If there’s one thing that leftists of all stripes like, it’s “solidarity”. This is when people from different communities come together for the purpose of defeating a common oppressor, whether it’s the bourgeoisie, U.S. imperialism, or fascism. Conversely, division is both dangerous and a contradiction in the natural order of things that requires resolution. Any conflict between gay people and Islamists, according to some who view both groups as “oppressed”, reflects not an organic divergence of interests but the black hand of some oppressive conspirator.
At first glance, Jasbir K. Puar’s Terrorist Assemblages would seem to implicate the classic enemy of the left: the United States military. The book self-consciously sets out to expose “the most egregious examples of the collusions between homosexuality and U.S. nationalism – [from] gay conservatives such as Andrew Sullivan… [to] progressive and liberal discourses of LGBTIQ identity and how they might unwittingly use, rely upon, or reinscribe U.S. nationalisms”. It is even a little nostalgic how Puar entertains discredited Soviet propaganda about the U.S. creating AIDS as part of a biological weapons program.
But something more insidious than casual anti-Americanism unfolds as the book progresses. As the mission statement suggests, this is not primarily a book about homophobia within Islam, or a book equally about the homophobia in Islam and the Islamophobia within the gay movement. Instead, it is a sweeping polemic about the racist, traitorous, and collaborationalist nature of the “homonationalists”, or the gay and lesbian citizens of the U.S., the U.K., and the Netherlands who refuse to align themselves with terrorists.
For Puar, Islamic terrorists are principled dissenters and humanity’s bulwark against “western neo-imperialist economic domination or U.S. foreign policy or Christian and Jewish fundamentalisms and hegemonies”. The mainstream gay and lesbian movement, on the other hand, peddles a “sold-out politics” of “civil legitimation”, market capitalism, and the “simulat[ion of] heteronormative paternity” and patriarchy. These opinions of Puar’s are not shocking for their disregard for human rights, but for how accurately they reflect current trends in radical thought.
Although an original work in scope and focus, Terrorist Assemblages primarily serves as a repository of the thinking of “anti-racist feminist” professors and queer theorists on “post-9/11” cultural criticism. A representative passage in a chapter named “The Sexuality of Terrorism” reads: “Zillah Eisenstein reminds us that while narratives of the Taliban’s problematic womenless world abounded, no such failure was ascribed to the ‘very manly moment’ of the post-9/11 white world of rugged firefighters, policemen, ground zero workers, and corporate suits. The point is well taken”.
It is through these incredulous barbs—like that one which actually just compared the American treatment of women to the Taliban’s—that Puar delivers a special vitriol on the subject of the American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States, she charges with special indignation, “regards itself as the arbiter of feminist civilizational standards”, despite problems and critiques raised by feminist scholars like herself. To hold our imperfect civilization up as a beacon, she seems to say, is to demonize, dehumanize, and push the “Others” down, be they Arabs, Muslims, or other victims of colonialism. Why can’t those impudent American homos just reserve judgment on foreign cultures?
Puar’s bird’s-eye view of the situation (and how could it not be so, when dealing with such big issues of war and peace?) is still firmly seated within the “Clash of Civilizations” tradition, which posits cultures as static, outwardly oppositional and internally consolidated. In reality, the acceptance of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people into the American mainstream is an incomplete process. The idea of a progressive sexual politics as part of an “American” or a “British” nationalism is quite novel and controversial, having many detractors in the conservative camp and needing no more from self-proclaimed feminists.
It might be unfortunate for the Taliban that the “Taliban” brand has become synonymous with brutishness, thuggery, and misogyny. They are indeed victims of war propaganda, and perhaps they have some thoughtful critiques of U.S. imperialism that are not being heard. But this zeitgeist is an unalloyed good for LGBT people in friendly-to-ambivalent countries, where they can exploit the semiotics of empire to attack, for example, the “Christian Taliban”, when a closer church engages in multi-million dollar campaigns against the civil rights of sexual minorities.
On the other hand, it makes no sense for a LGBT person who is not already predisposed to radical politics to align himself with Islamists. Racial groups, sure: the Japanese American Citizens League, lest we forget, was the first American non-gay organization to endorse marriage equality, in 1994. But a queer-Muslim nexus makes about as much sense as an alliance between the National Rifle Association and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. While gay-rights groups make up for small numbers by conscripting generalized social justice advocates, Islamic organizations can afford the luxury of parochialism.
Thus, when such connections are attempted, the result is an unrequited love of the Islamic. Despite being fantastic apologia for Islamic terrorism, for all its frank talk about sexual politics, Terrorist Assemblages will mostly end up dusting the shelves of feminist bookstores.
James Carroll (Staff Writer, Rutgers University) James Carroll is a Rutgers student studying for his B.A. in political science. He regularly geeks out over the histories of China’s borderlands, but loves nothing more than to expose the ironies and hypocrisies of “dissident” and anti-authoritarian movements. As a connoisseur of all things queer, sarcastic, and sublime, James is always ready to have his worldview challenged by his adversaries, and expects the same respect from all of his readers.