Islamic (Homo)Sexualities

Today I would like to dive a bit more deeply in the themes I only touched upon in my last post. I want to do so by presenting a specific case study, the debate around a book published on Islamic sexualities in 2007—Joseph Andoni Massad’s Desiring Arabs—that shows the extent to which thinking of sexuality from a historical perspective can be a politically charged action in times of global conflicts.

I will briefly summarize a talk I gave in June 2018 at a panel titled ‘Illegitimate Sexualities’ in Times of Homonormativity and Homonationalism’ organized by PoliTeSse (see section “ABOUT” in this webpage) at the past annual conference of the Association for Social and Political Philosophy (Sapienza University of Rome), in which I presented along with Francesca Romana Ammaturo, Eyja M. Brynjarsdóttir, and Massimo Prearo

Joseph Andoni Massad is a Palestinian Christian, born in Jordan in 1963. He received his PhD in Political Science from Columbia University in 1998 and is currently Professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia University. His academic work has focused on Palestinian, Jordanian, and Israeli nationalism. When he firstly conceived “Desiring Arab”, published in 2007, the book «was supposed to be an intellectual history of the modern Arab world revolving around the question of culture, heritage, and modernity». But, as he himself wrote, «the book would soon take a different turn altogether». «In fact – Massad goes on – the question of sexual desire did not come about due to an initial scholarly interest in the subject matter but rather out of political frustration with the nature of Western Political discourse and on journalistic representations of sexual desires of Arabs» (ix). «I argued with many westerners and a few Arabs who reproduced the discourse of sexual identities as “universals” and upheld the “right” to defend such identities wherever they are repressed» (ibid.).
«In the footsteps of the white Western women’s movement, which had sought to universalize its issues through imposing its own colonial feminism on the women’s movements in non-Western countries – a situation which led to major schisms from the outset […] the gay movement sought a similar missionary task» (160-161).

Massad held responsible for this choice the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA), and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC). Massad collocate the foundation of ILGA (1978) into the «Carter administration’s human rights campaign against the Soviet Union and third world enemies», and he reduces its activity to an «Orientalist impulse» (161). The «Gay International» [sic!] – following Massad’s opinion – «produced two kinds of literature on the Muslim World in order to propagate their cause»: 1) academic literature explaining Arab and Muslim homosexuality in history; 2) journalistic account of the lives of «so-called “gays” […] and “lesbians” in the contemporary Arab and Muslim worlds» (161-162).
The aim of the «Gay International» is summed up by Massad as follow: «to help “liberate” Arab and Muslims “Gay and Lesbians” from the oppression in which they allegedly live by transforming them from practitioners of same-sex contact into subjects who identify as “homosexuals and gays”» (162). By doing so, Massad goes on, «the very discourse of the gay international […] both produces homosexuals […] where they do not exist, and repress same-sex desires and practices that refuse to be assimilated into its sexual epistemology» (162-163). Massad argues that Arab and Muslim men «polymorphousness» [that is, the ability to practice insertive same-sex and different-sex contacts] «confounds gay (and straight) sexual epistemology» (which leaves open the embarrassing question: who and where are the “bottoms” in the Arabic world?).

The increasing interest in Islamicate sexualities is strictly related to the present-day problems raised by the conflicts between the so-called Western world and Islamic-majority countries in the international arena . At the time Massad wrote, some serious academic studies on Islamic homoeroticism had been published already, reflecting a high degree of awareness of the methodological problems raised by the use of the category of homosexuality in a cross-cultural perspective . However, he willingly decided to ignore these works, quoting instead less refined studies written by non-specialists who mostly based their research on English translations of Arabic, Persian, and Turkish sources .

One of the first responses to Massad is contained in a groundbreaking volume edited by Kathryn Babayan and Afsaneh Najmabadi in 2008, titled Islamicate Seuxalities, which emerged from a seminar, held in Harvard in 2003 . Valerie Traub responded to Massad’s criticisms against the so-called “Gay international” . He oversimplified LGBTQI studies. By «selectively presenting a small sampling of historical, anthropological, and journalistic works on homosexuality in Muslim cultures, Massad produces a site of critique that has only a tenuous relationship to dominant trends in lesbian/gay/queer studies or the discipline of the history of sexuality» (5). Traub recognizes that Massad’s biased criticism reflects a relevant theoretical problem. Historians know that the expressions of homosexual desire have always been socially constructed and that same-sex attracted individuals in the past were not the same as lesbians and gays in the contemporary “West”. However, she points out that the celebration of Muslim men’s “polymorphousness” in Desiring Arab is another way to articulate a stereotype. No matter whether is celebrated or condemned, «the narrative of the emergence of homosexual identity as a function of modern discourses, institutions, and practices necessarily positions the non-West as premodern, traditional, anterior» (8).

