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Revolutionary Hypocrisy, Cultural Relativism, and Arab Gayness

September 1, 2009

Desiring Arabs

Zizek argues that the irony in the position of the ‘revolutionary’ is tragic: “first you sacrifice everything for the cause, then you are rejected by this Cause itself, finding yourself in a kind of empty space with nothing, no point of identification, to hold on.”

But is this not the precise problem with the blanket understanding of resistance produced almost mechanically by so-called ‘activists’ and wannabe ‘revolutionaries’?

I am reminded here of the case of Algerian women being an integral aspect of anti-colonial resistance, who were promised by their male counterparts equal rights in the new, free Algeria. The men argued that women’s rights cannot come until the entire society is free from French control. The result: Algeria gained independence, and women were re-colonised by this newly independent state. Inevitably, not everyone was free in the newly freed Algeria, including the very nucleus of the resistance: women.Unfortunately, the infamous case of Algeria does not stand alone in its hypocrisy. Revolutions, revolutionary activities, and resistances, as Foucault once famously said, breed new forms of domination.

In a particularly heated debate with frienemies, we were discussing the issue of gay rights in the Middle East. The topic arose when ‘I am an Arab’ was reading Joseph Massad’s Desiring Arabs, a chronicle of Western fetishization of Arab sexuality, from torture in Abu Ghraib to the torture of the Palestinian resistance by the Zionists in the 1930s and ’40s.

Joseph Massad, whose arguments place him as the bastard lovechild of Partha Chatterjee and Adolf Hitler, makes a thoroughly well-researched and complex, but nonetheless detached, unrealistic, dangerous, and quite frankly highly irrelevant argument concerning what he refers to as the ‘Gay International’: the universalisation of the Western gay identity and its colonisation of same-sex identities that exist around the world, particularly in the Middle East.

Massad is not incorrect in his main argument: the gay identity arose within very specific Western understandings of sexuality, and has since—through globalisation, westernisation, and colonisation, penetrated (hah!) contemporary postcolonial society. Nonetheless, while his hypothesis may be correct, it is the remainder of his argument that has led to debate amongst my various quasi-intellectual networks, composed of myself and ‘I am an Arab’ in London, and ‘Mama Superior’ and ‘Fabastian’ who are based in the Arab world. I should probably note that this particular post is less of an attack on this specific issue of ‘gay rights’ but more of a critique of this method of thinking about resistance/rights/domination/imperialism in some parts of the Far Left. For a much better critique of Massad’s pathetic excuse of a book, refer to Brian Whitaker’s scathing review of Massad’s views.

First, lets briefly describe Massad’s position: as mentioned, gay identity is a Western concept; the attachment to this identity is Western, and alien to the Arab world. Discounting the reality that homosexual activity was not only widespread in the Islamic age but also widely accepted, Massad has a point in saying that the identification of oneself as gay also involves inheriting a very Western identity of what it means to engage in homosexual activity. Fine.

But the reality is, and this is a problem I find in most postcolonial critiques of identity, be they from Massad himself, or those that I have more respect for such as Chatterjee or Mahmoud Mamdani, is that while the hypothesis is interesting, it nonetheless becomes quite irrelevant, or even dangerous, when put into practice. The problem arises when one begins to ascribe postcolonial blather to policy prescriptions. More specifically, I (along with Mama Superior and Fabastian) took issue with what seemed like Massad’s ‘justification’ for the arrest of dozens of gay men aboard the Queen Boat in Cairo in May 2001. For Massad, the arrest, torture, and humiliation of these men is almost justified since they were partaking in Western acts, and, what the Egyptian government has claimed is their prostitution to Western men. So suddenly the Egyptian government views being (allegedly) sodomised by Westerners as a legitimate excuse for torture, humiliation, and arrest? The irony here is that this is the Egyptian government of Hosni Mubarak I am talking about, perhaps the quintessential example of the sodomisation of the Arab world by Western imperialism.

But let’s take this seriously for a second. Since when is partaking in Western forms of sexuality a crime? Last I checked, most Arabs, both elite and subaltern, have adopted Western heterosexual dating rituals. Why haven’t the countless heterosexual brothels, nightclubs, bars and cafes,been raided by authorities for their Western conduct?

It is so easy, in trying to resist the many injustices that have been perpetuated against the Arab world by the West—particularly the last 100 years since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, that we excuse the irrational behaviour of something by deeming it ‘legitimate’ cultural resistance.

