Saturday, 6 June 2009

Desiring Arabs: Joseph Massad

Written by Eric Walberg
The Western "civilising" project in its many guises has given rise to strange bedfellows. Not only do Christian and Islamic fundamentalists -- officially enemies of each other -- find common cause in demanding more public displays of religiosity and less liberal social policies regarding sex. In fact, as Joseph Massad shows in his new book, Desiring Arabs, both parties -- again, paradoxically, as enemies of the international gay movement -- actually work in tandem with that very movement, aiding in the process of defining people according to the Western paradigm of heterohomo sexual categories, which, prior to the 19th century, did not even exist.

This is the central thesis in Massad's controversial study, which surveys Arab social history as constructed by Arab scholars and writers themselves from the 19th century on, heavily influenced by Western thought and research methods.

Since the French and British invasions of the Arab world in the 19th century, Western methodology has been adopted by Muslim scholars analysing their own history (in Western terminology, "heritage"), producing the paradigm of the decadent, backward, unreformed past, which required an "Arab renaissance" (a project which dates from the late 19th century) and the adoption of the so-called Western civilising mission of modernity -- the separation of the state and the religious establishment, electoral democracy, industrialisation, "emancipation" of women, now including the codification of people according to some essentialist sex drive.

Western studies of the Middle East from the 19th century on developed into a school widely called Orientalism, which recognises Islam as a variant of Christianity but still defines it as "un-culture". The missionary aim was not so much Christianisation as modernisation. Missionaries from the start saw Islam as some form of Christian heresy, realising that Muslims understood their creed as God's final correction of the monotheistic faith which encompasses Judaism and Christianity, but which in these versions had been corrupted by adherents, making reversion to Christianity apostasy. Religion remains embedded in the lives of Muslims in way it is not for Christians or Jews, and "reforming" this seems to be the focus of the civilising mission today.

The same essentially missionary aim of the West took a very different path in non-literate Africa, where animistic religions could adapt and absorb Christianity relatively easily. Whereas in the Middle Ages the West viewed the Muslim world as licentious, permitting perversions such as sodomy, by the 19th century, the tables were turned, with the Muslim world viewing the West as licentious, the intervening development being the rise of capitalism in the West and the degeneration of morals in cities. The rising middle class developed the proverbial Victorian prudishness, which became the template for a reactive Muslim morality, condemning what came to be known as homosexuality (a medical term first coined in Europe in the 19th century). Over the next century and a half, manifestations of this "disease" were considered a direct consequence of Western interference in the Islamic world, the sense behind Iranian President Ahmedinejad's insistence that "There is no such thing as homosexuality in Iran."

Along with this new Victorian prudery came a yet another reaction: the "gay liberation" movement. Both trends presuppose that people can be catalogued according to some innate sexual preference. While the conservatives deplore these defective souls, gay lib has lauded them as unjustly oppressed and demanded equal rights with heterosexuals (another newly coined medical term). This Manichean worldview is still the dominant framework for both pro and anti parties, the latter now including religious fundamentalists of all faiths.

The Western mission picked up steam in the late 1960s, with feminism and gay lib in the West and the failure of Nasserist socialism and Arab nationalism. The latter were of course defeated by that other "civilising" mission of the West: Zionism. With the Arab world weak and divided, its intellectual arm became even more captive to the Orientalist post-colonial agenda, backed by the West's imposing economic might. The socialist bloc's influence continued to weaken, and today virtually all intellectual life is dominated by Western concepts and categories, including sexual ones. 1967 was a turning point for the Arab world, not only politically, but in all aspects of life, and only Islam could provide an alternative worldview, though one which already severely crippled by Western cultural hegemony, comprador regimes and, when these fail, overt aggresion.

Whatever their intent, international gay activists have ended up replicating and even strengthening in other cultures the very situation of repression they set out to challenge in their own countries. Massad writes, "The categories gay and lesbian are not universal at all and can only be universalised 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."

