Sicht vom Hochblauen

Evelyn Hecht-Galinski

Islam in Liberalism


Joseph Massad (JM): I had been thinking for a while about a different book, namely one that traces genealogically the transformation in the semantic uses of the term “Islam” since the eighteenth century in Europe and among Muslims and Arabs in Asia and Africa. The project is an intellectual and semantic history of a term and the peregrinations it has made and undergone since its insertion in a modern “European” lexicon that depicted it as the opposite of an emergent “Europe” and an emergent “liberalism,” let alone the historic enemy of Christianity—indeed, how Islam became not only un-Europe and non-Europe but specifically anti-Europe, not to say only anti-, but also and interestingly, ante-Christian.

Before I undertook this history, I thought it important to write an introduction as to how “Islam”—regardless of what it was, is, becomes, or what it constitutes and constituted—operates within western liberalism, and how liberalism is related to Protestantism, the latter seen as a precursor of current understandings and practices of liberalism in an interesting relationship that was being conceived between what came to be constituted as “religion” and the modern state. It was important that I explained to myself and to my readers how liberalism functions internally in relation to the antonymical objects it created and creates, especially Islam on one side and Europe and Protestant Christianity on the other, but also derivatives therein, including Western democracy and Oriental despotism; European and Christian women’s freedom versus Muslim women’s slavery; European and Euro-American sexual freedom versus “Islamic” repressiveness and oppressiveness of sexual desires and practices; the tolerance of modern Europe versus the intolerance of Islam and Muslims; indeed the sanity of Europe versus the neurosis, even the psychosis, of Islam. It was then that I realized that my introduction to the book had become a book unto itself, which I decided to go ahead and write before I proceeded to write my original project on the many genealogies of “Islam.”

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

JM: The book tackles such a wide-ranging and varied body of literature that each chapter could also have become a book unto itself. The first chapter discusses the emergence of the European liberal discourse on democracy, citizenship, and political freedom and how Islam was integral to these categories from their inception, so much so that one could argue that these categories themselves are Orientalist categories which oppose themselves to the Orientalist categories of Oriental despotism, subjection, and political repression. The chapter addresses both liberalism as ideology and as a ruling political regime(s) in Europe/the US and how both aspects of liberalism invented themselves in relation to something they christened (and I use the term deliberately) “Islam.” The literature varies from Montesquieu and Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill to ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi and Samuel P. Huntington, and from British government reports and late-nineteenth-century special French journals that discussed the question of “Islam” to late-twentieth-century Rand Foundation reports on how to use Muslims to overthrow the Soviet regime. In terms of diplomatic history, it emphasizes the Russian-Ottoman wars of the 1770s to the 1870s and addresses the fear of colonial officials in Algeria, India, and Indonesia of what European colonialism would christen “pan-Islamism,” to World War I, World War II, and post-War American deployment of Islam as central to its anti-Soviet Crusade. Protestant Christianity as a category has an important role to play in these debates, and I bring it in in various parts of the chapter. The chapter also analyzes how the deployment of Islam served and continues to serve western liberal subjugation of Muslims, and it relates the Islam claimed by ruling regimes in Muslim-majority countries to the Islam fostered by liberal Western regimes.

The second chapter discusses the literature on white Christian women’s feminism from Mary Wollstonecraft to American and British Protestant missionary white women seeking to save Muslim women, continuing historically to the emergence of the discourse on women’s rights, and later the question of violence against women and how much of the latter becomes possible within a liberal discourse on human rights and the Cold War. I discuss Soviet policies on Muslim and Third World women from the 1920s on and contextualize much of what happened to the liberal discourse on women since the mid-1980s in view of the fall of the Soviet Union. The chapter is most interested in critiquing the debates on Sharia and Islam as religion, culture, set of principles, etc., especially as I dedicate the last part of the chapter to showing the intensification of liberal (that is, anti-Islam) views in documents such as the Arab Human Development Report on Arab women and the insistence of most of its authors on normalizing “Islam” as a religion that Protestant Christianity and Western liberalism could tolerate.

The third chapter discusses the massive recent academic literature on sexuality in the Arab and Muslim worlds, which my 2002 Public Culture article generated. I address the theoretical illiteracy of many of the authors who have launched a “save and rescue” mission of Arab and Muslim “gays,” and who seek to bring about what they call a “queering” of Middle East studies. Their theoretical illiteracy is compounded by an ignorance of the important critical anthropological literature published in the last two decades in the US academy. This illiteracy and ignorance, however, are symptomatic not just of the mediocrity of this nascent “field” (and I use the term loosely here), but rather of a facile liberalism that is lodged interstitially throughout its “research” projects. The poverty of much of this literature is such that an intellectual engagement with it would not have been necessary if it did not reflect and partake of widely-believed dominant liberal and Protestant mantras about sex, sexuality, sexual liberation, and the like that have gained much strength outside the academy, in state policy and civil society discourse, media representations, and activism. I also take the opportunity to respond (in the footnotes mostly) to some of the wayward critics of Desiring Arabs.

