Review: Islam in Liberalism (Part 3)

By Najam Haider

9780226206226Joseph Massad describes the purpose of his Islam in Liberalism as an attempt “to understand how Islam became so central to liberalism as ideology and identity, indeed how liberalism as the antithesis of Islam became one of the key components of the very discourse through which Europe as a modern entity was conjured up.” This historical process involved the creation of dichotomies that positioned the US and Europe as sources for normative liberal values and Islam as a hostile and foreign “other.”

The framework that binds together Massad’s argument is articulated in chapter two and centers on three approaches to the study of Islam: culturalism, comparatism, and assimilationism.

Culturalism consists of the tendency to ascribe perceived differences between Western and Muslim societies “to cultural factors and explanations.” Violence against women, for example, is analyzed through a legal framework in a European context but treated as a cultural problem in a Muslim or Arab context (e.g., Saudi Arabia). In comparatism, “the West, or a fantastic version of it, is taken as a comparative reference point and the rest of the world is studied to identify how it converges with or diverges from it.” Thus, discussions of child marriages are nested within a human rights discourse indebted to liberal positions. Finally, assimilationism is the process by which liberal values are framed as universalist so that “Arab and Muslim culture must be brought in line with European and Euro-American cultural achievement to be tolerable.” This last approach presupposes culturalism and comparatism in its efforts to transform non-liberal societies into liberal ones.

These terms permeate all of Massad’s case studies as they highlight the hegemonic construction of a foreign Islam as the antithesis to an innately human liberal US and Europe.

Chapter one deconstructs the binary opposition of democracy and despotism in which the West’s claim of a democratic identity and championing of liberal values is predicated on the representation of Islam as “the origin of un-democracy, if not anti-democracy.” Once Muslim and Arab societies are categorized as such, resources are devoted to supporting “a liberal form of Islam, that is more in tune with US imperial designs, and which would approximate modern Western notions of religions and religious subjectivities, as well as Western liberal citizenship… while at the same time allowing the US to wage war against that other ‘Islam’ which continues to resist the Western (neo)liberal order.” The focus here is on the justification of multiple forms of intervention through the myth of an “Oriental despotism”.

Chapters two and three implicate human rights and development NGOs as instruments for the assimilationist agenda of liberal states.

In chapter two, Massad examines the “process of universalizing US and West European liberal feminisms on a global scale and the methods and tools by which they came to dominate the discourse and policies of emancipating Muslim women from gender-based discrimination in their societies and countries.” The key role is here played by human rights NGOs “whose normative agendas of intervention are invariably based on what is considered normative and civilized in white Protestant middle class society in the United States, and which they adopt and insist on disseminating across the globe.”

In chapter three, Massad returns to the subject of his previous book (Desiring Arabs, University of Chicago Press, 2007) criticizing the imposition of European and Euro-American notions of sexuality onto the study of Islam. He notes that

…deploying sexuality and sexual rights in the global arena” is “essential to the consolidation of European and Euro-American identity and the continuing presence of European ‘culture’ and ‘civilization’ as liberal, hence tolerant, just, liberatory, progressive, and enlightened, in contrast to a dark unjust, intolerant, repressive world to which Europe and Euro-America are constitutionally oppose and which they are committed to enlighten.

As in previous chapters, the epistemology and values of liberal societies are “universalized a priori as human and not as products of particular histories.”

Chapter four engages critiques of Islamism formulated by Arab and European psychoanalysts. These scholars argue that “the only tolerable Islam is a liberal form of Islam that upholds all the liberal values of European maturity” and are “intolerant of the Islam of the Islamists whose values are said to oppose liberal values even when they do not.” Tolerance is thus only extended to those who appropriate purportedly liberal values (e.g., freedom or individualism) thereby perpetuating a “hegemonic form of liberal epistemology whose aim is the assimilation of the world in its own image.”

The final chapter traces the emergence of the notion of the Semite and anti-Semitism. Massad argues that the “act of inventing the Semite is the very act of inventing the carrier of the identity of the other… In this light Semitism has always been anti-Semitism.” Initially intended to distinguish the Jew and Arab from the Aryan, “Zionism split the Semite into two kinds in the twentieth century, setting one in alliance with, and the other in opposition to, the Aryan.” For Massad, it is this same binary that positions Islam in opposition to liberalism when, in reality, it is liberalism that is producing a particular reading of Islam.

