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New Texts Out Now: Mehammed Mack, Sexagon: Muslims, France, and the Sexualization of National Culture

Mehammed Amadeus Mack. Sexagon: Muslims, France, and the Sexualization of National Culture. New York: Fordham University Press, 2017.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Mehammed Mack (MM): I wrote this book out of frustration that was both of a personal and academic nature. As a Gender Studies researcher who investigates sexual alterity and homo-eroticism in the Arab diaspora, and more importantly, as a human being familiar with queer Arab spaces, I felt there were huge holes, as well as blatant mischaracterizations, in the Euro-American media portrait of Arab/Muslim men and women. They are always portrayed as either never queer, incapable of sexual liberation let alone pleasure, or sexually intolerant. I am particularly interested in the relative queerness of customary homo-affective practices among Arabs and Muslims in Diaspora, in relation to hetero-normative and homo-normative imperatives that govern gender expression and the disclosure of sexual orientation, in Western Europe and the US.

Most of the aforementioned media portraits determine Arab/Muslim sexual alterity to be inadmissible because of its comfort within religious frameworks of community, as well as its comfort within what seem to be virility cultures. This is visible in two figures that emerged as curiosities in the French media: the banlieue’s “girl gangs” and their embodiment of female virility, and the Arab and black “homo-thugs” (racaille gay) who see the homo-social spaces of the banlieues as prime cruising grounds rather than danger zones, who bypass the “gayborhood” altogether in favor of the internet. In this way, Arab/Muslim sexual alterity gets pushed off the spectrum of acceptable LGBT dispositions. Rather than try to articulate Arab and Muslim sexual diversity, almost all the scholarship and journalism I had analyzed during the research phase considered Arabs and Muslims “backward” in terms of sexual maturity, at an unbridgeable distance from the progressive present, seemingly always locked in the childhood of gay and women’s rights, and destined to repeat the steps—and only those steps—that Euro-America took to combat sexism and gain standing. In this literature, it was inconceivable that the Middle East or its Diaspora could ever teach a queer lesson to Euro-Americans. Could Arabs and Muslims “queer queer theory,” to borrow an expression from Jarrod Hayes? Within the patronizing structures of one-way lessons in sexual liberation going from North/West to South/East, it did not seem possible to answer this question. I felt that many notions of what progressive attitudes toward gender and sexuality “should” be really needed to be updated and questioned in light of the pressure that the Arab/Muslim diaspora brings to bear on normative understandings of homosexuality. This is especially the case in a post-colonial France where the immigration debate has seen gayfriendliness and sexual tolerance become politicized as values supposedly not shared by Muslim immigrants.

Queer Franco-Arabs for example are seemingly always portrayed in mainstream journalism  as schizophrenically living a double life (one for their families and one for their secular and gay friends): they are locked in the closet and have sometimes given up coming out entirely. This characterization is connected to the wider portrayal of Franco-Arab men as macho misogynists and Franco-Arab women as submissive victims with no possibility of agency. In this arrangement, Franco-Arab sexual minorities must become sexual refugees who flee immigrant neighborhoods and housing projects for the more sexually enlightened city-center and its gayborhood. In contrast to these representations, I aim to show that Franco-Arab men’s behaviors that might be seen from the outside as exceptions to the (heterosexual) rule are actually quite widespread in the very spaces where multi-ethnic “macho” men are said to dominate: for example, homo-social affection that sometimes but not always blends into homosexuality, bisexuality, or an engagement sexual and affective with trans persons. I argue that many banlieue and immigrant sexual minorities withdraw from the imperative to “come out of the closet” not always because they are “trapped” by their home cultures, but rather due to reasons that have little to do with sexual oppression. Namely, I argue that living in areas and in communities which are constantly scrutinized by the security apparatus and pressured by the larger culture to make themselves visible, changes one’s attitude about the need to “come out” and makes privacy newly attractive. In this way, the underground of immigrant economies and the sexual underground of discreet, closeted, “down-low” men of color are connected. These persons would be opting for the “closet” not because of a backward culture that holds them back, but rather for contemporary reasons that have to do with dense, urban living, and the impact of the surveillance state.  I suggest that Franco-Arab and Muslim subjects who may not sign up for Stonewall-style liberation especially frustrate the self-appointed guardians of sexual progressivism, because these subjects opt for seemingly regressive gender expressions even when the option exists for them to come out of the closet, adopt a metrosexual identity, or be “open” about their private lives. I argue that we need a new terminology—“pro-regressions”—to describe the way that ethnic minorities in France opt for seemingly “old-world” gender expressions because of opposition to a homo-normativity and hetero-normativity that now correspond with national assimilation.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