‘I am an Arab’, while quite progressive in his delusions, was nonetheless mistaken in thinking that the arrest was legitimate under the banner of resisting the appropriation and colonisation of Arab identity (including sexuality) by Western identity. But when does resistance become domination? Is resistance through the humiliation, torture, arrest, and ridicule of a people ever justified? And if it can be, does that make resistance something to aspire to?

Massad, who continues to gain weight sitting in his comfy chair in Columbia University, seems to think so. At the end of the day, the ultimate enemy is the West in all its forms, and colonisation, in all its forms, is bad. Yes, perhaps there needs to be a more critical look at the identity of sexuality in the Middle East rather than an uncritical acceptance of the ‘Gay International’, to coin a phrase. But seeing life simply as ‘Arab’ and ‘Western’ completely blanks out the entire spectrum of cultural amalgamations, adaptations, and transformations that occur when two cultures collide, which is not necessarily ‘bad’. Seeing culture as static, as something that must necessarily be protected, is perhaps the main reason Arabs continue to be the least progressive and most backwards ‘culture’ in the world.

When does culture become more important than human rights? And while I do accept the argument that the current understanding of human rights comes from a very specific [Western] reading of the human ‘experience’, I similarly reject the argument that this is an excuse to discount it in non-Western contexts. If we are to accept that cultures differ, we should also be ready to accept that a declaration such as the UDHR will be interpreted differently in different contexts. One’s focus on the Western values inherent in the Declaration only reveals that one is privileged in not having their own human rights under threat. I bet you the Tutsis of Rwanda did not sit there contemplating whether the Universal Declaration of Human Rights applied to their particular cultural context as they were being hacked to death by Hutus.

Of course, this is not limited to simply the ‘gayz’; women’s rights have faced similar arguments: that the feminist International has dominated the experience of what it means to be a woman, and therefore all the bitches worldwide have to conform to these ideals or be labelled ‘backwards’ or ‘under threat’. Again, these arguments are true, however, as Fabastian correctly highlighted, they should provide the beginning of the debate, rather than the conclusion (which is what Massad suggests).

After explaining my position, ‘I am an Arab’ resorted to the arguments made by his patriarchial anti-colonial ancestors, arguing “quite frankly, I agree, but there are more important ‘resistance’ that need to be done before anyone can start discussing gay rights”. Algeria much?

If we can’t accept that resistance must be, by its very nature, fragmented and open to continuous divisions, re-articulations, discoveries, then this resistance will only produce even more domination. And under that banner, perhaps continued imperialism is better. After all, better the devil you know.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. elmaryachi permalink
    September 2, 2009 2:54 am

    ” … and alien to the Arab world. Discounting the reality that homosexual activity was not only widespread in the Islamic age but also widely accepted”

    On the contrary, Massad goes to great lengths to demonstrate that homosexual activity was widespread in the Islamic age. He cites many poems and follows the lives of many known homosexuals within the history of Islam and proves that Homosexuality has always existed in the Islamic age and that it was even tolerated, especially during the reign of the Abbassids. What you are confusing is the act and the label. Massad says the act has always existed, whereas the label and identity is a western intervention.

    Also nowhere in the book did I get the impression that Massad was sympathetic with the actions of the Egyptian government. What Massad says is that the actions of Gay International and the resulting reactions by Islamists jeopardized the position of gays in the Arab world. It labeled them and turned them into a political tool to be used in the fight between Islamists and the west.

    “Pathetic excuse of a book” Even if the reader does not agree with the book’s arguments, dismissing it as such is pretty harsh and an unfair description of a well-researched and well-argued book.

  2. September 2, 2009 1:20 pm

    I have suggested to Professor Massad that his analysis would have more universal applicability if he learned more about European sexual identity politics and if he were to use a comparison to elucidate the situation in the Arab world: Origins: Zionist Gay Pubic Diplomacy.

  3. empressmuhammad permalink*
    September 2, 2009 1:24 pm

    I think Massad’s work is important in it’s own way, but I can’t help but feel like asking him “well….so what?”. I feel the same about his critique of the construction of Jordanian nationalism in Colonial Effects: sure, it’s important to understand how certain ideologies are constructed, but ultimately, one could make very similar deconstructions about any subject under the sun. Put simply: that’s just the way the world is, babes, it’s an ugly and beautiful hybrid of agency and structure that construct what we call culture. Err whateverz.

  4. elmaryachi permalink
    September 2, 2009 1:53 pm

    yeah, but this ‘so what babes’ applies to analysis of every single subject under the sun.

    It is very important to understand these matters especially in a region as confused as the Middle East. His book on Jordanian identity is a brilliant study of post colonialism and answers a lot of question about Jordan today as a society and where it is heading. Jordan has always suffered an identity crisis and the book gives an inspired explanation of its origins.

