Joseph Massad, homophobia, gay rights and the structure of modernity

A hostile and no doubt completely garbled account of a talk at UCLA by Joseph Massad on David Horowitz’s website, written by one of the ignoramuses employed by Campus Watch (I will not link to this article, but you can easily find it online), has gone viral on the right wing blogosphere, leading to countless accusations that an “Islamist” has again demonstrated his typical “homophobia.” I’ve made my sharp disagreements with Massad very clear in the past, but I just can’t let this pass without noting how incredibly idiotic and offensive this garbage really is. These cretins neither know nor care that Massad is from a Christian family and is oriented quite far indeed to the left on the political spectrum, meaning that under no circumstances could he be described as an “Islamist.” As for charges of homophobia, they are, shall we say, equally ridiculous. The only thing that these reactionary bloggers have been able to demonstrate in these breathtakingly stupid postings is their own racism, ignorance and irrational hostility, a formula that increasingly holds that Arab equals Islamist by definition (I speak from experience — for at least 10 years I’ve been continuously described as an “Islamist,” a “terrorist,” and a “jihadist” in spite of the fact that I have been politically left of center, outspokenly agnostic and categorically anti-Islamist and against all reactionary religious politics for my entire adult life).

Having dispensed with this noxious rubbish, I think it is important to look at where the confusion, if you can grace it with so gentle a description, comes from. In other words, if that’s not what he says, what does he in fact say? And, what are we to make of it? In a journal article published almost 10 years ago (I well remember when it first came out) and in a more recent book, “Desiring Arabs” (University of Chicago, 2007), Massad does indeed launch an attack on gay identity and on something he calls the “Gay International.” From this it is assumed by those who are either unable or unwilling to try to follow his not terribly complicated arguments that he is replicating the standard homophobia of religiously and socially conservative reactionary leaders in the postcolonial world (in, for example, Iran, Uganda, etc.). As an intellectual exercise and political position, he is, of course, doing no such thing.

Massad’s argument essentially is that Western culture in the 19th century produced an original and unique hetero-normative binary between a “straight” sexual orientation and “deviant” ones, most notably the “gay” identity, and that the exportation of the ideology of this normative sexual binary to the non-Western world through colonialism and neocolonial practices is to be critiqued, opposed and rejected. The corollary assertion/assumption behind this argument is that there aren’t any discursive or ideological parallels to or foundations for this straight/gay binary in either pre-19th century Europe or in the premodern and traditional cultures in the non-European world, and that homophobia as an ideology and social practice is produced exclusively by this binary. In other words, fear and hatred of homosexuals is the product of the rigid categorization of people into gay and straight identities, with straight being designated normative and gay deviant. The logical extrapolation of this argument, of course, is that the gay-rights movement causes tremendous harm to people who engage in same-sex relations in the postcolonial world by reifying and re-inscribing this binary in a culturally “inappropriate” space such as the Arab world in which it supposedly never existed before colonial Western influences. There is a kind of un- or at least under- stated nostalgia in Massad’s arguments for an alleged (and, I would argue, probably imaginary) pre-colonial and pre-modern sexual episteme in the Arab world free from gay/straight binaries and therefore free from homophobia as such and free, or at least more free, of the persecution of people who practice same-sex relations.

Many people, including himself, like to suggest a strong connection between his work and that of Edward Said, but I don’t see any strong relationship at all, except insofar as Massad is one of thousands of scholars strongly influenced by some aspects of Said’s work. It’s clear to me, for example, that Said would have had some serious reservations about some of the implications of these arguments for individual and human rights, as considered in more detail below. I would argue instead that Massad’s work, especially his central idea — the critique of the “Gay International,” is far more influenced by Chandra Talpade Mohanty, and especially her groundbreaking 1986 essay, “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses.” Mohanty argued that Western feminists, and especially their project of creating the political category of “Third World women” as an object of knowledge, as well as other intellectual and activist projects, in fact completely misread the realities and the needs of women in postcolonial societies, superimposed their own inappropriate and damaging agendas on “Third World women,” and produced philosophically invalid and reductive binaries that may have suited their own agendas but did positive harm to the women they were purporting to speak on behalf of. It seems to me that Massad has taken the essential framework of Mohanty’s critique of Western feminism’s relationship with women in postcolonial societies and applied it to the Western gay-rights movement’s relationship with practitioners of same-sex relations in the postcolonial world.