MM: The book discusses how in contemporary France, sexuality has been politicized in the immigration debate. While in the past, immigrants were judged according to whether or not they were integrated at the level of civics and language, now it is their attitudes about gender and sexuality that matter. This shift in the testing of integration happens because the most recent waves of immigration to France are comprised of Muslims who presumably have regressive attitudes about sexuality. Thus, gender and sexuality would present the best platform for rejecting immigrants, and their descendants born in France who are already French. It creates a new integration crisis where there was none before, as descendants of immigrants from North and West Africa are already integrated according to most relevant indicators. This testing, of course, does not seek to actually find out if Muslims both (French and foreigner) are in fact sexually intolerant, rather, it assumes this to be true and latches onto confirming cases. Such surveying of populations according to religion would be illegal under French law: and thus the question “Are Muslims homophobic?” can find no answer other than “yes.”

Unlike some existing social science studies, my intervention explores how this sexual demonization and othering happens at the level of cultural productions: the book takes a Cultural Studies and discourse analysis approach to investigate five fields in which I think the sexualization of immigration and the politicization of sexuality have been the most significant: LGBT activist rhetoric about the banlieues, psychoanalytical commentary presenting the sexual menace of Muslims to French civilization, literature which investigates inter-racial and inter-religious relationships, films which expose the Arab/Muslim body and private life, and pornography which most explicitly channels sexual anxieties about Arab/Muslim immigrants and their descendants. I argue that the sexual demonization of Franco-Arabs and Muslims goes to such extremes that, by the end of the process, the banlieues, immigration, and especially Islam itself obtain a gender: the universal masculine. Gendered Islam threatens a France symbolized as feminine, where a delicate equality between the sexes has supposedly been reached, despite many apparent failures.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

MM: It is my first book! Previous to entering academia, I was a journalist, and I am embarrassed to say that I once held many of the views about the sexual “backwardness” of Arabs/Muslims that I currently interrogate. 

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

MM: It is my hope that those who subscribe to the idea that Arabs/Muslims need to become “sexually enlightened” in order to rejoin the progress of western civilization, would read the book. This applies not just to members of the gay and lesbian mainstream, but especially to allies who may use gay friendliness and sexual tolerance as an exceptionally legitimate means to discriminate against Arabs/Muslims: I say “exceptionally legitimate” because, while it is politically incorrect to generalize about Muslims in relation to national security, it is still somehow acceptable to generalize about Muslims when it comes to sexual tolerance. I am interested in amplifying queer voices, both Arab/Muslim and not, who call out and resist this manipulation of gay-friendliness, and who spell out how sexual nationalism and homonationalism operate in Europe and the US. It is also my hope that young people--who may have grown up feeling like their religious, ethnic, and sexual ethnicities were irreconciliable—will pick up the book and discover how constructed and politicized this incompatibility actually is. 

J: What other projects are you working on now?

MM: My next book project, tentatively titled Eurabia: Visions of Reverse-Crusades in European Culture, studies dystopian fiction that imagines what would happen to Europe if current demographic trends and patterns of immigration remain unchecked: permeable borders and “exploding” birth-rates would result in a nightmare scenario of Arab invasion called “Eurabia.” This project extends from my previous research in the way it makes contemporary use of the “Rape of Europa” trope (originally culled from Greek mythology), using it as a tool to make intelligible current anxieties about Arab immigration, which have only been amplified in the wake of the 2015 refugee crisis. Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission is a starting point, as he imagines an Islamized France overly concerned with cultural sensitivity being led by a Muslim President. Houellebecq’s vision emerges, however, in a political climate that has seen Marine Le Pen and the far-right National Front party make their biggest electoral gains in France. One of Eurabia’s chapters looks at school manuals and the ways they teach the Battle of Poitiers (732 AD), a battle which saw Charles “The Hammer” Martel turn back Muslim invaders who had already made their way through Spain. Some have historicized this battle as the decisive moment when Europe saved itself from a Muslim destiny, cementing its Christian identity in the process.

