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Islam in Liberalism

Islam in Liberalism

Islam in Liberalism – Joseph A. Massad, 2015

Here’s a book that Donald Trump should read.

At the heart of Joseph Massad’s Islam in Liberalism is a narrative about terms, translation and global imperialism. This empire is largely cultural but can turn territorial, and it belongs to the ‘liberal’ West. Massad argues, with relentless pace, that the West’s drive to hegemony is supported by a series of images in political, media and scholarly discourse that position ‘liberalism’ and ‘Islam’ as antithetical to each other.

These arguments are a development of Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) and the huge body of scholarship generated by it. They are not particularly new but are systematised to form a powerful narrative. Massad draws on an impressive range of scholarship to demonstrate how far Western academia has been, in his view, complicit in the project of liberal empire–building. What such ‘liberalism’ actually consists of is not his concern, any more than what the term ‘Islam’ might refer to or its connections to democracy in reality. It is how these things are imagined in relation to each other that is the focus here.

The first three chapters chart the construction of Islam as the West’s antithetical Other in scholarly discourse on three themes: citizenship and democracy; women’s rights; LGBT rights. The fourth chapter explores how particular Western and Arab psychoanalysts deploy liberal discourses to pathologize Islam and Islamism. Finally, Massad interrogates the ecumenical notion of ‘Abrahamic religions’, arguing that the term “equate[s] the powerful and the powerless” and distracts from the colonial past and present, in the form of the Palestinian Question.

Chapter one sets out the fundamental arguments that underpin the rest of the book. In Western media and political rhetoric, Islam is imagined as embodying qualities that are the opposite of values and principles that Western non–Muslims ascribe to themselves. Thus Islam and the ‘Muslim world’ are characterised by “despotism, intolerance, misogyny, homophobia”, in contrast to Europe and America, idealised as democratic, tolerant and the source of gender and sexual equalities. Massad argues that these images of Islam have been projected onto it by Western thinkers as a way of denying the reality of the West’s “hatred of democracy”, its own unfreedom and deep–rooted inequality. He charts Europe and America’s “malleable” commitment to democracy from the eighteenth century until the present – noting that, abroad, the US has sponsored authoritarian regimes in Muslim–majority countries and (during the Cold War) jihadist groups as a bulwark against the spread of communism, whilst at home, it has upheld a system of “economic apartheid” after the collapse of its “racial apartheid system” in the 1970s. Meanwhile, Western Orientalist scholarship has continued to assert that Islam and Arab culture are, at heart, incompatible with democracy.

Through this process of projecting the West’s own ‘failings’ onto Islam, Western thinkers since the colonial era have been able to present the West as a paradise in contrast to the ‘Muslim world’, which needs saving. This serves to legitimise European and American liberal intervention (through invasion, NGO activism and even the UN) across the world. Ultimately, “the discourse of democracy turns out to be nothing short of camouflage for this imperial offensive.”

In the following chapters Massad interrogates how this “democracy offensive” functions in practice. He argues that Western state and NGO attempts to promote human rights globally is simply another mechanism by which European and American culture is forcibly disseminated. Liberal feminist campaigns against honour crimes in the Muslim world treat violence against women in these countries in culturalist and racialist terms, in contrast to how such violence among Westerners is conceived – as a problem with individualised rather than culture–wide causes. The ‘Muslim woman as victim’ stereotype facilitates Western attempts to save them. Western (and UN–sponsored) NGOs are said to undermine local civil society organisations and impose upon them Western epistemologies and methods of development, which all (wittingly or unwittingly) contribute to liberal imperial hegemony.

Massad sees a similar process among Western gay rights activists – or what he calls, disconcertingly, the “Gay International”. He insists that categories of sexual orientation like heterosexual and homosexual, and even the concept of ‘sexuality’ itself, are not universal but are historical products of Western cultures. Gay rights activists in the Muslim world are said to be producing the very subjectivities they think they are protecting – and unconsciously doing epistemological violence to people who may have very different understandings of their sexual desires and practices.

All this makes for hard–hitting, and often uncomfortable, reading. This is precisely what Massad wants to achieve. He wants to force the reader to see the power plays at work in the process of translation – including of terms like ‘citizen’, ‘gay’, even ‘Islam’ itself – and how, in his view, such translation and transplantation onto other cultures can do violence when applied uncritically and when underpinned by imperialist structures. This is empire by terminology, and we are all complicit.

Christianity, in the form of Western Protestantism, features in this book as the forerunner and progenitor of secular liberal empire. The goal of the global liberal project is to “recreate the Muslim world in the image of an imagined liberal Christian Europe”. The zeal of liberal activists and NGOs to ‘save’ Muslims has its roots in Christian missionary narratives, and the ‘failings’ the West projects onto Islam are ultimately failings in Christianity.

Massad’s work is engaging but there are issues. Some are stylistic – his chapters are repetitive and need clearer structure, and he gives over multiple pages to footnotes in order to pick apart apparent flaws in his critics’ arguments. Others are conceptual. The reader is left wondering whether there can be any way for Western scholars to escape the drive to imperialism, if the very terms we use are as complicit in this drive as Massad suggests. The latter point itself could benefit from further evidence. We are told, for example, that the apparent universalisation of Western sexual categories does harm to non–Westerners who may not understand their sexual desires in such ways. Such psychological (and social) harm may well be real but we do not hear the voices of non–academic Muslims confirming this. Perhaps we don’t hear their voices because of the untranslatability of their understandings of ‘sexuality’ into terms we can comprehend. The argument of untranslatability frees Massad to make his case but, in this book at least, his point can only remain in the realm of the theoretical.

How far one buys Massad’s narrative will naturally depend on one’s starting position. Readers who are already critical of American intervention abroad will be receptive to Massad’s exposure of ongoing liberal imperialism. Readers who sympathise with women or LGBT people that have faced violence in non–Western countries will likely be offended by his suggestion that liberal activists (Muslim and non–Muslim) are complicit in the spread of empire. Most readers should agree that his relentless interrogation of Western stereotypes of Islam, Muslims and the ‘Muslim world’ is much needed at a time when the Republican front–runner can win votes by subjecting Muslims to yet more demonization.

Simon Perfect is an Associate Tutor at the SOAS and Media Coordinator at Theos | @simplymrperfect

Islam in Liberalism by Joseph A. Massad is available from The University of Chicago Press

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Image by Day Donaldson from, available under this Creative Commons Licence

Simon Perfect

Simon Perfect

Simon is a Researcher at Theos. He is also a researcher and tutor at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), where he leads distance–learning courses exploring Muslim communities in Britain and in other minority settings. He is co–author of the book ‘Freedom of Speech in Universities: Islam, Charities and Counter–terrorism’ (Routledge, 2021).

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Posted 28 January 2016

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