The abominable massacre in Orlando made absolutely clear that transphobia and homophobia remain major problems in Western society. The killer, Omar Mateen, was a Muslim, and so the atrocity is unsurprisingly being weaponized against Muslims, revealing how pervasive Islamophobia is in the United States as well.
Islamophobia takes multiple, overlapping forms. The conservative Islamophobia of Trump supporters and assorted other racist forces casts Muslims as threats to the nation. A recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal offered a more sophisticated version of this worldview: “Can we finally drop the illusion that the jihadist fires that burn in the Middle East don’t pose an urgent and deadly threat to the American homeland?”
Liberal Islamophobia, on the other hand, presents Muslims as threats to progressive values such as feminism or LGBT equality. The post-Orlando comments of Barney Frank, a former Democratic representative from Massachusetts, exemplify this strand:
There is an Islamic element here. Yes, the overwhelming majority of Muslims don’t do this, but there is clearly, sadly, an element in the interpretation of Islam that has some currency, some interpretation in the Middle East that encourages killing people — and LGBT people are on that list. And I think it is fair to ask leaders of the Islamic community, religious and otherwise, to spend some time combating this.
Nick Cohen falls into this camp as well when he points to the contemptible record of the governments of Muslim-majority states on LGBT issues. Cohen sees these states’ policies as evidence that “Western LGBT people have reason to be frightened that there will soon be police officers outside gay clubs,” as though Western queer and trans people haven’t already endured incalculable violence from domestic, non-Muslim sources (or that citizens ruled by authoritarian, US-backed governments are the authors of their countries’ policies).
In addition, since police in Western countries have often inflicted violence on LGBT people, many fear the presence of police at gay clubs for reasons other than what Cohen has in mind.
Islamophobes, whether liberal or conservative, abstract Muslims from Western civilization. Even though the Pulse massacre was perpetrated in America by an American citizen, the threat to America is foreign. America is LGBT-friendly, so even though Mateen was born and raised in America, he is not America. The reverse is also true: the West is abstracted from what happens in the East; US policy in the Middle East is not connected to jihadism in the region.
Overly narrow definitions of Islamophobia, which define the practice solely as a failure to differentiate between Muslims who are “extremists” and those who are “moderates,” will not suffice. Liberals like Frank and Cohen and even conservatives with the right-wing bona fides of George W. Bush or the Journal’s editors are typically savvy enough to make such a distinction.
Islamophobia finds its naturalized, socially acceptable expression in the many commentators and politicians who assume Islam is the central factor in cases like Pulse — even when there’s reason to believe something more complex has taken place.
The Wall Street Journal’s two editorials on Orlando, like the comments from Frank and Cohen, say nothing about causes other than devotion to jihad. In the New York Times, Thomas Friedman argues that until “the websites, social networks and mosques” stop promoting intolerant ideas, “we’re just waiting around for the next Paris, Brussels, San Bernardino, or Orlando.”
Yet the assumption that Islamism was the primary force driving Mateen to murder is not self-evident. For one thing, it’s not clear whether Mateen understood even elementary features of Middle East politics — he reportedly wasn’t even able to decipher the differences between ISIS and Hezbollah.
Mateen’s comments during the massacre offer little more enlightenment. He told police that he wouldn’t stop his attack until America stopped bombing “my country.” (By “my country” Mateen presumably meant either ISIS’s caliphate or Afghanistan, his parents’ country of origin, where the United States recently opted to escalate its war.)
According to eyewitnesses, he said he wanted to spare African Americans: “I don’t have a problem with black people . . . This is about my country. You guys suffered enough.” But apparently a largely Latino crowd of LGBT people at a gay bar was the apotheosis of US militarism.
Jihad may have been on Mateen’s mind, but nothing so far suggests that it was a central part of who he was. Clearly there are other dimensions to the story that can’t be explained through a theological lens.
Mateen had multiple relationships to institutionalized violence and domination. His ex-wife says he beat her and describes him as unstable, while the son of the imam at Mateen’s mosque says has was an “an aggressive person” who “used to work out a lot.” Mateen may also himself have been gay, and self-loathing fostered by the toxic masculinity rampant in US society could have been at play in his rampage.