    As for Desiring Arabs, it proves wrong many misconceptions about the sexuality in the Middle East, of which are the fact that homosexuality has always existed, and that the status of women in the Arab world has actually deteriorated over the years rather than improved. Massad clearly views homosexual Arabs as the victims in this political push and pull between islamists and human right organizations.

    About having universal applicability, Massad’s point is that well before globalization and the march of western influence into the middle east arab sexuality was alive and well. in fact, the arab world was chastised by the west for being too licentious, while nowadays, it is being criticized for being too conservative.

    “Joseph Massad, whose arguments place him as the bastard lovechild of Partha Chatterjee and Adolf Hitler” as someone who’s read Massad rather than subjective reviews of his work, I find this comment extremely unfair and uncalled for.

  5. empressmuhammad permalink*
    September 2, 2009 3:23 pm

    Yes, Colonial Effects is a brilliant study of postcolonialism. However, much of the debate has effectively moved beyond postcolonialism, which in itself is also ridden with contradictions. Ultimately, postcolonialism in and of itself promotes the ‘so what, babes’ question. But that’s for another discussion.

    I do not like the assumption that just because Massad is critical of the West that he should automatically be seen as an ‘Arab authority’. Massad himself is extremely Westernised, and the way he approaches his thinking is from a very Western construct, which many of these postcolonial critics themselves do. This itself (a) removes a lot of agency from the actual people they are talking about, who don’t often think in these terms, and (b) do not usually have an accurate view of what is thought, said and acted upon on the ground.

    Furthermore, Massad’s weakness in Desiring Arabs is that he examines literature as his main source and talks little about actual practices of homosexuality. That in itself is enough to stop people from holding up this book as the be-all-end-all of studies on Arab homosexuality. What’s the point of sex if you’re not talking about actually doing it, and literature does not often mirror practice– particularly when you think of homosexuality, it rarely does in fact!

    Homosexuality always existed everywhere in the world– Massad wasn’t the first person to uncover this fact, and really, did it need uncovering? At the end of the day, his book attacks a movement (‘The Gay International’) that (a) does not even exist in the first place, and (b) is not a monolithic movement but is in fact quite heterogenous.

    What this does, in effect, is offer another opportunity to shit on the West under the guise of critically examining human rights as a concept. Like I said, there is absolutely nothing wrong with deconstructing human rights and it’s important, but to remove all agency from the Arab gay movement and place it entirely in the hands of this elusive ‘Gay International’ and the ‘Islamists’ is to perpetuate the same problem over and over again: you are effectively telling people how to act and think and not letting them do it for themselves.

    My argument returns to the following: let the gay Arab movement speak for itself. By and large, most of Arab homosexuals now support the idea of a Gay International, and this is hardly confined to the elites. And also, don’t remove agency from these Gay Arabs. Rest assured that they will not uncritically accept this non-existant ‘Gay International’, and they have never done so: in fact, they pick and choose what they will support and what not to, and there is an ongoing discussino within the Arab gay movement about all of these. I don’t like the binaries and simple clear-cut divisions Massad makes between West and Arab, and gay and straight. He’s falling into his own trap: just let it be. Cultures will inevitably collide and they will challenge each other, but to try and divide what is Western and what isn’t is dangerous and ultimately futile and useless. And yes, it is racist.

    Finally, this is not to say that Massad’s book is pointless, far from it. This is to say I do not agree with his conclusions. It is but one contribution to the gay discourse, but by far not the ultimate one, which many straight people seem to suggest.

  6. empressmuhammad permalink*
    September 2, 2009 3:24 pm

    Finally, if you still feel strongly about this, feel free to write a post on this blog saying so!

  7. elmaryachi permalink
    September 2, 2009 7:29 pm

    The fact that homosexuality is universal and that the east and west have no clear divide is repeated by Massad throughout the book. He uses this quote “there is no absolute east and no absolute west” and describes how sexuality in the orient and the occident mirrored and continue to mirror each other.

    I’m not saying that Massad’s book is the bible on sexuality in the middle east – although it is by all means a humungous contribution – but to dismiss it as unworthy and racist is an unfair assessment.

    his attack on the gay international are within the context of when the gay label was used for political reasons and when the efforts of gay international unintentionally jeopardized the safety and well-being of gay Arabs.

    Anyway. No need for another post really. we’re discussing it here.

    I’m still not sure I understand how it is racist. Cultures are coming a lot closer together, but at the same time are profoundly different. How can discussing sexuality in the middle east be labeled racist?


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