Manijeh Moradian's This Flame Within is a pathbreaking contribution to ethnic and transnational feminist studies that helps expand the field of Asian American studies and rewrite its genealogy from a new perspective—a new movement, region, and archive. It is informed by Moradian's research on west Asian diasporic struggles, specifically the history of the Iranian leftist student movement in the United States in the context of antiwar/anti-imperialist struggles in the 1960s and 1970s. The book uses archival research and in-depth interviews with members of the Iranian Students Association (ISA) who were engaged with antiracist and anticolonial organizing with other students in Third World movements. Focusing on Iranian immigration to the United States before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, an underaddressed diasporic Iranian history, it offers a brilliant transnational feminist critique of the “affects of solidarity” that spurred these international students to resist both imperialism and authoritarianism.

Moradian's book is one of the major works by a new generation of scholars that uses critical ethnic studies and transnational feminist frameworks to finally bring attention to diasporic Iranian experiences and movements. Moradian's analysis is drawn from a deeply moving self-reflexive account of her own father's experience as an ISA activist at Howard University in the 1960s. Thus, it also offers a poignant window into the intergenerational implications of radical transnational politics for “all the children of revolutionaries” to whom she dedicates the book. The book helps expand American studies scholarship on the Third World Left in the 1960s–1970s by highlighting Iran as a nexus point for the transnational circulation of radical ideologies and movements resisting imperialism, authoritarianism, and capitalism.

Third Worldism, Transnational Feminism, and Critical SWANA/Muslim Studies

This Flame Within was published in a moment when there is growing work on questions emerging from southwest Asian and north African (SWANA) diasporic communities, building on research in Arab American and critical Muslim studies over the last two decades.1 There are three key insights from Moradian's astute historical analysis of the Iranian diasporic Left that I think will help push theorizing in ethnic studies in new directions. First, the book frames west Asian diasporic leftist activism as a site where US imperialism was being resisted through transnational leftist and feminist approaches based on what Moradian calls a “transnational revolutionary subjectivity.”2 There is a “subterranean leftist genealogy” and specific Asian Marxist history that Moradian explores through this new research on diasporic Iranian activists in the ISA, shaped by the legacies of Asia's first communist party that infused the transnational Iranian Left (10). One of the book's key findings is from her research on Iranian student activists at San Francisco State University who were part of the militant movement for ethnic studies, led by the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF) and the Black Student Union (BSU), especially the account of Khosro Kalantari's participation in actions in solidarity with the BSU in 1967. The TWLF strike flyers and media coverage uncovered by Moradian reveal the largely unknown role of Iranian students in this legendary mobilization for Third World studies. As Alex Lubin observes in his contribution to this issue, this research illuminates the “converging radicalism” of these movements and allows us to see that Iranian diasporic opposition to the US-backed Shah was, in fact, part of Third World leftist politics at the time, something that has not been integrated into ethnic studies so far (130). However, Moradian's book is not just a project of recuperation of lost history; it is also an epistemic intervention that helps to expand the analysis of US empire, as well as resistance to imperialism and repression, through her nuanced research on the diasporic dimensions of the “modern Iranian freedom struggle” (10).

Second, the book's focus on the concept of political affect helps deepen the notion of an intersectional political matrix in ways that will be valuable for social movement studies. Moradian's methodology uses oral histories to excavate an “affective archive,” drawing on work by Gayatri Gopinath and other theorists of affect, directing our attention to what official histories forget, and theorizing everyday actions not always considered “political” (6). She astutely argues that “revolutionary affects are the embodied remains of the intertwined experiences of imperialism, dictatorship, and diaspora” (7). This is a profound insight that has powerful resonance today, especially because it was published during the radical women's uprising in Iran that began in September 2022 after Iranian state agents murdered a Kurdish Iranian woman, Mahsa Jina Amini. Reading Manijeh's book in the midst of this movement for “zan, zendegi, azaadi/jin, jiyaan, azaadi” (women, life, freedom), I was struck by Moradian's timely call to “rethink contemporary Iranian diasporic subjectivity, feminism, and transnational solidarity” (4). Indeed, the Iranian feminist insurgency for women's bodily autonomy and against state repression that spread across national borders was a dramatic iteration of the very revolutionary affects traced in the book.

Third, Moradian's work is also an incredibly innovative and important contribution to critical Muslim studies as well as political organizing against the long war on terror, as it reframes the discussion of the construction of “the terrorist” from the perspective of the racialization of Iranians. The centrality of anti-Iranian racism, enacted in US surveillance, detention, and deportation policies targeting Iranians, was key to the construction of the term “Islamophobia” in the 1980s, a racial project that also targeted Arab Americans and other Muslim communities (as well as Muslim-looking people). But due to the slippage between anti-Arab/anti-Muslim racism and the lack of focus on anti-Iranian racism, even within critical ethnic/race studies, the analysis of this imperial racism as it evolved through various phases of US empire has lost some of its crucial bearings in the vexed politics of US-Iran relations.