The fourth chapter focuses on the psychoanalytic literature that engages “Islam” and analyzes its ironically unpsychoanalytic approach and its reliance often on liberal arguments that psychoanalysis rejects as a method of analysis. I discuss the ambivalent historical relationship of psychoanalysis to liberalism and the racism that pervades much of this more recent literature, the majority of which is written in French by Arab male psychoanalysts.

The last chapter deals with the question of ecumenicalism and religion, and how the notion of the “Abrahamic” which Jacques Derrida deployed to equate the three monotheistic religions goes against their hierarchy in relation to Semitism and Aryanism and Orientalism. The chapter provides a conceptual history of Semitism (and anti-Semitism) and how the Abrahamic, which I show to be of Orientalist provenance, attempts to erase the question of power in a liberal move of equating that which is unequal. Edward Said’s understanding of Semitism is discussed here as a riposte to the liberal Derridean Abrahamic, especially in relation to Palestinians and Jews in connection with the Zionist colonial settler project. The important contributions of Ernest Renan, Sigmund Freud, Hannah Arendt, and others are also included in the discussion.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous research?

JM: I think it continues my interest in the formation of identities—national, racial, gender, sexual, cultural, and now religious. It also continues my examination of how European colonialism and capitalism have been central to all of this and continue to define not only the parameters of such identities, but the very question of what should and should not be identified, what can/should and cannot/should not be subjectified, or more strictly and philosophically, what can/should and cannot/should not be ontologized. The question of ontology, which you find in all of my work, is also the central question of Islam in Liberalism. I think my aversion and resistance to the colonial European and Euro-American power of ontologization is a connecting thread of all my work. Much of what has been published in the last decades on the ontological question of Islam has focused much more on what is called “liberalism in Islam” or “Islamic liberalism” rather than on Islam in liberalism, on how Islam is a central anchor for liberalism itself without which it would lose its supremacist notion of what it is. My book aims to turn the tables and look at the ontology of western liberalism, how it becomes what it thinks it is.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

JM: The book is written mostly in a language that should appeal to the general public and to academics. It lays down the ideological, political, and military stakes in how “Islam” came to constitute Western liberalism as it constituted this “Islam” as its opposite, its antonym.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

JM: I am reading a great amount in preparation for the next book, which is tentatively titled Genealogies of Islam.

J: How do you see this book as potentially affecting current discourses and debates about both Islam and liberalism?

JM: My hope is that readers will begin to appreciate that the history and current use of these terms that are presented as immediately intelligible is in fact far from being so, and that understanding how these terms and policies came to be in the recent past and in the present can and should overturn their current intelligibility, so that a more effective resistance can be articulated and mounted (theoretically and practically) against their (the terms and the policies) deployment

J: How does your book help better inform people about the ongoing discourse regarding “Islam” as despotism and violence and Europe as liberal democracy and peace in relation to the ongoing violence in Iraq, Palestine, Syria, Libya, and Yemen, which have been targets of Western (and specifically US) interventions in recent years?

JM: It does so directly by providing a history of how Britain and France initiated a project that they would later call “pan-Islamism” in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and how the US would continue a German Nazi policy of using religious arguments and propaganda to mobilize Muslims against Soviet communism. The Nazis undertook to do so back in the 1930s, and the US picked up some of the German personnel and continued these policies since the early 1950s by dispatching its own Muslim agents to the annual pilgrimage to agitate among Soviet pilgrims against the Soviet government; the US later funded extreme rightwing Islamists in Indonesia who were fighting the anti-colonial national regime of Sukarno and finally helped bring it down in 1965 at the cost of one million Indonesian lives, dubbed “communists”—thus rendering them ungrievable by the US press, who welcomed the slaughter at the time.

My book shows how the US and Western European countries have fostered and put to work different kinds of “Islams” during the last two hundred years—pan-Islamism, jihadist forms of Islam, and liberal forms of Islam, depending on the period and the tactical and strategic goals they sought; sometimes they foster these different varieties at the same time to serve different agendas. The question of the Caliphate, which became a major concern for European colonial powers, would not subside until the eve of World War II. The book goes into details about Western designs about who the Caliph should be, what authority he should have, and what ethnic background he must have.

