Islam in Liberalism

Islam in Liberalism

by Joseph A. Massad


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In the popular imagination, Islam is often associated with words like oppression, totalitarianism, intolerance, cruelty, misogyny, and homophobia, while its presumed antonyms are Christianity, the West, liberalism, individualism, freedom, citizenship, and democracy. In the most alarmist views, the West’s most cherished values—freedom, equality, and tolerance—are said to be endangered by Islam worldwide.  

Joseph Massad’s Islam in Liberalism explores what Islam has become in today’s world, with full attention to the multiplication of its meanings and interpretations. He seeks to understand how anxieties about tyranny, intolerance, misogyny, and homophobia, seen in the politics of the Middle East, are projected onto Islam itself. Massad shows that through this projection Europe emerges as democratic and tolerant, feminist, and pro-LGBT rights—or, in short, Islam-free. Massad documents the Christian and liberal idea that we should missionize democracy, women’s rights, sexual rights, tolerance, equality, and even therapies to cure Muslims of their un-European, un-Christian, and illiberal ways. Along the way he sheds light on a variety of controversial topics, including the meanings of democracy—and the ideological assumption that Islam is not compatible with it while Christianity is—women in Islam, sexuality and sexual freedom, and the idea of Abrahamic religions valorizing an interfaith agenda. Islam in Liberalism is an unflinching critique of Western assumptions and of the liberalism that Europe and Euro-America blindly present as a type of salvation to an assumingly unenlightened Islam.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226379548
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/07/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 404
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Joseph A. 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. 

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Islam in Liberalism

By Joseph A. Massad

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-20636-3


The Democracy Offensive and the Defenses of "Islam"

This chapter assembles a range of writing around the question of democracy and Islam in an attempt to understand the deep intellectual genealogy of Western liberal claims that Islam is "culturally" un- or antidemocratic and that the major cultural achievement of Christianity (in the form of Protestantism) and the West has been their commitment to democratic governance. I will look at the liberal context in which these arguments emerged and the impact of their culturalist bent on politics and the ongoing efforts by the United States, and Britain (and France) before it, to produce an Islamic theology, if not a whole new "Islam," compatible with the colonial and imperial order they seek to impose on Muslim-majority countries under the sign of "spreading democracy and freedom." In contrast to (Protestant) Christianity, capitalism, or modernity, which are often claimed by liberal thinkers as enablers of "democracy," Islam has been said to be either fully fortified or "defenseless" against this "Western" political order. US president George W. Bush was clear on the Christian origins of freedom when he declared in 2004: "Freedom is the Almighty's gift to every man and woman in this world. And as the greatest power on the face of the earth we have an obligation to help the spread of freedom." Clearly the offensive capability of democracy is organized by both secular and divine power simultaneously. Indeed, as will become clear in this chapter, democracy has in certain ways become the new name of Christianity and has been missionized to the heathens in ways that are no less deadly.

The emergence of the Eastern Question in eighteenth-century Western Europe was part and parcel of the attempt, ongoing since the Renaissance, to create "Europe" as a transcendental idea, composed of a set of Enlightened ideals differentiated from a prior historical moment that this nascent Europe would call "the dark ages," and as a unified and separate geography differentiated from "dark" lands and continents lying outside it. Indeed, as Roberto Dainotto pithily put it, "a theory of Europe, from its very outset, is a theory of Orientalism," one that differentiates Europe from the Orient, and from Islam, and sets it up as their opposite. This geographic demarcation would become essential for the European project that would in the nineteenth century be called "civilization" and "culture."

Even those who would posit the origins of the European idea in the era of Charlemagne cannot ignore the role of Islam. In this regard, Henri Pirenne had declared: "The conquest of Spain and Africa by Islam had made the king of the Franks the master of the Christian Occident.... It is therefore strictly correct to say that without Mohammed Charlemagne would have been inconceivable." This also applies to those who attribute the origins of Europe to the unifying quest of Christendom, which developed through the Crusades, and which ultimately failed to dislodge the Muslims from the "Holy Land." It applies as well to those who view 1492, the year of the Conquest of the Americas and the coeval Reconquista over the remaining presence of Muslims and "Islam" in Spain, as the inaugural moment of the invention of Europe. Whatever point of origin is chosen for the story of Europe to begin, "Islam" seems to have a foundational role at every turn. Indeed, the question of European origins is even more complicated when we take into consideration that, through the end of the eighteenth century, the understanding that much of "European" literature, inaugurated by Provençal poetry, was based on and derived from Arabic poetry from Muslim Spain (so much so that the very word troubadour comes from the Arabic taraba, meaning to sing), or what is referred to as "the Arabist theory," was a major, if controversial, claim put forth by Juan Andrés in his 1782–1822 eight-volume history of European literature titled Dell' origine, progressi, e stato attuale d'ogni litteratura. The anxiety that such findings would cause were such that

In the middle of the nineteenth century it would have been inconceivable or very difficult for most Europeans to imagine, let alone explore or defend, a view of the "European" as being culturally subservient to the "Arab." To imagine that France's first literary flower, one that had been cultivated and idolized for so long as the first in Europe was not only not the first, but that it might be in any way derivative of the culture of people who were now politically colonized and culturally and materially "backwards" vis-à-vis Europeans was just too much.

