Saturday, June 03, 2006

Joseph Andoni Massad

I heard the first time about him on 13.2.2000, when a gay Arab American wrote:
This afternoon ... Joseph Massad, a Palestinian from Jordan who is a professor in the Middle East and Asian Languages and Culture Department at Columbia University [gave a] paper "Re-Orienting Desire: The Gay International and the Arab World." The premiser was that a "gay international" comprised of organizations like ILGA is imposing a universalist definition of a Western, white-identified gay/lesbian identity on the Arab and Muslim worlds with often devastating effects. Massad argues that organizations like GLAS and al-Fatiha are not only part of this gay international, but that they are Orientalist in nature and are helpful only for a tiny minority of Diaspora Arabs and Muslims as well as those privileged elites in the Arab and Muslim world who a) travel to the West and b) have access to the internet. He feels these organizations provide a forum for Arabs/Muslims to vent against Islam, Arab society, and what have you, and that the positions espoused by activists like Ramzi Zachariah and Faisal Alam ... mimic the efforts of Western missionaries in their proselytizing zeal (a "we will liberate/civilize the natives" sort of thing). ... Massad criticized Arab-Americans for often espousing the most virulent of anti-Arab attitudes, albeit camouflaged by an alleged insider knowledge, and condemned those upper class Arabs in the Middle East who willingly act as "native informants" for the gay international agenda. While acknowledging the sincerity and good intent of those of us who've been involved with these efforts, Massad insists that Western gay identity is completely irrelevant to Arab and Muslim experience and that it's introduction to the Arab/Muslim worlds will not result in liberation for gays, but in greater repression of homoeroticism and homosexual behavior.
He believes our efforts will have the counter effect of a) establishing heterosexuality as an identity b) compulsorizing heterosexuality and c) unleashing homophobia. Instead of creating a queer planet, we are in fact
creating a heterosexual planet, he maintains. Now obviously I find his positions to be problematic on many levels.
However, I am by no means writing this to trash Massad or his work. To the contrary, I found him to be a very impressive and eloquent speaker who raises some truly provocative and important issues. What I would like us as a community to explore is his supposition that we are doing more harm than good and the possibility that while we personally may be benefiting from our efforts, we are doing it at the expense of millions of others. Are we creating a situation that may in fact disrupt the lives of those for whom issues of sexual identity have
always been irrelevant or alien? Are we operating within a Western imperialist mindset? Are we claiming to represent or speak for all gay Arabs and Muslims without a mandate to do so? Are we inadvertently assuming
our own experiences and beliefs to be those of all gay Arabs and Muslims? Are we unwillingly becoming accomplices to greater anti-gay oppression in the Arab and Muslim worlds?
I wrote him at once, suggesting that "Hollywood" might have a stronger influence on the views and attitudes of people in the Middle East than ILGA. His answer (unedited):
Dear Mr. Schmitt,
The article will be published sometime in the next year in Public Culture.
More than three year later, Re-Orienting Desire: The Gay International and the Arab World appeared (the journal is about a year behind schedule).
When I read it, I was astonished to find out that it was not only about ILGA, GLAS, al-Fatiha and AI, but that Joe attacked some scholars as well, me among them. Now, I understood why he had refused to send me the script of his Chicago lecture: the articles was full of lies!

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