Decadence in the East or deviance from the West?

Desiring Arabs
August 3, 2007

In his seminal work, Orientalism , Edward Said argued that Europeans, from the 19th century onwards, saw the "Orient" as a place of licentious sex, in distinction to their own societies, where sex "entailed a web of legal, moral, even political and economic obligations of a detailed and certainly encumbering sort". Joseph Massad, associate professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University, builds upon Orientalism to explore how Arabs themselves have responded to the West's orientalising images of their desires. From the end of the 19th century until the present, Massad describes the huge diversity of opinions of Arab writers with regards to sex and sexual mores, focusing on same-sex practices. What is clear is that Arabs have not been passive recipients of Western ideas about their sexuality. They have been concerned to reformulate the meaning of sexual practices throughout Arab-Islamic history as a means of constructing their own "civilisational" identities. Yet, in the process, "Arab writers would approach the topic at hand by adopting and failing to question these recently invented European notions of 'civilisation' and 'culture' and their commensurate insertion in a social Darwinist idiom of 'evolution', 'degeneration', and most important, 'decadence' and 'renaissance'". Massad identifies three key periods in the development of writings by Arab authors on sex: the period of European colonialism, from the end of the 19th century until the period of decolonisation in the 1950s; the early years of post-independence state building until the 1980s; and the period thereafter. In surveying the diversity of opinion among Arab writers both within and across these periods, Massad challenges widespread Western assumptions of Arab thought as static and ahistoric.

In the colonial period, Arab scholars attempted to understand the significance of the existence of same-sex practices in Arab-Islamic history.

In particular, they focused on the famous classical poet, Abu Nawas (b. 750), who wrote erotic love poetry (ghazal) about young boys. In the post independence period, earlier civilisational concerns continued to characterise Arab writings on sex. However, Massad argues that the writings of this period demonstrated more ambivalent attitudes towards the meaning of different sexual values for the progress of Arab-Islamic civilisation. Different authors make the link between "sexual deviancy" and civilisational progress, although many differ in their views of the sources of this deviancy.

The theme of sexual deviance is also examined in later chapters with regard to Arab literature during the 20th century. Massad considers a number of oeuvres, many of which exist in English translation, such as Naguib Mahfouz's Midaq Alley and Alaa al-Aswany's The Yacoubian Building , and identifies the ways in which the representation of sexual deviance shifts from being a consequence of social, economic and political developments within the Arab world to being an allegory of the "degeneration" of Arab politics and society in the post independence period, due to widespread corruption and poverty.

The association of same-sex practices with political and social degeneration is also obvious in non-fiction writings on sex since the 1980s. This section of the book builds on arguments made in an article in Public Culture in 2003. Massad contends that attempts by what he terms the "Gay International" to universalise its mission has led it to project a gay identity on to same-sex practices in the Arab world when no such identity historically exists. This discourse has operated to "incite" political Islamists and other social conservatives to reject the project of universal gay rights and, instead, to represent same-sex practices as a sin, pathology and/or a crime. This represents a shift in Arab discourses about sex and has also operated to underpin the persecution by Arab governments of men allegedly engaging in same-sex practices.

Whereas Massad believes that earlier Arab writings on sex do not demonstrate a binary organised around heterosexuality/ homosexuality, the Gay International constructs such a binary in its discourse and therefore creates the subjects that become the victims of government human rights abuses. Moreover, the attack on Arab countries for their lack of sexual liberation becomes yet another justification for Western intervention in the Arab world.

Massad's archiving of Arab debates around sex is important in constructing a non-essentialist understanding of sexuality in the Arab world, beyond orientalist reification of "Arab-Islamic norms". However, Massad's focus on the power of Western discourse neglects to consider the violence implicated in the nationalist construction of "heterosexual bourgeois monogamous marriage" as a marker of civilisational ascent. The violent response by some Arab governments to the Gay International was not only a rejection of Western universalism. Read against some of the Arab literature surveyed in this book, the persecution of homosexuality may also be seen as an attempt to reassert heterosexuality as the national norm in an attempt to halt the apparent decline of the post-independence state.

Nicola Pratt is lecturer in comparative politics and international relations, University of East Anglia.

Desiring Arabs: Joseph A. Massad

Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Pages - 448
Price - £22.50
ISBN - 9780226509587

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