Is Islam Inherently Opposed to Western Liberalism?

That is the crux of a new book by modern Arab politics professor Joseph Massad, which reveals the unspoken cultural assumptions underlying human rights and other NGOs, and should be required reading for them.

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A banner calling for British Muslims not to vote as part of the Stay Muslim Don't Vote campaign is held aloft outside the London Central Mosque in London April 3, 2015.
A banner calling for British Muslims not to vote as part of the Stay Muslim Don't Vote campaign is held aloft outside the London Central Mosque in London April 3, 2015. Credit: Reuters

“Islam in Liberalism,” by Joseph A. Massad, The University of Chicago Press, 384 pages, $40

At the time of his death in 2004, the French Jewish philosopher Jacques Derrida had long occupied the pinnacle of academic superstardom. To the many students and scholars who eagerly snatched up every new book and article he authored and flocked to his lectures worldwide, Derrida was prophet, sage and arbiter.

Derrida fathered not only a profoundly influential philosophical and literary approach, popularly known as deconstruction, but also generations of intellectual children: graduate students who broke their teeth on "Writing and Difference" and "Of Grammatology," and grew up to be happy deconstructionists applying Derrida to Gothic novels, architecture or South Asian history.

Joseph Massad, a professor of modern Arab politics at Columbia University, is one of those children. As a graduate student in the 1990s at Columbia, he could hardly have avoided being so. Derrida’s influence is tangible in Massad’s latest work "Islam in Liberalism" – in a certain linguistic playfulness; in the constellation of theorists quoted, including Derrida himself; and in a penchant for reading against the grain and searching out the marginal, dangling threads that cause a whole structure, in this case of Western liberalism, to unravel.

It is all the more surprising, then, that in the final chapter of his book Massad calls Jacques Derrida an anti-Semite. This moment is worth dwelling on because Massad’s act of patricide is key to understanding "Islam in Liberalism" – which aims to show how Western liberalism is inherently opposed to Islam – and its flaws.

Derrida. Massad calls the French Jewish philosopher an anti-Semite.Credit: AP

There is an ethical question that haunts this book, and not only in the context of the accusation against Derrida. It is a question that Massad posed himself, if rhetorically, in a 2001 debate with Israeli historian Benny Morris that was published in the former’s collection "The Persistence of the Palestinian Question." When moderator Andrew Whitehead observed that Israeli and Palestinian intellectuals seem unable to move past their contentious history and establish a dialogue, Massad responded: “How can you reconcile with an enemy who is still repressing you?”

Massad’s answer, in this debate and elsewhere, is that one can’t, and one shouldn’t. Reconciliation, he believes, is tantamount to capitulation; while Zionist colonialism continues, or, on a larger scale, while Western imperialism continues, it is wrong to accept these ideologies’ narratives as legitimate. To do so, or even to vacillate on this point, obscures the fact that justice and solidarity should lie entirely on the side of the oppressed.

Massad’s unwillingness to accept Western liberalism’s altruistic self-definition at face value, his refusal to reconcile, allows him to build a critique that is both insightful and timely. "Islam in Liberalism" argues that European liberalism arose from an imagined dichotomy between the tolerant West and the despotic East, and that the consistent reinforcement of this dichotomy — especially when it comes to gay rights, women’s rights, and democratic freedom — causes Western liberals to feel a burden of responsibility to rescue those suffering under Islam.

While this mission is expressed through the work of international nongovernmental organizations and liberal foundations like Human Rights Watch or the Ford Foundation, in essence it is no different than more traditional forms of imperialism, Massad asserts. Western influence is used to support certain ideologies and social groups in Muslim-majority countries, while maintaining the overall power and capital imbalance between the donor and receiving societies.

"Islam in Liberalism" raises important questions about the power and influence of Western NGOs and the humanitarian missions of Western governments. Massad is on unimpeachable ground in arguing that these institutions are not simply altruistic vehicles for do-goodism, and that those who claim that the West has a mission and a burden to save women, gays, or the oppressed in the Muslim world are necessarily rehashing old Orientalist tropes. In unearthing the unconscious motives and unspoken cultural assumptions underlying human rights and international organizations, "Islam in Liberalism" should be required reading for NGO workers the world over.

But Massad’s unquestioning certainty in his own arguments leads him to a reductive dogmatism. This is especially evident in his harsh criticism of Leila Abu-Lughod, a Columbia University anthropologist whose "Do Muslim Women Need Saving?" raises many of these same questions, while still allowing that a more self-reflective feminism can nevertheless advocate for women’s rights abroad.

Massad’s response is dismissive, staking out the extreme position that the whole project of advocacy is rotten and unsalvageable. Liberal transnational solidarity, he writes, “can only issue from imperialist countries toward the Third World as part of imperial networks... which are not reducible to the human subjects formed by them taking ‘responsibility.’” In other words, no matter how self-aware individual feminists or human rights advocates might be, the unjust international system dictates that their aid efforts only serve to further oppression. Not only does this position reject the notion of individual agency – human choices are not entirely subject to international relations – but, as elsewhere, Massad’s argument lacks nuance: As his many attacks on ideological rivals make clear, one either agrees with his position, or one is an imperialist. There is no middle ground.