However, I’m interested in the ways that Arab/Muslim students “heard” this lesson in the contemporary French classroom, and how they responded to their ancestors being portrayed as threats to the existence of a France they now call home. Franco-Arab writers and rappers often return to classroom scenes as sites of trauma and humiliation: they remember the feeling of seeing depictions of barbaric Muslim invaders as one of the first moments they were viewed with suspicion by teachers and classmates. This us-versus-them narrative builds upon historically misleading lessons that used to be prominent in French schools, by which teachers would describe the Gaulois or Gallic peoples as the common ancestors of all Frenchmen (no matter the composition of their classrooms). I started to notice a gradual trend, spanning the last few decades, by which the battle of Poitiers seemed to take up less and less space in school textbooks, perhaps, according to my hypothesis, in response to the current demographics in French classrooms, changing views of the importance of the event in French history, and the difficulty of teaching this particular lesson without alienating students.

History lessons for French children have often been the subject of politicization. In the recent past, right-wing forces sought to emphasize the positive “contributions” of colonialism in the curriculum, and today, the far-right wants to resurrect the fading Charles Martel, because it deems him a national hero who battled today’s “enemy” albeit in a different time period: Martel must be saved from the forces of political correctness that would seek to reduce his influence. Importantly, Charles Martel is resurrected as a decidedly Christian national icon, very different from the more secular revolutionary figure of the Marianne, and his male warrior status is seized upon because, I contend, his maleness is counted on to battle back against the presence of an Islam gendered as male.

In another chapter, I return to the field of rap music once more as an antidote to these bleak visions.  I examine lyrics, manifestos, music videos, collaborations, and subcultural spaces which result from exactly the demographic changes most feared by cultural guardians who warn of the imminent Islamization of Europe. The cultural richness of the rap world answers the dystopians who equate the presence of non-Europeans in the banlieues with intellectual regression and loss, who equate cross-pollination with cultural dilution.


Excerpt from Sexagon

Sexagon explores the broad politicization of sexuality in public debates about immigration and diversity in France and traces said politicization in French discourses and cultural productions in an attempt to challenge common perceptions that Muslims maintain unmodern attitudes about sexuality. Specifically, the book focuses on examples from literature, film, psychoanalysis, ethnopsychiatry, and pornography, as well as feminist, gay, and lesbian activist rhetoric to examine where sexualized representations of communities of immigrant origin take a political turn. The book also examines the rhetoric of French establishment figures who have expressed their frustrations with the changing demographics in their “familiar” France by questioning the “Frenchness” of Arab and Muslim minorities born in France—not because of linguistic or civic barriers, but because of perceived conservative attitudes about gender and sexuality. This frustration, I argue, gravitates around the concept of virilism—that is, a mixture of toughness, hardness, unruliness, assertiveness, and sometimes aggression which is projected onto male and female immigrants and their offspring. In the eyes of many French observers and commentators, virilism not only animates the “difficult” Arab, black, and Muslim boys featured in sensationalized newscasts, it also defines their neighborhoods in the suburbs or banlieues,their religion of Islam, and the notion of immigration itself. This virilization of the Arab other naturally requires a feminization, and in some cases an androgenization, of the host country: France, which has been called the hexagon (because it has six distinct sides), increasingly has come to resemble what I term a sexagon, because of the way its borders increasingly have come to be defined through values such as gay-friendliness, secular feminism, and metrosexuality, on the one hand, and the condemnation of immigrant and working-class machismo on the other. This perceived virilism is seen as all the more dangerous as it appears to include citizens who are often targeted as ideal candidates for cultural assimilation because they are thought to be antagonistic to virilism: women and homosexuals. The official discourses under investigation here are crucially inflamed by a defining element of these virility cultures: their clandestinity. Mirroring the secret and underground qualities of “illegal” immigration, both gay and straight proponents of clandestine cultures choose to withdraw from social scrutiny into ethnic shelters that are anathema to the French Republic’s desire for universalism and transparency. One of the most prominent and damning books on the subject of homosexuality, homophobia, and the multiethnic banlieues—journalist Franck Chaumont’s Homo-ghetto—establishes in its very title that banlieue homosexuals are the unassimilated “clandestines of the Republic.”

Attitudes about women’s liberation, sexual violence, homophobia, excision, polygamy, youth sexuality, the hijab (or headscarf), and family size have emerged as flashpoints in recent debates about immigration to France, leading many self-appointed guardians of French culture, as well as cultural chauvinists, to assert a stance of sexual enlightenment over France’s Arab and Muslim communities. At a time when French citizens of Arab and Islamic descent—French for generations—can no longer be accused of non-assimilation on linguistic grounds, they appear to have been subjected to a new form of citizenship test that is predicated on the perceived fitness of their views on sexuality. Thus, a cultural divide, once bridged when these children of immigrants became French citizens, seems to have reemerged with political and sometimes legal consequences. This type of cultural xenophobia, however, ignores the many ways through which African and Arab minorities in France have queered or deviated from normative French understandings of sexuality, both heterosexual and homosexual.

