The evolution of ‘Orientalism’ with professor Joseph Massad
Professor Joseph Massad of Columbia University, a veteran in the field of modern Arab politics, gave a lecture this past Thursday titled “Between Islamophobia and Homophobia: Gender, Sexuality, and Liberal Engagements with Islam,” which was well-attended by students and faculty. The event was held in Anheuser-Busch Hall, though it was presented by the Jewish, Islamic and Near Eastern Languages and Cultures department in cosponsorship with a number of humanities programs on the other end of campus.
Massad began by talking about the Pulse Night Club massacre that occurred last year and the aftermath of the horror, which he took as a sort of intellectual case study.
“Everyone was asking: was Omar Mateen an Islamo-fascist homophobe or a disgruntled, dejected, accused young Muslim gay man who wanted revenge?” Massad said. He then posed his guiding question: “How have homosexuality and Islam come to be so intertwined in a Western, Christian and liberal setting, to the point that westerners can no longer speak of one without conjuring up the specter of the other?”
Massad’s answer drew heavily from “Orientalism,” the momentous text by Edward Said, of whom Massad is a protege. Without too much digression, we can say that Said’s thesis advanced that when Europeans define themselves as a distinct race or civilization, they do so by constructing characteristics of the Orient—including Muslims—as their antithesis.
During the Victorian period in Europe, when attitudes toward sex were at least publicly most conservative, the Orient was then defined on the opposite end of the spectrum.
“European scholarship and knowledge insisted that Muslims and Arabs throughout their history, and as a reflection of their religion, were sexual extremists,” Massad said, “Unlike liberal Europeans whose sexual desires and practices were governed by modern, civilized moderation.”
However, as European and American restrictions toward sexuality opened up in the 20th century, a subsequent ideological shift took place in relation to the non-West.
“Suddenly, the U.S., which had laws criminalizing sodomy in half of its states, began to champion itself and be championed by American gays as a heaven and haven of homosexual rights, which had to be internationalized and universalized to encompass the entire globe,” he said. “This is also the moment when Arabs and Muslims were transformed from degenerate, profligate, uninhibited sexual beings—compared to Victorian Europeans—into a repressed and repressive lot that discriminates against women and oppresses homosexuals, unlike the liberated Americans and Europeans.”
With this construction on the table, Massad asserted a new structure of intersectionality that we can identify nowadays concerning Muslim-majority countries.
“In our neoliberal imperial age,” he concluded. “Believing in liberal democracy, women’s rights and sexual rights might very well lead, if not inspire and inform, anti-Islamic attitudes.”
Often in modern discourses—I mean the quick, volatile, televised kind—billions of Muslims are bundled together and required to answer for the actions of tiny violent minorities. Also, laws in Muslim-majority countries always suggest something innate and unavoidable in the religion.
In his lecture, Massad placed the fault of stringent laws concerning homosexuality on Western policies and ideologies as a whole. His construction of a nondiverse Western homosexual community—charged with selling out or colluding with interventionist American politicians—is a simplification no far cry from the one we often see against Muslims.
In responding to Victorian sexual attitudes, Massad said that colonized elites “sought, since the beginning of the 20th century, to identify their modern cultures with European sexual normativity, only for the tables to be turned on them in the 1980s as they started to be shamed by Europeans yet again, this time for not being sexually permissive and liberal and for being sexually repressive.”
One could then also claim that this historical narrative of views on sexual orientation denies the non-West some degree of agency—to say that the West produced every problem means that the colonized were simple objects/reactionaries, never subjects with the ability to create their own histories prior to or outside of colonialism.
Massad’s approach to the unequal (and, sometimes, greatly harmful) treatment of Muslims is to renarrate world history along reductionist lines. It’s a polemical approach, to be sure, but the question left to debate remains whether now, when discourses on Islam seem to necessarily take place in the realm of law and politics, often in hostile forms, such an approach is necessary.