The Columbia Professor Who Also Doesn’t Think Gay People Exist in the Middle East
Of all the absurd claims expressed by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in his recent address at Columbia University, his assertion that homosexuality does not exist in his country is the most ridiculous. Ahmadinejad’s florid statements regarding Jews (“We are friends with the Jewish people”), prevarications about Holocaust denial (“There are researchers who want to approach the topic from a different perspective”), and hedging about Iranian nuclear ambitions (“they are completely peaceful”) paled in comparison to inflammatory statements he has made on those subjects in the past and were clearly tempered for his live American audience. Even on the status of women, Ahmadinejad skirted critical questions, instead effusing, “Women are the best creatures created by God.” But when asked about Iran’s oppression of homosexuals, Ahmadinejad was uncompromising and unapologetic: “In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals like in your country. We don’t have that in our country … We do not have this phenomenon. I do not know who’s told you that we have it.”
By this far-reaching statement, Ahmadinejad probably did not mean that out-and-proud gays of the Liberace variety (“like in your country”) do not traipse through gay ghettos in Tehran, that Iran’s homosexuals are more subdued and “butch” than America’s; rather, it is reasonable to deduce that he meant homosexuality itself does not exist. This notion is preposterous, particularly so to the Columbia faculty and students that rightly laughed at Ahmadinejad. Homosexuality is a natural feature of the human condition; it has existed since nearly the beginning of recorded history, spanning cultures all around the world. While homosexuals in Western democracies (where they largely don’t have to fear for their lives) may identify themselves differently than they do in a place like Iran (where the state executes them), the notion that people attracted exclusively to people of the same sex don’t exist in Iran–or any country, for that matter–is empirically false.
Yet while the audience in the Roone Arledge Auditorium and millions of television viewers laughed and booed at the Islamist rube, there was one man–ensconced at Columbia University, no less–who was likely nodding along in agreement. His name is Joseph Massad, Associate Professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History, and he legitimizes, with a complex academic posture, the deservedly reviled views on homosexuality espoused by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
According to Massad, a Palestinian Christian and disciple of the late Columbia professor Edward Said, the case for gay rights in the Middle East is an elaborate scheme hatched by activists in the West. Massad posited this thesis in a 2002 article, “Re-Orienting Desire: The Gay International and the Arab World,” for the academic journal Public Culture, and he has expanded it into a book, Desiring Arabs, published this year by the University of Chicago Press. In it, he writes that such activists constitute the “Gay International” whose “discourse … produces homosexuals as well as gays and lesbians, where they do not exist.” The “missionary tasks” of this worldwide conspiracy are part of a broader attempt to legitimize American and Israeli global conquest by undermining the very moral basis of Muslim societies, as the “Orientalist impulse … continues to guide all branches of the human rights community.” Massad’s intellectual project is a not-so-tacit apology for the oppression of people who identify openly as homosexual. In so doing, he sides with Islamist regimes over Islamic liberals.
Desiring Arabs posits that the West views the Middle East as backwards, politically, culturally, and–ultimately Massad’s field of interest–sexually; in this sense, his book fits comfortably in the postcolonial intellectual movement of which Said was the intellectual father. “For the Gay International, transforming sexual practices into identities through the universalizing of gayness and gaining ‘rights’ for those who identify (or more precisely, are identified by the Gay International) with it becomes the mark of an ascending civilization, just as repressing those rights and restricting the circulation of gayness is a mark of backwardness and barbarism,” he writes. From the start, Massad rejects the contemporary liberal view of homosexuality as an identity, seeing only “sexual practices.” What’s worse, he says, is that the attempt to “universalize” this supposedly provincial Western homosexual identity onto Arabs is used as a tool to distinguish between the “civilized” West and the “barbaric” Middle East.
Massad’s thesis rests largely on Queer Theory, a voguish academic theory from the 1990s that stipulates that homosexuality is merely a “social construction” and not an inherent state of being. Massad writes that, “The categories gay and lesbian are not universal at all and can only be universalized 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 (emphasis mine).” Thus, not only are gay rights activists unleashing “epistemic… violence” on Arabs and Muslims who have same-sex relations by claiming them to be homosexual, they are responsible for the “political violence” of the regimes that oppress them. As one illustration of his thesis, Massad chooses the “Queen Boat” incident of May 11, 2001, when a horde of truncheon-wielding Egyptian police officers boarded a Nile River cruise known as the Queen Boat, a floating disco for gay men. Fifty-two men were arrested, and many of them were tortured and sexually humiliated in prison. In a sensational, months-long ordeal, they were paraded in public, and images of them shielding their faces were blared on state television and printed in government newspapers. Most of the men were eventually acquitted, but 23 received convictions for either the “habitual debauchery,” “contempt for religion” or both.
