April 5th, 2019
University of Toronto
Saharnaz Samaeinejad and Elmira Alihosseini
Interview with Dr. Shahla Talebi
Saharnaz Samaeinejad and Elmira Alihosseini: Throughout your research, you have offered fresh perspectives on the questions of self-sacrifice and martyrdom, violence and politics of memorialization in contemporary Iran. Your work investigates Islamic theopolitics in Iran by elaborating on the emergence of multiple, and indeed, conflicting forms of subjectivities and subjective experiences, along with the formation and consolidation of a modern sovereign state and its ideology. You argue that these are product of and productive of alternative modernities. For example in your article, titled ‘From the Light of the Eyes to the Eyes of the Power: State and Dissident Martyrs in Post-Revolutionary Iran’ (2012), you have written: “Not myths but mythology, not origin but genealogy, not return to the past but archaeology, not ghosts but ever-present spiritual soldiers, not religion but modern-digitized techniques of religiosity: these are the means by which the state constructs and reconstructs itself, and normalizes the lives and deaths of its ‘sovereign’ subjects.” We would like to begin this interview by asking how would you conceptualize the singularity of this peculiar form of experiencing modernity in post-revolutionary Iran?
Shahla Talebi: By using the term ‘alternative modernity,’ I have been trying to emphasize mainly on modernity as an attitude, or rather as different forms of attitude, characterized by the ways subjects may consider themselves autonomous and pursue particular modes of caring for the self. Let me be clear, by the term alternative modernity I am not suggesting that there is a standard western model of modernity to which other forms are mere alternatives. I am rather trying to highlight the more diverse and messy modernity that takes different forms in different contexts. I wish to avoid assuming a homogenous, coherent, neat character to modernity. By using this term, I want to suggest, for example, that there are particularities in the way the Islamic Republic, as a modern state, makes claims to particular myths or the way it deploys mythology in telling a story of Islam, the revolution, and their connection that gives this modern nation-state its singular characteristics. I have in mind, for example, the way the Islamic Republic returns to the story of the “origin”, utilizing modern techniques and technologies. In this sense, its project is very much archeological. I’m using the term ‘alternative modernity’ because the Islamic Republic tells a different story of its relation to theology that is characterized by modern discourses and practices and attitudes. Yet, while like any modern state, it operates within the domains demarcated by these modern techniques and technologies, it pursues a particular mode of creating subjects, citizens, and a different mode of governmentality – one that appears abhorrent to the “secular,” liberal sensibilities. It deploys a language that is enveloped in seemingly “archaic,” theopolitical legal discourses, while indeed embedded in modern discourses. The technologies of war and the general gist of the sovereign state for which one will die are somewhat similar everywhere; yet in post-revolutionary Iran, the story of sacrificing one’s life for the nation-state was told as the story of being embraced by Imam Hussein at the gate of Heaven–that non-Shi`i Iranians were also killed in the war to whom this promise was not necessarily appealing may say something about the limits of citizenship in the polity. When the theological dimension of the story, in claiming the connection between the state and God gains power, especially in the early years following the revolution, it creates a different kind of relationship between the subject and the sovereign state. So, the story of Imam Hussein allows for different possibilities of sacralization of death during the War. For instance, in the stories of the state martyrs, there is a specific claim to infinitude, where the state claims both to be the representative of God and to having knowledge of the faith of different groups of people in their afterlife or after-death experience. By claiming to know which group is going to go to hell and which group is going to be embraced by Imam Hussein and be given the keys to Heaven, the state somehow assumes the role of God, as some Iranians would make jokes about it, while others would find it powerful. While sacralization of nation-states is not unique to Iran, the forms and the techniques are unique, allowing one to see a less homogenous modernity. I think these stories I try to tell of the state and my interlocutors demonstrate divergent ways in which some Iranians think about individual autonomy and about their life and death, some of which may not be appealing to or commensurate with liberal sentiments and sensibilities.
Saharnaz & Elmira: Isn’t the paradox of the Islamic Republic similar to every form of authoritarian populism everywhere in the world, where both the authoritarian states and the people claim the authority of God? In other words, people in the context of authoritarian populism, which represent the phantasmagoria of the power of the people, or the general will of the people, also take the empty, transcendental space of God. With this definition of authoritarian populism, we’re still having difficulty understanding the singularity of the Islamic Republic.
Shahla Talebi: Without denying the populism of the state, I won’t take theology here simply as an empty signifier. I want to avoid essentializing theologico-political discourses of the Islamic Republic as if purely transcendental and ahistorical. I think it is important to recognize the tangible power of many Iranians’ belief in the afterlife, for example. In this case, not to see the theological discourses of the Islamic Republic as simply empty words for many Iranians, especially around the time of the revolution, just before and for several years after, the promise of being embraced by Imam Hussein was significant and enabled the state to utilize it in its political mobilization in the war, since at the time for many young Iranians this promise was not merely an empty one. It led to many young Iranians’ stronger will to die or sacrifice for the state, since they did not see Khomeini only as the leader of the revolution, or the head of the state, but as a Shi`i clergy whose claim to connection to Imam Hussein was not baseless in their views. Let me give you one example. Under the authoritarian regime of the Shah too, the attempt was to make Iranians believe that political dissidents were betraying the nation state. Even then, prison officials tried to change dissidents or break them apart. But then, this breaking apart was mainly in relation to the nation state, and did not have a theological dimension in the sense that the torture or other forms of punishments were not incurred with the claim that what they were doing in relation to the state might actually send you to hell or heaven. Under the Islamic Republic, the guards who [did not want to] take part in the massacre of the summer of 1988 were told that if they did not take part in it, they were doing something against Islam, not just the Islamic government. It was taken as claim to being the representative of God, that they took seriously when they were told that they were sinning by not fulfilling their duty as Muslims. These guards were coming and asking for a fatwa, requesting to be allowed to pay Kaffara, which is a monetary way of paying for something, a religious obligation, that you have not done for different reasons but which you were supposed to do. The guards were coming and asking how and what they can do in order to be allowed to not take part in, for instance, shooting prisoners or carrying their bodies. What I’m saying is that taking their feelings and their religious inclinations seriously will enable us to understand how their trepidation was not simply of betraying the government but also of betraying God. In the same way, if you read most of the state martyrs’ wills or letters, you will see that when they voluntarily decided to go to war or partake in a war operation, they had to make a claim to having either a dream or of having some kind of waking vision, during which God or someone holy like Imam Hussein had communicated with them, and told them that they had to go to war and sacrifice their lives. I think these sentiments and their embodied affects have to be taken seriously. In this sense, for me, this is not about theology, but about how to ethnographically think about the way people think about and act on their religious inclinations.
Saharnaz & Elmira: In this interview, we would like to mainly focus on your scholarly engagement with the discourse of martyrdom in Iran. In one of your articles  on the state and dissident martyrs in post-revolutionary Iran, you write about the ambiguities surrounding memory politics, by observing the antithetical attitudes (or policies for that matter) of the Islamic Republic toward two forms of martyrdom experienced by Iranians in post-revolutionary era, that is, the simultaneous efforts of the state to commemorate one form of martyrdom—the ones killed in the battlefield during the Iran-Iraq war—while working toward a repressive erasure and systematic humiliation of the other—the oppositional forces murdered by the Islamic Republic after the revolution. How are these two different categories of martyrdom and the theological and ethico-political discourses that support each of them similar or different from each other?
Shahla Talebi: First of all, while not separate from one another, there are layers to this issue; there are anthropological approaches, the ethnographic aspect of the work I am doing, and the analytical aspect of it, then we have other layers, including the political and theological. On the anthropological level, I’m trying to think about what it means for the citizens of a nation state who partook in bringing about a revolution—which means they have a claim to the revolution—and yet, in its aftermath, one group felt that, all of a sudden, the revolution was being either hijacked by the post-revolutionary state or taken away from them, while the other group seems to want to fight and die for this same state. [Another anthropological layer of my work] is to look at the experiences of the ones, namely the state martyrs, whose sacrifices took on a totally different meaning when they were appropriated by the government.