The advocates of this paradigm advocate what looks like a scientific, essentialist programme that the entire world should adopt. What it is, however, is a kind of Western secular nativism seeking to replace what it sees as backward nativisms everywhere, forcing one and all to choose their slot. Woe to those who reject their paradigm, for the comprador elites and religious establishment have already been forced to fight the battle on the West's terms, implicitly accepting the Western paradigm as their own. Practitioners of msm (men having sexual relations with men) who reject the gay slot created for them by Western activists are catalogued as "self-hating" and guilty of "homosexual homophobia".

But could it be that the entire Orientalist framework, now including gay and lesbian "human rights", is a complete scam? While there are indeed sexual acts between men or between women, these acts must always be considered in their social setting. Msm occurs in varying degrees in all societies but in radically different ways, just as it does in nature. Even for biological oddities such as hermaphroditism, however, it is contrary to nature to divide people up merely according to their acts. Msm increases in certain social settings, such as urbanisation, segregation, commodification, war, social trauma, repressive upbringing and others, which can be explored by social scientists. But in non-literate societies, while rare instances of crossdressing and role reversal have happened, most msm takes place without much notice, and is more or less widespread depending on the social setting in which the acts are embedded.

The difference between East and West in this respect, as Massad suggests, lies in the fact that the entire so-called civilising mission has not been completed in the Arab world. The struggle over "gay rights" is merely one, albeit an increasingly important arena for this struggle. I would add that the real difference is the relative lack of objectification in the Muslim world prior to the invasions of the colonial era and the imposition of Western capitalism and science.

The supposedly scandalous verses of the medieval poet Abu Nuwas were more of a problem to the prudish Victorians than they ever were to Arabs or Muslims. Even Mahfouz's 1947 Midaq Alley shows the main character Kirshah infatuated with a young man, which only becomes a scandal when he fails to keep his liaison discrete and his headstrong (and jealous) wife finds out. His 1957 Sugar Street, by contrast, portrays a very different scenario, with the now Western homosexual stereotype embodied in the thoroughly Westernised upper class Pasha and his protege Radwan, whose desires constitute an identitarian self- questioning, spurning women, diseased, not fitting into society, identifying with the colonial mentality which the ruling elite now embraces. Significantly, Radwan is condemned not by his Islamist cousin, but by his communist one.

Traditional Islamic society operated on the principle of social order, tolerating sins such as fornication and msm so long as they are sufficiently discrete. It defined man as a social being with social obligations, not an isolated ego pursuing his individual desires. Though communism is in other respects the logical conclusion of the civilising mission, in practice communist regimes tolerated discrete msm much like traditional Muslim societies, not attempting to colonise desire to the same extent that capitalism does.

Today the civilising mission of the "Gay International" (as Massad provocatively puts it) is to pluck individuals out of their social setting, forcing them to define their very essence according to certain acts, and then endow them with universal personal rights to perform these acts and encourage others to perform these acts wherever they like, be it in Teheran, Mecca or New York. In pursuing this invasive policy, it continues the work of Christian missionaries, paving the way for the economic system that imperialism seeks to spread across the world, giving Western forces more room to incorporate other societies into its domain, and in the process, rewriting history.

This vital and obvious point escapes even the venerated iconoclast Michel Foucault, author of the monumental History of Sexuality, who omits the cultural effects of colonial systems on conceptions and constructions of sexuality, implicitly endorsing the universalist agenda. Foucault lists the objects of discourse on sexuality from the 19th century as "the masturbating child, the 'hysterical woman', the Malthusian couple, and the perverse adult", but critic Ann Stoler argues that Foucault ignores that all four imply "a racially erotic counterpoint", "the libidinal energies of the savage, the primitive, the colonised".

Not all Westerners are caught up in this Orientalist subterfuge. Some Western novelists have shown an appreciation of the value of social mores that the civilising mission is intent on destroying, much as Western ecologists struggle to save endangered species such as whales or apes. Edward Said argues that André Gide, Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham, E M Forster, Paul Bowles and others saw in the colonial setting "a different type of sexuality, perhaps more libertine and less guilt- ridden", and cherished it in the face of Victorian repression and objectification. But this anti-modern trend in thinking still has no articulate spokesman other than Said -- or Massad.