We see, for example, how at present the US and Western European countries are fostering two kinds of “Islam” simultaneously, a jihadist form that targets those who resist the US order and its Israeli and Saudi proxies—beginning in Afghanistan, but also in Arab countries with regimes that resisted US diktat (though recently jihadists like ISIS, who were made possible by the support of the US and its allies, have partly gone off script in their Iraqi and Libyan incarnations and have themselves made use of the Caliphate, at least at the titular if not the institutional level)—and a liberal form of Islam that the US could tolerate, which Arab and Muslim governments and an army of Arab and Muslim intellectuals and journalists and a political and economic class espouse and push for in the name of modernization, human rights, and a new/neo liberal order. The latter form of liberal Islam was also supported by the British in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; hence British celebrations then and ongoing American celebrations today of thinkers like Qasim Amin, Muhammad ‘Abduh, the already-mentioned al-Kawakibi, ‘Ali Abd al-Raziq, and scores of others.

Excerpts from Islam in Liberalism

From “Introduction: The Choice of Liberalism”

Islam is at the heart of liberalism, at the heart of Europe; it was there at the moment of the birth of liberalism and the birth of Europe. Islam is indeed one of the conditions of their emergence as the identities they claim to be. Islam, as I will show, resides inside liberalism, defining its identity and its very claims of difference. It is an internal constituent of liberalism, not merely an external other, though liberalism often projects it as the latter. The establishment of differing forms of liberalism as the reigning political, social, and/or economic system in parts of Western Europe and the United States since the late eighteenth century and its main deployment thenceforward as the ideological weapon of choice against the “internal” and “external” others of Europe, is what marks its current legitimation as a global ideological system.

Europe’s external others have historically been defined as Orientals and the Orient, Muslims and Islam, Africans and Africa, Native Americans and Aboriginal Australians and New Zealanders, Oriental despotisms of various kinds extending from East to West Asia, and everything in between. Europe’s internal others, in contrast, have been identified as Orthodox and Catholic Christians (and Mormons in the case of Protestant Anglo-Americans) and their forms of Christianity, Jews and Judaism, socialism, fascism, anarchism, and communism. Like Europe, liberalism’s external others turn out to be internal to it, though the ruse of externalizing them as outsiders intends to hide the operation of projecting them as an outside so that liberalism’s inside can be defined as their opposite, as their superior. Edward Said understood this well. “The Orient,” he declared, “is an integral part of European material civilization and culture.”[1]

The situation following the collapse of the Soviet Union as the last state-sponsored threat to liberalism within Europe is astutely described by Toula Nicolacopoulos in these terms: “Today Anglophone political philosophy is generally conducted in the light of the perceived triumph of liberalism. That is, it typically proceeds on the assumption that it is unreasonable, if not irrational or pathological, to resist liberalism, whether as a mode of thought or as a social order.”[2] This is hardly a condition confined to Anglophone political philosophy but encompasses the dominant political discourse across Western and Northern Europe and beyond. The hegemony of liberalism is such that “to resist” it “would be unreasonably to deny the moral and/or political superiority of (the values governing) liberal societies as compared with their historical and contemporary social alternatives.”[3]

Alasdair MacIntyre, writes Gerald Gauss, poses the question: “‘Nietzsche or Aristotle?’ If I am right, the question is ‘Nietzsche or Liberalism?’; and, unless one is a psychopath…the answer must be the latter.”[4] In its constitution of an “Islam” that it names and wants to oppose, contemporary Western liberalism offers the more detrimental “choice”: Islam or liberalism, or variations therein, totalitarian Islamism or liberalism, Islamofascism or liberalism, Islamic despotism or liberalism, etc. The correlate to Gauss’s reply here would be that unless one is a barbarian, a despot, an irrational psychopath, a neurotic, a totalitarian, an intolerant brute, a misogynist, a homophobe, in short, a Muslim, the answer must be the latter.