Aside from thinking about these experiences anthropologically, I’m also thinking about this situation on the political level. In this sense, the form of governmentality is actually reliant on creating these different extreme experiences, within which the normalcy of citizenship gets created. Here, I’m talking about how, on the one hand, one group of martyrs becomes the ideal model of citizenry, after whose experiences and sacrifices the entire citizenship has to be modelled, while on the other hand, you have another group, that of dissident martyrs, which is treated entirely as the Other. This, however, doesn’t mean that the tensions, the spaces in between, the fractures, the other potentials for different forms of subjectivities, are not there or that these groups are homogeneous. I look at the way the groups are constantly changing, as does the utilization of “state martyrs” change according to the need of the polity.
Saharnaz & Elmira: You distinguish between political theology (the state and the question of the legitimacy of the state) and the experiences of those who went through this self-sacrificial death during the Iran-Iraq war, that is, the experiences of the revolutionaries and war-martyrs, and articulate them as two forms of subjectivities. What is the relationship of these two forms of martyrdom to the subjective modalities of the will to die, the negation of the will to life, and the will to life?
Shahla Talebi: When Khomeini came back to Iran, and on the first day of his arrival, he gave a speech at the Behesht-e Zahra cemetery. It was in that particular historical moment, standing beside the graves of the martyrs of the revolution, where he said, these martyrs have died for Islam! This was the moment of both ambiguity, and yet also the moment of demarcating the discourse of martyrdom. From that moment on, those who were leftist, and non-Muslim citizens, were already delineated as the outside of the domain of martyrdom. Later, they would be treated as the polluted, abject, and almost non-subject beings, as if outsiders of the system, though indeed the necessary part of demarcating its boundaries. The state re-defined the discourse of martyrdom, which under the Shah was used interchangeably by religious and Marxist revolutionaries to refer to the act of fighting and dying for a cause of justice. Both of [these group of people lost their lives] through their “own choice”, sacrificing themselves for what they saw as a just cause; thus, the meaning of martyrdom, in this sense, did not have, at least, an overt, theological dimension prior to the  revolution. It was not defined as dying for God or dying for Islam – not that there were not those who saw their fight also for God – but the general defining character of martyrdom was not dependent on dying for Islam. After the revolution, however, those whom the state recognized as martyrs were sacralized, with a guaranteed passage to heaven, whose bodies and clothes were already purified due to their act of martyrdom; while the others killed by the state were polluted and could not even be buried in regular cemeteries.
Saharnaz & Elmira: In your article, “An Iranian Martyr’s Dilemma: The Finite Subject’s Infinite Responsibility” (2013), you articulate the dilemma of the state martyrs by discussing how the figure of martyr within the discourse of the state martyrs has two meanings: martyr as the witness of injustices and martyr as the ever-present. Can you expand a little bit on the political paradoxes created by this double meaning of the martyr?
Shahla Talebi: In this article, I reflect on the bodies of the state martyrs that like the body of the king, is at once in heaven, yet watching, and still part of the polity! As you know, the word shahid (martyr) has this double meaning as an ever present witness and as someone who has died for a cause. I show in this piece how this metaphoric, linguistic discourse becomes somewhat an actual dilemma for some martyrs; that is, how can I die today, and yet be present now and be able to die tomorrow if I must? How can I simultaneously be a witness today and tomorrow? How can I make the state survive today, but also be there to protect it tomorrow? And yet, they recognize that while the state is constantly transitioning and outliving them, their body can only die, leaving it to the state to utilize them in its constantly shifting agendas. In this dilemma, you see that there is a recognition both of corporality and of carnality.
For them, death also had a totally different meaning! One way of thinking about death is to think about it theologically. If you take theology and the belief in theology seriously, you’ll see that the discourse among some religious subjects is that life in this world is only a transitory prison, while real life is supposed to happen in the hereafter. In other words, in this discourse there is a different purchase and understanding and investment in this life and in the hereafter. When somebody says I’m dying, and has already had a dream where Imam Hussein is standing at the gate of heaven waiting to embrace him, this represents a different kind of thinking about death compared to a non-believer who says I’m dying, but I’m hoping that my death is going to create a better world here on earth. That’s one aspect of this different modes of thinking about martyrdom.
