradictions in order to better understand how affects of solidarity attach to some struggles and not others. I thus contribute to queer and feminist interventions into Afro-Asian studies by exploring how affective dissonance within movements became a launching point for challenges to hetero-patriarchal ideas and forms of organizing.
Crucially, as my research shows, affects of solidarity do not necessarily stem from the same experiences of oppression; Iranian foreign students like Jalil were not targeted by racism the way that African Americans were, for example, and yet they could still identify with and support “the Black struggle.” That “flame within” could emanate from vastly different encounters with injustice and still attract people to the same meetings and demonstrations. When it came to the divisions between men and women, however, solidarity was often conditional upon adherence to masculinist definitions of proper revolutionary activity. These were the conditions that gave rise to Third World and women-of-color feminism. Below I apply my affective theory of revolutionary subjectivity to analyze the structures of feeling that facilitated, and impinged upon, solidarity between women and men in the ISA.