Moradian succinctly observes that “before Iranians in the US were labeled ‘terrorists’ they were revolutionaries’” and “before they were revolutionaries, they were students” (4, 5). This transformation in how the US state frames Iranians is reflective of historical developments during the Cold War and shifting US relationships with Iran and the “Middle East” (west Asia). Iranian students were labeled “terrorists” in 1977 when they engaged in dramatic public protest of the US-backed Shah's regime, even before the 1979 hostage crisis in Tehran and the Islamic Revolution that deposed the Shah. Moradian documents how Iranian leftist students were targeted for deportation by both the Immigration and Naturalization Service and SAVAK, the shah's secret service, shedding light on the longer history of surveillance and repression of west Asians and Muslims—if not qua Muslims at the time but as Marxist “revolutionaries.” As Abdel Takriti insightfully comments, the book illuminates histories of student resistance to state repression and surveillance across borders, lessons that could be valuable to student activists today, especially in the Palestine justice movement on US campuses.

Memory, Melancholia, Solidarity

Moradian's book helps deepen our analysis of diasporic SWANA politics through her oral histories of Iranian activists, and it thoughtfully analyzes what she calls “diasporic memory” beyond nation-centered memory studies, weaving together political histories and individual biographies with expressions of affect. The book offers a “methodology of possibility” attentive to memories and emotions “marginalized or erased by dominant accounts of the failures of revolutionary leftist movements”; it grapples with “the Third World leftist experiment as it was lived from day to day” as demonstrated by an affective archive (25–26). Moradian theorizes affect as outward and relational, rather than internal or fixed; as open-ended, beyond a Cartesian mind/body duality; and as nonteleological. Rather than reinscribing the notion of a “failed” revolution in Iran—a trope that is attached to many other sites of insurgency that did not succeed in obvious ways, such as the Arab uprisings—Moradian considers the melancholia of her subjects as something more complex: an “unwillingness to let go of something that is lost, like a . . . moment of freedom” (7). In doing so, she frames militancy as a revolutionary affect that responds to loss by confronting injustice and creating spaces of “overlapping militancies.”

Solidarity is a key concept on which the book pivots, and Moradian's research connects people involved in different movements who “insisted on remembering the losses of genocide, slavery, colonization, and migration” (140). The book offers an incredible archive of stories of Iranian internationalist activism that details the involvement of these students in the antiwar movement in the 1960s–1970s; the Palestine liberation movement; Black Power struggles to free political prisoners such as Angela Davis; coalitions with the Black Panthers and Students for a Democratic Society; and Arab American and African student organizations. Moradian shows how the ISA connected the liberation struggles of Palestinians, the Vietnamese, and African Americans by highlighting the role of the shah as a proxy for US interests in (west) Asia and Africa. As a scholar of the Palestine justice movement in the United States and as a Palestine solidarity activist myself, I was impressed by Moradian's research uncovering how the struggle for Palestinian liberation was central to these Iranian diasporic leftists. Takriti thoughtfully points out the significance of this history of radical commitment to Palestine solidarity activism: first, for an “older leftist tradition” of internationalist solidarity with the Palestine struggle predating the current conjuncture of Muslim states co-opting and instrumentalizing the Palestinian cause; and second, for ongoing cultural and racial hierarchies dividing Arabs and Iranians and “nationalist attempts to isolate struggles in Iran from broader anticolonial politics.”

The book's methodology is transnational, as Moradian tracks memory as movement, following the stories of these Iranian activists as they moved from nation to nation and place to place within the United States, as well as from one social movement to another, thus connecting political formations in different countries and sites of struggle. Furthermore, Lubin observes that the March 1979 protests by women in Tehran discussed by Moradian were an example of “intersectional anti-imperialism” that neither reproduced Western feminism nor “Western-centric notions of rights and freedom,” speaking to debates about transnational solidarity and feminisms that persist today. The solidarity recounted in the book is transformative, but not utopian. Moradian does not idealize this affect, nor does she romanticize revolutionary politics or subjectivity (12); she has a nuanced analysis of Third World Marxist politics based on her feminist and queer critique. She finds that structures of feeling within the oral histories and interviews were often “inchoate,” and she examines activists’ states of ambivalence, tension, and discomfort (16). As Gopinath points out in her essay in this issue, the “relay of trust and care between Manijeh [Moradian] and those she interviews” helps produce a “diasporic inheritance of revolutionary affects and histories that powerfully works against the notion that there are no alternatives.”

