Why Liberalism Needs Islam

Islam in Liberalism by Joseph Massad

EVERY FOUR OR FIVE YEARS, Ayaan Hirsi Ali writes a book telling the world about the horrors of Islam. In her latest installment, Heretic, Hirsi Ali rightly feels the need to justify why another such book is in order. Apparently, she now has a bit more hope for the future of Islam. As she explains, “When I wrote my last book, Nomad, I believed that Islam was beyond reform, that perhaps the best thing for religious believers in Islam to do was to pick another god. Seven months after I published Nomad came the start of the Arab Spring […] I was wrong. Ordinary Muslims are ready for change.”

At the heart of Hirsi Ali’s Heretic is the belief that the Martin Luthers of Islam need to rise up and reform the theological doctrines that prevent Islam from being compatible with the liberal democratic West. In doing so, she establishes a direct connection between the Protestant Reformation and the origins of secular modernity, liberal democracy, and capitalism. Islam’s path to the West, Hirsi Ali now maintains, can be achieved through theological reform rather than through the abandonment of Islam, as she had previously suggested. Ultimately what Islam needs is to download Protestantism.

Yet where Hirsi Ali sees the path to hope is precisely where Joseph Massad’s latest book, Islam in Liberalism, diagnoses the origins of the problem. Her book proves Massad’s main claim that American and European missionaries of liberalism are trying to proselytize Muslims — and the entire world writ large — to the only sane system of values that exists on the planet: those of Western liberalism. And much like with the Crusades of old, the so-called despotic Muslims who refuse secular Protestantism or a liberalized version of Islam will be forced to convert by any means necessary. Said differently, liberalism's universalizing values insist upon producing an Islam in its own image.

Hence the pithy title of Massad’s book, Islam in Liberalism.  We err, says Massad, professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University, by accepting the terms in which Hirsi Ali raises the question: why is liberalism absent in Islam? Inquiries of this sort too hastily assume that there is a monolithic entity called “Islam” that exists apart from liberalism. He redefines the terms of the debate in asserting that Islam is at the very heart of liberalism and Europe. “It was there” he argues, “at the moment of the birth of liberalism and the birth of Europe.” Far from designating a clear-cut religious or cultural phenomenon, “Islam” is rather that which must be repressed in order for the West to present itself as liberal and progressive. Islam is thus constituted at the very moment when liberalism constitutes itself.

Thus, in Massad’s reading, which draws heavily upon the theoretical contributions of Edward Said, liberalism is entirely dependent upon this Western construction of Islam. He demonstrates “how the anxieties about what this Europe constituted and constitutes — despotism, intolerance, misogyny, homophobia — were projected onto Islam,” and affirms that “only through this projection could Europe emerge as democratic, tolerant, philogynist, and homophilic, in short Islam-free.” What we call “Islam” is the Other that liberalism defines itself against and through; thus, this “Islam” can only exist in liberalism.

As such, Islam in Liberalism is explicitly not concerned with the many diverse cultural and religious strands and influences of Islam as they are differently lived and experienced throughout the world, but rather with the instrumentalization of Islam in the West. And in particular, Massad demonstrates that Western liberal “democracy,” portrayed as foreign to “Islam,” is only promoted to the extent that it serves an imperial project. His aim is not merely to reveal the US government’s hypocrisy in the name of realpolitik, as when, for instance, it supported anti-democratic Islamic regimes during the Cold War, but is rather to foreground what the West must disavow as it constructs itself as embodying so-called secular liberalism that is in reality always already Christian.

Perhaps Massad’s argument about liberalism’s Protestant roots could be strengthened by being more historically grounded, since the specific critique of secularism as inherently Protestant is a longstanding Catholic trope with counter-Enlightenment origins. For instance, his rendering of how “Islam” is conceived of in the West has much in common with longstanding Protestant and secularist views of “Catholics”: both are stuck in the Dark Ages and must embrace the light of modernity. In this sense, Massad’s argument that liberalism is really secularized Protestantism overlaps with the scathing critiques of secularism recently penned by contemporary Catholic apologists such as the intellectual historian Brad Gregory or the Anglican theologian John Milbank. The similarity between their genealogies of Protestantism suggests that certain Catholic thinkers and scholars of Islam have found common cause against a common enemy: secularism. This might also explain why Talal Asad, who has influenced Massad and is often cited in his work, has recently been so fond of quoting the Catholic communitarian Alisdair MacIntyre. Of course, this is not to suggest that Massad’s argument is Catholic — which is clearly not the case — but rather implies an interesting elective affinity between it and a long tradition of Catholic scholarship critical of secularism. 

