Joseph Massad’s latest book suggests that liberalism—far from being a neutral doctrine—depends on the preservation of what its rejects for its own definition. We err, says Massad, professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University, by raising the question: why is liberalism absent in Islam? Inquiries of this sort too hastily assume that there is a monolithic entity called “Islam” that exists apart from liberalism. He redefines the terms of the debate in asserting that Islam is at the very heart of liberalism and Europe. “It was there” he argues, “at the moment of the birth of liberalism and the birth of Europe.” Far from designating a clear-cut religious or cultural phenomenon, “Islam” is rather that which must be repressed in order for the West to present itself as liberal and progressive. Islam is thus constituted at the very moment when liberalism constitutes itself.
Inspired by the theoretical contributions of Edward Said, Islam in Liberalism demonstrates “how the anxieties about what this Europe constituted and constitutes—despotism, intolerance, misogyny, homophobia—were projected onto Islam,” and affirms that “only through this projection could Europe emerge as democratic, tolerant, philogynist, and homophilic, in short Islam-free.” What we call “Islam” is the Other that liberalism defines itself against and through; thus, this “Islam” can only exist in liberalism.
Liberalism on this reading is ultimately a stealth form of Christianity that has been repackaged as “secular” and “enlightened”. The demand for Islam to embrace “secularism” or “liberalism” is really nothing more than the continuation of Western Christendom’s attempt to convert the world into its likeness. And much like with the Crusades of old, the so-called despotic Muslims who refuse secularism or a liberalized version of Islam will be forced to convert by any means necessary. Said differently, liberalism’s universalizing values insist upon producing an Islam in its own image.
In this symposium five leading scholars both challenge and deepen the major claims of Islam in Liberalism. The political theorist Murad Idris attempts to enrich Massad’s argument about liberalism’s “hidden theology” by showing the linguistic commonalities that early twentieth-century liberal Protestants and contemporary secular liberals share in their mutual attempt to rescue and reform Islam.
The social theorist Sara Farris examines Massad’s explanations for why Islam became increasingly associated “with unequal gender relations and violent practices against women” after 9/11. She argues that neoliberals took advantage of a ripe political moment by instrumentalizing the themes of gender equality for reasons of mere capital gain.
Leticia Sabay, a Professor in Gender and Contemporary Culture at the LSE, examines Massad’s critique of liberal “rights discourse” which seeks to save women, gays, lesbians and queers from “other cultures”. Although she acknowledges that there are good reasons for seeing universal rights as a forum of transnational imperialism, Sabsay ponders if there is a way around Massad’s totalizing critique so as to not disregard the potentiality of the concept.
The scholar of Islam, Salman Sayyid, raises questions about what the notion of liberalism signifies for Massad, where Muslim agency is to be found in his argument, and whether the book’s approach to the relationship between Islam and liberalism is effective. Finally, the critical theorist Alberto Toscano deepens the ideological and ethno-political implications of Massad’s notion of Islam being the necessary other of liberalism.
Massad provides robust responses to each of his interlocutors helping clarify and strengthen the various arguments of Islam in Liberalism.
Joseph Massad is professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia University. He has written many books, including Desiring Arabs, also published by the University of Chicago Press.
Sara R. Farris