So we are left with a series of examples wherein Islam is conjured in the imagination of a liberal Europe and United States as the paradigmatic other. This is not, in and of itself, a radical proposition. As Massad notes throughout his book, these ideas are deeply indebted to (among others) Talal Asad and Edward Said. Rather than break new ground, he offers case studies that reinforce the larger critique in an integrative manner not found in comparable works. The role of NGOs in the perpetuation of liberal hegemony, for example, is well-documented but the scope of Massad’s analysis, covering LGBT organizations, feminist groups, human rights advocates, and developmental agencies, is both insightful and ambitious. It is this breadth that is the true strength of the book.

In terms of argument and analysis, Massad displays an impressive command of a variety of fields, offering his own psychoanalysis of his psychoanalyst subjects in chapter four and routinely referencing the etymology of particular terms to reinforce his critique of translation. Another strength of the book lies in Massad’s engagement with and criticism of the arguments and perspectives of scholars ranging from Afsaneh Najmabadi and Fethi Benslama to Hannah Arendt and Louis Massignon. Massad is at his best in these passages as he exposes the structural assumptions of others that place a universalized liberalism in opposition to Islam. Finally, Massad’s discussion of sexuality (chapter three) is particularly well-developed as he draws on his earlier work to clarify his positions with greater nuance.[1]

A number of criticisms might be directed at Massad’s work.[2] Some of them are mentioned in other reviews published in this journal (Part 1 and Part 2). There is the critique of reductionism, which argues that the terms “liberal” and “Islam” are dynamic and require a more nuanced discussion that accounts for historical change. This, however, misreads Massad’s larger purpose which is not to deconstruct the meaning of these words but rather to emphasize the construction of one (Islam) by the other (liberal) in a process of self-definition. Put simply, Massad is not interested in Islam or liberalism but in the relationship between the two.

Another potential critique involves Massad’s use of binaries that elide potential gray areas or force figures into ossified categories. Are all aid workers or human rights advocates tools for liberal hegemony? Is there no room for nuance in the work of psychoanalytic thinkers or feminists? Perhaps there are more careful ways of deconstructing the views/agendas of these actors but this again seems outside Massad’s purview. This book is interested in exposing the ideological (and hegemonic) power of language and intellectual frameworks as opposed to teasing out intellectual gradations.

The problem with such critiques is not that they lack validity (some of the points are well-taken) but that they do not grasp Massad’s larger goal. He is applying a particular strain of analysis (in the tradition of Asad) to force readers to question deeply embedded assumptions. This is, by design, a reductionist project.

So what does Joseph Massad want from the reader? Is it a call to remain vigilant of the conceptual difficulties in the study of the Muslim world? Is it a demand to produce new imaginaries when engaging issues like democracy, feminism, and sexuality? Is it an effort to reject the dehumanizing of non-liberal societies by a dominant framework that only bestows humanity on liberal values? It is all of these. At a time when President Obama can casually criticize Iran for being “anti-Semitic” and refusing to honor “human rights” in an interview with Jon Stewart, it is certainly important to consider the ways in which these terms perpetuate a specific liberal hegemony.

The reason I am left weary by this book involves language and the tendency of power structures to appropriate it. This is best exemplified in chapter three, where Massad systematically deconstructs a series of terms (e.g., gay, queer, “men who have sex with men”) scholars use to discuss sexuality in Muslim societies. He notes the problems associated with each before calling for a “comprehensive project” of sexuality studies that is a prerequisite for understanding the “unconscious dynamics of epistemological and political complicity of many scholars with Western normativity.” I sympathize with this view but do not see a clear path towards a solution. How might scholars develop a way of speaking about these issues that avoids reproducing the same problematic power dynamics? This remains a question in need of answers.


[1] It is worth mentioning that this chapter includes Massad’s responses to negative critiques of his previous work that span pages and pages of footnotes. In some instances, these responses become quite personal in a manner that threatens to overshadow his larger argument.

[2] The following discussion omits criticism based on organization or structure. The book is often repetitive and redundant while the chapters sometimes resemble disjointed case studies. A conclusion that articulated a distinct unifying theoretical framework may have alleviated this seeming lack of cohesion.


Najam I. Haider is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Religion at Barnard College, where he teaches courses in Islamic studies and history. He completed his PhD at Princeton University, M.Phil. at Oxford University, and BA at Dartmouth College, and has published articles focusing on Islamic historiography and the emergence of sectarian identity. His research interests include Islamic law, Shī‘ism, and the impact of colonization on modern Islamic political and religious discourse. His book entitled The Origins of the Shī‘a: Identity, Ritual, and Sacred Space in 8th century Kūfa was published by Cambridge University Press in 2011. He is currently at work on his second book which will focus on the controversies of sectarian historiography.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *