Is Islam inherently opposed to Western liberalism?
At the time of his death in 2004, the French Jewish philosopher Jacques Derrida had long occupied the pinnacle of academic superstardom. To the many students and scholars who eagerly snatched up every new book and article he authored and flocked to his lectures worldwide, Derrida was prophet, sage and arbiter.
Derrida fathered not only a profoundly influential philosophical and literary approach, popularly known as deconstruction, but also generations of intellectual children: graduate students who broke their teeth on “Writing and Difference” and “Of Grammatology,” and grew up to be happy deconstructionists applying Derrida to Gothic novels, architecture or South Asian history.
Joseph Massad, a professor of modern Arab politics at Columbia University, is one of those children. As a graduate student in the 1990s at Columbia, he could hardly have avoided being so. Derrida’s influence is tangible in Massad’s latest work “Islam in Liberalism” – in a certain linguistic playfulness; in the constellation of theorists quoted, including Derrida himself; and in a penchant for reading against the grain and searching out the marginal, dangling threads that cause a whole structure, in this case of Western liberalism, to unravel.
It is all the more surprising, then, that in the final chapter of his book Massad calls Jacques Derrida an anti-Semite. This moment is worth dwelling on because Massad’s act of patricide is key to understanding “Islam in Liberalism” – which aims to show how Western liberalism is inherently opposed to Islam – and its flaws.