Massad's frontal assault on the gay lib crusade aimed at the Muslim world is a defiant call to resist the Orientalist project. Massad in effect describes a litmus test for anyone, Western or Eastern, as to whether they understand the Arab world: whether or not s/he resists the slick campaign to divide people according to their sexual acts, a false duality. The fact that the battleground is the Middle East is no coincidence. The litmus test for the other Western "civilising" project here is of course whether s/he resists the project to divide people according to a false concept of race. Ironically, it is Muslims who stand in the way of both.

Massad hints that overcoming the capitalist and colonial mindset in both centre and periphery will require bringing the sacred back into sexuality; in fact, it is in rediscovering the sacred, which Western secularised society has lost. It is the West that must learn from the East, not vice versa. This was recognised long ago by Muslims visiting Europe. The imam Rifaah Al-Tahtawi visited Paris in 1834 and noted "the dearth of chastity among many of their women, and the lack of jealousy among their men... how... adultery for them is a vice and a shame but not a primary sin... [Paris] is charged with abominations, innovations, and perdition, although the city of Paris is the wisest city of the entire world and the home of world-based science." The contradiction between this admiration for the secular achievements of the West and disgust with the social mores would remain the dominant theme for East-West relations over subsequent centuries.

One generalisation of the Orientalists that rings true is that Western societies suffer from guilt (they argue this is because only Westerners have a conscience), while Arab societies suffer mainly from shame. Rather than a more elevated conscience in Westerners, in fact, evidence points towards a less destructive and freer conscience in non-Western societies. Errant or questionable behaviour from society's point of view is tolerated as long as it is discrete, governed by the individual's sense of obligation to the community, which is also that individual's conscience.

Why is guilt "better" than shame, or more conscionable? A society less addicted to guilt is by no means less developed, and in fact most likely provides greater positive emotional orientation than one steeped in guilt, as indeed Christian society has been. The Western secular aim to do away with guilt, to embrace acts which were formerly considered antisocial, such as fornication and msm, has hardly created a social paradise, considering the malaise of Western society, not to mention its wars. Where is the accounting for the sins of US leaders who condoned widespread torture, including sexual torture? Where is the guilt in such figures as Bush or Cheney?

The rise of gay lib in the West resulted from a complexity of factors, including the relatively repressive nature of Christianity/Judaism, the rise of capitalism, and urbanisation. The imposition of this paradigm on the Muslim world is more than an affront. It has produced both greater official repression of any social deviance and, at the same time, a proliferation of sexual tourism, with Western gays finding the less rigid sexuality of the Muslim world liberating despite official opprobrium. This is a dilemma for Western-oriented Arab regimes, which want to benefit financially from tourism but are ultimately the protectors of their societies, undermining their legitimacy.

Arab intellectuals have for the most part gone along with the Western universalist agenda, leaving the field bereft of any substantive critique prior to Massad's. For instance, Lebanese writer Rayyan Al-Shawaf criticises "Massad's relativism -- stemming from his accurate observation that 'homosexuality' is alien to Arab same- gender sexual traditions," which implicitly rejects any "call for universal freedom of sexual identity." Al-Shawaf argues that, "in postulating the inevitability of (heterosexual) Arab violence wherever there is gay and lesbian assertiveness, Massad pre-emptively exonerates the perpetrators -- whether individuals or the state -- of any wrongdoing. However regrettable their behaviour, those Arabs who react violently to the gay rights campaign are not perceived by Massad as responsible for their actions, but as caught up in a broader struggle against 'imperialism', to which the gay rights movement is wedded."

It is hardly fair to put such words into Massad's mouth. However, his call for historicising and socialising sexual relations does challenge and even threatens the entire Arab intellectual world, including Al-Shawaf. Rather, Massad points to the direction that further intellectual reflection should take. Frequent attempts to waylay medieval and other authors writing in Arabic into the gay lib camp are exposed as fraudulent, as is the mistake of projecting current Western analytical categories onto other cultures and other eras. The only universal here is the eternal gap between labels on the one hand and the polymorphous, elusive, mysterious nature of sexual desire on the other. When it comes to sex, so to speak, nothing is black- and-white.