This particular genealogy of his critiques of secularism aside, Massad has no scarcity of examples that link 20th- and 21st-century discourses on democracy to Enlightenment characterizations of Oriental despotism — showing a continuity in how European and American representations of Islam as first despotic, and then antidemocratic, serve as displacements of the West’s own anxiety about its own despotism and democratic failures. He draws on a diverse array of historical examples to illustrate his point. Enlightenment figures such as Montesquieu developed the concept of democracy in opposition to “Oriental despotism,” and Europeans used this imagined natural state of governance among their colonial subjects to justify their own despotic rule. Mary Wollstonecraft and other early European feminists appealed to the image of “enslaved” Muslim women as a way of prodding the men of their country to differentiate themselves from Muslims by granting rights to white Western women, despite the fact that Muslim women were allowed to own property while European Christian women were not. The fact that these rights would only be extended to white women was of course never seen as despotic or barbaric.

Massad demonstrates how this continues in current US foreign relations. When Barack Obama, in 2009 in Cairo, lauded Indonesia as a Muslim country adopting Western religious pluralism, his representation of the US as a democracy depended upon forgetting the US sponsorship of Islamists killing Indonesian communists, “an intolerance the US had engineered, and which would expand later to Afghanistan and spill over to right-wing Muslim intolerance of Christians in places like Egypt […] to which Obama was now counseling tolerance.” American universalization of tolerance depends upon the disavowal of its own intolerance.

This incisive critique of current American foreign policy in the Middle East comes as no surprise; however, Massad’s evaluation of recent queer and feminist Middle East Studies scholarship may provoke more skepticism for some readers. Yet the originality of Massad’s argument lies precisely in his demonstration that scholars who are manifestly politically committed to anti-imperialism nevertheless remain epistemologically committed to imperialism.

In the third chapter, which in part responds to critiques of his previous book, Desiring Arabs, Massad also details how contemporary scholars applying queer theory to Middle East Studies’ claim to be against the Gay International, and yet continue to relentlessly universalize Western sexual epistemology. Though Jasbir Puar’s concept of US homonationalism reveals how certain sexual minority groups openly espouse the cause of American imperialism, she deploys this critique, according to Massad, “in defense of liberal forms of gay internationalist activism” and “remains committed to the universalization of the category of sexuality, which she never questions.” One cannot maintain an anti-imperialist position while upholding the universalization of the Western category of sexuality.

Focusing on the legacy and continuation of Western liberal feminism in the second chapter, Massad undertakes a similar critique of feminist scholars of Middle East Studies. These include Lila Abu-Lughod, who, like Puar, ultimately ends up distinguishing “good” radical international solidarity work from “bad” imperialist NGOs, without explaining how it is that the former functions economically or politically apart from imperial circuits of power. After extensively documenting and describing the missionary nature of liberal feminism, Abu-Lughod nevertheless suggests that Western women help their Muslim “sisters,” an argument that remains untenable in a neocolonial context in which, as Massad states, “questions of ‘well-meaning concerns’ and pleas for anti-culturalist vigilance turn out to be nothing short of misnomers at best and liberal imperialist dissimulations at worst.”

Thus, Massad does not merely denounce those who claim to be anti-imperialist as imperialist, but rather takes them seriously in their commitments. Scholars and activists who critique liberalism, only to then promote individual solidarity work within the structures of existing European- or American-funded NGOs, remain committed to a liberal notion that individual agency can operate outside of structural and institutional power. Massad states that, contrary to that approach, any resistance to the ever-expanding embrace of liberalism necessitates taking into account colonial and imperial history and the continuity of those power relations into the present. In suggesting that well-meaning individuals can pursue certain types of Western-funded NGO work while brushing aside this history, contemporary scholars and activists unfortunately end up prescribing precisely what they sought to critique in the first place.

As an antidote to this continuation of the narrative of white liberal feminism, Massad cites Inderpal Grewal’s analysis of how this feminist tradition produces knowledge, and affirms that colonial Christian feminism is “constitutive of the movement ontologically and epistemologically” in using a rights discourse based upon the universalized category of “woman.” Yet though Massad critiques the Western category of “gender” and the difficulty encountered in translating it, he does not specifically tackle the categories of “man” and “woman,” leaving the reader to wonder how precisely these categories might be thought in terms of imperial circuits of power as well. Given his extensive epistemological critique of sexual identity labels as well as of sexuality on the whole, it would strengthen his argument to expand upon his citation of Grewal and explicitly address how the categories of “man” and “woman” are influenced by Western epistemology as well.

Indeed, the reader is left wondering which precise role women and their desires play in these imperial debates. In chapter two, the very question of liberal feminists’ desire, and how it might be instrumentalized or represented, is never posed. In chapter three, he mentions that gay internationalist literature dedicates far less attention to women practicing same-sex desire than it does to men who do so, without explaining this absence. In this case, do white liberal feminism and the Gay International depend upon the unthinkability of Muslim women’s desire? Do Muslim women need to be deprived of all desire in order to be represented as passive victims? Is their heterosexualization (or homosexualization) used to justify Western interventions? How might Western feminists’ desires be motivating their missionary aims? Further exploration of these questions would further strengthen Massad’s arguments.

