Regular readers know about Nadia Abu El Haj, an anthropologist at Barnard University who has made a name for herself “analyzing” the role of archaeological knowledge in Israeli political and national identity. Outside of her department and the larger Columbia community, the possibility of granting her tenure was contentious. Archaeologists argued her analysis rested on shaky evidence and historians were puzzled by her lack of foreign language fluency. How could an academic expert on Israel and Israeli archeology not know Hebrew? Setting aside these complaints, among her departmental colleagues she was, by all accounts, highly supported and granted tenure without much fuss.
This was not the case with Joseph Massad who was denied tenure in Columbia’s Department of Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures. Massad has openly supported terrorism against Israel and espoused anti-Semitic views for years but his recent comments about homosexuality provoked outrage in the ostensibly liberal academy. In his current book, Massad claims that the imperialistic Western powers “produce homosexuals, as well as gays and lesbians, where they do not exist” i.e. the Middle East. Armin Rosen writing in the Columbia Spectator notes:
If he weren’t a professor, his argument in Desiring Arabs that a cabal-like “Gay International” (in which agents of neo-imperialism like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are card-carrying members) is using an invented notion of “homosexuality” to demonize the Moslem world would be denounced as veiled homophobia—especially since reviewer Brian Whitaker writes that “Massad offers no evidence to substantiate his claim.” This is a demented argument, especially considering all the work that’s been done on the emergence of gay identity in the Middle East. But it’s incredible what you can get away with when you’ve got “Associate Professor of Arab intellectual history” attached to your name.
Solomonia reports that Columbia may have made the decision to grant tenure to Abu el Haj and deny tenure to Massad in advance. The former, while academically incompetent, is not a loudmouth who upsets the donors. She is controversial in her field but outside of that field, few have heard of her. Massad, by contrast, seems to almost go out of his way to make the most extreme and controversial statements possible. This brings unwanted attention to the institution. One of the comments at Solomonia expresses it this way:
You must understand that while Al Haj shocks scholars (real scholars, especially historians and archaeologists, not the postmodernists and postcolonialists in anthro) Massad shocks alumni and donors.