The field of Iranian studies is a multidisciplinary venue, yet interdisciplinary research has been scant with fragmented scholarly contributions. In the last decades, studies on Iranian society have struggled to go beyond the polarising dichotomies of ‘before and after the Islamic Republic’, ‘Islam versus secularism’, ‘modernity versus tradition’ or, for that matter, ‘state versus people’. In view of this, the panel brings together scholars from different disciplinary fields – anthropology, sociology and politics – in an attempt to foster interdisciplinary investigations within, and without, Iranian Studies. By locating the historical presence of margins, the panellists explore unseen, yet material, encounters of life in Iran. Although this endeavour bears scholarly value per se, it also effects the making of Iranian studies more broadly, potentially integrating otherwise isolated fields of engagement within the scholarship.
Thus, margins enter into the dialectics of state formation and the making of life in the city; surreptitiously, they cast light on the many faces of Iran, where the dynamics of the Islamic Republic cross the threshold, not simply of the realm of post-Islamism, as Asef Bayat holds, but of secular – in the sense that they belong to the material world – phenomena.
The panel reflects on ad hoc events and agents within Iranian society and history. These are putatively regarded as belonging to the margins of its ‘national’ life and the fringes of its politics. One objective of the panel is to unfold how these margins have actually been constitutive and critical to the making of contemporary Iran. In particular, panellists pay heed to different aspects such as (Adelkhah) ‘dirty money’ in contemporary Iran and its reverberations in the political combat; (Ghiabi) ‘addiction’ and pathology as expedients in managing policy change, disorder and crisis; (Asfari) the qorbati community’s relation to the normative community in the ecology of the city; (Harris) Iran’s capitalism and its institutional logics across the margins of public, semi-public and private sectors.
Detachment from the field, regardless of disciplinary perspectives, produces a scholarship that risks missing the silent, concealed and everyday products of life in Iran; hence, it reproduces an image of Iran through a selection of official discourses at odds with the scholarly sensitivity. By relocating the margins at the core, the panel pursues a heuristic and exploratory objective, building upon the instances of existing investigations on the margins of Iranian studies, with the ultimate aim at making these instances speak to each other.
‘Contamination’, ‘risk’, ‘prevention’, ‘cleansing, ‘quarantine’, ‘emergency’, ‘plague’ and, as I specifically illustrate, ‘pathology’ and ‘crisis’, have been brought in the everyday speeches of politicians and in the vocabulary of politics. Medicine has become a constituent part of ordinary politics as much in governing the population as in making the population govern itself. The state, hence, operates programmes on marginal and mainstream population, which qualify it with Andrew Polsky’s attribute of the ‘therapeutic state’.
Medicine, as a primary device for the management of life, has become the deus ex machina of politics. A case in point is that of the clergy in the Islamic Republic, which has adopted, increasingly in the last decades, the language and reasoning of medicine, technology and sciences, in order to legitimise controversial decisions vis à vis the populace. By doing so, the Iranian state has also adopted the frame of ‘pathology’ in relation to contentious issues, enabling or justifying reforms and changes.
This can be seen in the state interventions vis à vis homeless drug users, sex workers and, as in the work of Afsaneh Najmabadi, transgender individuals. The concept of ‘crisis’ is key in framing political initiatives in terms of policymaking as much as in terms of practical intervention. Indeed, crises operate in such a way that allow societal forces to push for change in certain fields, where governments have previously been unwilling or reluctant to intervene. How does the Iranian state diagnose a crisis? And how are marginal categories treated by state, or para-state, institutions, when they are under (invented or material) conditions of crisis?
These and other questions are investigated in this paper which has the ultimate aim of demonstrating how the Islamic Republic has witnessed the eclipse of Islamist and post-Islamist (pace Asef Bayat) nature, in favour of truly secular – in the sense that they belong to the material world – politics, one which is coterminous with global trends. By looking at the specific, yet quantitatively conspicuous, phenomenon of drug (ab)use as well as homelessness and HIV policies, I trace the making of a new milieu of Islamist politics based on a progressive medicalisation of ‘disorderly, problematic groups’. These can be qualified as the margins of contemporary Iran; margins that, nonetheless, remain central to the making of the country’s politics and political transformation.