Frankly, I don’t think Mohanty’s critique has faired well in the context into which Massad has translated it. His book is neither the only, nor the best, study of this subject (still one has to be impressed by the degree to which his own headshot on his Columbia University webpage looks like the gentleman on the dust jacket cover illustration). However, for people interested in Arabic literature, its extended and intelligent reading of the poetry of Abu Nawas and its evolving reception is certainly worthwhile. But I think there are at least two serious problems, one intellectual and one political, with his argument that deserve careful interrogation.

The first problem, which is essentially an academic and intellectual problem with political implications, is the very problematic, and I would say indefensible, way in which Massad positions the relationship between precolonial and postcolonial Arab sexuality, and his whole handling (or rather avoidance) of the question of the nature of modernity. The question of whether Massad is completely off base or not in his total rejection of any corollary antecedent in traditional Arab societies to the modern, Western, gay/straight binary that certainly characterizes contemporary homophobia is one that has to be resolved by historians far more expert in the subject than I. However, there would, at first glance, seem to be plenty of indications of what would, in practice, amount to homophobia and the persecution of same-sex practicing individuals in many forms of traditional Arab culture, even if analogous terms and frames of reference are not immediately obvious and there is no reduction of sexuality to a gay/straight binary.

I’d certainly agree with him that, since this is a quintessential product of modernity, it has no precise analog in either Europe before modernity, in this case the 19th century, or in precolonial non-Western societies either. How could it? But it doesn’t follow that therefore there is no basis for homophobia or repression of same-sex practitioners in traditional Arab societies or to imagine that that didn’t happen when there seems to be a great deal of evidence that it did (not only specific instances of and legal structures for such persecution, but also the existence of derogatory language that appears to predate any sustained encounter with the colonial West that might have produced it as a form of mimicry). But, as I say, how we evaluate the relationship between traditional Arab modes of sexuality and contemporary homophobia in the Middle East is really beside the point.

The reason it’s beside the point is that Massad is missing a crucial point about the nature of modernity that I think eludes many intelligent, well-meaning people: modernity is a package deal and not an à la carte menu. It seems to me that almost all contemporary identity categories have been either directly produced or completely redefined by modernity, leaving very little if any meaningful social identity categories that are not, in effect, precisely the products of modernity. Contemporary notions, both East and West, of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, ideological affiliation, etc. all seem to me to be produced or defined by modernity, that is to say by their modern context. Even well-established identity categories that obviously and deeply precede colonialism and modernity in the Middle East, such as divisions between Sunnis and Shiites (as well as other smaller Muslim denominations) or premodern tribal affiliations, have all been restructured and redefined in the context of a postcolonial Arab modernity defined first and foremost by the Arab state system. In other words, I’m arguing that certain kinds of social and political identities, including the gay and other non-normative sexual identities, are, to all intents and purposes, built into modernity in the same way that race, ethnicity, nationality, gender and other comparable political identity categories obviously are. Some of them predate modernity, but have been redefined. Others are new or have taken on new significance, for example with regard to women’s rights.

One may or may not be a fan of modernity. I’ve known many people, including some I respect highly, who dislike it intensely and wish they had been born in an earlier century. That’s fine, but it does not alter the fact that in our time modernity is pervasive, and there is nothing outside the whale (unless, of course, one were to go to the most remote parts of Amazonia or Papua New Guinea, perhaps — and even then one would have to question the ability to step outside the whale in any fundamental sense).

