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The Empire of Sexuality: An Interview with Joseph Massad

[Купальщица. Wikipedia Commons] [Купальщица. Wikipedia Commons]

Félix Boggio Éwanjé-Épée and Stella Magliani-Belkacem (FE&SM): In your work and your academic interventions, you have argued that the imposition of the categories of homo-hetero on the non-Western world is inseparable from the politics of imperialism and the dominance of the capitalist mode of production. Can you describe this process?

Joseph Massad (JM): The difficulty of speaking about a particular term like sexuality is on account of the ongoing Euro-American efforts to universalize it, and that in this particular Euro-American context there has been a need, nay a necessity, which has increased measurably since the 1970s, to consider it as always already a universal category. The point of my work is not to remind us that “sexuality” is experienced differently in different historical or geographical contexts, and that it has distinct “cultural” interpretations that shape it. Rather, what I insist on is that “sexuality” itself, as an epistemological and ontological category, is a product of specific Euro-American histories and social formations, that it is a Euro-American “cultural” category that is not universal or necessarily universalizable.  Indeed, even when the category “sexuality” has traveled with European colonialism to non-European locales, its adoption in those contexts where it occurred was neither identical nor even necessarily symmetrical with its deployment in Europe and Euro-America.

John D’Emilio argued many years ago that “gay men and lesbians have not always existed. Instead, they are a product of history, and have come into existence in a specific historical era…associated with the relations of capitalism.” We must add that this equally applies to heterosexual and straight men and women who also are a product of a specific historical era and that their historical emergence and production was also specific to those geographic regions of the world and those classes within them where a specific type of capital accumulation had occurred and where certain types of capitalist relations of production prevailed.

As I argue in my forthcoming book Islam in Liberalism, as capitalism is the universalizing means of production and it has produced its own intimate forms and modes of framing capitalist relations, these forms and modes have not been institutionalized across national laws and economies, and in the quotidian and intimate practices of various peoples, in the same way. They have also not produced similar effects as they have in the United States and Western Europe. This does not mean that the hetero/homo binary was fully successful in normalizing Euro-American societies either, but, rather, that it set itself as the hegemonic form of organizing identities and continues to normalize populations in the West who resist it (by claiming that they suffer from internalized homophobia, false consciousness, and the like). The inability of the hetero-homo binary and its commensurate socio-sexual identities to institute themselves in the same way everywhere is also not unlike many other categories and products that travel with imperial capital from the metropole to the unevenly developed periphery, and are not always used or consumed in the same metropolitan way.

The sexual order of the postcolonial context to which contemporary western sexual identities are introduced is already the effect of a colonial epistemology that has been translated and iterated earlier. As I chronicle in Desiring Arabs, the European shaming of non-Europeans on the basis of sexual desires and practices begins at the dawn of the colonial encounter, inciting a reactive discourse of assimilation into (and at time difference) from European norms. This means that the more recent imperial export of the homo-hetero binary—and specifically of gay and lesbian identities—takes place in a context that has already suffered a prior process of translation. This process produced particular “peripheral” understandings of normative and natural desires, inflected with western medical and scientific arguments and taxonomies, but which mostly failed to institute a replica of the western regime of sexuality.        

Mind you, I am not arguing that these sexual identities always fail to institute themselves inside or outside the West and that this failure is total, rather that they succeed and fail differentially across classes and countries depending on the effect of capitalist structures, and their production of certain lifestyles, forms, and modes of intimate life on different classes, which are in turn the outcome of uneven capitalist development. While imperial capital is often productive of new identities, including sexual identities commensurate with its dissemination of the heterosexual bourgeois nuclear family form globally, whatever new sexual identities it creates and generates in the periphery are not always or often mappable onto the homo-hetero binary. That Gay Internationalists seek to assimilate these identities by forcing them into the frame of the homo-hetero binary is itself a culturally imperialist symptom of imperial capital’s penetration of these countries, and not the outcome or effect of such penetration, since in most cases it was unable to reproduce or impose normative European sexual identities on the majority of the population. Here, we must bear in mind that, as Edward Said reminds us, “imperialism is the export of identity.” It operates in the register of producing non-Europe as other, and sometimes as almost the same as (or potentially the same as) Europe.