Just as the West's "civilising" missions in Iraq and Afghanistan are grimly moving forward, despite the horror they are inflicting on all who come in contact with them, the Disneyfication of social life throughout the Arab world grinds on, however entertaining and superficially comforting it may be to those Arabs literate enough to read subtitles. But both missions are in trouble, faced with committed Islamic and other opposition (the socialist and nationalist forces are not completely defeated, despite being heavily compromised).

Of course, the entire arsenal of the West is hard at work supporting the mission. Take, for instance, "honour" crimes in Muslim countries, which are loudly and incessantly condemned in the Western media, having been taken entirely out of context. While any murder is heinous, the context here is that Muslim countries actually have far lower murder rates than Western countries, and in fact one third of all women murdered in the US are murdered by boyfriends or husbands. Rare floggings and hangings for sexual crimes in the Muslim world (sometimes captured on a mobile phone and broadcast around the world) contrast with the daily nightmare of US prisons, where rape and drug addiction are endemic, or the brutality of Western police in intimidating the brave souls who dare protest the outrages of Western imperialism.

The true success of modernity can perhaps best be judged by the fact that the US has the highest rate of incarceration in the world.

There is a need for a discourse that "can invoke older forms, identities, and practices in the service of a future that is not just social reproduction or degeneration," i.e., not just reproducing the existing reactive impasse, not caving in to the Western imperial agenda. The first step is to make clear that Orientalism's cultural framework is at the heart of the problem, a task which Massad fulfils admirably. The place of sexual desire in the discourses and practices of modernity must be opened up, freed of the phoney universalising agenda. "It is at these rarer moments when the imposition and seduction of Western norms fail that the possibility of different conceptions of desires, politics, and subjectivities emerges."

As Sultan, the hero of Youssef Edriss's last short story, Abu Al-Rigal (Father of Men) shows, the crisis in male identity in the Arab world is partially self-induced (failure, cowardice), keeping in mind that the pressure of capitalism and the West remains the overriding force, the overriding engine of perversion.


Thursday, 4 June 2009

Liberal Lebanese Journalist Blasts Arab Governments for Freedom of Speech Violations

WHITE HOUSE NOTEBOOK: Highlighting ties to Islam

CAIRO (AP) — There was a time when Barack Obama wasn't eager to highlight his ties to Islam. Now, Obama is the U.S. president. And his audience is bigger and more diverse: a world that includes 1.5 billion Muslims.

Just a year ago, he was a presidential candidate trying to counter false Internet rumors that he was a Muslim as he sought the support of American voters.

Obama sought common ground with Muslims on Thursday by tracing personal links to Islam throughout his life as he laid out his vision for a strengthened relationship between America and followers of that faith.

"I am a Christian, but my father came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims," Obama said.

"As a boy, I spent several years in Indonesia and heard the call of the azaan at the break of dawn and the fall of dusk," he continued. "As a young man, I worked in Chicago communities where many found dignity and peace in their Muslim faith. As a student of history, I also know civilization's debt to Islam ... I know, too, that Islam has always been a part of America's story."

He also referred to himself by his full name — Barack Hussein Obama — and said he's "known Islam on three continents," experiences he said guide his convictions for a renewed relationship between Americans and Muslims.

And, he quoted from the Quran and issued a greeting of peace heard in Muslim communities in the United States, saying "assalaamu alaykum."

There also was a time when Obama wouldn't have gotten praise from Hillary Rodham Clinton. Just a year ago, she was his Democratic primary rival nearing the end of a bitter 2008 campaign in which she blistered him at every turn. Now, she's his secretary of state and gushes that he gave a "wonderful speech." "He set forth a clear challenge to us and all in the world who share hope for peace and security," Clinton said. "Now we have to get to work to translate that into concrete action."

Obama played both diplomat and tourist in his brief visit to Cairo. After spending the night at Saudi King Abdullah's horse farm in the desert outside Riyadh, Obama had a relatively low-key arrival in Cairo compared with the lavish scene that greeted the U.S. president in Saudi Arabia.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak dispatched Foreign Minister Ahmad Aboul Gheit to meet Obama at the airport before heading to Egypt's imposing, ornate Qubba Palace on a lush property in the middle of Cairo. Nearly two dozen horses led the motorcade down the wide, palm-lined palace drive.

