Joseph Massad: The Columbia Professor Who Also Doesn't Think Gay People Exist in the Middle East

Historians in the News

... Yet while the audience in the Roone Arledge Auditorium and millions of television viewers laughed and booed at the Islamist rube [i.e. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad], there was one man--ensconced at Columbia University, no less--who was likely nodding along in agreement. His name is Joseph Massad, Associate Professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History, and he legitimizes, with a complex academic posture, the deservedly reviled views on homosexuality espoused by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

According to Massad, a Palestinian Christian and disciple of the late Columbia professor Edward Said, the case for gay rights in the Middle East is an elaborate scheme hatched by activists in the West. Massad posited this thesis in a 2002 article, "Re-Orienting Desire: The Gay International and the Arab World," for the academic journal Public Culture, and he has expanded it into a book, Desiring Arabs, published this year by the University of Chicago Press. In it, he writes that such activists constitute the "Gay International" whose "discourse ... produces homosexuals as well as gays and lesbians, where they do not exist." The "missionary tasks" of this worldwide conspiracy are part of a broader attempt to legitimize American and Israeli global conquest by undermining the very moral basis of Muslim societies, as the "Orientalist impulse ... continues to guide all branches of the human rights community." Massad's intellectual project is a not-so-tacit apology for the oppression of people who identify openly as homosexual. In so doing, he sides with Islamist regimes over Islamic liberals.

Desiring Arabs posits that the West views the Middle East as backwards, politically, culturally, and--ultimately Massad's field of interest--sexually; in this sense, his book fits comfortably in the postcolonial intellectual movement of which Said was the intellectual father. "For the Gay International, transforming sexual practices into identities through the universalizing of gayness and gaining 'rights' for those who identify (or more precisely, are identified by the Gay International) with it becomes the mark of an ascending civilization, just as repressing those rights and restricting the circulation of gayness is a mark of backwardness and barbarism," he writes. From the start, Massad rejects the contemporary liberal view of homosexuality as an identity, seeing only "sexual practices." What's worse, he says, is that the attempt to "universalize" this supposedly provincial Western homosexual identity onto Arabs is used as a tool to distinguish between the "civilized" West and the "barbaric" Middle East.

Massad's thesis rests largely on Queer Theory, a voguish academic theory from the 1990s that stipulates that homosexuality is merely a "social construction" and not an inherent state of being. Massad writes that, "The categories gay and lesbian are not universal at all and can only be universalized by the epistemic, ethical, and political violence unleashed on the rest of the world by the very international human rights advocates whose aim is to defend the very people their intervention is creating (emphasis mine)." Thus, not only are gay rights activists unleashing "epistemic... violence" on Arabs and Muslims who have same-sex relations by claiming them to be homosexual, they are responsible for the "political violence" of the regimes that oppress them. As one illustration of his thesis, Massad chooses the "Queen Boat" incident of May 11, 2001, when a horde of truncheon-wielding Egyptian police officers boarded a Nile River cruise known as the Queen Boat, a floating disco for gay men. Fifty-two men were arrested, and many of them were tortured and sexually humiliated in prison. In a sensational, months-long ordeal, they were paraded in public, and images of them shielding their faces were blared on state television and printed in government newspapers. Most of the men were eventually acquitted, but 23 received convictions for either the "habitual debauchery," "contempt for religion" or both....

Massad claims that those Arabs who do accept a Western-style homosexual identity "remain a miniscule minority among those men who engage in same-sex relations and who do not identify as 'gay' nor express a need for gay politics." He makes this sweeping assertion--upon which his entire, 418-page book is predicated--without any statistical evidence. Furthermore, he does not consider that the reason why Arab homosexuals may not "express a need for gay politics" might be because they would be killed if they did....
Read entire article at James Kirchick in the New Republic

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