D’Emilio sought to demonstrate that the effect of capitalism on the emergence of gay and lesbian identities in the West was both an outcome of labor relations that required new residential and migratory activities, the dissolution or weakening of kinship and family ties, and the development of a consumer society and the emergence of social networks that produce, shape, and articulate sexual desires that are commensurate with these changes, which led to the development of sexual identities. The extent to which crusading sexual identitarians have insisted on the presence of such identities in a number of countries in the periphery as proof of a parallel development of what happened in Europe and the United States, however, appeals to the subjective identifications of few elite members of these societies, and neglects the absence of economic and social structures that led to their emergence in the West. 

FE&SM: Your work has challenged the politics of gay internationalism espoused by Western NGOs and by their potential partners in the Arab world. What are the political consequences of this challenge, especially in the struggle against the heterosexualization of the world?

JM: American neoliberal imperialism since the 1980s—and in a much more intensified way since the fall of the Soviet Union—has sought to supplant all independent civil society activism and organization across the world with non-governmental organizations that it creates and/or coopts, that it trains and finances, and that are beholden to an internationalized American agenda (underwritten by a Western sexual epistemology and ontology) dealing with identities, rights, governance, the economy, administration, laws, transnational finance and investment, religion, culture, the arts, literature, etc. The goal was to destroy all existing efforts in those societies which organize the population against pro-Western dictatorship, neoliberal economics, and US and European imperial control, to name the most salient. The export of the particular and limiting white middle class urban-based Protestant American liberal value system as a universal system of values which (after having been imposed on Western Europe at the elite and popular levels) must be imposed on the rest of the world as a precursor to the imposition of American understandings of the future of (a neoliberal) humanity necessitated these NGOs, which would do much of the footwork already prepared for them by the International Monteray Fund (IMF) and the World Bank in earlier decades—and which created the debt crisis of the 1980s.

Of course this was a model already imposed inside the United States to control societal activism and organizing, and which replaced 1960s-style organizing by groups who opposed and resisted societal and state definitions of racialized and gendered citizenship as well as sexual normativity, among other struggles. Much of that energy was coopted by the 1970s and organized in NGOs funded by the state or private foundations with long-term experience in advancing US imperial policies during the Cold War (the Ford Foundation should be mentioned here as being at the forefront of that effort). The occupied Palestinian territories would be the largest scale theater for the execution of this program outside the United States, by which the large majority of West Bank and Gaza civil society was being decimated and supplanted by Western NGOs linked to the peace process and subject to the regulations of the American and European alliance with the Jewish settler colony and its interests.  In the case of Gaza and less so the West Bank, this effort would be resisted politically, but would take the same form—namely that of Islamist NGOs with local and international, though non-Western, financing.

It is in this context that the internationalization of gayness, being a more public and specific effort, compared to the internationalization of straightness and heterosexuality, which is a far more protracted and general project, gets to be championed by neoliberal white American (and European) gay men—while imperialist white American (and European) women would busy themselves in projects of saving non-white women globally from non-white men—seeking to spread freedom and liberty for the oppressed “homosexual” masses around the world while half the American states meanwhile had laws on the books that criminalized homosexuality—laws which it became necessary to remove from the books in one swoop in 2003 by the US Supreme Court in order to better advance this universalizing agenda of American liberal values.

In this context, only one Arab Gay Internationalist organization was created in Lebanon, and a few more in Israel that are staffed by Palestinian citizens of Israel who insist that the adoption of the homo-hetero binary as definitional is essential to the struggle of liberating the sexually oppressed in their countries and beyond them, while unwittingly (or by now wittingly) advancing the repression of those who are not beholden to the Western hetero-homo binary. Their attempt to normalize the Arab world by transforming it into a copy of Euro-America, proceeds from their naïve and indeed pernicious belief—which does take the form of a religious belief that they pursue with a missionary zeal—that Arabs are already subject to the homo-hetero binary and that the task is simply to liberate the homosexuals among them. However, what their intervention participates in is the heterosexualization of the majority of Arabs and the homonormativization of a minority of them. What these organizations want to impose as part of the Gay International is a regime of sexuality predicated on a recent western ontology, wherein one’s sexual desires become the TRUTH of one, of one’s identity, of who one is.

