- Re-Thinking how Liberalism Constitutes Islam—Three Theses:On Massad’s Islam in Liberalism
In some current strands of political theory and in public discourses across the globe, Islam is viewed through a lens that privileges liberalism. Since the mid-nineteenth century to recent coverage of ISIS, a recurrent question has been how to resolve the problem of Islam so that “it” (or whatever and whoever it stands for) becomes more hospitable to liberal principles and commitments. Some approach Islam and liberalism as overlapping but distinct spheres, with the aim of critiquing Islam and making it compatible with liberalism. Others seek to craft a specifically “Islamic liberalism,” or to give voice to liberal Muslims. Such frameworks for reconciling Islam with liberalism have featured two implicit suppositions. The first is that liberalism develops, both as a historical and discursive structure, independently of Islam, following the familiar Euro-American story about church and state, rights, saving the modern West from medieval religion, and gradual global expansion. The second is that liberalism offers a universally transferrable and non-theological view. So imagined, liberalism emerges as a stranger to Islam that might save Muslims from Islam. It is essential to these discourses that the autonomy of liberalism is left unexamined, while Islam is made into a lack and a problem, either because it cannot be liberal or because it is not yet liberal enough. The language of liberalism dominates such discussions, as is evident in the focus on procedure, the rights-bearing individual, and the reform of religion; in the absence of political questions about liberal imperialism and secularized theology; and also in appeals to humanitarianism, saving the oppressed, conflict resolution, free choice, and reform. Joseph A. Massad’s brilliant new book, Islam in Liberalism, approaches these features as projections and blindnesses that sustain inequalities in power.
Most basically, Massad turns the tables to ask what liberalism’s constructions of Islam have allowed it to do and to say about itself. He reorients his readers from thinking about Islam and liberalism to Islam in liberalism, that is, “how liberalism constitutes Islam in constituting itself” (12), or how liberalism functions in relation to Islam as an antonymical object it calls into being as illiberal, not yet liberal, or in need of (liberalism-friendly) reform. Massad provocatively argues that what Orientalism and liberalism call Islam has been fundamental to liberalism “as ideology and as identity” (4), and goes on to track “the intellectual and political histories within which Islam operated as a category of Western liberalism” (12). Other important voices have criticized attempts to make Islam liberal, drawn attention to the colonial genealogies of liberalism and its categories, or contextualized and troubled the status of Islam as an other to the West and to secular liberalism. Massad’s book bears a deep affinity and an intellectual debt to these important literatures and scholars (especially Edward Said, Talal Asad, Saba Mahmood, Anne Norton, Wael Hallaq, Tomoko Masuzawa, and Wendy Brown). Some of the chapters also build on his previous three books on colonial governance and national identity, sexuality, and Semitism.
If Massad’s previous three books focused on the formation of national, racial, and sexual identities, Islam in Liberalism extends these analyses while turning to religious and secular identities. It also provides a broader conceptual and historical groundwork for rethinking the making of such identities in the first place, namely liberalism as an ideology of empire. Those familiar with his previous work will note that the first chapter’s discussion of democracy and empire intersects with the discourses of colonial governance analyzed in his first book on Jordanian national identity; the third chapter on sexuality reorients his Desiring Arabs toward liberalism and contains responses to its critics; and the fifth chapter on the insistence of equivalence among religions through the category of the Abrahamic extends the discussion of (anti-)Semitism in his second book, The Persistence of the Palestinian Question.
Each of Islam in Liberalism’s five chapters focuses on a topic that figures prominently in contemporary discussions of Islam...