What is incredibly important for critical ethnic studies and Asian American studies scholars today is the way in which Moradian rethinks the framework of ethnic studies, speaking to recent organizing and debates in California about the new state requirement for ethnic studies in high schools and the college admission requirement to the University of California. Rather than reifying a “four groups model” that is the basis of the California ethnic studies curriculum, Moradian argues that we not lose sight of the transnational nature of that radical Third Worldist movement. As Gary Okihiro also reminds us, it was a movement calling for Third World studies, in fact, not the “ethnic studies” approach now institutionalized in the multicultural university and DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) academic-industrial complex.3 Furthermore, Moradian uses the case study of the ISA during the TWLF strike to highlight the “non-identitarian basis for Iranian solidarity with the strike,” something often lost in contemporary US student activism, which is often focused on a politics of recognition and representation (138).

Conclusion

Moradian's powerful analysis resonated with me deeply during the recent women-led uprising in Iran as I read the book while watching videos of the militant actions of Iranian high school girls and women of all ages in the streets protesting state violence and repression, as well as workers, teachers, and students challenging corruption and authoritarianism. It made me think of the chapter on “revolutionary affects and archive of memory,” where she shares a profound observation by Jalil Mostashiri, a former ISA member at Michigan State, on the “subterranean legacy” of Iranian democratic and leftist movements: “Social movements, they are like rainwater. They are imbibed by the earth, and the spring comes out of somewhere you don't expect. It has been raining here; you have the spring there. These are all connected to each other. Do not think of a social movement as a one-time finishing act” (33).

Reading Moradian's book in this moment of resurgent diasporic Iranian organizing and transnational solidarities helped me understand how the feminist slogan “jin, jiyan, azaadi” in the current protests speaks to the affective resonance of the 1979 women's uprising in Tehran, beyond a utopian nostalgia for the past and outside of a US-centric focus on “oppressed Muslim women.” As Moradian poetically says in the introduction, “Resistant nostalgia allows us to engage with a sustained longing for a freedom that never arrived, an ongoing attachment to a wild and uncompromising desire for a different, better world” (27). This helps reframe notions of loss that have surfaced in what Moradian calls the “avalanche of strong feelings” among diasporic Iranians and the sometimes discordant feelings of solidarity with the women's protests in Iran. Moradian's intervention is significant, because as Amy Malek thoughtfully observes, the 2022–23 uprising unleashed a range of affects among diasporic Iranians, including taboo emotions related to traumatic loss and forbidden expressions of exilic grief that the book resituates through a sensitive analysis of repressed memories. Malek's essay connects the book to intergenerational relationships to these memories and fraught intracommunity political debates, underscoring how Moradian helps rethink Iranian diasporic history and dominant approaches to periodization and diaspora in the field.

Golnar Nikpour's discussion in this issue highlights how the book's new focus on pre-1979 diasporic Iranian experiences and politics and on transnational activist networks helps bridge Iranian studies and Iranian diaspora studies, using “a methodology of possibility to read the archive of 1979 in new ways.” She points out that Moradian's methodology allows us to understand “unfolding events” in Iran in the present as well as the messiness and contradictions of “deep affective connections to both new and foreclosed possibilities” that are not always oriented toward justice. As Lubin posits, the book helps address these profound questions: “What happens to memory after a revolutionary project concludes without fulfilling its vision? What remains of revolutionary affect?”

I want to conclude by noting that the feminist slogan in the Iranian women's uprising and Mahsa Jina Amini's name itself offer some responses to these questions about revolutionary affects. It is worth pondering that Amini's Kurdish name, Jina, means life or life-giving. The Kurdish revolutionary slogan used in Turkey and by Kurdish women fighters across state borders is “life is resistance.”4 The transnational Feminists 4 Jina collective that organized protests in solidarity with the “Jina Revolution” in different locations around the globe draws on the radical Kurdish feminist politics of Jineolojî, which situates women's emancipation as integral to national liberation, radical democracy, and economic justice, stating that “Woman, Life, Freedom is the politics of life, both in theory and in method.”5 At their press conference on International Women's Day this year, the collective articulated a powerful concept of resistance based on the analysis of capitalism, imperialism, and patriarchy as antilife.

The political imaginary of ongoing freedom struggles in the SWANA region against authoritarianism, patriarchy, and militarized imperialism has reverberated among leftist feminist activists around the world, in the mass feminist uprising of the twenty-first century, and in movements here in the United States. In the book, Mostashari reflects on “affects of solidarity”: “You have to have this flame within you that can warm others. You cannot say it with your tongue; it doesn't move anybody” (11). The metaphor of the flame suggests a sense of fierceness and depth of affect that infuses a radical feminist concept of jiyan/zindagi and powerful decolonial concepts of internationalist solidarities. Moradian offers us a framework for intersectional anti-imperialism and transnational feminist solidarities that is lit by an unapologetic vision of resistance, so incandescent and so urgent in our present times.

Notes

1.

Maira and Shirazi, “Thinking SWANA.” Also see Moradian's essay in this special coedited forum on activist scholarship.

2.

Moradian, This Flame Within, 7. Hereafter cited in the text.

4.

“Revolt in Iran.”

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