They are assisted in this effort by diaspora Arab Gay Internationalist groups located in the United States and Europe, who are part and parcel of the white imperial Gay International. While Gayatri Spivak in an earlier era diagnosed a situation in which white men wanted to save brown women from brown men, in the era of the Gay International and the rightwing investment and abduction of the notion of “agency,” the situation has become much more complicated. What we have today is a situation where brown women (gay and straight) and brown gay men (located in the Euro-American metropole and those who work for NGOs with Euro-American funding in their home countries), and their white allies of all genders and sexualities, are engaged in saving brown women (“straight” and “gay”) and brown “gay” men (in the Third World and in Europe and the United States) from brown “straight” men.

Meanwhile, Gay and Straight Internationalist efforts are assisted by the Western internationalization of homophobia into areas of the world where neither homosexual identities nor homophobic identities existed. Conservative secular and religious American homophobic ideologies and organizations are intervening all the over the world to export American “family values” which aim to heterosexualize non-Europeans and to instruct them in homophobia, which is always a simultaneous effort. This is being carried out not only though social engineering projects executed by Western-funded NGOs but even by interference in legislation with calls to criminalize certain kinds of sexual conduct that are seen as not helpful to the imposition of American hetero-homo binarization, which, in this case, is known as Christian and American “family values,” while Gay Internationalists insist that they should be “decriminalized” to facilitate their project of hetero-homo binarization, known in their case as “liberation” of sexual minorities. We know what this has led to in Uganda with American Gay Internationalists and American evangelicals fighting it out, ostensibly on behalf of Ugandans, and increasingly with the intervention of American rightwing Islamophobic and homophobic evangelist Pat Robertson in places like Kenya and Zimbabwe, where he has opened chapters of his American Center for Law and Justice. So what we see then is an export of Western cultural wars, wherein both sides are equally racist and colonialist, and they both have one joint major imperial export, namely the hetero-homo binarization of the world, which will essentially bring about the massive heterosexualization of non-Europeans who heed the call of the binary by accepting heterosexuality, and the minoritization of those among them who heed the call by accepting homosexuality and gayness or fail to heed the call by refusing to accept the binary, wherein they both become targets of another western export, namely homophobia.

FE&SM: How do you respond to your critics who accuse you of rendering Arabs who identify as gay invisible and of rendering Arab LGBT organizations as agents of imperialism?

JM: I have never sought to render anyone invisible. Indeed, nothing I can do could render Arabs who identify as “gay” or “homosexual” invisible. Those among Arabs who live in the Arab world and who adopt this identity as a public social identification and seek its internationalization through the rubric of Western-funded organizations (I should say in one “organization” located in Beirut to be numerically precise) in order to impose it on others are championed, funded, and defended by a huge imperial apparatus that not only makes them visible, but which makes invisible the many more numerous Arabs who desire and/or engage in different-sex and same-sex contact and who refuse the hetero-homo binary as a way to organize their identities, much less render their sexual desires as their inner truths as required by the western regime of sexuality. The production of the gay (and her/his correlate, the straight) Arab is predicated on the invisibilization of the majority of Arabs whose ontology is not dependent on this Euro-American formation nor on its imperial missions and who do not live under a Western regime of sexuality.

I have never called “LGBT Arabs” agents of imperialism, as Gay Internationalists often misquote me. One should assert here that the academic wing of the Gay International suffers from an egregious theoretical illiteracy. I have however said that Gay Internationalist Arabs are complicit with imperialism, and their complicity is not unlike the complicity of nationalist Arabs or Islamist Arabs (in my book Desiring Arabs, I study how all three groups came to be complicit with Euro-American imperialism and Orientalism). The fact that all of these groups (and in the case of Gay Internationalists, I am referring here to those who are located in Beirut and Israel) are anti-imperialist in the sense that they oppose the imperial political, economic, and military presence of the United States or European countries in the Arab world, that they oppose US wars on the Arab and Muslim worlds, that they oppose Israeli and Zionist aggression against Palestine and the Palestinians, is well established in the official statements of their organizations and their literature. I am speaking of complicity at the level of epistemology and ontology, where all of these groups begin to understand themselves through a European universalized ontology and epistemology that is disseminated through imperial channels. That Arab nationalists begin in the late nineteenth century to see themselves and their history in cultural and civilizational terms follows this imperial universalization. That Muslims begin in the same period to speak of something amorphous called “Islam” that opposes itself to something called the “West” and that some of them begin to think of Islam as a “religion” or a “civilization” is also an effect of Orientalist and imperial impositions and internalization. Similarly, the tiny number of gay-identified Arabs organized in Gay Internationalist organizations are complicit with an imperial sexual regime that rearranges the world along the hetero-homo binary, which they fully adopt without questioning and insist on reproducing and disseminating across the Arab world as the road to liberation.