The U.S. president jogged up the steps to greet his Egyptian counterpart with a handshake and the region's traditional double cheek kiss. As the two leaders stood on a balcony, a military band in blue dress uniforms played both countries' national anthems. Then, the leaders headed into private meetings on a range of issues, including Iran's disputed nuclear ambitions and the quest for peace in the Middle East.

Next up was a visit to the Sultan Hassan mosque, a 600-year-old center of Islamic worship and study whose image appears on Egypt's 100 pound note. The mosque is considered the jewel of Egypt's unique style of Islamic architecture under its medieval Mamluk rulers. Its courtyard is surrounded by four massive 100 foot arches each dedicated to the teaching of Sunni Islam's four schools and in its heyday its dormitories held students from around the Muslim world.

Obama and Clinton removed their shoes and, in stocking feet, sauntered down an ancient stone passageway as lanterns swayed gently from metal cables overhead. Obama peppered the tour guide with questions throughout.

After the speech, the president met with reporters from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Palestinian territories, Malaysia and Indonesia. Later, he was stopping at the Great Pyramids of Giza on the capital's outskirts.

Talk about a traffic headache. By the time Obama had arrived, some of Cairo's main thoroughfares, normally packed with cars in the morning rush, were nearly empty. Many residents chose to stay home rather than try to navigate the sprawling city of 18 million with the heavy traffic restrictions imposed for the U.S. president's visit.

Some major streets were closed to traffic and lined with police in white uniforms and central security forces. Near the Sultan Hassan mosque, Egyptian authorities moved an entire bus station to keep crowds far away. Traffic police spread flyers to let drivers know which roads were closed.

Obama was greeted in Cairo by a front-page banner headline in the independent newspaper Al-Dustour that read: "Today Obama visits Egypt after evacuating it of Egyptians." Another paper's headline said: "Cairo closed."

Associated Press Writers Maggie Michael and Patrick Quinn contributed to this report.

Muslims Will Judge Obama by Actions More Than Words

The New York Times
Published: June 4, 2009

WASHINGTON — It is too soon to tell whether President Obama’s 55-minute speech to the Muslim world from Cairo will be the balm to America’s broken relationship with Islam that White House officials hope.

The latest on President Obama, the new administration and other news from Washington and around the nation. Join the discussion.

Some early signs are promising — and not just that several times someone in Mr. Obama’s audience in the domed hall yelled out, “I love you!”

Mr. Obama drew applause by promising that America will never be at war with Islam. While maintaining that the United States will continue to fight terrorism and will not shy away from its alliance with Israel, he also invoked the name “Palestine” several times to refer to a Palestinian state. He called publicly for an end to Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and drew parallels between Islam, Christianity and Judaism, embracing all the children of Abraham.

But one thing is already clear. While Mr. Obama’s strong words may resonate today, on the Arab street and in the madrassas and the tea shops and dining tables where the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims congregate, the future actions of Mr. Obama will be far more important.

For all the talk right now about how much President Bush alienated the Muslim world, Bush administration officials, from the president on down, publicly said nice things about America and Islam as well. Remember Mr. Bush’s stirring speech, in the early days after September 11? Speaking before a joint session of Congress on Sept. 20, 2001, Mr. Bush sounded eerily similar to Mr. Obama today.

“I also want to speak tonight directly to Muslims throughout the world,” he said. “We respect your faith. It’s practiced freely by many millions of Americans and by millions more in countries that America counts as friends. Its teachings are good and peaceful. And those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah. The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying in effect to hijack Islam itself.”

“The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends,” Mr. Bush said, to applause. “It is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them.”

In the seven more years that he would govern the United States, Mr. Bush would often repeat those words, or ones similar. So too would his advisers. And yet, America’s relationship with Muslims continued to deteriorate.

Ultimately, policies matter more than words, many Muslim scholars say. They point to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Bush administration’s decision to delay calling for a ceasefire back in the summer of 2006 when Israel was pounding Hezbollah targets in Lebanon, America’s refusal to support a Palestinian national unity government that included the militant Islamist organization, Hamas, despite the fact that the United States had initially pushed for those same elections, expecting Hamas to lose.