In this vein, Paul Kahn paraphrases Americans’ view of themselves and the world at large as follows:

our contemporary missionaries preach democracy, free markets, and the rule of law—all institutions founded on our belief in the equality and liberty of every person. This dogged commitment to a universal community is a product of both our Christian and Enlightenment traditions. We experience this commitment simultaneously as a kind of open-ended love and as a faith in the capacity of each individual to enter a rational debate that will result in mutual agreement. No one, we believe, is beyond conversion to our values. When we dream of a global order, we project our own values onto it. We do not imagine that the global community of the future will be led by an Islamic cleric.[5]

We will see, throughout this book, how American and European missionaries of liberalism, that is, those who imagine that the global community of the future will be led by a secular cleric, will seek to proselytize their value system and model of social and political order to all Muslims whom they seek to save and rescue from their despotic system of rule, failing which, the missionaries would at least want to rescue Muslim women and increasingly male (and female, though less attention is paid to the latter) Muslim “homosexuals” from Islam’s misogyny, homophobia, and intolerance. This act of proselytization aims to convert Muslims and Islam to Western liberalism and its value system as the only just and sane system to which the entire planet must be converted. As Talal Asad put it, the liberal mission is to have the Islamic tradition “remade in the image of liberal Protestant Christianity.”[6] Muslim resistance to this benevolent mission is represented as a rejection of modernity and the liberal values of freedom, liberty, equality, the right-bearing individual, democratic citizenship, women’s rights, sexual rights, freedom of belief, secularism, rationality, etc., in short as a pathology and a form of neurosis that must not only be vanquished, but also, and as we will see, psychoanalyzed. Thus if Muslims refuse to convert willingly to liberalism or at least to forms of Islam that liberalism finds tolerable, then they must be forced to convert using military power, as their resistance threatens a core value of liberalism, namely its universality and the necessity of its universalization as globalization. Talal Asad understands this project thus: if the European Enlightenment’s “secular redemptive politics” condemns religious forms of violence, pain, and suffering as non-emancipatory of sinners, “there is a readiness [on its part] to cause pain to those who are to be saved by being humanized.”[7]

Naming Islam

The more robust recent campaign to identify Islam as the last holdout resisting Western liberalism is significant on a number of fronts, not least of which is the deployment of the referent “Islam.” The very naming of that which resists liberalism’s universalization as “Islam” has been fraught with political and definitional problems that are not easily surmountable. One of the difficulties in analyzing what Islam has come to mean and to refer to since the nineteenth century is the absence of agreement on what Islam actually is. Does Islam name a religion, a geographical site, a communal identity; is it a concept, a technical term, a sign, or taxonomy? The lack of clarity on whether it could be all these things at the same time is compounded by the fact that Islam has acquired referents and significations it did not formerly possess. European Orientalists and Muslim and Arab thinkers have begun to use “Islam” in numerous ways while seemingly convinced that it possesses an immediate intelligibility that requires no specification or definition. “Islam,” for these thinkers, is not only the name the Qurʾan attributes to the din—often (mis)translated as “religion,” though there is some disagreement about this—that entails a faith (iman) in God disseminated by the Prophet Muhammad, but can also refer to the history of Muslim states and empires, the different bodies of philosophical, theological, jurisprudential, medical, literary, and scientific works, as well as to culinary, sexual, social, economic, religious, ritualistic, scholarly, agricultural, and urban practices engaged in by Muslims from the seventh to the nineteenth century and beyond, as well as much, much more.

Some of the new meanings and referents of Islam had a significant impact on political and social thought as well as on national and international politics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and may have even more of an impact in the twenty-first. The implication of these meanings for politics and society results from their transformation of “Islam” into a “culture” and a “civilization” or a “cultural tradition”[8], a “system”[9], a “manhaj” (way of life, method)[10], a “programme”[11], an ethics, a code of public conduct, a gendered sartorial code, a set of banking principles, a type of governance. Moreover, “Islam” has also come to be deployed as a metonym: fiqh (problematically rendered “jurisprudence”) and kalam (“theology,” again, problematically)—which were traditionally sciences established by Muslim thinkers—or Shariʿa (“sacred law,” also problematically)—a term loaded with different connotations and trajectories, often referring to a body of opinions and interpretations—come to be conceived as constituent parts of “Islam,” for which it can metonymically substitute.[12]

While the easiest transformation to identify is the one that makes Islam over into a “culture” and a “civilization,” given the centrality of this meaning among Orientalist thinkers and their Muslim and Arab counterparts since the nineteenth century, the production of Islam’s many other new meanings and referents may not be as clear. Yet a history of the multiplication of the meanings of Islam is necessary for understanding what Islam has become in today’s world, both in those parts of the world where peoples as well as political and social forces claim to uphold one kind of Islam or another, and in those parts of the world where peoples as well as political and social forces see “Islam” as “other,” whether or not they “oppose” it. Indeed, the current ongoing war among the many forces that claim to speak in the name of Islam and in the name of anti-Islam is itself not only part of the productive process of endowing Islam with new meanings and referents, but also part of the related process of controlling the slippage of the term toward specific and particular meanings and referents and away from others. In this way, “Islam” is being opposed to certain antonyms (“Christianity,” “the West,” “liberalism,” “individualism,” “democracy,” “freedom,” “citizenship,” “secularism,” “rationality,” “tolerance,” “human rights,” “women’s rights,” “sexual rights”) and decidedly not to others with which it is often identified (“oppression,” “repression,” “despotism,” “totalitarianism,” “subjection,” “injustice,” “intolerance,” “irrationalism,” “cruelty,” “misogyny,” or “homophobia”).