The more information that comes out, the more layered the story becomes. Mateen worked for the private security firm G4S, a company that apparently has “an institutionalized global problem” with protecting violent, racist conduct by its security officers and has been found to exhibit a “systematic tolerance of astonishing abuse,” with “numerous cases of employees being charged with the sexual abuse of young boys” and a record of running an “abusive and unsanitary” jail.
What has emerged is not only the portrait of someone who flirted with jihad but also of someone who may have had had mental health problems, who was a product of the brutal American carceral state, and who was a violent, misogynistic, homophobic alpha-male of the sort that is found everywhere, regardless of faith.
This tapestry is obscured when people like Frank take for granted that religion is the operative factor in Orlando, or when Cohen writes that Mateen killed as many LGBT people as possible “because his [jihadi] ideology authorized homophobia.”
None of this is to deny that Mateen’s conception of Islam and Middle East politics was part of why he did what he did. That would be an equally blinkered conclusion.
The point is simply that a confluence of factors were at play, and that too many observers are crafting a facile clash-of-civilizations narrative that often produces disastrous consequences.
Damn the Consequences
Commentators and politicians obscure such complexities because reducing the story of Pulse to one of jihadi terror makes it easier to sell the public on policies that will oppress and kill people who are or might be seen as Muslim — including people who are LGBT — in the United States and around the world.
The Pulse massacre, for instance, is being used to push for increased surveillance of Muslims. Frank claims that the attack “reinforces the case for significant surveillance by law enforcement of people who have given some indication of adoption of these angry Islamic hate views.”
Meanwhile, Friedman writes that “we need to ensure our government has all the surveillance powers it needs — under appropriate judicial review — to monitor and arrest violent extremists of all stripes. The bad guys now have too many tools to elude detection.”
The Wall Street Journal argues in its first editorial that “the FBI is right to use ‘sting’ operations against Americans who show jihadist leanings on social media or with friends” and in its second editorial that “Western law enforcement agencies must pay more attention to what goes on inside mosques than in Christian Science reading rooms.”
Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump advocate escalating the war against ISIS in response to the Orlando killings, even though US officials say there is no evidence of a direct Islamic State link. Already the estimated number of civilians killed by the US-led coalition’s war against ISIS is at least 1,312, and that campaign will continue to enrich capitalists even as it is more likely to proliferate than quell jihadi terrorism.
Physicians for Responsibility has found that the first ten years of the Bush-Obama “war on terror” killed 1.3 million people in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan — and LGBT people are surely among the victims.
Friedman says that the only thing that can stop jihadi terror attacks is a
meaningful mass movement by Muslim governments, clergymen and citizens to delegitimize this behavior. It takes a village and only stops when the village clearly says, ‘No more!’ And that has not happened at the scale and consistency it needs to happen.
Of course, missing from Friedman’s condescending formula is the uncomfortable fact that the US government could curtail the influence of jihadis around the world if it stopped empowering them.
The American state is supporting jihadis in Syria, and the US-Saudi war on Yemen is strengthening ISIS and al-Qaeda branches in that country. Mateen’s father, there is evidence to suggest, fought in the US-backed mujahideen against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Reverberations of such policies in the West can be expected and, when the next Paris or Brussels or Orlando happens, more US warmongering can be expected to follow.
Public responses to hawkish posturing like “not all Muslims” or “but what about Christian and Jewish extremists?” are tedious but sometimes helpful. It is worthwhile to point out that, according to the Global Terrorism Index, “lone wolf” attacks like the one in Orlando account for the majority of terrorist deaths in the West since 2006 and that “Islamic fundamentalism was not the primary driver of lone wolf attacks, with 80 per cent of deaths in the West from lone wolf attacks being attributed to a mixture of right-wing extremists, nationalists, anti-government elements, other types of political extremism and supremacism.”
And it’s also necessary to push back against all strains of Islamophobia by complicating stories premised on the assumption that Islam is necessarily the decisive factor in atrocities like Orlando.
Only then can we hope to build the solidarities necessary to overcome transphobia, homophobia, racism, and imperialist warfare.