Andrés did not only posit Arabic literature as the origin of what would become "European" literature but would also insist:

Paper, numerals, gunpowder, the compass came to us from the Arabs. Maybe also the pendulum and the law of gravity, and other recent discoveries ... were known by them long before they came to our philosophers. Universities, astronomical observatories, academics, literary institutions do not think they have an Arab origin, and perhaps they will not be very grateful to me for having refreshed their memory with remembrance of such an old event.

Andrés's views would not prevail in Enlightenment "Europe." The invention of Europe's Greek origins and the suppression of its Arabo-Islamic origins would proceed to the present, as it was and remains crucial to its invented Islam-free identity.

Thus, the Eastern Question, against which this nascent Europe measured itself, was always the Western Question, the question of constituting the West as the West and repudiating the East, which it feared was the point of origin of this West, as its antithesis. This much we have already learned from Edward Said's Orientalism. That the Eastern Question would also become the Question of Islam and therefore the Question of (Protestant) Christianity would be germane to the European liberal project, which emerged from the Enlightenment, of presenting the West as a place with important characteristics that are always lacking in its Eastern and Islamic antitheses.

Like the emerging "West," "Muslim" countries were recognized by Orientalism as sharing a common culture. Oxford and later Harvard Orientalist Sir Harold Gibb explained in the 1960s how knowledge of all aspects of the Islamic world was organized around the recognition that it formed a cultural unity with a cultural "central core." My goal in this chapter is to understand how the question of a geographically and religiously mapped notion of culture has come to be related to political arrangements of governance, how Oriental cultures seem to have produced "Oriental despotism" while a unitary Occidental culture produced "Western democracy" in a context in which religion (specifically Islam and Christianity), as a subset or often a synonym of culture, is foregrounded as that which essentializes the "East" and the "West."

It bears noting here that democracy and despotism are, despite their Greek origins, reinvented modern concepts that emerged in eighteenth-century Europe as conceptual and practical opposites. While Enlightenment figures acknowledged the Aristotelian origins of the term "despot," the word, which had fallen out of use (it was often translated from the Greek as "tyrant"), would not make an appearance until the seventeenth century and would have to wait for another century to enter common parlance. Indeed, "despotism" emerged before "democracy," making an inaugural appearance in a French dictionary in 1720, while its conceptual meaning would be formed and refined as the century proceeded. Montesquieu's The Spirit of the Laws (published in 1748) would make the term a permanent fixture in the European political vocabulary, as would its modification by the adjective "Oriental," rendering "Oriental despotism," which defined the Ottoman Empire in this literature, substantially different from other forms of despotism, including "enlightened" European forms. This European incitement to discourse on despotism since the eighteenth century is identified by Michel Foucault as "an ambiguous phobia about despotism," which this chapter seeks to explain.

As for "democracy," while its Greek origins were noted as the word was often associated with negative political valences, the modern meaning of "democracy" and its common usage in English would not emerge until the time of the American and French Revolutions and would be especially linked to America's self-understanding and self-representation. That despotism would be linked to Islam and the Ottomans (because Ottomans were the closest identifiable "Muslim" state to Europe) since its modern (re)birth, and democracy to a Europeanized Greek origin carried into modernity by revolutionary Europeans at home and in the North American colonies is, as we will see, more than incidentally related to contemporary representations.

The history I will review is one of continuity and rupture, dislocation and relocation within the shifts from mostly British, and sometimes French, colonialism—though Orientalism is almost pan-European—through the Cold War to the US New World Order imperialism. The uncomfortable shifts within Euro-American and European conceptions of "the Muslim world," especially in connection with the long view of the invented "West," often reflect, as Edward Said has shown, attempts by the self-constituting West to understand itself in relation to others. It is also the history of the production of a despotic and antidemocratic Islam as a self-consolidating other for a "West" that likes to imagine its trajectory, if not its origins, as democratic. To do so, I will be dealing with a heterogeneous material: intellectual history and its shifting institutional locations, unevenly overlapping world historiographical periodizations (colonialism, Cold War, globalization), and the history of the culture concept and its political and colonial deployments. This varied material shares the same ontology and epistemology as well as the same empirical data about the "West" and "Islam." I will chart the connections between epistemic genealogy and politics (especially as many academics and scholars would serve British, French, German, and US political power as consultants, officers, and advisors over the decades) in the production of a relationship that, many Western liberals insist, connects both Islam and democracy as well as democracy and the Christian West. This chapter principally argues that the assumption of democratic identity by the "West" and of despotic identity as the West's other, represented by the figure of "Islam," is both an act of self-constitution and projection as well as an imperial strategy that uses cultural assimilation and othering as tactics of economic and political domination. In this regard, I will not concern myself with the rich intellectual production in Muslim-majority societies since the eighteenth century, which was not always directly related to this European and Euro-American liberal imperial history (something I study in a forthcoming book), but will rather focus on the relationship between European and Euro-American liberalism and European and American policies and the emergence of specific forms of theological and intellectual effects and political transformations in the "Muslim world" that issue from them.