For Mr. Obama’s words to mean anything, they say, American policy will have to change. And as gifted an orator as the president is, changing the behemoth of United States foreign policy is no easy task, particularly since America’s interests, in many ways, remain the same no matter who is in the White House.

Mr. Obama, while calling for a withdrawal of troops from Iraq (a plus in the minds of many Muslims) has increased the number of American troops in Afghanistan (a minus for many Muslims). He was noticeably silent during the Israeli siege of Gaza earlier this year, which many Muslims revile as disproportionate. During the Cairo speech on Thursday, he repeated the Bush era ban against official American dealings with Hamas, reiterating that his government won’t engage Hamas until it meets conditions imposed by the Bush administration, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations.

Whether Mr. Obama can find a way to maneuver between America’s entrenched foreign policy and his own bold vision for trying to forge a peace between America and Islam—and Israel and Palestine, for that matter—may well end up becoming the benchmark against which his presidency will be judged in the Muslim world.

“ ‘Show me the money’ is the attitude of the Arab and the Muslim world,” said Ziad Asali, president of the American Task Force on Palestine. But, he added, that Mr. Obama has some credibility at the moment. He pointed to the brewing fight between the Obama administration and Israel on settlements. “This is going to be the litmus test.”

A Response:

Reem Assad, lecturer in finance, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

"I was very impressed. His speech was a breath of fresh air compared to the bleak view most of the Arab world had of the previous administration. It's good he denounced colonialism. Of the seven issues he raised, the most important for me as a Saudi woman, was that of women's rights. There can be no progress socially or economically without the advancement of women. I teach banking and finance at university and my life's mission is to promote the empowerment of women. I also liked what he said about business and entrepreneurship. We must really seize on his goodwill and initiative. But we must not wait for it all to come from his administration. Arab nations must reach out and propose our own programmes."

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

'Gay penguins' rear adopted chick

Two "gay" male penguins have hatched a chick and are now rearing it as its adoptive parents, says a German zoo. The zoo, in Bremerhaven, northern Germany, says the adult males - Z and Vielpunkt - were given an egg which was rejected by its biological parents.

It says the couple are now happily rearing the chick, said to have reached four weeks old. The zoo made headlines in 2005 over plans to "test" the sexual orientation of penguins with homosexual traits.

Three pairs of male penguins had been seen attempting to mate with each other and trying to hatch offspring from stones. “Since the chick arrived, they have been behaving just as you would expect a heterosexual couple to do" (Bremerhaven zoo)

The zoo flew in four females in a bid to get the endangered birds to reproduce - but quickly abandoned the scheme after causing outrage among gay rights activists, who accused it of interfering in the animals' behaviour. The six "gay" penguins remain at the zoo, among them Z and Vielpunkt who are now rearing the chick together after being given the rejected egg.

"Z and Vielpunkt, both males, gladly accepted their 'Easter gift' and got straight down to raising it," said a zoo statement. "Since the chick arrived, they have been behaving just as you would expect a heterosexual couple to do. The two happy fathers spend their days attentively protecting, caring for and feeding their adopted offspring."

Humboldt penguins are normally found in coastal Peru and Chile, but their numbers have been dwindling due to overfishing, reports the AFP news agency. There have been previous reports of exclusive male-to-male pairings among penguins, some of which have also included the rearing of chicks.

Homosexual behaviour in is well documented in many different animals, but it is not understood in detail, says Professor Stuart West, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Oxford. Professor West says it has been suggested that homosexual activity could serve various purposes - for instance, it may relate to social bonding and establishment of dominance among bonobo chimps, while in some bird species, females may come together to rear young.

Other animals may simply exhibit a "drive to mate", while others may, like humans, enjoy non-procreative sexual activity. "Homosexuality is nothing unusual among animals," Bremerhaven zoo said on Wednesday. "Sex and coupling up in our world do not necessarily have anything to do with reproduction."

Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2009/06/03 17:50:18 GMT