What do psychoanalysis, liberalism, and Islam have in common? A recent lecture at Stanford University with the curious title, “Psychoanalysis and the Other of Liberalism,” purported to answer that question. Delivered by Joseph Massad, an associate professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University and co-sponsored by Stanford’s Abassi Program in Islamic Studies, the talk was attended by approximately a dozen graduate students who sat around a long, rectangular table with several circulated chapters of Massad’s tentatively titled forthcoming book, Islam In Liberalism, in hand.
Massad began by describing his book, which he explained is not “concerned with liberal trends in Islam,” but with “how Western liberalism constituted itself and, in constituting, created an object called ‘Islam’ as its ‘Other.’” Claiming that polarization between the East and West was present at “the birth of European liberalism in the eighteenth century,” with Islam being unfairly associated with oppression, he blamed liberal thinkers such as Montesquieu and the concept of “Oriental despotism,” which he equated with “Islamic totalitarianism today.” That such negative associations have a basis in reality both then and now went unremarked; in Massad’s scheme, the Enlightenment was about little more than irrational opposition to Islam.
Referencing another forthcoming book, Massad examined “the deployment” of the word “Islam” as if its mere usage constitutes a weapon:
The uses of the word have changed. Islam can refer to the Koran, Islamist politics, philosophy and history. Islam denotes all these things. It becomes difficult to understand what is the significance of this term for the person deploying it.
He also contested the “Orientalist translations” of “Islam” as meaning “subjection and surrender,” claiming instead that “it means ‘deliverance.’” Contradicting his previous claim that “lumping the three [Abrahamic religions]” together “is an Orientalist invention, ecumenical invention, equalizing what it unequal at base in power relations,” Massad made the Islamic supremacist claim that Islam, “also means ‘monotheism.’ It is the religion of all the prophets who came before. Jews and Christians are Muslims because they believe in one god.”
In contrast to Islam, Massad maintained that Protestant Christianity acquired “a positive meaning” through the Enlightenment because it was seen as a “pre-condition of democracy.” “Islam as a problem for democracy also begins at that time,” he added.
Massad renewed his critique of Montesquieu, whom he blamed for creating the impression that women in the Muslim world were oppressed:
Montesquieu was the first to depict Muslim women as somehow living in some sort of slave-like subjection. . . . This carried over to the nineteenth century white women’s movement, the later proselytization campaigns of the 1880s and 1890s, [and] the British campaigns going on in Egypt and India. Christianity and women’s rights were juxtaposed.
He never denied that such “slave-like subjection” actually existed, but implied as much with a sarcastic tone to which his audience tittered appreciatively.
Massad did offer statistics for the deplorable condition of Muslim women in the twentieth century, referencing clitorectomies and honor killings, but lost all bearing when he equated the latter with the number of American women murdered each year by their husbands or boyfriends. Such crimes, he complained, are “never attributable to American forms of Christianity or culture” and are seen as going “against American cultural values.” Perhaps that’s because this is true: unlike honor killings, these murders are not sanctioned by religion, society, or authorities.
Massad, whose controversial 2007 book Desiring Arabs posited that homosexuality in the Muslim world is merely a Western construct, then warned of “an attempt to create a discipline of ‘queer Middle East studies,’” which he described as “a projection of the liberal constitution of itself as sexual citizenship.” He dismissed international efforts to fight the persecution of both gays and women in the Muslim world as:
Christianity proselytizing to the heathens in order to save them, and if failing that, perhaps at least being able to save the women and the homosexuals, the save and rescue missionary campaigns.
He bemoaned “the human rights activism that goes on at the UN and the NGOs” because it “seems to target religion itself and theology; that somehow the problem is lodged in Islam, something called the culture of Islam.” Massad’s concerns lay not with human rights, but with the alleged creation of “the Other,” which was in turn a “form of pathology” requiring psychoanalysis.
Massad concluded by discussing Sigmund Freud’s contentious book, Moses and Monotheism, but instead of emphasizing psychoanalysis, he stressed Freud’s opposition to political Zionism. Paraphrasing his mentor, the late Columbia University professor Edward Said, he praised Freud for his “subversive move . . . against Zionism and Jewish nationalism.”
Indeed, Massad’s overall stress on psychoanalysis was merely a pretext for sophistry. Noting that “psychoanalysis is precisely against the notion of a free subject . . . we do not choose; every action is governed by a complex of processes,” Massad concluded that “freedom to choose is meaningless; a laughable notion” that “undermines the entire rubric of liberal freedom.” In other words, universal standards of freedom do not exist. It’s all in your head.
Afterwards, an attendee praised the “high intellectual level” of the lecture, while a graduate student expressed her desire for a position similar to Massad’s at Columbia University. If hare-brained, politicized, jargon-spouting, morally vacuous talks such as the one Massad delivered at Stanford are the goal, she may find herself with a job. However, she might also require psychoanalysis.
Berkeley resident Rima Greene co-wrote this article with Cinnamon Stillwell, the West Coast Representative for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum. Stillwell can be reached at [email protected].
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