Kathleen Foody on Joseph Massad’s Islam in Liberalism
In 1981, Edward Said asked whether “Islam [is] in the end useful as a notion, or does it hide, distort, deflect, and ideologize more than it actually says?” Since his classic treatments in Orientalism (1978) and Covering Islam (1981), scholars and policy makers have interrogated the construction of “Islam” as an object of study, political praxis, and public fascination. Joseph A. Massad’s project in Islam in Liberalism extends explicitly from Said’s, and his answer is unequivocal. For Massad, Islam is purely a product of liberal discourse — one that says far more about liberalism’s anxieties than it does about Muslims anywhere.
Islam in Liberalism suggests that the problem of “Islam” is essential to the genealogy of Western liberal theory and practice — that in the context of liberalism, discourses of “Islam” tell us more about “the West” than they do about practicing Muslims and lived Islam(s). While his argument owes much to Covering Islam, Massad discards Said’s largely humanistic frameworks. If the development of liberalism requires novel ways of understanding the subject as self-organized, religion as primarily focused on interior states, and the state as the sovereign holder of legitimate force, Massad argues that it also requires a conception of Islam as precisely that which is other than liberalism.
In recent decades, Islamic studies scholars have challenged secular liberal suppositions about agency and governance. Massad extends these critiques beyond Islamic and religious studies, engaging sources that range from John Stewart Mill to contemporary human rights efforts in his analysis of Islam’s place in liberal politics and praxis. For Massad, Islam is both a creation of liberalism and, as a foil, creates liberalism. Islam — actually practiced and lived Islam — is unspoken and perhaps, within the frameworks of liberal discourse, unspeakable. We must attend not to liberal Islam or any other kind of Islam, Massad argues, but rather the ways liberalism has created “Islam” through its own process of self-definition.
Islam in Liberalism’s stated goal is to “understand how Islam became so central to liberalism as ideology and identity, indeed how liberalism as the antithesis of Islam became one of the key components of the very discourse through which Europe as a modern identity was conjured up.” Massad advances this argument by attending to discourses surrounding democracy, women, sexuality, psychoanalysis, and Semitism.
In a discussion of “The Democracy Offensive and the Defense of Islam,” Massad connects colonial rhetoric to contemporary debates. Here he notes that eighteenth-century western conceptions of “the East” were an attempt “to create ‘Europe’ as a transcendental idea, composed of a set of Enlightened ideals … and as a unified and separate geography differentiated from ‘dark’ lands and continents laying outside it.” This discussion focuses on the role that Islamic “culture” has played in such acts of self-definition and explores “the deep intellectual genealogy of Western liberal claims that Islam is ‘culturally’ un- or antidemocratic and that the major cultural achievement of Christianity (in the form of Protestantism) and the West has been their commitment to democratic governance.” How has this “geographically and religious mapped notion of culture” been connected to “political arrangements of governance” where “Islam” is defined by “Oriental despotism” and a unified “West” by democracy?
Massad traces this culture talk through contemporary academic histories of Europe, eighteenth-century philosophy (Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws), despotism and liberal citizenship in colonial and post-colonial worlds, American’s claim to being the oldest democracy in the world as an essentially nationalist (and culturalist) anthem, classical Orientalist scholarship and contemporary Middle East Studies, and Samuel Huntington’s Cold War models for the Clash of Civilizations. Massad’s discussion of United States’ explicit post-9/11 project “of ‘reforming’ the ‘culture’ of ‘Islam’” is especially noteworthy. Whereas Mahmood Mamdani has argued that culture talk surrounding Islam is rooted in Cold War dynamics, by contrast, Massad traces a longer genealogy and argues that such culture talk “is a much older imperial project” that began under the Truman presidency in the United States and was preceded by earlier British and French colonial discourses.
Islam in Liberalism attends to recent debates over “liberal” Islam, particularly Talal Asad’s argument against translating Muslims/Islam into purportedly global frames, such as human rights discourse (Formations of the Secular). The attempt to produce certain kinds of Islam — to manufacture Islam in plural as “Islams” — not only has a long history, but inevitably in Massad’s reading aligns with first European and now American colonial and imperial goals.
The singular focus of Massad’s approach is perhaps most evident in his examination of women in “Islam.” In this discussion, Massad suggests that from the eighteenth century onward white women’s feminist movements depended not only on a European and Protestant identity, but also upon an imagined oppressed “Oriental” women. This imagined oppressed Other constituted the very consciousness of these European women’s movements. This argument is clearest in Massad’s response to Abu Lughod’s recent work Do Muslim Women Need Saving?. There, Abu Lughod explored at length the ways that a manufactured image of Muslim women, always in need of rescue, supported contemporary deployments of empire, such as the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. She suggested that feminist Muslim movements such as Musawah and WISE, based on international models of human rights and global governance, contribute in important ways to improving the lives of Muslim women; however, she argued, they too often overlook numerous causes of Muslim women’s suffering, such as poverty. This recognition requires a shift from saving Muslim women to supporting those in Muslim communities who attempt to better women’s live. For Massad, however, Abu Lughod’s audience is key. Her book speaks to liberal feminists. Beyond the issue of whether such interventions can take non-salvific models, Massad points to the frame of universalizing human rights that Abu Lughod depends upon. Evoking Spivak (“Can the Subaltern Speak?”), Massad argues this universalizing frame essentializes “the female subject” under the heading of women’s rights. In this sense, despite Abu Lughod’s correctives to white or Western feminist projects, the Western bases for human rights talk continues uncontested.
The scope and breadth of Massad’s approach and the totalizing nature of his argument will doubtless leave some readers dissatisfied. If “Islam” is a product of liberalism, what do we make of not only self-identified Muslim liberals, but also adamantly anti-liberal Muslims and their claims to something they call “Islam?” In an era marked by transnational movements of peoples, ideas, and affects, how do we trace — or ignore — such intersections? For scholars of Islam, these questions will be particularly troubling, but they should be equally absorbing to scholars of Europe and North America. What does one ignore, Massad asks, if one writes the history of these places without attending to Islam? Recent panics about Islam in the United Sates are often tied to either a post-9/11 culture of fear or, if one takes a longer view, to the Iranian hostage crisis. Massad suggests that these reference points for understanding the place of Islam in North America are off the mark and obscure the ways that “Islam” has been historically and intimately necessary for liberalism itself.
Massad’s contribution, in other words, is to posit Islam not as something in contention with liberalism — as a claim to a particularist set of values — but rather as formative of the liberal project itself. In this way Massad destabilizes a singularly European history of liberalism. An imagined Islam has always been present within this European project and any attempt to grapple with that project today must attend to the construction and elision of Islam at liberalism’s core.