Living with 9/11 while Researching Politics and Activism in Iran

Dr Paola Rivetti

Every year, as the anniversary of 9/11 approached, my mind would revive the memories of where I was on that day in 2001 and what my reaction was when the Twin Towers got attacked. This year, the anniversary felt unique; as if the past had not really passed and I presume I was not the only one to experience a sense of déjà vu. I was glued to the screen of my computer searching for news from and about Afghanistan. Alongside this feeling of living through the same time I lived 20 years ago, I also felt like a part of my work was coming full circle. In fact, 9/11 played a fundamental role in drawing my attention to Iranian politics, and I spent 2020 and 2021 touring universities to present and discuss my book about Iran with colleagues and students.1Rivetti Paola, Political Participation in Iran from Khatami to the Green Movement, Palgrave McMillan, 2020. How did 9/11 help structure and refine my research interests and approach?

Liberal anxieties

The attack on the Twin Towers in 2001 had the effect of projecting me into a new world which was both fascinating and terrifying at the same time. As a 20-year-old student of political science, I had a taste for arguments and opinions about all events and current affairs. 9/11 uncovered my lack of knowledge and preparation, and inaugurated a long journey towards the consolidation of my interests and analysis.

I was interested in exploring the relationship between politics and religion, which after 9/11 became a popular topic. Intellectuals and scholars used to discuss if Islam (of all religions) is compatible with democracy and human rights. I was fascinated by those conversations, but at the same time, I was often unconvinced by the all-encompassing explanations of “Islam” or “the Islamic civilisation” that were offered, with little regard for historical, geographic and social complexities and stratification. Islam seemed to replace all categories of analysis that were yet present in our textbooks at university when debating Europe: class, the economy, international relations and power. It was during my PhD that I became familiar with the notion of neo-Orientalism, which “othered” Islam on the basis of its supposedly non-democratic and anti-liberal nature. Against neo-Orientalism, Muslim liberal intellectuals raised their voice to counter the idea⁠—rooted in the “Global War on Terror’s” (GWOT) ideological framework⁠—that Islam had something inherently anti-democratic, and did so by exposing liberal and democratic traditions in the field of religious studies or law interpretation.

Against this backdrop, I had developed a specific interest in Iranian politics and the so-called Iranian “reformist movement”, part of which was elected into government and the parliament between the late 1990s and mid-2000s. Reformism, along with liberal Islam, was seen as a bridge between “the modern and democratic world” on the one side, and Islam on the other. While receiving much attention from academia, I found the response to neo-Orientalism by liberal reformist Muslim thinkers and intellectuals weak. In fact, to me the problem laid at the source, that is, the very existence of Orientalist and racist arguments about Islam. I wanted to deconstruct them rather than finding a good response to them. In the meantime, however, a wealth of literature about “reformist Iran” was published, reinforcing this idea that Iran—thanks to reformism—was “finally” moving towards democracy and modernity, leaving behind grimmer times dominated by something many called “Islamic ideology”. In this way, reformism was also subsumed at the service of the neo-Orientalist narrative. The final years of my PhD were dominated by the urgency to find a way to articulate a different analysis, one that would speak to the conversations I was having in Iran with friends and research participants—most of who were political and social activists—rather than one speaking to the role that scholars and policy-makers had given to reformism. How could this be done?

The Lessons from 9/11

Reformism was a messy affair: many of my friends and research participants were enthusiastic about reformism, but suffered from persecution and incarceration enabled by the very reformist governments. How do we make sense of this? Here, again, the scholarship produced in the aftermath of 9/11 helped me.

As the GWOT followed 9/11 with its corollary of anti-terror laws being implemented around the world, scholarship started to uncover the vicious circle existing between anti-terror policies, migration and racialisation. Migrants were increasingly targeted as potential terrorists; a type of securitisation that went hand in hand with new and more sophisticated forms of racialisation against Muslim populations. Attention to the discrete ways in which the consequences of 9/11 and the GWOT have impacted specific segments of society, exerting a specific pressure, was an inspiration to me to study how gender, class and race/ethnicity worked in relation to Iranian reformism and the political repression suffered by my friends and other research participants.2Chapter five of my book focuses on this. Feminists, for instance, usually were more targeted than liberal intellectuals, and so were workers or ethnic minorities who dared to speak up against exploitation and discrimination. Different groups in society were more or less liked by the “reformist” governments and were more or less fitting for their reform project: turning Iran into a “modern” country following a process of moderate social and political transformation, controlled from above. Some social groups and activists were deemed not necessary for this project because they were “too radical” and reluctant to be controlled. They formed what I conceptualised as “a surplus”.3See chapters 4 and 5 of my book, and also Rivetti Paola, ‘Political activism in Iran: strategies for survival, possibilities for resistance and authoritarianism’, Democratization, Vol. 24, No. 6 (2017): 1178-1194.

Since 9/11, the border regime of Europe has become stiffer and stiffer, and extra-European migrants have found it more and more difficult to enter the EU, and work and live legally there. Thousands of migrants have been illegalised and kept under the constant threat of deportability. They too represent a surplus: building on Marx, they are the “unwanted” excess, and their condition of “being a surplus” disciplines others who are threatened to drift into the same “surplus” condition. Using this conceptualisation, which has been used to explain the consequences of the securitisation of migration since 9/11 as well as the increasing exploitation of low-paid labour, I was able to explain two dynamics: first, how and why “surplus activists” came about. I was able to dissect their relations to state authority by intersecting different factors, ranging from ideology and strategies of mobilisation, to class and ethnic identities. Secondly, I realised that the “surplus condition” was not one of disempowerment, necessarily.

In the years following 9/11, in fact, we have had a revival of the study of agency and subjectivity, often in opposition to the scholarship emphasising the strength of law enforcement and political repression through the securitisation of society. The unexpected ways in which activists and citizens could work around restrictions and limitations caught the interests of scholars, who dedicated even greater attention to this in the aftermath of the so-called “Arab Spring”. Building on this work, I was able to observe and explain how activists, from a position of exclusion and threat of repression, were able to survive and organise in networks that eventually mobilised in 2009/2010—the so-called Green Movement—mounting an unprecedented challenge to the stability of the regime.4 See chapters 1-3 of my book, and also Biagini E., Rivetti P., ‘State repression and activist organizing in informal spaces: comparing feminist movements in Egypt and Iran’, APSA-MENA Politics Newsletter, Vol. 3, No. 2 (2020): 31-36.

Unsurprisingly, 9/11 is interwoven with my research interests and, later, the development of my own way to approach the construction of my research activities. As the Taliban finalise the consolidation of their control over Afghanistan, it is important to pay attention to the return of Orientalism and anti-Muslim racism in academia and elsewhere and to challenge and replace it with grounded approaches to research and knowledge production that are able to explain larger phenomena and events while reflecting the concerns and hopes of those who live through them.


Dr Paola Rivetti is Associate Professor in Politics at the School of Law and Government, Dublin City University. She is the author of Political Participation in Iran from Khatami to the Green Movement (2020) and the co-editor of Islamists and the Politics of the Arab Uprisings: Governance, Pluralisation and Contention (with H. Kraetzschmar, 2018) and Continuity and change before and after the Arab uprisings: Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt (with R. Di Peri, 2015). Paola is a member council of the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies and chairperson of the Irish Network for MENA Studies. She is Associate Editor of the journal Iranian Studies and a member of the editorial boards of the journal Partecipazione e conflitto and the blog Lavoro culturale.

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