According to historian and intellectual Joseph Massad, Arab cultural traditions have always included a measure of tolerance for same-gender sex practices, without recognising a separate socio-sexual categorisation for those who engage in such practices. Recently, however, there has been an attempt by certain Westerners and Westernised Arabs to universalise arbitrary and exclusivist sexual identities, including heterosexuality and (more problematically) homosexuality. This initiative has caused a backlash in Arab countries against those who identify themselves as homosexual – an identity associated by many Arabs with Western cultural imperialism – but also against people who engage in same-gender sex without considering themselves homosexual.
Joseph Andoni Massad (Arabic: جوزيف مسعد) (born 1963) is Associate Professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia University, whose academic work has focused on Palestinian, Jordanian, and Israeli nationalism. He is also known for his book Desiring Arabs, about representations of sexual desire in the Arab world.
Joseph Massad teaches and writes about modern Arab politics and intellectual history. He has a particular interest in theories of identity and culture – including theories of nationalism, sexuality, race and religion. He received his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1998. He is the author of Desiring Arabs (2007), which was awarded the Lionel Trilling Book Award; The Persistence of the Palestinian Question: Essays on Zionism and the Palestinian Question (2006); and Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan (2001). His book Daymumat al-Mas’alah al-Filastiniyyah was published by Dar Al-Adab in 2009, and La persistence de la question palestinienne was published by La Fabrique in 2009His articles have appeared in Public Culture, Interventions, Middle East Journal, Psychoanalysis and History, Critique, and the Journal of Palestine Studies, and he writes frequently for Al-Ahram Weekly. He teaches courses on modern Arab culture, psychoanalysis in relation to civilization and identity, gender and sexuality in the Arab world, and Palestinian-Israeli politics and society, with seminars on Nationalism in the Middle East as Idea and Practice, and also on Orientalism and Islam.
Joseph Massad, associate professor of modern Arab politics at Columbia University, is a controversial figure. As a protégé of the late Edward Said who is also of Palestinian-Christian descent, his views on Zionism have made him a target of the Israel lobby, while others have defended him in the name of academic freedom.
In 2002 he plunged into a different controversy with a paper entitled “Re-Orienting Desire: The Gay International and the Arab World” which sought to marshal a case against gay rights from a nationalist and secular standpoint – one that was not based explicitly on a moral judgment of homosexuality itself.
The central thesis of his 25-page polemic was that promotion of gay rights in the Middle East is a conspiracy led by western orientalists and colonialists which “produces homosexuals, as well as gays and lesbians, where they do not exist”. After several years’ gestation he has now produced a book, Desiring Arabs, which elaborates on this.
How did this happen? In ‘showing the influence and impact that Orientalism has had in shaping the Arabs’ own perceptions of themselves’ (p.48), Desiring Arabs provides much historical background to the current debate. Massad demonstrates how, since the mid-19th century, many Arab intellectuals have placed the Arabs’ cultural trajectory on a Darwinian civilisational scale at whose teleological end lies ‘the West.’ Concurrently, the manipulation of history to make the Arab past conform to Western morality became standard; history had come to be perceived as a pedagogical tool to mould contemporary Arabs. When Victorian morality was ascendant in the West (1837-1901), Arabic poetry’s historical tradition of ribaldry and same-gender sexual material began to be suppressed. And having been set in motion, the trend continued; Massad shows how early Abbasid-era poet Abu Nuwas (c.750-c.810) – renowned for his bawdiness and praise of pederasty – was often explained away or even disowned by 20th century Arab intellectuals.
Yet this exercise in blind emulation of Western mores remains tricky, because the lodestar represented by ‘the West’ keeps changing course. Indeed, ‘while the premodern West attacked medieval Islam’s alleged sexual licentiousness, the modern West attacks its alleged repression of sexual freedoms in the present’ (p. 175). With this in mind, Massad discusses representations of same-gender sex in modern Arabic fiction, wherein homosexuality is rarely perceived as mere sexual orientation, but endowed with moral significance. The author shows that Western influenced Arab.
Massad’s multi-pronged attack on ‘international gay brigades’ (p. 43) is fraught with conceptual problems, even though the author rarely fails to register a valid criticism of Western gay rights activists before launching into a dogmatic tirade against their allegedly imperialist agenda. Similarly, when taking to task those Arabs – whatever their ideological orientation – who fail to interrogate the ‘epistemological underpinnings’ (p. 174) of modern Western conceptions of sexual identity, his opening shot often proves effective even if the subsequent assault fizzles out.
The last decade has brought growing awareness of gay rights in many parts of the world, much of it involving local activists. According to Scott Long, of Human Rights Watch, gay activism is growing in both Latin America and Africa. “It’s still relative, but ten years ago, outside South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe, there were no groups anywhere in Africa,” he said. “Now, most anglophone countries and an increasing number of West African countries have at least small organisations that are trying to do something.
“In Latin America there’s a really vibrant movement that has connected with the left, and particularly in countries like Argentina and Chile there’s a completely different atmosphere now. These issues have become respectable in a lot of places.”