The second part of it concerns the ones who are dying and yet are more invested in the polity [than in the hereafter], such as in the case of the will and letter by the state martyr of which I am writing in the piece you mentioned. In this sense, while dying and assuming they were going to heaven due to their martyrdom, they were still concerned about the life of the state, and about what was going to happen in the polity after they died. Hence, in regard to Khomeini, while he supposedly became the mediator between God, Islam, and the state, he also had to live up to what some of these state martyrs saw as the ideal form of an Islamic state. In this sense, collapsing the distance between state and God renders it possible to hold the state accountable for its claim and its actions, which is what I talk about in this piece. There is still another paradox involved here! While ultimately, this group of state martyrs wanted the Islamic state to survive, they were anxiously aware that this polity, like every other political entity, is constantly shifting and transitioning, and contrary to God, it cannot always remain the same. And thus, they knew that regardless of all its theological claims, the state could not really be treated as truly divine, as true representative of God.
But more interesting than that is the recognition of the fact that, as with the state and for the people too, the category of martyrdom is not monolithic and static. That even though you are supposedly an ever-present witness, the realities of your death can be instrumentalized and appropriated by the state at given circumstances, and as new dimensions are added to the attributes of martyrdom, the push for new definitions and demands for new recognitions also emerge. In the past forty years, the discourse of martyrdom has been constantly shifting and changing. For instance, one very significant part of what changed, as you said, was that the discourse of martyrdom in Iran surprisingly included soldiers, who as Karl Popper discusses could not be seen as martyrs because they had not made a free decision to go to war since in Iran military conscription is mandatory. In other words, as a member of the military, soldiers, if sent, had to partake in the war. Indeed, the Islamic Republic has constantly instrumentalized “its” martyrs as a very important arm of the government and of governmentality, but the rationale behind its instrumentalization has kept shifting; for instance, in the article you referred to, I discuss how the notion of martyrdom has shifted from being recognized as ‘the lights of the eye’, in Khomeini’s words, to ‘the lights of power,’ of the state in my rendition.
Saharnaz Samaeinejad and Elmira Alihosseini: What is the dialectical relation between the essential possibility of freedom of choice and decision-making inherited in the revolutionary discourses of self-sacrifice, and the essential un-freedom of the helplessly self-sacrificing soldiers and paramilitary volunteers of the Iran-Iraq war?
Shahla Talebi: These two categories of martyrdom, those who died as soldiers and the Revolutionary Guards or members of Basij, who “voluntarily” joined to go the war, are often distinguished from one other in the weight of the “honorary recognition” they receive from the state. On the other hand, If you read the letters left from the revolutionaries and the leftists, they almost always talked about how much they loved to live, and how they had to make a decision to die. Their decision then does not usually represent a will to die. It was rather a will to have others live a better, more just life that persuaded them to make the decision to die. Contrary to this group of martyrs, many of the war martyrs in their letters and wills excitedly addressed God by saying “God, I’m coming to join you! I’m coming to heaven! I’m coming to meet Imam Hussein!” Also in my work, I talk about how the war martyrs referred to their life as amanatwith amanat being something of value to be entrusted with the person with the expectation of being returned without any damage. When life is seen not as one’s own to which one has a free choice, but as amanat with which one is trusted by God, then the decision to give it away would take a different meaning.
This adds another layer of complexity to the dilemma of the state-martyrs. In other words, if your life is not even something that is yours, how can you be someone who is giving it up? So, there are all these various modalities of thinking about life and death that distinguish them from one another. How are different forms of subjectivities created? In particular, in the case of the subjectivity of the state martyrs, making choices for this group of individuals happens within the spaces in between; that is, within these liminalities where they could push and make cracks in the forms that were given to them, as linguistically- and theologically-absolute forms. It happens through their recognition of those cracks and fissures in reality; and this is how singular and diverse forms of subjectivities are created as heterogeneous characters.
When I talk about the dilemma of the martyrs, I mean the dilemma of being at once a revolutionary and also someone who is theologically invested in the political discourse about the relationship of the martyrs to the state, to Islam, and to God and that are not separable from one another. In this sense, on the one hand, you are constantly negotiating your relationship with the state, your role in the functioning of that state, your role in the history and everyday life of the polity, and, on the other hand, you posit yourself, or your desire to be, in a different form of being in the world which goes beyond the historical moment, as if infinitively; this is the impossibility of what I am discussing in that piece.
Saharnaz & Elmira: Is this notion of the finitude of the subject and infinitude of the polity only applicable in relation to the state martyrs then?