This is then a discourse about the West as a modern category, its despotism, its undemocracy, and its conjuring up of an "Ottoman despotism" and of "Islamic" undemocracy that did not exist as such before their European marking, itself a ruse for the production of "European democracy." The discourse on democracy, as we will see, is also largely a Christian religious discourse, which posits democracy as the highest stage of (Protestant) Christianity. This discourse is in short not less than what Foucault calls a coupling of a set of practices (which in our case would be local and imperial governance) and a regime of truth (which in our case would be Orientalism) from an apparatus of knowledge-power (liberalism tout court) "that effectively marks out in reality that which does not exist and legitimately submits it to the division between true and false," the truth of "European democracy" and of "Islamic" un-democracy.

I attend mainly to the intellectual history of the liberal linkage of Christian Europe, Islam, and democracy in the first half of the chapter, while in the second half I attend mainly to the history of colonial and neocolonial policies that proceeded from this liberal linkage to clarify the intersections between the intellectual history of liberalism and the diplomatic history of the US and European liberal regimes on the one hand and their induction of the category of Islam into the heart of their varied modernist projects on the other. The intellectual, the political, and the diplomatic, as readers will note, are so intricately intertwined that I make no attempt to disentangle them from one another but rather work to expose their complex and not-so-complex linkages throughout.

American Democracy

One of the cornerstones of United States nationalism has been the assertion in official discourse, media representations, and in its educational system that the United States is the "oldest democracy" in the world, an assertion that always raises eyebrows outside the United States and among many Americans at home, though the latter rarely challenge this assertion directly in any organized fashion. National wisdom has it that US democracy "evolved" to include segments of the population that were denied inclusion in citizenship. What does it mean for a country whose two-century history is divided between a century of racialized slavery and another century of racial apartheid to broadcast itself internally and externally as the oldest democracy? And what does it mean for a country where women were not allowed to vote for the first century and a half of its existence to consider itself the oldest democracy? Could white South Africans get away with describing their country, since it was founded in 1910, or at least since 1948 when Apartheid became its ruling ideology, as a "democracy" which "evolved" to include Indians and coloreds halfheartedly in 1983 with the tricameral parliament, and Blacks after 1994?

These are not just polemical questions but also conceptual ones that are central to our understanding of how the United States, presenting itself as an extension of Europe, as well as "Europe" itself, which remains an amorphous political, historical, and geographic category, set themselves up as the home and originary space of democracy, something not only based on the development of a governing system that they name "democracy" but also on the claim that such development reflected the commitments of Euro-American and European culture and religion, which are compatible with democracy, and encourage and make it possible. The association of Christianity with rationalism, science, and reason, of Protestantism with the capitalist economy and political democracy (and Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity with feudalism and dictatorship) had clearly become codified in liberal ideology long before Weber's famous intervention. While John Locke excluded Islam, Judaism, Confucianism, among others, from reasonableness which seemed to be the exclusive property of Christianity and to which he dedicated his book The Reasonableness of Christianity in 1695, Protestant doubts about Catholic and Jewish dicta would largely disappear (though not doubts about Orthodox Christianity let alone Islam), however, in the mid twentieth century, on the eve of World War II, under the rubric of the "Judeo-Christian" tradition inaugurated in the late 1930s in the United States, which would allow Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism to be formalized in that country as the "religions of democracy." Here one could perhaps turn Marx's question of "why does the history of the East appear as a history of religions?" on its head: why does the history of Western democracy appear as a history of Christianity?

European liberal thought, which articulated notions of political freedom and democracy since the Enlightenment, was linked to the rise of European empires that subjugated much of the globe to Europe's control. The link between European liberal thought and the rise of empire, as Uday Mehta argues, has often been denied despite its imbrication in it, an argument also advanced by Edward Said with regards to the imbrication of modern European culture more generally with imperialism. Britain's view of itself as a democracy in the nineteenth century (not unlike the view the United States has always had of itself whether under slavery, Jim Crow, or in the current moment of racial criminalization and imperialism) was not weakened as far as its liberal political thinkers were concerned by its undemocratic and despotic rule over millions of natives in the Empire, and which was rationalized by many of them as just and in keeping with the natives' own traditions.

John Stuart Mill expresses this aptly in On Liberty, understanding himself to be a democrat at home and a despot abroad. Indeed, he is clear that "despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end is their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end." Similarly, Alexis de Tocqueville was unrelenting in his commitment to what Domenico Losurdo refers to as "master race democracy" and to despotism for the barbarians, especially the Algerians: "It is possible and necessary that there be two sets of laws in Africa, because we are faced with two clearly separate societies. When one is dealing with Europeans, absolutely nothing prevents us from treating them as if they were alone; the laws enacted for them must be applied exclusively to them."


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Table of Contents

Introduction: The Choice of Liberalism
1  The Democracy Offensive and the Defenses of “Islam”
2  Women and/in “Islam”: The Rescue Mission of Western Liberal Feminism
3  Pre-Positional Conjunctions: Sexuality and/in “Islam”
4  Psychoanalysis, “Islam,” and the Other of Liberalism
5  Forget Semitism!

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