Indeed, sexuality has emerged as a new battleground in the public debates about whether postwar immigration from the former colonies has eroded French identity. Since the 1990s, long-standing concerns about religious or ethnic diversity increasingly have been accompanied by a sexualized rhetoric that accuses Muslim immigrants of advocating rigid gender norms and being intolerant of homosexuality. Sexagon pushes the conversation into the cultural arena of representations and explains how sexuality constitutes a prism through which to establish the existence of non-European difference, which is often expressed in terms of being uncomfortable with gender fluidity (for men, not women), effeminacy, transparency, and “being out.” The integration of immigrants and their descendants within the national fabric increasingly has been defined in terms of a set of “appropriate” attitudes toward gender and sexuality that have been proclaimed to be long-standing French values, but which in reality have been embraced only recently.  (1-3) (…)

The Banlieue as Laboratory

My study identifies two cultural formations emergent in the banlieues that exceed the traditional parameters of both homonationalism and sexual nationalism: nongendered virility and chosen homosexual clandestinity. These formations are attached of course to figures who exemplify these notions in practice. The discreet “homo thug” (often referred to in French parlance as caillera gay) and sexually clandestine Arabs and Muslims reject an openly gay lifestyle (even when it is available to them) and public (but not private) effeminacy, as well as the draw of the city center; instead, they may prefer to explore their sex lives in ethnic enclaves and banlieues. The female gang member, the female “soldiers” of Islam, and the preponderance of banlieue women who adopt clothing styles and manners of speaking that the dominant society at large associates with masculine swagger, all exemplify how virility has been divorced from men and identified with immigration. These banlieue figures are interrelated in the sense that they ostensibly reject as culturally other what some might find to be progressive advances in the domain of women’s and sexual minorities’ freedoms, for reasons of identity-based demarcation and sometimes Islamic affirmation. These figures, immediately rejected as backward and patriarchal, are in my argument the main examples of a queer of color backlash against homo and sexual nationalisms that has less to do with the MENA region than with the cultural and social dynamics of contemporary France. For this reason, these formations might be better seen as proregressions in their forward-thinking embrace of sexual dispositions misunderstood as regressive by critics who believe them to incarnate old forms of patriarchy, rather than contemporary reactions to a feminist and gay rights movement that does not always include minorities. On the one hand, this is evident in how some banlieue and Muslim women trade in, master, and also contribute to a virility traditionally associated with men, making the association between the male and the virile irrelevant. On the other hand, banlieue and Muslim men indicate proregression when they purposefully choose to enter clandestine worlds removed from the scrutiny of openly gay life for reasons that have little to do with internalized homophobia and more to do with contemporary desires for the affirmation of cultural difference in a world of increasing gay homogenization. Internet possibilities of selective disclosure have informed this proregression, allowing participants in banlieue subcultures to craft their desired degree of outness, which is often influenced by a Franco-Islamic view of the public and the private (see chapters 1 and 2). These are not formations produced by nostalgia for Islamic or North African ways of understanding sexuality but arise in the specific conditions of dense urban living in Europe.

Choosing clandestinity as an object of analysis naturally presents certain epistemological problems: how does one study that which is meant to stay hidden? Is it disrespectful to expose sexual subcultures to a harsh outside atmosphere that might lead to their endangerment or extinction? What to do in the face of this subculture’s indifference to how it may be perceived by those critics who find that secrecy is a thing of the past? Who can stand to represent these subcultures when most participants choose anonymity? This conundrum calls for a cautious and nuanced approach that requires the researcher, on occasion, to break with conventions of academic distance and access private spaces to gain “insider” knowledge. This approach respects the right to indifference and anonymity, but intervenes when this subculture’s participants are criticized in media forums where, for privacy reasons, they refuse to appear and are therefore unable to mount a defense. Though part of this respect involves not telling a story about banlieusard sexual subcultures when disclosure is demanded (so as not to play secondhand native informant), at times, only alternative storytelling can quell the one-way stream of unanswered critique that colors so many representations of clandestine subcultures. (23-24)

[Excerpt from Sexagon published with permission (c) 2017.] 


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