Among the more obvious factors is the growth of international communications – satellite television, foreign travel and the internet. (Massad does mention sex tourism, but only in the context of western men; it seems not to have occurred to him that Arab men might do the same in the opposite direction.) Arab exposure to western culture has increased enormously through satellite television, foreign travel and – more recently – the internet. Western sexual behaviour arouses much curiosity, both among those who see it as decadent and those who are simply intrigued. It is not unreasonable to suggest that widely-circulated stories about the sex lives of international celebrities (such as the arrest of the singer, George Michael), and western debate about gay marriages, have more influence on Arab ideas of sexuality than the supposed missionary efforts of the “Gay International”.
For example, Massad laments Arab intellectuals’ adoption of a modern Western taxonomy responsible for ‘transforming sexual practices into identities’ (p. 195) and considering all who engage in same-gender sex to be homosexual. He points out that, ironically, this approach has been especially prevalent among Islamists. Indeed, ‘Islamists adopted the very same vocabulary and classifications of the Gay International to disqualify the very same gayness that the Gay International had been trying to legitimize’ (p. 265).
When it comes to opposing gay rights, socially conservative Muslims and Christians seem happy to bury their theological differences. IslamOnline, one of the most popular Muslim websites, has a series of articles discussing homosexuality in “an Islamic and a scientific light”, but the articles rely, almost entirely, on material from the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, a religious-based fringe psychiatric organisation in the US which promotes “reparative therapy” for gay people.
In various international forums, western evangelicals, Catholics and Mormons have forged alliances with Muslims to defend “the family” (code for opposing abortion, contraception, homosexuality, etc). One such event was the conference held in Doha in 2004 under the auspices of the UN’s Year of the Family. Hosted by the Qatari government and organised by the Mormons, it brought together some of the world’s most reactionary forces, including Cardinal Alfonso Trujillo, who campaigns against condoms on behalf of the Catholic church, and Mahathir Mohamad, the dictatorial former prime minister of Malaysia who sacked and jailed his deputy for alleged homosexuality.
The internet, in particular, is making a huge impact in many parts of the world. In countries where public discussion of homosexuality is still taboo, it is often the most accessible source of information and provides comfort for many whose sexuality has made them feel lonely and isolated. “If it wasn’t for the internet I wouldn’t have come to accept my sexuality,” said one young Egyptian who is now a rights activist.
In places where no openly gay “community” exists, the internet also allows people to make social contacts that were unimaginable just a decade ago. “It has become a way for people to connect who would absolutely never have connected before,” according to Scott Long. “It has happened in the Middle East and the same thing has been happening in Africa.”
Again, these highly significant trends are simply waved aside by Massad in his preoccupation – or perhaps obsession – with the western origins of modern concepts of sexuality (concepts which were new in the west, too, not very long ago). In an age of global communications, exposure to foreign ideas and influences cannot be prevented, but nor should we assume that are Arabs incapable of making critical judgments about them. The real issue is not the source of such concepts as “gay” and “sexual orientation” but whether they serve a useful purpose. For a small but growing number of Arabs who seek to understand their sexual feelings the answer seems to be yes. And far from viewing from these concepts as an imposition they are eagerly grabbing at them.
For Massad, this is not a natural development but something that is being imposed on people – to their detriment. “By inciting discourse about homosexuals where none existed before,” he writes (p188), “the Gay International is in fact heterosexualising a world that is being forced to be fixed by a western binary [i.e. ‘gay’ or ‘straight’].”
However, it is disingenuous to claim that most Arabs who engage in same-sex relations do not express a need for gay politics. Given the local conditions, they could scarcely do otherwise. Gay rights groups cannot operate freely, as Massad ought to know: in most Arab countries non-governmental organisations require approval from the authorities and their activities are closely monitored. The only openly-functioning LGBT organisations in the Middle East are Helem in Beirut (the least restrictive of the Arab capitals) and Aswat, the Palestinian lesbian group which is based across the Green Line in Israel. The result is that much Arab activism (of all kinds) is organised from abroad. Inevitably, in Massad’s eyes, that turns the activists into “native informants”, aiding and abetting the western “missionaries”.
Massad’s certainty about Arab violence makes for the most tragic aspect of his argument against gay rights activism in the Arab world. For all his purported defence of Arabs who engage in same-gender sex, Massad wants to force them to choose the lesser of two evils: either accept the current shame-ridden and legally murky situation, or openly embrace a homosexual identity and suffer mindless violence and explicit legal restrictions as a result. Compare this to the rotten political choice presented to Arabs by those opposed to removing authoritarian regimes in the region: for those of you complaining about iron-fisted and nominally secular rule in Syria, Egypt and (formerly) Iraq, know that Islamic extremism is your only alternative. Apparently, this cruel and false dichotomy, a variation of which is continually used to quash efforts at improving the lot of women as well as ethnic and religious minorities in the Arab world, has now been extended into the realm of sexual freedom, thereby completing the wilful suffocation of Arabs who look to the West for help in achieving social and political reform.