This is partly in response to those on the American right who seem more eager to tar Massad with the label of homophobia (and indeed antisemitism) than consider the underlying issues, and also in response to Massad’s insulting attack on Helem, the Lebanese gay rights organisation, which I reported here in December.
Massad’s argument, put very simply, is that the gay/straight binary is a creation of the west, which the west has exported through colonialism and neocolonialism — and which should therefore be opposed. He claims that this, rather than anything in Arab societies themselves, is the cause of homophobia and attacks on sexual minorities in the Middle East.
The implication of Massad’s argument (expounded in his book, Desiring Arabs) is that without foreign interference Arabs would be revelling in a multiplicity of diverse sexual experiences, untramelled by fears of persecution or agonising about sexual identity. This is highly questionable and, as Ibish points out, there is plenty of evidence pointing in the opposite direction, such as punishment for same-sex acts and "the existence of derogatory language that appears to predate any sustained encounter with the colonial west".
Ibish’s key point, though, is about modernity. Where Massad views gay/straight concepts purely in terms of cultural imperialism, Ibish thinks they should be regarded as unavoidable products of modernity:
"Massad is missing a crucial point about the nature of modernity that I think eludes many intelligent, well-meaning people: modernity is a package deal and not an à la carte menu. It seems to me that almost all contemporary identity categories have been either directly produced or completely redefined by modernity, leaving very little if any meaningful social identity categories that are not, in effect, precisely the products of modernity.
"Contemporary notions, both east and west, of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, ideological affiliation, etc. all seem to me to be produced or defined by modernity, that is to say by their modern context. Even well-established identity categories that obviously and deeply precede colonialism and modernity in the Middle East, such as divisions between Sunnis and Shiites (as well as other smaller Muslim denominations) or premodern tribal affiliations, have all been restructured and redefined in the context of a postcolonial Arab modernity defined first and foremost by the Arab state system.
"In other words, I’m arguing that certain kinds of social and political identities, including the gay and other non-normative sexual identities, are, to all intents and purposes, built into modernity in the same way that race, ethnicity, nationality, gender and other comparable political identity categories obviously are. Some of them predate modernity, but have been redefined. Others are new or have taken on new significance, for example with regard to women’s rights."
Massad’s problem, Ibish suggests, is that he "treats modernity as if it were an à la carte menu in which a society may pick and choose the items it wants for its own purposes and simply decide to avoid some other aspects that are inherent in modernity such as gay and other ‘problematic’ socio-political identities".
This kind of cherry-picking, unfortunately, is not peculiar to Massad. It’s very widespread throughout the Arab countries — not just in the area of sexuality — and there are many other examples in my book, What’s Really Wrong with the Middle East.
Massad, a protégé of the late Edward Said, teaches at Columbia University and his work is directed primarily at an academic audience. He does make some valid points, especially about the undesirability of fitting everyone into hard-and-fast sexual identities. But, as Ibish notes, we can’t ignore the political significance of Massad’s arguments in the real world: they may not be homophobic in themselves but they do risk reinforcing homophobia in others.
This is why Helem and many other gay rights activists in the region find his arguments threatening — especially when Arabs who identify as gay are portrayed as victims of an insidious western influence.
"[Massad] actually seems to oppose the political agenda of providing Arab gays and lesbians with legal protection as a class because of his opposition to the [gay/straight] binary and the gay identity it produces …
"Ultimately this is a highly irresponsible position, and ungenerous in an inexplicable way. He seems to be so opposed to the gay identity as a socio-political category in theory that he opposes the gay rights agenda in practice.
"Of all of the beleaguered groups and threatened movements in the Arab world, picking on Arabs who openly identify as gay and gay rights activists seems a very strange choice indeed."
Brian Whitaker is the Middle East editor of The Guardian. His blog (from which this articles comes), Al-Bab, "has no connection with The Guardian, other than the fact that I earn my living from working for the paper."