Samar Habib is author of some relevant monographs on lesbian desires in Arabic culture. She was born in Lebanon from Palestinian refugees and studied in Australia. In her introduction to a collection of essays titled Islam and Homosexuality (2010) she denounced the epistemological violence of Western discourses on Human Rights which, in her opinion, are still caught in a «paradox or impasse» (xxii). «[T]hose who reject the view that Universals are possible», see the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights as an «imposition that does not take into consideration what is culturally unique about non-Western». However, Habib argues that by appealing to anything more than a «universally shared physiology» one can «dare say, virtually undeniably, that no human being would react positively and happily to prolonged detention, and physical torture, or to deprivation of sleep, denial of food, or to sexual assaults […] I can further argue – Habib goes on – that such factors as social oppression and ostracism, harassment, and bullying also lead to unhappy dispositions, to unnecessary misery. From these assumed universals I can postulate that a human being has a right to the protection of her life, and to the protection of the dignity of her person». In her opinion, since all these rights «are clearly applicable to sexual and gender minorities», the fact that the Universal Declaration of Human rights emerged as an initiative involving western Nations after World War II does not automatically make it a bad idea or one that cannot be universally applicable or agreed on» (xxiii).

It’s still a fact that, up to 2015, homosexual acts are prosecuted in many Islamic-majority countries . Although there is a lot still to be done also in the so-called Western world , it is undeniable that at the moment there is a disproportion between the risks one has to run through for being same-sex attracted in the West and in many Muslim-majority countries. But if we think historically, we can see that things has not always been that way.

Gender and sexuality studies and queer theories have already attempted to address the problems raised by thinking of sexual freedom in terms of “us” and “them”. After 9/11, racial issues have gained a prominent place in gender and sexuality studies, fostering both cross cultural approaches, and a strong criticism of the strategies of inclusion/exclusion that have underpinned the social policies of neo-liberalism. The coining of the term ‘homonormativity’ by Lisa Duggan in 2003 marked a turning point in undermining the supposed cohesiveness of homosexual identities. Duggan stresses the ability of neoliberal ideology to propose itself as a neutral solution to economic and material problems, while actually engaging in a merciless cultural struggle oriented to «attack and isolate» the legacy of the «cultures of download redistribution located within social movements since 1960s». Gay organizations have been recruited for policies of upward distribution, becoming «the lobbing, legal, and public relations firms for an increasingly narrow gay, moneyed elite». In 2007, Jasbir K. Puar pointed out to which extent racism was implicit in this turn. Intersectional queer identities—Muslims minorities, but also Sikhs who are often misleadingly confused with Muslims—have experienced since 9/11 increasing isolation within the queer community.

In which way historical studies can contribute to this debate? Looking back at a time past shows that not always the dichotomy tolerance/intolerance towards homosexual behaviour worked in favour of the so-called “West”. Many studies have recognized to which extent Arabic, Persian, and Turkish literature allowed the expression of male homosexual desire in a way that is not comparable to Europe and its colonies between the Middle Ages and the early modern period. What it may sound surprising is that the progressive concealment of homoerotic themes in the literary canons of Islamic countries was mainly due to the influence of “Western ideology” in the 19 and 20th century. The “modernizing” currents within Muslim-majority societies appropriated the repressive sexual moral of “Westerners”, and expurgated the literary canon from homoerotic themes, as Dror Ze’evi, Afsaneh Najmabadi, and Selim Kuru have amply shown .

In the light of what we just said, it is not possible to reduce the relations between Western and Islamic cultures to an essentialist dichotomy. Both worlds have constantly changed through time and they have always been characterized by a plurality of—often conflicting—positions and experiences that frustrates any reductionist attempt. Moreover, we cannot understand the history of sexuality without taking into account the constant interactions between “East” and “West”. Any discourse on Islamic radicalism and anti-homosexual campaigns in Muslim-majority countries has to be contextualized and understood in the light of the influence of the West in the development of Islamic radicalism since the end of the 19th and, above all, in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Further readings:

Joseph A. Massad, Desiring Arabs, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

K. Babayan and A. Najmabadi (eds.), Islamicate Sexualities: Translations across Temporal Geographies of Desire, Cambridge, Mass.: Center for Middle Eastern Studies of Harvard University (Distributed by Harvard University Press), 2008

Samar Habib (ed), Islam and homosexuality, Santa Barbara, Calif.: Praeger, 2010.

L. Duggan, Twilight of Equality? Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy, Boston: Beacon Press, 2003.

Jasbir K. Puar, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times, Durham: Duke University Press, 2017.


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