On September 24, 2007, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran drew derisive laughter from a group at Columbia University when he announced, "In Iran we don’t have homosexuals like in your country. In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon." Joseph A. Massad, Associate Professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia, was likely among the few who were not mocking this assertion. In Desiring Arabs, Massad rejects Western sexual epistemology, which he sees as the colonizing mission of "Gay International": "an academic literature 'describing' and 'explaining' what they call 'homosexuality' in Arab and Muslim history to the present; and journalistic accounts of the lives of so-called 'gays' and (much less so) 'lesbians' in the contemporary Arab and Muslim worlds."
He argues that the consequence, if this Western "progressive" epistemology takes hold, will be the suppression of same-sex desire and practices as they have been and remain a part of Arab and Muslim culture. The larger frame is the damage wrought by orientalist scholarship that framed much of Arab expression of desire as "deviant"—the "love of beardless boys" being a phenomenon that needs to be explained away and eradicated. There are no homosexuals (as there are no hetereosexuals) because those categories are ahistorical and culturally constructed and fail to account for the complexity and ambiguity of “Arab desire” as understood through a decolonized historical frame of reference.
As "an act of archiving," as Massad refers to his own study, this book is remarkable and will be required reading for those studying contemporary Middle Eastern culture. He draws on a wealth of historical texts, as well as a range of contemporary criticism, to stitch together a revised notion of Arab intellectual history and, particularly, the "problem" of its sexual "licentiousness." His work is not as stylish as Edward Said’s, nor is he the memorable phrasemaker his mentor was. But he is an accomplished intellectual historian, one to be reckoned with. As a polemic, however, the book is stunningly shallow and under-documented.
I write this review on the morning a Saudi Arabian court ordered forty lashes for a 75-year-old woman who was visited by two (unrelated) men, one for whom she had served as a nursemaid and had the audacity to bring her bread. I imagine the author’s chiding me for my sympathy for the "international human rights agenda," another one of those obnoxious Western colonizers accusing the Arab world of a cultural "retardation."
I find it laudable that Massad warn against the dangers of epistemological binaries. That he leads us towards different transhistorical methods of understanding sexual desire in the literature, from pre-Islamic poetry to contemporary fiction, is of great scholarly value. But his lack of sympathy for other groups struggling against oppression—or even those trying to reconstruct a sense of identity not based on someone’s notion of pathology—is troubling. In fact, his argument against the discourse of universalization leads, I think, to a new sort of binary: belief in the possibility of universal human liberation/colonization or cultural isolation and a militant defense against interference.
He is at his weakest when he departs from his role as archivist and critic of Arab cultural history and flails against international rights movements. He quickly smacks down the "white Western women’s movement, which has sought to universalize its issues through imposing its own colonial feminism on the women's movement in non-Western countries." He claims that the series of events including the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 led only to major schism, and he footnotes a couple of one-sided, obviously biased accounts to support his claim. This is not only bias, but bad scholarship, and bad scholarship, even in a potentially important book, is troubling indeed.