Imperialism and homophobia

Issue: 118

Colin Wilson

Joseph A Massad, Desiring Arabs (University of Chicago, 2007), £18

Sexual freedom has become an issue in international politics, with allegations of Muslim homophobia used to justify the superiority of the West and the “war on terror”. Joseph A Massad has written an important and ground-breaking book that examines Arab attitudes to sexuality, particularly to same-sex behaviour, in the context of imperialism.

Arab nationalist writings first appeared in the 19th century, following the invasion of Egypt by France and its later domination by Britain. Nationalist authors gave an account of Arab civilisation that stressed its past glories, opposing the imperialist view that Arabs had contributed little to human development. They went on to argue that Arab society had fallen into “decadence”, associated with the rule of the declining Ottoman Empire, allowing European domination. These ideas involve a historically novel mixture of European and Arabic thought. They are not about a straightforward return to pre-colonial society. For example, the nationalists tailored their account of Arab history to fit standards they adopted from Europe—the history is as much contrived as discovered. (Readers may be familiar with Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger’s The Invention of Tradition, which describes similar processes in 19th century Britain.) Indeed, the concept of social decadence and the view that Arab societies must modernise to overcome it were also adopted from Europe.

All this had profound implications for the views that Arab nationalists, from the 19th century to the mid-1970s, developed concerning sexuality. Arab history includes many examples of sex between men and between women, and periods when such sex had been socially accepted to a greater or lesser degree.

In 19th and 20th century Europe a minority saw the Middle East as a place where sex between men was available—a tradition described in the work of male writers from Gustave Flaubert to Joe Orton. Indeed, according to two gay academics, Stephen O Murray and Will Roscow, “it would be no exaggeration to say that, before the 20th century, the region of the world with the most visible and diverse homosexualities was not northwestern Europe but northern Africa and southwestern Asia” (Islamic Homosexualities: Culture, History and Literature).

This tradition fitted with wider imperialist stereotypes, which divided societies between superior European-style ones, characterised by restrained sexuality, and inferior ones, where sexuality was uncontrolled. Arab sexuality was, in this racist view, a sensual wonderland of belly-dancing and harems. The Arab woman was, in the words of Flaubert, “no more than a machine: she makes no distinction between one man and another man” (quoted in Edward Said’s Orientalism).

Arab nationalist historians rejected all this and sought to validate their culture by stressing that it met European standards of sexual propriety. So they wrote same-sex experience out of Arabic history. Massad documents how they did this, for example, by representing same-sex desire as a Persian contamination of Arabic culture. This strategy faced particular problems in the person of Abu Nuwas, an esteemed poet of the 8th century who wrote extensively about his desires for both teenage boys and women, as well as his enjoyment of wine. Some collections of his poetry simply omitted love poems to boys, while critics developed various ways of distancing themselves from the poems while retaining Abu Nawas in their narrative of Arabic achievements.

Repressive ideas about sex in Arab countries are still generally derived from the West, from 19th-century medical texts, for example, or 1950s American psychiatry. But in the past 50 years the stereotypes have swapped. Western superiority is now indicated by sexual openness, while sexual repression denotes Arab backwardness. Arabs need to “catch up” with us. These changes are linked to the decline of Arab nationalism as a perceived force for change in the Middle East and its replacement by Islamism.

Islamism, like Arab nationalism, is not about a simple return to the past. Islamists look to the past as a model of the future, as did the Arab nationalists—though Islamists look back to the earliest Muslim history, before the “corrupted” Abbasid period of Abu Nawas. However, the combination of Islamic ideas with anti-imperialist rhetoric and the strategy of seizing state power is new.

Islamists, in Massad’s account, maintain the Arab nationalist view of same-sex desire as foreign and associated with the decline of a civilisation. But it is the West that they see as the sex-obsessed, barbaric and declining power. In fact their ideas echo those of Western imperialists a hundred years ago, interpreting sexual freedom as a sign of an inferior society. Their lurid accounts of the exotic and doomed West, characterised by social decline and sexually transmitted disease, equal anything written by Victorians about the mysterious East. But this is no surprise, since it is from 19th century Victorians, not the Quran or the Prophet, that they inherit these ideas.

One aspect of Desiring Arabs is less convincing: Massad’s analysis of interventions in Arab societies by Western gay organisations. He is right to say that the United Nations and many NGOs are implicated in US imperialism, that “human rights” are thus a politically loaded concept and that gay NGOs seem, at best, unaware of this political context. He is also right, as far as I know, to say that most same-sex behaviour in Arab countries takes place between women and men who do not identify as lesbian or gay because such identities do not exist in those countries outside a Europe-identified elite.

So he is also right to disagree with gay organisations which assume that the only path to sexual freedom is for those practising same-sex behaviour to identify as lesbian or gay and demand their rights. And he is right that interventions by gay organisations from imperialist countries can allow Arab rulers to claim that same-sex behaviours are foreign and non-Islamic, and so can make things worse for people in those countries.

On the other hand, it is wrong to suggest that LGBT organisations are an integrated part of the imperialist ruling class. The United Nations, for example, remains strongly divided on the issue, and organisations such as the International Lesbian and Gay Association continue to struggle for recognition. Massad’s use of the term “the gay international” for such organisations seems badly misjudged, invoking an image of a powerful, shadowy conspiracy.

Also, while it is true that most people who identify as LGBT in Arab countries come from the elite, this need not mean that protests in those countries involving, say, a rainbow flag necessarily reflect the interests of imperialist “missionaries”, as Massad claims of LGBT participation in the 2003 Beirut anti-war march. After all, Europeans came to identify as lesbian or gay in the late 19th and early 20th century because they felt it was in their interests to do so. There is no reason why modern Arabs cannot do the same.

Finally, while LGBT organisations may follow a mistaken strategy in Arab countries, Massad lays the blame for same-sex oppression in those countries exclusively at their door, while never referring to the attitudes of local rulers. For example, the Saudi regime has imposed the death penalty for same-sex acts.

Massad concludes his book with an analysis of Arab fiction in which ideas about sexuality and imperialism are linked. This includes the work of Naguib Mahfouz and Ala al-Aswani’s The Yacoubian Building. Perhaps this deepens his analysis, though it seemed to me disconnected from the rest of the book.

In general, Massad’s account is far more detailed than I can hope to convey (if sometimes expressed in over-academic language). He also does non-Arabic speakers a great service by translating many texts otherwise unavailable to us. His judgements on LGBT organisations aside, he has carried through magnificently a history which links ideas about Arab sexuality to the wider context of imperialism.