What's in a 'dead name'?

Massad’s dogmatism is perhaps most clearly expressed in the book’s last chapter, entitled “Forget Semitism!” This section is devoted to the idea that Judaism, Christianity and Islam have a shared heritage in the figure of Abraham – that they are related, Abrahamic religions. Massad, himself a Palestinian born in Jordan, argues that this idea is a liberal mask for colonialism and anti-Semitism. The normalizing, ecumenical ideal of the Abrahamic faiths, he says, is a cover for ongoing political violence.

The section in which Massad accuses Derrida of anti-Semitism is worth quoting in full. Massad first cites a passage from one of Derrida’s writings that mentions Jewish settler Baruch Goldstein’s 1994 massacre of Palestinian worshippers. In condemning the violent attack, Derrida refers to the location of the massacre as the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.

Massad's response: “Derrida’s insistence on the use of the dead name of al-Khalil, on calling the Abrahamic Sanctuary by its Jewish colonial terminology (Tomb of the Patriarchs), on claiming the massacre as part of a religious and not a colonial war and contextualizing all this in the 'religions called "Abrahamic”' reveals the explanatory potential of the Abrahamic and what it can and cannot include. For a philosopher like Derrida, so invested in the proper name, to refuse to call Palestinian geography and holy places by their proper Abrahamic names opens him to the probability of a similar charge like the one he leveled against Massignon.”

Massignon is Louis Massignon, the French Catholic Orientalist who was one of the proponents of the Abrahamic faiths. This idea of a shared Abrahamic tradition was also taken up by Derrida, though he expressed his reservations that Massignon’s concept, insofar as it excluded Jews, “leaves us with the feeling of some probability of anti-Semitism.” Massad turns the charge, or the probability, back on Derrida.

This is not the only instance of name-calling in "Islam in Liberalism." It seems anyone who ever challenged the author’s previous scholarship gets their comeuppance in the book’s sarcastic footnotes. Considering how Massad has been the target of character assassination in the past — in particular, in the public scandal that erupted after the 2004 pro-Israel propaganda film "Columbia Unbecoming" accused him and other Arab professors of intimidating Jewish students who supported Israel — these comments in "Islam in Liberalism" might be forgiven, or at least understood.

But the accusation against Derrida is not like these other examples. It comes by way of Massad’s analysis of the history of European racial theory, the idea that there is a category of people called Semites, and this theory’s connections with Orientalism, through Zionism’s adoption of these racial categories as the basis for Jewish nationalism. The Zionist decision to turn the Jews into a nation, as Massad would have it, caused a split between the Jews and Arabs (and, by extension, Muslims in general) who had both been the objects of Semitism and anti-Semitism. It is a split, he writes, between “the Semite who went the way of the Orientalist and the Semite who was forced to go the way of the Oriental.”

Massad calls Derrida an anti-Semite not just for refusing to say “Al-Khalil,” but for denying that Zionism has turned Palestinians into the true Semites and the true victims of its anti-Semitism.

We must remember that the inequality of power between Jews and Palestinians is one of the basic, and often obfuscated, facts of this conflict. Perhaps, indeed, Derrida did not recognize it enough. And yet: “the dead name of Al-Khalil”? Why is the Hebrew name dead? “Hebron” was not a dead name to the Jews who lived there before Israel was founded, and it isn’t a dead name to the Jews who call the city that now. The Jewish settlement in Hebron, even the entire history of Zionism and the occupation, neither make the Hebrew name dead nor means that it deserves death.

Just as Massad reduces liberalism to imperialism, to dismiss the Jewish name as “colonial terminology” is to collapse all of Jewish history and experience into Zionism. There is no possibility, and this is true of "Islam in Liberalism"’s arguments as a whole, that there could be two names, or two kinds of suffering, without one erasing the other.

This is where the absence of Derrida — the real Derrida — is felt most acutely. Derrida was a master of undecidability and the suspension of choice, of deferring and hesitation. This can be seen in his comments on Israel and Palestine that Massad gathers, in which the philosopher both condemns the occupation and confirms Israel’s unimpeachable right to exist; he does come across in the quotes chosen as a waffling politician. But Derrida’s hesitation is not due to uncertainty or dissimulation, but rather to the conviction that true responsibility to others is a necessary but nearly impossible act, full of contradiction.

This is no doubt frustrating for Massad. It is frustrating for all of us who live now, in this time of war. Philosophical hesitation seems a luxury; there is an imperative to make firm commitments, speak them out, and see them through to the end. However, what Massad forgets is ethics, one of the main themes in Derrida’s work (though he did not like the word).

As Jack Reynolds, professor of philosophy at Australia’s Deakin University, has written, for Derrida ethical behavior “is a product of deferring, and of being forever open to possibilities rather than taking a definitive position.” This is precisely the space that "Islam in Liberalism" closes down.

Samuel Thrope’s essays and reviews have appeared in Tablet, the Christian Science Monitor, the Daily Beast, and elsewhere. His translation of Jalal Al-e Ahmad’s "The Israeli Republic" is available from Restless Books.

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