My own suspicion is that the last hurrah, so to speak, for premodern feudalism in the non-Western world was the war against the British launched by a Hindu-Muslim coalition in 1857 known variously as the sepoy mutiny, the great rebellion or the first Indian war of Independence (all of these seem to me to be efforts to cram these momentous events into a very small box in which its significance cannot be contained). When this rebellion against colonial rule by an impressively powerful and well-organized traditional and premodern collection of forces finally and decisively failed in India, and in similar conflicts in other parts of Asia and Africa in the 19th century including in Algeria, Southern Africa, China and elsewhere, the colonized world was faced with an unavoidable conundrum: much larger premodern social forces were simply not able to prevail against smaller but far more effective modern colonial ones.

I think this is often misunderstood as the problem of a technological disparity, whereas in fact it is a question of modern forms of social organization. The great difference on the battlefield was not rifles, cannons and railway, it was modern forms of military organization and regimented drilling. In terms of administration, again modern bureaucracy is not resistible by analogous premodern administrative structures. And on it goes. The Japanese, the only people of Asia and Africa not to have been either a colony or a semi-colony (though they did get pushed around a little bit by the United States), made a national and successful effort to modernize in a generation, and it saved them from the fate that befell everybody else. But the fact is that in colonial society after colonial society, anti-colonial forces came to understand that the most effective, and possibly the only real, tools to combat colonial rule were in fact the substantive elements of social modernity even if shrouded in the trappings of a surface layer of traditional authenticity. Indeed, nationalism as such in the colonial world is the product of precisely that class of colonial subjects educated by and interpolated into modern subjectivity.

The point here is that the modernization of the postcolonial world was an ineluctable, two-fold process: first, pre-modernity proved utterly incapable of fending off colonial rule and second, colonial subjects interpolated into modern subjectivity became the leaders of effective resistance to colonialism and the parents of national independence. It seems to me that value judgments about this apparently inescapable process which replicated itself without fail in every colonial society are less important than recognizing the logic and structure behind the process itself.

Partha Chatterjee has led the way in critiquing the intellectual foundations of postcolonial nationalism, and has suggested that there were alternatives, for example Gandhi’s vision for India. While his critique is enormously powerful and important, suggesting that postcolonial nationalism is always and by definition a derivative discourse that traps postcolonial states in an unequal relationship with the Western world (we shall see about that, perhaps in my own lifetime, at least in the case of China and possibly India), but frankly I can’t imagine what a Gandhian state would possibly have looked like. I think there’s no doubt that even if things went as well as they could, India was always going to be the product of the more conventional politicians like Nehru and the others, and so it proved. My point is that, whether we like it or not, it’s hard to argue that the postcolonial world had any choice but to either embrace modernity, of course with its own individual characteristics, or remain premodern and indefinitely, fully and directly colonized. This doesn’t mean adopting Western culture, it means adopting social and organizational principles largely developed in the West, and there is a difference — modernity is a set of structures based on social organization and modes of production and is not specific to a limited, regional or given culture, and we already see a dizzying multiplicity of ways of being modern the world over and for more than 100 years. Of course this enforced embrace of modernity is very problematic, but the alternative seems to have been continued colonization and direct subjugation, and no society chose that. And it doesn’t mean that modernity will not begin to be defined in non-Western ways as the power, influence and independence of large postcolonial states continue to develop.

I think that like a great many other intellectuals Massad misses both of these points. I think he treats modernity as if it were optional, which is wrong, or to be lamented, which is pointless. I also think he treats modernity as if it were an à la carte menu in which a society may pick and choose the items it wants for its own purposes and simply decide to avoid some other aspects that are inherent in modernity (and not, therefore, simply in Western culture) such as gay and other “problematic” socio-political identities. Hetero-normativity is no doubt unfortunate, but it’s also ubiquitous in modern societies. The way to overcome it, it seems obvious to me, is to work through the tangle of its own contradictions rather than by lamenting its deep entanglement with inescapable aspects of modernity or yearning for a long-lost and possibly fictive preferable past which cannot be recovered. It seems to me that there are certain societies not only in Europe but also to some extent parts of Latin America, South Africa, Thailand and some others that are groping towards a version of modernity that includes the identity category of homosexual but in a way that is not pejorative, discriminatory or abusive. My deep suspicion is that this is achievable, whereas eliminating gay identity or the idea of a gay-straight distinction (it need not be a strict binary) is probably not, at least in the foreseeable future.