Shahla Talebi: Yes and no. In this piece I am referring to the dilemma of the state martyrs because in the ambiguity of their perception of the two spheres, that is, the political sphere of nation-state and the theological sphere of the divine, they seem to collapse and yet they are aware of the impossibility of their true merging. For the state martyrs, for whom martyrdom is supposed to sustain and protect the state as godly and divine, while they are facing the everyday reality of its “impure” political work, this task appears impossible.
“The dilemma of the Iranian martyrs” shows that the state martyrs anxiously recognized that there are two different ways of thinking about the infinitude; that is, to think of the infinite in the context of theology, and to think of it within the context of the nation-state. In fact, in modern times, every citizen knows that the nation-state is a corporal body and a collective formation that outlives individuals; it is a political entity for which individuals can die or by which they can be killed. In this sense, the two categories of martyrdom are similar. A leftist dissident martyr, who dies in the framework of the nation-state does not claim that this worldly state somehow is or has to be the representative of God on earth, and at the same time, she or he recognizes that since the state is a political entity, it can go through transformation and outlive any single individual.
So the claims of the state martyrs to be ever present turns into a discursive claim. That is why I discuss the fact that by citing other martyrs’ wills in their own wills, these martyrs tried to create a sense of discursive continuity about their claims; in other words, in these wills, when a person speaks, it seems that he speaks for other martyrs, as other martyrs seem to also speak for this person. It is precisely through the creation of this chain of martyrdom that the claim to infinity is constructed and established as a discursive claim.
Saharnaz & Elmira: Do you find the same sense of ‘discursive claim’ and the sense of anxiousness about the modern subject being inherently finite (with an infinite responsibility towards the polity), relevant in relation to leftist, and other dissident martyrs as well?
Shahla Talebi: For leftists, this discursive claim exists in a different sense. Let me give you an example. There was a popular saying in Vietnam, known to be quoting Ho Chi Minh, that there is a valley between the ones who fight against justice and the ones who fight for justice. It is said that this valley is so huge that only the blood of martyrs can fill it and overcome. The idea was that for every martyr who dies, one thousand people would feel mobilized to sacrifice their life. So, for them, the bodies and the blood of the martyrs and the continuity of the desire to die for a just cause were at the core of the discourse of martyrdom. Some of the Iranian leftists too hoped their death would bring justice beyond their individual life, and yet were worried their death could fail to bring about their desired change. But this is still different from the impossible claim of the state martyrs, as if to some kind of infinite divine presence.
That is why I argue that it is not the myth but the mythology that is in place here. These mythologies are linguistically powerful yet at the same time, they already hint at the specter of absence, of the very lack of what is claimed to exist beyond the corporal, the discursive. Because without the body, no matter what, the state is going to use you and appropriate your death; this does not mean always successfully and or without challenges. Without a body, you are not going to be there to tell them how to be used, and this becomes a discursive irony that is the condition of possibility for the creation of the dilemma about which I am talking here and in almost all my works.
Saharnaz & Elmira: Thank you so much for giving us time for this conversation.
 Talebi, Shahla. 2012. “From the Light of the Eyes to the Eyes of the Power: State and Dissident Martyrs in Post-Revolutionary Iran.” Visual Anthropology 25 (1-2): 120-147.
 Husayn ibn Ali is the third Shia Imam, whose martyrdom at the Battle of Karbala has given shape to much of the (revolutionary) ideology of Shi’ism in modern time and to theological beliefs of Shia Muslims about martyrdom.
 Mohammad Reza Shah (1919—1980) was the last king of the Pahlavi dynasty, who ruled Iran from 16 September 1941 until his overthrow by the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
 Talebi, Shahla. 2012. “From the Light of the Eyes to the Eyes of the Power: State and Dissident Martyrs in Post-Revolutionary Iran.” Visual Anthropology 25 (1-2): 120-147.
 Ayatollah Khomeini (1902—1989) was the leader of the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
 Shahla Talebi. “An Iranian Martyr’s Dilemma: The Finite Subject’s Infinite Responsibility.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 33, no. 2 (2013): 177-196.
 [The Quranic concept of Amana is popularly understood to mean that humans are never the absolute owners and that things are only entrusted to them by God.]