Remembering Fred Halliday


I was immensely saddened to hear of Fred Halliday‘s untimely passage.  I knew Fred since 1978 when through a New Left Review friend, Robin Blackburn, I met him at his London home on my way to revolutionary Iran, temporarily forfeiting my US education for the sake of the greater cause.  Fred was putting the final touches on his seminal book on Iran, Iran: Dictatorship and Development, which had the distinct flaw of depicting the Shah’s regime as “strong,” rather belatedly adding a final chapter to account for the unexpected whirlwind “populist” revolution that did not lend itself easily to Fred’s conventional Marxian class analysis. We spent the entire afternoon debating the revolution, and I, a complete convert to the Gramscian perspective, found myself enamored of Fred’s Farsi ability and his tremendous wealth of theoretical knowledge, yet somewhat at odds over his prognostication of the historic revolution unfolding before our very eyes.

Several months later, when the ancien regime had been toppled and a new Islamist order had replaced it, on my way back to US I met Fred again and, again, we disagreed over the future course of the revolution, since Fred was adamant about the transitory nature of the “reign of the ayatollahs” and predicting a turn toward secularist authority.  Both then and in subsequent decades, I frankly never thought that Fred with all his arsenal of theory and analysis fully understood the nature and historical significance of the Iranian revolution, often lumping it under the category of another third world revolution — compared to Michel Foucault‘s more profound appreciation of the revolution’s significance on a world scale.

In 1996, the same debate resurfaced at a conference on Iran at Coventry University where Fred delivered a talk on “post-akhundism.”  Since the word “akhund,” a pejorative for clergy, was deemed offensive to some speakers, such as my colleague Abbas Maleki, a former deputy foreign minister, Maleki and some others refused to participate at the conference.  Before delivering it, Fred showed me his speech and asked for my opinion.  I instantly took issue with his political reductionism and his problematic forecasting of a transition to a post-clergy political order in Iran, urging him to take the side of caution and avoid embarrassment in case his prediction did not bear fruit in the near future.  He took my advice and made some quick revisions, delivering a modified speech that put “post-akhundism” in a longitudinal perspective, rather than a proximate reality.

Iran aside, Fred’s outpouring of publications on international affairs, Middle East politics, etc., I always found impressive, not to mention his apt critique of some of the post-modernist perspectives in international relations, which are often foreign to the complexities of power politics and susceptible to discourse reductionism.  Fred was a “modernist” thinker and, rightly or wrongly, was perceived by some authors as even “traditionalist” and not terribly innovative in the realm of international relations theory, much as he was a superb synthesizer of empirical facts, particularly regarding the post-cold war era and the new political stratifications marking our contemporary “globalized order.”  A decent tribute to Fred, evaluating his net contributions to the field of international studies, belongs elsewhere.  Suffice to say here that I completely concur with one of the late E.P. Thompson’s keen observations about one of Fred’s books that it constituted a singular contribution, and one of the best works, on international affairs.

A disciplined dialectical thinker making astute observation of the world’s laboratory of political transformations and changing hierarchies, Fred was at the same time a consummate critic of other schools of thought and rival authors.  His criticism, however, at times extended to even not so rival ones, such as Noam Chomsky, whom he once criticized rather unfairly.  That brings me to my final communication with Fred — part of three-way communications between me, Fred, and Noam — transpiring a precious few months ago, when I took issue with Fred’s underappreciation of Noam’s contributions and the unfairness of his criticism of Chomsky, at the same time reminding him that while Chomsky, just like Howard Zinn, had fully supported me in my long battle with Harvard University in my civil rights action that ultimately went to the US Supreme Court, Fred, who knew me intimately for so many years, had remained silent.  Fred clarified the latter by forwarding a long email that he had sent to Professor Roger Owen of Harvard’s Center for Middle East Studies questioning their mistreatment of me and, in the same email, conceded that his criticism of Noam may have been “excessive.”

In conclusion, writing these lines with a heavy heart over the loss of a brilliant scholar and friend, who was a distinguished professor of international affairs at the London School of Economics and an uncompromising critical thinker with abiding interest in third world liberation struggles, I wish to end with a prayer for his soul, which shall never leave us; the rich intellectual legacy of his volumes of publications will undoubtedly continue to enlighten the readers for decades to come.

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran’s Foreign Policy and a co-author of Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11