I am Pulse.
I am of Muslim heritage. And I am Pulse Night Club.
In spirit, I am today marching in a pride parade, with tears in my eyes and a great big rainbow-colored star and crescent solidarity flag in my hand.
Orlando, city of the magic kingdom, has become the city of nightmares where young people were mowed down en masse by a gunman on a dance floor. 50 people are dead, 53 injured, some grievously. Edward Sotomayor Jr., Stanley Almodovar III, Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo, and Juan Ramon Guerrero have fallen. We don’t yet know the other names but we mourn them, each and every one. The alleged perpetrator is Omar Mateen, a heavily armed Afghan-American security guard with a purported history of contacts with a suicide bomber and comments in support of terror groups. Many of the victims are our LGBT brothers and sisters, who will never dance again, who will never again greet the families now desperately searching for them.
Early reports suggest that Mateen pledged allegiance to “Islamic State” while launching his shooting spree. We will know more in the days to come. I am grateful to those who are righteously rushing in to defend Muslims from the inevitable backlash and deplorable discrimination in the shell-shocked wake of this massacre. However, I would also ask them not to do so by downplaying the harsh realities of Islamist political ideology and the way it purveys hatred against many groups, including gays.
If a suspected Christian fundamentalist had carried out an attack like this, liberal commentators would rightly be questioning how the rhetoric of some homophobic Christian leaders might have fueled the atrocity. As difficult as it is to do so appropriately in an atmosphere infused with discrimination against Muslims and terrifying Trumpism, if the Islamist inspiration of the Orlando murderer is confirmed, we will have to ask precisely the same questions. How has Islamist rhetoric inflamed homophobia and led to mass violence? Mateen’s armed, murderous hate is neither better nor worse because he was a Muslim. It is simply lamentable, to be condemned vociferously, should not be imputed to others who share his identity categories, but must be dissected, analyzed and fought mercilessly.
Ani Zonneveld, the head of Los Angeles based Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV) said today, “Let’s get to the root of it: the homophobic mindset that led to this killing did not emerge out of a vacuum. Muslims for Progressive Values and others have been advocating for LGBTQI rights for many years against the homophobic teachings that are widespread in Muslim communities, and we as Muslims need to confront this insidious attitude. The fact is, there is no punishment for being homosexual in the Qur’an, nor did Prophet Muhammad persecute homosexuals.” MPV’s press release after the Orlando attack explained that, “While… every community struggles with homophobia, today it is abundantly clear why the American Muslim community needs to address homophobia in our own community and institutions. We must challenge divisive interpretations of Islam that may encourage those like the gunman in Orlando.” Why is it that Muslim advocates of gay rights like MPV are not invited to be on TV in the wake of an event like this?
My thoughts now are for the victims, their families, their fellow LGBT people, everyone at a pride march today, all of Orlando. Going forward, I am filled with dread, both at how the haters will try to use this event against Muslims generally, but also at how those pushing back against those haters will downplay the grim reality of Islamist ideology. We are now faced with a terrible and absurd “hate-off.” There are the Christian homophobic bigots who tweeted that the terrorist was doing God’s work. There are the anti-Muslim bigots who tweeted that this happened because of President Obama’s alleged love for Islam. Some seemed to be struggling with whether they hated Gay people or Muslims more. (LGBT Muslims must then have had an especially rough day.) There can be no winner in the “hate-off” and we have to counter it with a principled commitment to equality.
But we cannot be tolerant of intolerance either, whoever’s intolerance that may be. Tolerance of intolerance does not produce tolerance. We have to stand against the far right, whether Christian or Muslim, in the West or in Muslim majority contexts and without disappearing difficult realities behind politically correct platitudes, or making this all about gun control. (Certainly that is also a critical issue – how did a guy who had been twice been investigated by the FBI for terror-related concerns manage to buy an assault weapon?)
We also have to grapple with the global reality of homophobia, including its manifestations in Muslim majority contexts, as magnified by Islamist ideology. Even the Muslim cleric who was invited to speak at the first official press conference held in Orlando today never mentioned that the victims were “LGBT” and never once used the word “gay.” (Imagine the reverse situation and how Muslims might feel about that.)
When I interviewed people of Muslim heritage working against extremism for a book called “Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism,” those who most commonly felt they had to ask me not to use their names were lesbian or gay. They were very aware of the threat of Islamism and the danger posed by widespread prejudices. A queer Pakistani advocate said of her work, “If it got on anybody’s radar and they decided they needed to do a jihad of some sort, it wouldn’t take much.” In the current environment, she worried not only about the Taliban but also about fundamentalist lone wolves, “some righteously indignant observant-in-his-own-head, very faithful Muslim person who says, ‘Who are these bad women?’ That’s all it would take.” Extremism has magnified the risk of such responses, she suggested, by putting forward “the legitimacy of violence as an honorable thing.”
One gay Iranian man I interviewed was so marked by the stigma he had faced that he whispered his entire interview even though it was given safely in exile. Four times, he had attempted suicide for his “family’s honor.” The heroic Junaid Jahangir challenged the attitudes that produce such outcomes in words that are deeply relevant today. “Based on the evolution of Muslim thought,” he wondered, “would it be too much to ask thoughtful and rational members of the Muslim clergy to review the case of gays and lesbians based on the principles of compassion and fairness?” That is often difficult today because, as a journalist told me, homophobic aspects of tradition and totalitarian Islamic politics “reinforce each other.”
It is too easy to say as some have today with the best of intentions that this violence has nothing to do with religion or politics. In fact, though it is too early to say for certain, it seems likely the result of a terrible cocktail of regressive interpretations of religion, cultures of homophobia which are both universal and particular, the most extreme Islamist politics and the easy availability of weapons in the U.S. We will have to address every single one of these ingredients, without discrimination, but also without flinching.
Today we are sick and angry and grieving. Tomorrow we declare war on hate in all its forms.