From the Editors
It may be hard to imagine that here, in the hot and humid Texas, being queer is “cool.” Believe it or not, Houston has a lesbian mayor and one of the first transgender judges in the nation. Hell, if it was not for the rest of Texas, gay marriage could possibly be legal in the land of Lawrence vs. Texas. But, the “feel-good” hegemonic queer culture in Houston is at best an epitome of American exceptionalism with an intense love for gay/queer normativity, or what Lisa Duggan has termed homonormativity. In fact, there is no shortage of queer and trans activists who care about nothing more than voting a gay politician into the office and participating in the Human Rights Campaign galas. There is no shortage of artists and academics that go out of their way to be queerer than a four dollar bill, but turn into the three wise monkeys and turn their queer faces away when it comes to questions of “war on terror,” military violence, Islamophobia, and Israeli pinkwashing.
The queer community in Houston cares less that Annise Parker, the much celebrated lesbian mayor of Houston, is actively building partnerships with Israeli companies and promising to bring Israel’s “successful” model of governance to Houston. In fact, homonationalism is the condition of possibility in the Houstonian queerdom. To belong to this queerdom, you have to pledge allegiance to the greatness of America and its freedoms. I am afraid this trend is not particular to Houston. But, I live here now and feel, more vigorously than ever, the violence of a particular form of homonationalism that is predicated upon a selective secularism that dares not to critique Christianity, but happily attacks Islam.
Here is an example: In December, I co-curated a queer art show in Houston, and made a point of opening the show with a Rick Perry parody, through which I hoped to address the relationship between Islamophobia, homophobia, homonationalism, and pinkwashing. Things seemed to be going well until the end, when a performance froze me with disbelief in my seat. One of the artists, an undocumented gay man who was a part of the main show, started the open mic by preaching as he tore pages of the Qur’an. Not believing my eyes and shocked at the sight of torn pages of the Qur’an on the stage, I repeatedly asked the person who was sitting next to me—the co-curator and a friend of the Qur’an-ripping artist—what in the world was going on. Dismissing my question, this “progressive” white queer artist and academic colleague nodded at the performer, cheering him on. Letting out a “yeah, tear it” scream as the performer tore the picture of a Christian fundamentalist after Qur’an, this colleague seemed to share a moment of solidarity with the performer. Equating the Qur’an with the photograph of a homophobic Christian politician, the ripping act purported to convey that the two icons are material objects that respectively signify Islam and Christianity and carry the same weight in their arbitrary relation to the referent: religion. This seemingly neutral and simultaneous critique of Islam and Christianity seemed to assume religion to be universally oppressive to a homogenous global queer community who should relate to an imagined community of secular queers.
It was only after this artist’s Qur’an-ripping performance that I learned about previous versions of this piece, which involve the blindfolded artist reading a “modified version” of the Qur’an and stomping on it. While earlier performances seem to involve the Qur’an, in a performance posted on his website after the December event, the artist is holding a bible and wearing a cross around his neck, as he re-tells the story of Sodom. I am not certain whether his bible performance (which does not involve tearing or stomping) was instigated by the buzz and the tension that arose after his act at the December show. Regardless, he starts the bible performance with these words:
"Dear brothers and sisters. Dear enemies and friends. Thank you for being here tonight, celebrating the freedoms that we enjoy in this country; the freedom to express ourselves; to express our sexuality through art. But it hasn’t always been like this. And actually, in present times, there are places upon the surface of this earth, where you could be decapitated if you depict homosexuality though art, or if you even whisper the word fuck."
Interestingly, the secularist artist’s critique of the bible culminates in the same result as the Qur’an-ripping performance: a civilizational division between the freedom here in the United States and death over there. To show his objection to religion in general, the secular undocumented queer artist who probably cannot afford to challenge American nationalism because of his immigration status, tears the picture of a Christian right politician, but not the bible or a sacred text of American nationalism such as the US Constitution. In fact, he practices his “freedom of speech” according to the permissible limits of freedom and speech within the realms of American nationalism and the neoliberal security regime.
As I watched the Qur’an-tearing performance in a state of shock and betrayal, I painfully felt a sense of vulnerability to hate speech in a seemingly safe “progressive” queer space. To my disappointment, the “progressive” audience who saw the act did not find any issue with the sheer Islamophobia of it. I am not sure if the queer artist and his sympathizing audience realize the extremely offensive nature of tearing the Qur’an and the injury that it inflicts upon Muslims—“secular” or “religious”— in the way that tearing other religious texts may not. (Although, I cannot stop thinking that that this fellow secular queer would not dare tearing the Bible in front of a secular and religious audience in Texas).
The Qur’an for many practicing Muslims is considered to be one of Prophet Mohammad’s miracles, and as such is a sacred text. Even for many non-practicing Muslims, the Qur’an is a part of a habitus and entangled with cultural realms that are not necessarily religious. For example, placing the Qur’an on the Persian new year altar (a pre-Islamic tradition), casual “I swear to Qur’an” utterances in daily conversations, kissing the Qur’an before traveling, and carrying wallet-size Qur’ans for protection, are all parts of the everyday lives of many practicing and non-practicing Muslims in Iran. In fact, the rigid binary of secular and religious is a fiction that ignores the reality of people’s everyday practices, making any in-between position impossible and unspeakable. The tearing of the Qur’an inflicts injury not just against one’s religious beliefs, but as Saba Mahmood has argued in the case of the “Muhammad cartoons,” against “a structure of affect, a habitus, that feels wounded.”