In this sense, the imperial complicity of the Gay International, including its Arab members, lies in their calling upon all Arabs who refuse the imperial hegemony of the hetero-homo binary to unlearn and unthink the way they desire, and that they learn and think their desires along the lines of the hetero-homo binary, indeed that the way they exist and the way they are, their very ontology, is a form of false consciousness, which they must shed, as the truth of who they are, according to this logic, lies in their adoption of the imperial hetero-homo binary through which they must apprehend themselves and their desires, which will lead, according to the Gay International, to their emancipation.

FE&SM: How do you explain your critics’ attraction to and support of the work of Jasbir K. Puar, Terrorist Assemblages, Homonationalism in Queer Times?

JM: I believe that those Gay Internationalist groups who oppose imperial foreign policy and American imperial nationalism found in Puar’s very important and critical book a way out of the impasse that they felt (correctly in my opinion) my book Desiring Arabs led them to. My work (and some of this will be further elaborated in my forthcoming book Islam in Liberalism) does not understand sexuality as a universal formation whose cultural understandings differ depending on specific cultures and countries, but rather that sexuality is a specific regime that arose in a particular culture, Western Europe and its colonial-settler American extension, at a specific time, that sexuality is a particular cultural formation and not a universal category, and that the only way it can and has been disseminated universally is imperialism, and that those who adopt its identifications and binaries and its universalization project are wittingly or unwittingly complicit with its taxonomies. Puar’s fine book on the other hand proceeds from an objection not to the universalization of sexuality or of sexual identities, which, if I understand her correctly, are taken as givens in her book, but rather the specific nationalization of gayness in the United States (and also in Europe) in the form of homonationalism (Puar’s important coinage) and the imperial form of its internationalization. Thus, Gay Internationalist organizations like Helem or the Israeli-based al-Qaws and their supporters find a way out of their ontological and epistemological complicity with imperialism in annexing Puar’s intelligent and very useful book to their cause, as they see themselves as opponents of US homonationalism and its imperial pretensions, thus exonerating themselves of the charge of imperial complicity.

FE&SM: You have recently worked on the formulation of “sexuality in Islam.” According to you, this formulation is inadequate and obscures the real question that should be posed by Western scholars, namely, the production of Islam through the prism of sexuality. Can you tell us what is at stake in your reversal of the question?

JM: My project is to understand how Islam is produced in sexuality discourses among activists and academics. I argue that it is the production of Islam in sexuality that needs to be studied so that we can understand the emergence of a field that seeks and insists on the need to study an object it calls “sexuality in Islam.” I seek to show how this very production which operates through the rubric of studying “sexuality in Islam,” is the way this discourse masks itself while what it is engaged in is the production of “Islam” itself as essential to its understanding of how sexuality functions in the West, indeed how the West itself is constituted through sexuality. This is an old Orientalist method of course, which we may even call a trick, that need not be conscious of itself though at times it is.

I believe that what is required is a Foucaultian investigation into the conditions of possibility for truth statements to be made about “Islam,” and sexuality.  Instead of assuming and seeking to uncover the mechanisms by which something called sexuality operates inside the category Islam, we must begin, as Foucault taught us, with the “positive mechanisms” that generate this Western will to know. The outcome of this kind of approach will reveal much about how Western scholarship on sexuality not only constitutes something it calls “Islam” but also how it constitutes “Europe,” the “West,” and an always already racialized normativity.


[This interview was originally published in French in RDL La Revue des Livres  #9, (January-February 2013).]

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