The Bill Muehlenberg Trophy: Joseph Massad

21 10 2007

Joseph Massad, Associate Professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University, has published a book in which he argues that

there are no homosexuals in the entire Arab world, except for a few who have been brainwashed into believing they have a homosexual identity by an aggressive Western homosexual missionizing movement he calls “Gay International.” [. . .] According to the author, “It is the very discourse of the Gay International which produces homosexuals, as well as gays and lesbians, where they do not exist” (emphasis added).

The claim is advanced in the third chapter of Desiring Arabs, based upon an earlier paper of his (“Re-Orienting Desire: The Gay International and the Arab World”).

TEH GAY AGENDA is a familiar Christian Right meme, and
the idea that gays and lesbians do not exist in the Middle East has most recently been put by one Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Massad simply presents the homophobic ravings of Christian and Muslim fundies and expresses them in the idiom of postcolonial studies. As former Guardian Middle East correspondent Brian Whitaker observes in a review of Desiring Arabs,

Massad talks of a “missionary” campaign orchestrated by what he calls the “Gay International”. Its inspiration, he says, came partly from “the white western women’s movement, which had sought to universalise its issues through imposing its own colonial feminism on the women’s movements in the non-western world”, but he also links its origins to the Carter administration’s use of human rights to “campaign against the Soviet Union and Third World enemies”.

Like the major US- and European-based human rights organisations (Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International) and following the line taken up by white western women’s organisations and publications, the Gay International was to reserve a special place for the Muslim countries in its discourse as well as its advocacy. The orientalist impulse … continues to guide all branches of the human rights community. (p 161)

Oddly, since this is central to his argument, Massad offers no evidence to substantiate his claim. There are plenty of reasons other than an “orientalist impulse” why gay rights activists might justifiably pay attention to Muslim countries (punishments for same-sex acts, for instance, tend to be heavier there, on paper if not always in practice, and the only countries in the world where the death penalty for sodomy still applies justify it on the basis of Islamic law) but that is not the same as reserving “a special place” for them in the discourse.

Then again, I suppose the demand that extraordinary claims of the kind Massad advances be supported by empirical evidence may be written off as another manifestation of Western imperialism. It gets worse:

State repression against gay people happens on a frequent basis across the Middle East. Massad, however, who claims to be a supporter of sexual freedom per se, is oddly impassive when confronted with the vast catalogue of anti-gay state violence in the Muslim world. Massad, unlike Ahmadinejad, does acknowledge that “gay-identified” people exist in the Middle East, but he views them with derision. Take, for instance, his description of the Queen Boat victims as “westernized, Egyptian, gay-identified men” who consort with European and American tourists. A simple “gay” would have sufficed. He smears efforts to free the men by writing of the “openly gay and anti-Palestinian Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank” and the “anti-Arab and anti-Egyptian [Congressman] Tom Lantos” who circulated a petition amongst their colleagues to cut off U.S. funding to Egypt unless the men were released. He then goes onto belittle not just gay activists (one of whom, a founder of the Gay and Lesbian Arabic Society, referred to the Queen Boat affair as “our own Stonewall,” in reference to the 1969 Stonewall riot when a group of patrons at a New York City gay bar resisted arrest, a moment credited with sparking the American gay rights movement) but the persecuted men themselves. The Queen Boat cannot be Stonewall, Massad insists, because the “drag Queens at the Stonewall bar” embraced their homosexual identity, whereas the Egyptian men “not only” did “not seek publicity for their alleged homosexuality, they resisted the very publicity of the events by the media by covering their faces in order to hide from the cameras and from hysterical public scrutiny.” Massad does not pause to consider that perhaps the reason why these men covered their faces was because of the brutal consequences they would endure if their identities became public, repercussions far worse than anything the rioters at Stonewall experienced. “These are hardly manifestations of gay pride or gay liberation,” Massad sneers.

Joseph Massad: you are a disgrace to academia. Your brand of unscholarly and unsubstantiated rubbish feeds the hysterical paranoiac fantasies of the Horowitz crowd and their puppets in the Republican party–people who seek to restrict academic freedom and stifle the views of those with whom they disagree, and are just salivating for a cause celebre like yourself. Furthermore, it gives a free pass to the persecution of gays and lesbians in the Arab world, by coding any criticism of such persecution as “Western imperialism.” Lift your game.

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