Massad’s “Islam in Liberalism”: how do we use our words?

By Angelina Eimannsberger

I love academia, never a popular statement in the so-called real world, and often also smiled at by academics themselves. I love finding concepts and explanations that clarify, that sharpen my thinking. I indulge in the possibility to use effective terms and precise descriptions in conversation with others and in my writing to step up my analytical game and make as convincing a case as I possibly can. If I say “this feminist argument relies on women’s lived experience to fight the oppressive structures of imperialist cis-heteronormative white supremacist patriarchy”, I enjoy the clarity of perception and the neat set up for my argument this formulation holds for me. However, the use of these words is not the same to other people as it is to me. If my friend, who does not happen to have studied the same things as me, who might not even have had any academic training in the humanities, hears me say this, her response might be “come again?” even if she ends up agreeing with me.

INDULGENCE is reading Joseph Massad’s 2015 monograph Islam in Liberalism this month, and we are impressed with this erudite work. Islam argues that Western liberalism constitutes itself through always already creating Islam as its other, an inferior to its own culture and civilization. Massad argues his case with a wealth of  historical information and a flood of citation of other scholars. He covers the history of the West’s engagement with the parts of the world that are not Europe and the US, explains failures of previous scholarship in Orientalist and later Middle Eastern Studies departments, and highlights the fact that ‘Liberalism’ exists as the normative and better belief system in relation to an ‘Islam’ and an ‘Orient’ that liberalism and the West themselves have created as their very own other, in order to make up their own identity as normative and superior. All of this is very interesting, a useful current iteration of Edward Said’s famous 1978 monograph Orientalism.

Yet, while Massad’s work is very impressive, it also remains limited to explaining the flaws and mistakes of others. Therefore, we would like to introduce Professor Massad to queen of comedy Amy Poehler and her motto “it is not the talking about the thing is the thing, it is the doing the thing that is the thing.” Poehler elaborates what she means by this in her 2014 memoir Yes Please. Doing the thing, for Massad, means doing better scholarship on the Middle East, on liberalism, and on Islam. However, instead of doing just that, Massad is talking about the thing, meaning, explaining the mistakes in existing scholarship. This is frustrating given the immensity of the topic at hand–the world and the peaceful co-existence of its parts–but also instructive fro academic work. Possibly, scholars immersed in the field of Middle Eastern Studies might find this background information helpful in shaping their own work.

For myself, I learn from Massad to think about how I use certain key concepts. “Probably end up agreeing”, as suggested above, is not good enough. I have to hone my writing and talking skills for exchanges with others, and not flood them with ideas, arguments, and information. Massad’s exercise in clear thinking and precise articulation helps me understand how to improve my own style. Massad uses the very words that he writes to explain his problem: “civilization”, “culture”, and “Islam”, all contested, Western terms that might not have meaning if applied in other times and other places. I have to choose the good word–“culture” carries a complex genealogy of meaning, but if it describes best what I mean I need to employ it–and then trust the process. This means not flooding my reader or conversation partner in terms and information but rather offering them the information held in the term.

Thus, while Islam disappoints by only talking about the thing rather than doing the thing, it offers a reflection of what academic work can do that is fruitful by creating space for real conversation.

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