Ideas & Philosophy — 13 July 2011
“Islam” as the West’s Symptom

“Amina Arraf” was a fictitious character, the online equivalent to a cross-dresser, she was a forty year old white American male’s elaborate hoax. Amina was Tom MacMaster’s exotic lesbian alias, in his imaginative reflections on life in Syria’s repressive Arab patriarchy. MacMaster’s voice on a blog subtitled a “gay girl’s view on the world”.

MacMaster stays true to French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s estimate, that within the male psyche, women do not exist. Men are the actors, and noble subjects. Women are passive, ignoble objects. Women only enter a man’s psych as his fantasy. It is men who speak, woman are spoken for. Lacan concluding, woman is a symptom of man.

When caught, MacMaster’s explained in his apology that he heard Amina’s “voice” speak to him. She was “funny and smart and equal parts infuriating and flirtatious”. She “struggled with her religious beliefs and sexuality”, and MacMaster felt compelled to make her “come alive”, and wanted his readers to listen to her voice, her strife, her struggle, without paying attention to “the man behind the curtain”.

On June 6, Amina’s cousin, an additional MacMaster character, posted that armed men had kidnapped Amina. The news spread quickly, instigating a worldwide response. Activists launched online campaigns demanding Amina’s release. Tens of thousands of supporters “liked” the “free Amina” page on Facebook.

MacMaster’s blogs had the twists and turns of a cheap novel, however, the fantasy’s main character remained consistent: the corrupt Arab regime. Here, MacMaster confessed he “only tried to illuminate” the Arab revolutions shaped by its people, for “a western audience”. In effect, he added the humanist touch to dissipate the general Western distaste for the Arab crowd. They too are people! Amina is proof.

Worse, MacMaster as a Western educated man truly believed he could “easily write” as an Arab woman, because he “knows her”, and thousands reading also believed they too knew her.

MacMaster’s lie of kidnapping was thus perfect. Within the tapestry of his myth making, there was the strong thread of age old orientalist “truths”. One such myth taken to be truth is that the undemocratic only knows violence. The reader did not need facts. It sounded real.  It sounded Syrian.  It sounded Arab. It sounded Muslim. Here, we might tamper with Lacan’s formula slightly and include an additional observation. The Arab is the West’s symptom. It is spoken for.



MacMaster took the tacit, if not sometimes explicit, West’s liberal assumption to a logical conclusion. He articulated the standard mythical humanist belief that beneath the skin of every Arab woman is a human struggling to escape her culture’s skin.

MacMaster is not the liar, then. He is the untampered fantasy; let us recall the Burqa issue, here, it is the Arab woman who is the liar. Even when she tells the truth she does not tell the truth. When she explains “I choose to wear the veil”, she does not honestly desire to wear the veil. She only wants to impress her male companion who monitors her answers.

Is not then MacMaster’s Amina liberalism’s ultimate logic working at its purest? Was MacMaster not simply ripping off the dreaded burqa, the principal symbol of Islamic oppression, and liberating what he and others assume beneath the burqa, is a suffocating woman who is keen to explore her political and sexual freedoms?

What MacMaster did was not different from many self congratulatory part time humanists, who recast third world struggles and stick liberal voices, and solutions, into suffering brown mouths. They want the moral indignation of being just, without doing the work of the just. Indeed, there are many an Amina in countless blogs, and political ramblings, or within high pitched moral lectures about the need to liberate people from their own vile culture.

Such imaginations are not immune from State interventions. Recently, the US Embassy in Islamabad supported the own version of cross-dressing, and much like MacMaster recently sponsored the Muslim country’s first ever gay pride celebration. The Deputy Chief Ambassador Richard Hoagland reasserted US commitment to Obama’s declaration that the US pursues “equal rights for all”.  The irony is lost, as are the facts. The US has done more to repress “equal rights for all” in Pakistan, and elsewhere. Democracy is sold as a semblance, it is becoming only about expressing “progressive values” like equality, irrespective of while expressing them you also support the political conditions that repress equality. What’s the point of promoting great ideas that float in one’s minds, especially when one’s stomach and behind continually benefit from their absence.

Was this not Zizek’s point? Today’s capitalist consumer society deprives us of reality while promoting the very ideal of reality, much like US foreign policy and “equality” in Pakistan.

Zizek points out when we watch reality TV, or amateur pornography or snuff movies, we have come experience reality through its virtual representations. For example, when watching an episode of Law and Order it follows the disclaimer: any resemblance to real-life characters is purely accidental. Today, thus, the Real is the ultimate “special effect” in our fantasies. (1)

Indeed, certain Muslim media representations in Australia are its “special effect” in the fantasy of multiculturalism. Many “Professional Muslims”, who make careers in media for no other reason than looking Muslim, always underplay their western middle class thinking while overplaying their symbolic relationship to the Muslim world. They apologise before their audiences about the Muslim world’s un-Islamic conduct, and snub their nose at the barbarity of less educated Muslims’ malpractices and general misunderstanding of Islam’s “spirit”; they are always distancing themselves from the third world while paradoxically representing the voice of that third world. They too should come with the disclaimer: any resemblance to real-life Muslim struggles is purely accidental.

We have many an Amina between the apologetic modernist Muslim and the rigid defensiveness of the fundamentalists. They are both additions to the Western “War on Terror”. There are few genuine expressions of Islam in Western media today, and plenty of symptoms. Indeed, the term “genuine Islam” is now problematic, in a world with a postmodern fetish, Islam’s centre is lost amongst it sea of semblances,  lost in its periphery. We express this best in parroting the cliché there are “many Islams”, now,  Islam is best represented by the idea that it is  misrepresented.

MacMaster did what many are doing, in this now billion dollar business that is Islam, including ex US president, George W. Bush. He too listened to the “voice within” and believed his fantasies about the Arab world were real. But, then again who knows what Bush was thinking, … or saying.

One thing remains constant: beneath the common fantasy, where the Muslim is an ignoble passive subject, a symptom of a fantasying West, there exists the real Western geopolitical interest.

The Muslim world rarely speaks, it is spoken for, and when it does speak it is not really telling the truth. Look only at the many drooling fanatic supporters of “freedom”, congregating before the media to sooth concerns and prove the Arab Spring was not the result of Muslim’s uprising in the name of God, but instead was the result of a conquering democratic spirit that thankfully cured the barbaric Arab’s appetite for despotism. The Arab Real is the only a “special effect” in liberalism’s ideological persistence that the only solution to brown ills is white cures. MacMaster is everywhere.

(1) Slavoj Žižek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real (London: Verso, 2002) p.7


Yassir Morsi is a Phd candidate and lecturer in Political science and Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect New Civilisation’s editorial policy.


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