The evolution of ‘Orientalism’ with professor Joseph Massad

| Staff Writer

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.

  • garyfouse

    “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.”

    Indeed. Massad might also include religious intolerance, terror and murder in the name of Islam.

    The West has a choice. Either we remain free or we submit to Islam and give up our freedoms.

  • Arafat

    Islam means submission. Submission of the individual to Allah. Submission of all individual’s questions, doubts, concerns about Allah and Islam. So if Muslims stone a women to death for being raped – as does happen with some frequency in the Muslim world – if a Muslim demonstrates against this he/she will likely be jailed or killed for doing so would be a form of apostasy – or questioning Islam and Allah.
    And it goes without saying that the fear of apostasy ensures Muslims keep their heads low and their eyes averted. Groupthink, a male violent culture, complete lack of intellectual innovation, a backwards-looking mentality are not the fault of anyone’s other than Islam’s.
    It’s so tiring hearing propagandists like Massad throw smoke in mirrors in our direction. Misdirecting Islam’s root cause defects on America, Israel, or the colonists. What is wonderful, though, and gives me hope is that more and more westerners are starting to understand just how backwards and cruel Islam is. Brexit, Trump and the increasingly anti-Islamic sentiments being seen throughout Europe gives one hope that the days of smoke and mirrors is being replaced with clear-eyed realism, and that Said’s works will be thrown into the dust-heap where they belong.

  • Arafat

    George Orwell, meet Joseph Massad.
    Massad talks about women’s rights and please excuse me if I mentioned I fell out of my chair with laughter when I read his comments on this topic.
    Women’s rights honored by Islam and I’ve got a bridge to sell you too.

  • Arafat

    “… 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. ”
    Actually it is Muslims who do this. Much of the Qur’an is filled with verses demanding Muslims treat infidels as unworthy: People to be taxed into poverty, forcibly converted or killed.
    And, of course, all one need do is open one’s eyes to see this is manifested by the demographics of every single Islamic country (other than those that have been more recently conquered by Muslim jihadists).
    If one studies the religious demographics of Muslim countries one discovers that ethnic cleansing has happened in every single one. That Muslims make up 95+% of that countries profile.
    And we are seeing this happen today. In Sudan most all of the Animists have been wiped out. In Iran what remains of the once dominant Zoroastrian community is all but wiped out. In Lebanon the Christian community is being ethnically cleansed. The Yazidi, Assyrians, Coptics and Chaldeans are all being wiped out by Muslims. In Pakistan and Bangladesh the Hindus have been all but wiped out and in southern Thailand the Buddhists are being killed and driven out of their homes. Even in NW China Muslims are attacking the Chinese with knife killings becoming common place.

  • Arafat

    I get so sick and tired of these intellectual shell games. The reason homosexuality and Islam is a topic is because Muslims throw homosexuals off rooftops as punishment for them being gay. Trying to confuse naïve students with theories that make no real sense in the real world is what Said and Massad get paid for.

  • garyfouse

    Massad, a Palestinian Christian, is typical of those Middle East studies professors who blame the West for all the failures of the Middle East. He has often been accused of anti-semitism for his crackpot theories about Israel and Jews, such as the one about victims of the Holocaust being those Jews who refused to heed the call to go to Palestine.

    As for the topic of homophobia within Islam, it didn’t come from the West. It is a part of Islam. Under the part of sharia law called hudud sharia “Crimes Against God”, homosexual acts are punishable by death-along with apostasy, adultery and blasphemy.