Inflicting injury on Muslims is only one part of the story. What is implicit in the act of tearing the Qur’an is the racialization of Muslims, especially in the post-September 11 era. Seeing Qur’an-tearing as a critique of Islam, the religion, and not as an attack on Muslims (who are assumed to be duped and in need of liberation and enlightenment), hinders the violence to which Muslims are subjected in North America and Europe. The casual dismissal of this act as a “critique” of Islam’s homophobia minimizes the racism that underlies this performance of secularism, which eerily resembles Christian book-burning rituals.
How does one explain the silence of the progressive audience in the face of this symbolic violence against Muslims, when no other form of blatant racism would have been acceptable in the age of neoliberal tolerance? I believe that this silence stems from the normative understandings of religion that of a clash between “western” secularism/queer freedom and the traditional religiosity of Muslim homophobia. Scholars who have historicized the discursive formation of the secular and the religious as binary opposites in modernity have questioned how the common understanding of secularism became the separation of private religious belief and public life.
Set against an abstract notion of religion, secular has come to mean a range of privileged positions: anti-religious, humanist, non-religious-but-“tolerant” of religion, “modern,” western, and, yes, ironically, Christian. Christianity has come to be aligned with progress, tolerance, freedom, and secularism, while, as Minoo Moallem has argued, Islam has been associated with fundamentalism, oppression, blind submission, violence, and intolerance. In fact, despite the crucial role of Christianity in the Euro-American worldview, the “west” has established itself as secular and rational vis-à-vis its religious and “traditional” others, who more often than not happen to be Muslims.
The opposition of Islam to secularism of the “west” is not limited to the “liberal secular” position, but includes the Christian right. On one hand, neoconservatives and fundamentalist Christians such as Rick Perry advocate religious prayer in schools and warn the American public about the “attack on religion” and the demise of heterosexual family values and American patriotism, while simultaneously pushing for secularization and “democratization” through regime change in the Middle East. On the other hand, anti-religious secular fundamentalists, who ignore the deeply imbedded Christian thought in the secular west, dismiss likes of Perry as exceptions to the liberal secular rule and cast the Euro-American worldview as the secular opposition to Islam. If the Christian right seeks a return to Christian values, liberal secularism considers “scientific” reasoning and “objectivity,” performances of avant-garde artistic expression, freedom of speech, and rationality to be secular and free of religious “prejudice.” The liberal secular subject of American democracy is assumed to be prior to the dominant neoliberal discourses that produce the illusion of the self-governing free individual with a choice to be religious or irreligious.
And now more than ever, “queer” has come to mean ridding oneself of religious “prejudice” to be “free-thinking” and to be secular. If the religion-tolerant non-religious “queer” takes pride in the greatness of liberal secularism’s “freedom of speech,” while politely smiling at the religious other to be respectful according to the norms of American multiculturalism, the “politically-incorrect” queer takes an in-your-face approach to assert her/his secularism in the name of “freedom of speech.” The latter, the one who assumes to be miraculously (miracles of the secular kind) outside of every norm (while being complicit with norms such as homonationalism), takes it in his own hands to tear the Qur’an and stand/stomp on it naked to enlighten and liberate the backward Muslim, by proving through his missionary art that “it is just a book.” Hallelujah! The avant-garde queer artist has practiced his “freedom of speech,” or more precisely, hate speech, freely uttered in the name of freedom.
According to the queer liberatory reason, the practicing Muslim queer must be suffering from false-consciousness, is most likely unaware of human potential, or backward and traditional. Whatever the reason may be, the queer practicing Muslim is in need of liberation by the enlightened secular queer. Of course, through a teleological narrative of progress and Orientalist collapse of the Middle East with religion, the Middle East comes to represent homophobia and queer death, while the “west” comes to stand for queer freedom and life. In this clash of freedom and unfreedom, the most sacred form of queer liberation comes in the guise of art. While critique has come to be secular (courtesy of Enlightenment), it is secular queer art that is exempt from critique, for no free-thinking liberated modern queer would “censor” artistic expression! Here is when religious text is not sacred (“Get over it, it’s just a book!”), but secular art is (“Do not suffocate artistic expression and freedom!”).
Perhaps, the fact that the Qur’an-tearing performer is an undocumented Latino gay man also contributed to the silence of the “progressive queers” in the face of Islamophobia. This silence and the refusal to acknowledge the injury of the hateful Islamophobic Qur’an-tearing act highlight the superficial understandings of racial inequality and the hypocrisy of so-called progressive queers. They happily embrace neoliberal multiculturalism that manages dissent, effectively silencing the injury felt by queer Muslims. To dismiss hateful acts when performed by non-white queer artists is itself a racist position that characterizes US racial and sexual identity politics. In fact, the progressive white queer subject reinstates her/his position of racial superiority vis-à-vis a fetishized and homogeneous category of “people of color,” by treating her/his non-white others as special groups with special license to Islamophobia (“It wasn’t me. They did it to each other!”). For those who are subjected to Islamophobic violence, however, it matters little who inflicts the injury (queer or not, immigrant or not, white or not). Why should we assume that an undocumented Latino gay immigrant would not be complicit with homonationalism?
Of course, this incident is not particular to Texas, but is related to the rampant Islamophobia that is at the heart of US imperialism. Increasingly, this mission acts in the name of defending “gay rights” and liberating queers from in the Muslim and Arab World. The civilizing mission is not just the work of the militarized state and the homophobic Christian right, but is a part of neoliberal governmentality that involves secular “queers” who are complicit with US homonationalism. Perhaps, rather than queering everyone and their mothers, assuming queer to be inherently subversive, and cheering Qur’an-ripping art, it is time to rip the holy secular queer cloak and allow critique to apply to the much celebrated notion of “freedom,” even when it is articulated through artistic expression.
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