In addition to showing how Western feminism and liberalism go hand in hand, Massad details how liberal logic underlies the theoretical frameworks thought to pose the greatest threat to liberalism. Much queer theory, which is often presented as radical or antinormative, ultimately ends up reinscribing individualism in a highly normative fashion. In chapter four, he focuses on psychoanalysis, whose insistence upon the profound influence of desires beyond the individual’s will or control could provide a searing critique of liberal individualism and agency. Yet scholars of psychoanalysis such as Fethi Benslama often put it in the service of these very concepts, ultimately constructing a liberal Islam that should be tolerated and assimilated into the Western Self while reifying a jihadist Islam that cannot be tolerated because of its resistance to the Western political project. Psychoanalysis could be used to understand the constitution of the Western Self through its disavowals and projections; but Benslama, “caught between the Scylla of Orientalist hostility to all Islams and the Charybdis of his own hostility to the one (Islamist) Islam,” instead uses it to construct and promote European rationalism and secularism.

Considerable criticism of Massad’s Desiring Arabs, which will undoubtedly persist in regard to Islam in Liberalism, has been devoted to concerns about agency: Western scholars and activists, as well as some non-Western scholars and activists who work with Western-funded organizations, express frustration that Massad denies agency to anyone either working within these parameters or seeking to gain recognition through them. Yet rather than denying agency to these individuals, he is in fact revealing how this very notion of agency — regardless of individual intentions — remains complicit with Western epistemological particularism disguised as universalism. Only certain types of demands that are already recognizable according to Western standards can be met, at the expense of the possible agency of others whose non-adherence to Western epistemology leaves them unable or unfit to be recognized. Indeed, acknowledging that one’s recognition depends upon one’s ability to be translated into terms that can be recognized, Massad situates himself firmly on the side of those who do not necessarily make themselves intelligible according to Western categories and idioms. Furthermore, he resists further incitement to discourse surrounding these unintelligible others’ practices by refusing to provide the native informant account that so many of his critics so obviously desire.

Massad’s detractors, as well as some who are sympathetic to his project, have expressed concern surrounding his refusal to formulate a positive project. If even the most well-intentioned and careful scholars and activists remain seemingly trapped within a Western epistemology that remains (sometimes unwittingly) in the service of imperialism, then, well, what now? Massad does provide an answer to this question, though there is of course no simple one. He is not against any possibility of solidarity, but is rather against unidirectional activism that interpellates those it seeks to protect without their demand for it, deems them incapable of leading their own struggle, and insists upon teaching them rather than learning from them. Solidarity work must take place with a consciousness of colonial history and politics, and their continual influence on NGOs, international development organizations, academic research, and policy; it must not only non-performatively claim that it is anti-imperialist, but performatively work to counteract Western epistemological particularism projected as universal; lastly, it cannot take place in a unidirectional fashion that merely follows imperial circuits of knowledge, money, and power and continues to operate in opposition to something called “Islam.”

While Massad’s analysis of the monolithic referent of “Islam” is a welcome corrective to its use in the Western media and academy, his refusal to define “liberalism” may frustrate some readers. This is undoubtedly because his point is precisely to show that any number of despotic acts are regularly carried out in the name of liberalism. Does this mean that “liberalism” is used just as heuristically and polemically as the various usages of “Islam” that he rightly criticizes? This certainly seems to be the case.

Islam in Liberalism is required reading for anyone invested in Muslim Studies. This book reminds us that in order to move beyond scholarship revolving around a simplistic binarism between West and non-West, we must never forget how this opposition has shaped and continues to actively influence scholarship today. Furthermore, studying “Islam” requires unpacking this term, which has become a reified, catch-all signifier in much Western scholarship. More than that, though, it may suggest that some of what is called Muslim Studies is less about something called “Islam” than it is about liberalism. Thus, anyone who seeks to study Islam within a Western context must also undertake, as a necessary correlate to Muslim Studies, something that might be called Liberalism Studies.


Anna Provitola is a doctoral candidate in the French department at Columbia University.

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins is a doctoral student in the history department at Columbia University and currently a visiting researcher at L’École des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris, France.

LARB Contributors

Anna Provitola is a doctoral candidate in the French department at Columbia University. She earned a BA in Comparative Literature from Haverford College in 2011 and then took a year off to work at a bande dessinée publishing house in Paris before beginning graduate work. Anna is interested in 20th-century Francophone North African literature, feminist and queer theory, and questions of identity and community in literature.

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins is the managing editor of Modern Intellectual History and a postdoctoral researcher in the History Department at Dartmouth College. He is writing a book for Columbia University Press titled Raymond Aron and Cold War Liberalism.


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