Two central religious and intellectual strands emerged in the nineteenth century among Arab, Muslim, and European Orientalist thinkers who argued for the compatibility or incompatibility of “Islam” with Western modernity and progress. The word—or, more precisely, the name—“Islam” itself began to conjure up immediate comprehension and significance in ways assumed to have always been the case. This project of thinking (about) “Islam” in new ways, while often passing itself off as a return to old or original ways of thinking, was situated in the political context of the rise of European imperial thought and territorial expansion as well as in the corresponding decline of Ottoman political and imperial power. Yet the “Islam” to which these European and non-European thinkers referred was a more expansive concept, encompassing phenomena that had hitherto been seen as extraneous to it. Indeed, “Islam” had never been the catchall term the eighteenth and especially the nineteenth century would make of it, but was, rather, something more specific, more particular.

Additionally, one of the more interesting aspects of post-nineteenth century uses of the term “Islam” is not just its accretion of referents, nor that the accreted meanings were deployed by different thinkers or different intellectual or political trends, but that they were employed differently by each thinker and each trend. European Orientalists, Arab secularists (Muslim and Christian), pious (and later Islamist) thinkers, postcolonial states defining themselves as “Muslim” or “Islamic,” and their “Western” and “secular” opponents—all seem to use the term “Islam” in a variety of ways to refer to a whole range of things. The productive multiplication of referents that Islam would begin to acquire would ultimately destabilize whatever meaning it had had before or even after this transformation, in that in modern writing about Islam it is not always clear which referent it has in a given text. Rather, it often seems that all of them are in play interchangeably in the same text, as well as across texts, thus rendering “Islam” a catachresis that always stands in for the wrong referent. In my next book, tentatively titled Genealogies of Islam, for which Islam in Liberalism is intended to serve as a prolegomenon, I will study the intellectual and semantic history of the multiplication of the meanings of Islam since the eighteenth century. In this book, I will investigate the role of Western liberalism in producing these referents and meanings, as well as what Western liberalism produces as Islam’s synonyms and antonyms.


[1] Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), 2.

[2] Toula Nicolacopoulos, The Radical Critique of Liberalism: In Memory of a Vision (Melbourne:, 2008), 3.

[3] Ibid., 4.

[4] Gerald Gauss, Value and Justifications: The Foundations of Liberal Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 457n, cited in ibid., 3.

[5] Paul W. Kahn, Putting Liberalism in Its Place (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), 6–7.

[6] Talal Asad, “Europe against Islam: Islam in Europe,” Muslim World 87, no. 2 (April 1997): 189.

[7] Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), 61–62.

[8] See G. E. von Grunebaum, Islam: Essays in the Nature and Growth of a Cultural Tradition (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1955).

[9] D. S. Margoliouth referred to Islam as a “system,” in his Mohammedanism (London: Williams and Norgate, 1896), 42.

[10] Sayyid Qutb uses the term “manhaj” throughout his writings, especially in Al-Islam wa Mushkilat al-Hadarah (Islam and the Problems of Civilization) (Cairo: Dar al-Shuruq, 2005), as does Mahmud Muhammad Shakir in his Risalah fi al-Tariq ila Thaqafatina (A Message on the Path to Our Culture) (Cairo: Muʾassassat al-Risalah, 1992).

  1. On the use of “programme,” see Muhammad Asad, Islam at the Crossroads (Lahore: Arafat Publications, 1947), 5, 14, 152, inter alia. The book was first published in 1934.
  2. Dale F. Eickelman and James Piscatori have written perceptively about the “systematization” of Islam and its “objectification” and how the latter “reconfigures the symbolic production of Muslim politics.” For them, however, Islam denotes a “religion” and not multiple referents. See Dale F. Eickelman and James Piscatori, Muslim Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), 38.

[Excerpted from Islam in Liberalism, p. 1-6, by Joseph A. Massad, by permission of the author and The University of Chicago Press. © 2015 by The University of Chicago Press. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]

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