State repression against gay people happens on a frequent basis across the Middle East. Massad, however, who claims to be a supporter of sexual freedom per se, is oddly impassive when confronted with the vast catalogue of anti-gay state violence in the Muslim world. Massad, unlike Ahmadinejad, does acknowledge that “gay-identified” people exist in the Middle East, but he views them with derision. Take, for instance, his description of the Queen Boat victims as “westernized, Egyptian, gay-identified men” who consort with European and American tourists. A simple “gay” would have sufficed. He smears efforts to free the men by writing of the “openly gay and anti-Palestinian Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank” and the “anti-Arab and anti-Egyptian [Congressman] Tom Lantos” who circulated a petition amongst their colleagues to cut off U.S. funding to Egypt unless the men were released. He then goes onto belittle not just gay activists (one of whom, a founder of the Gay and Lesbian Arabic Society, referred to the Queen Boat affair as “our own Stonewall,” in reference to the 1969 Stonewall riot when a group of patrons at a New York City gay bar resisted arrest, a moment credited with sparking the American gay rights movement) but the persecuted men themselves. The Queen Boat cannot be Stonewall, Massad insists, because the “drag Queens at the Stonewall bar” embraced their homosexual identity, whereas the Egyptian men “not only” did “not seek publicity for their alleged homosexuality, they resisted the very publicity of the events by the media by covering their faces in order to hide from the cameras and from hysterical public scrutiny.” Massad does not pause to consider that perhaps the reason why these men covered their faces was because of the brutal consequences they would endure if their identities became public, repercussions far worse than anything the rioters at Stonewall experienced. “These are hardly manifestations of gay pride or gay liberation,” Massad sneers.
Massad claims that those Arabs who do accept a Western-style homosexual identity “remain a miniscule minority among those men who engage in same-sex relations and who do not identify as ‘gay’ nor express a need for gay politics.” He makes this sweeping assertion–upon which his entire, 418-page book is predicated–without any statistical evidence. Furthermore, he does not consider that the reason why Arab homosexuals may not “express a need for gay politics” might be because they would be killed if they did.
It becomes clear why Massad views gay-identifying Arab men with such scorn. In his mind, they have become willing victims of colonization. That’s why Massad tacitly supports Middle Eastern governments’ crackdown on organized gay political activity: He sees this repression as a legitimate expression of anti-colonialism. “It is not the same-sex sexual practices that are being repressed by the Egyptian police but rather the sociopolitical identification of these practices with the Western identity of gayness and the publicness that these gay-identified men seek.” Thus, Arab gays (or, to use Massad’s terminology, “so-called ‘gays’ “) should not identify as such, because to do so is accepting Western cultural hegemony. Massad even throws in a swipe at the “U.S.-based anti-Arab British Iraqi writer Kanan Makiya,” a strong supporter of the Iraq war, for his alleged attempt to include protections in the new Iraqi constitution for homosexuals. How dare these men fight for their dignity as homosexuals!
It is true that the current understanding of “gay identity” is a relatively new concept, formed by Western thinkers over the past century. This does not mean, however, as Massad contends, that a gay identity is inherently Western. The increasing acceptance of homosexuality as an acceptable way of life is a fruit of Western liberalism, but so is equality for women. Just because these notions originated in the West does not also mean that gays around the world do not also yearn for them or deserve them. But that is the logic of Joseph Massad.
Five years ago, a few months after Massad’s article exposing the “Gay International” appeared, Yossi Klein Halevi wrote a piece for The New Republic about the condition of Palestinian gay men living illegally in Israel. Halevi interviewed young men (who, Massad should note, all identified as homosexual) who had formed an unlikely subculture on the streets of Tel Aviv, fleeing their own families out of fear for how they’d be treated if they came out of the closet. Some had been the victims of torture by Palestinian Authority officials. One 21-year-old man given the pseudonym “Tayseer” was implicated in a sex sting devised by Palestinian police. Halevi reported:
Tayseer refused to implicate others. He was arrested and hung by his arms from the ceiling. A high-ranking officer he didn’t know arranged for his release and then demanded sex as payback. Tayseer fled Gaza to Tulkarem on the West Bank, but there too he was eventually arrested. He was forced to stand in sewage water up to his neck, his head covered by a sack filled with feces, and then he was thrown into a dark cell infested with insects and other creatures he could feel but not see. (“You slap one part of your body, and then you have to slap another,” he recounts.) During one interrogation, police stripped him and forced him to sit on a Coke bottle. Through the entire ordeal he was taunted by interrogators, jailers, and fellow prisoners for being a homosexual.
We in the West may scoff at Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s views on homosexuality in Iran, but while we laugh, a Columbia University professor–currently up for tenure–carries forth an insidious attempt to convince the world that men like Tayseer are somehow figments of the Western world’s imagination. And who are we to complain about the murders of people who “do not exist”?