Which brings us to the second core problem with Massad’s arguments, which is their political significance in the real world. It’s ridiculous to suggest that he’s putting forward a homophobic logic, but there are, nonetheless, too many parallels between some of the arguments he’s making, even if it is in a good faith effort to protect sexual freedom from rigid and irrational binaries, and arguments made by oppressive and repressive forces in the Arab world and beyond. He is a public intellectual, and I think needs to be sensitive to the impact his arguments are likely to have. I’m sure this was not his intention, but some of his arguments, especially if taken at face value and not properly understood in their own context — for example about the lack of any cultural analogue to the gay/straight binary in traditional or premodern Arab culture — echo those of repressive and genuinely homophobic voices in the Middle East in a way that makes me extremely uncomfortable and that should also give him some pause. He can’t be responsible for people willfully misreading his work in ways that can’t be anticipated, but he can be for ways that can be anticipated. This can be anticipated.

This problem was played out fairly dramatically in an angry exchange he had online recently with a representative of what I believe is the only gay-rights movement openly operating in the Arab world. It’s not surprising that these gay-rights activists in Beirut would have felt extremely threatened by the political implications of Massad’s arguments, because the only position that really exists politically in the contemporary Arab world that they bolster is the program of repression of same-sex practitioners. His response didn’t seem to acknowledge the problem of the likely political impact of his arguments (which is not a responsible position for a public intellectual), and his hostility to those publicly and enthusiastically adopting the gay identity and pressing for homosexual rights seems somewhat irrational to me. Massad’s arguments, and his attitude, strip the agency from those in the Arab world who have made a conscious, deliberate decision to identify as gay, and instead assigns to these legitimate choices the status of a false consciousness in a most unnecessary and ungenerous matter indeed. One could easily subscribe to most of his analysis while at the same time retaining a certain sympathy for gays and lesbians in the Arab world and for their rights not only as individuals but as a protected class.

For some reason, Massad doesn’t do this. I do not understand why, but he actually seems to oppose the political agenda of providing Arab gays and lesbians with legal protection as a class because of his opposition to the binary and the gay identity it produces. That it is far too late for any such rearguard action against a social category that is, in effect, built into modernity and has already taken root at all kinds of registers in the Arab, and indeed the global, political consciousness, doesn’t seem to occur to him. But I think ultimately this is a highly irresponsible position, and ungenerous in an inexplicable way. He seems to be so opposed to the gay identity as a socio-political category in theory that he opposes the gay rights agenda in practice. Of all of the beleaguered groups and threatened movements in the Arab world, picking on Arabs who openly identify as gay and gay-rights activists seems a very strange choice indeed.

It’s perfectly reasonable for Joseph Massad or anyone else, whether in New York, Beirut or any other place, to practice same-sex relations but decline to identify as homosexual or gay. I have no trouble understanding this, and he’s explained the rationale quite clearly. But for the life of me I cannot understand how this extends to a kind of frankly mean-spirited and politically indefensible opposition to providing legal and political protection for those who do embrace the gay and lesbian identity in the Arab world. It’s important that we don’t misunderstand Massad’s arguments or allow extreme and preposterous mischaracterizations, such as calling him an Islamist or a homophobe, to go unchallenged. That said, as I have demonstrated here, I find myself in disagreement with many of his premises, unconvinced by some of his assertions about the past in the Arab world, baffled by some of his conclusions, mystified about his apparent lack of concern about their political implications and worried about their potential consequences.