On 12 June 2016, an American citizen by the name of Omar Mateen unleashed terror on Orlando’s most popular gay nightclub, Pulse, when he shot to death 49 innocent peoplein cold blood. With dozens of bloody corpses lying on a dance floor, no one wanted a debate. A dominant section of the mainstream media, duly led by a swarm of fervent political figures, rushed to draw affirmative conclusions based on two hot starters – Omar was a Muslim, and he allegedly claimed “allegiance to ISIS” over a 9-11 call. Despite the fact that none of these imply anything concrete, sweeping judgments were drawn. The conjectures were streamlined and forthright – this was an act of “political violence” rooted in “radical Islam”. Presidential candidates played tennis with the term. The oversimplified and rather convenient narrative drew bipartisan appeal and dominated the rabble-rousing newsroom debates post the heinous assault.
Some even went on to call it an “act of war” without musing over the legal implications of the term. Others criticized President Barack Obama, who probably presented the most carefully framed administrative response (indicating a possible mix of terrorist violence and hate crime), for avoiding the term “radical Islam” in his speech. Yet others fought relentlessly to completely de-link religion from Mateen’s set of possible motives.
In this riotous crossfire of Conservative vs. Liberal rhetoric, most of us lost sight of the fact that 49 people (50, if you include the killer) with non-heteronormative gender orientations bit the dust on a single night for reasons that possibly go beyond simple geopolitical or cultural antagonism.
We must be careful of how we set the discourse on the Orlando massacre. Very evidently, Omar Mateen wasn’t the simple Kalashnikov-toting, vest-wearing Muslim terrorist that most of us are familiar with, but rather a complex individual with a tangled personal history. His father says he fostered a longstanding hatred for gays, while his ex-wife’s revelations about her abusive relationship with him indicate a latent tendency for violent outbursts. Some recent reports indicate the he might have been a closeted homosexual, while others point towards aggressive cyber-radicalization. Two brief FBI investigations over unverified expressions of support to radical Islamic thought further diversify the repertory. This props up a confusing paradox of motives mired in the specifics of Mateen’s private proclivities, and at the least leads us to a common understanding that straitjacketing him as a “radical Islamic terrorist” with purely political motives is not quite useful.
While the dominant narrative serves to highlight the proliferating global appeal of the Islamic State’s virulent ideology, it not only subdues a vital discussion on Mateen’s chequered personal history but also conveniently diverts the popular narrative from the stark reality of the severe discrimination and bigotry that the queer community confronts on an everyday basis. Perhaps Omar could have chosen any target other than a gay nightclub, but he did not. He categorically chose to butcher scores of people from a particular minority, and that in itself renders the target group significant enough to be discussed alongside the attacker.
A majority of the elite journalistic fraternity commenting upon the attacks avoided attributing an “exclusive space” to the target community, instead committing all of their airtime and columns to deconstructing the attacker. Some – like Fox News – even wholly refrained from mentioning “gays” during their provocative newsroom analysis of the incident.
Most found it politically unviable to discuss queers as a separate community that has been subjected to a specific kind of socially legitimized discrimination, as these were the same people who backed America’s numerous anti-gay legislations. The politics of oversimplification gloriously sabotaged the counter-narrative against entrenched homophobia – which must be an indispensable component in the post-Orlando discourse.
After the attack, many on social media hurled questions like, “Do you think those people were killed because they were gay?” Well yes, I do think so. The reason is simple — even within the entirety of the Western population (including Western Muslims) that already faces an impending threat of violence from radical anti-West groups in the Middle East and Africa (thanks to counterproductive elite-driven foreign policy), the Western queer community faces a specific threat of extreme violence from a wider constituency of hatred, not just from Middle Eastern politico-religious outfits. It could easily have been a hardliner American Christian or a Jewish bigot holding the assault rifle in place of Omar Mateen. Let’s not make any mistake about this — homophobia is a cross-cultural reality that transcends religion, nationality, political affiliations, and socioeconomic groupings. It emanates not from a specific belief system but from a matrix of social, political, cultural, psychological and normative factors, all of which contribute in shaping a society’s quotidian moralities and gender norms.
Hence, the bigotry comes not from one particular socio-religious group but from a much larger continuum of hatemongers, including but not limited to standalone Muslim fanatics, Christian fundamentalists, orthodox Jews, conservative Hindus, and other right-leaning socio-political groups around the world. In fact, non-Muslim countries have routinely exceeded the number of Muslim countries in almost all “Most Homophobic Countries of the World” lists, if we were to consider anti-LGBT legislations as the basic parameter of assessment. Let us not whitewash an ensconced reality — this global hatred directed towards the LGBT community is institutionally legitimized, even in the most liberal modern democracies.
Omar’s home country – America – happens to be one of these “progressive” nations where anti-gay legislations hold strong ground. The poisonous and anachronistic hostility against queers regularly features in popular culture, both in overt and coded forms. In the case of Orlando, the target group is conceptually static, but the pool of perpetrators is much wider.
If Omar was a homophobe, why was he so? There could be a whole spectrum of contributing factors to his biased gender norms, and “appropriated religious values” might be one of them. One could take a dualistic approach to interpret his brutal act of terror — we could either start with “radical Islam” and contextualize that within homophobia, or begin with homophobia and contextualize it within ISIS’s ultra-orthodox Wahhabi-Salafi ideology. It is not hard to understand that the ISIS “doctrine” (if I may call it so) is a ready-to-use toolkit for a wide range of vested actors to unleash violence against any “enemy group” with some degree of religio-cultural legitimacy. The organization has typically propagated a form of “open-source” ideology that can be legitimately appropriated and instrumentalized by individual extremists from any part of the world.
So, was Omar a homophobe because he was a radical Muslim, or did he turn into a radical Muslim because his innate homophobia found meaning in the ISIS ideology? It really could be either, or a heady mix of both. But, given that “homophobia” is a common denominator in both approaches, it seems clear that what Omar did was essentially a dramatic physical manifestation of a long history of structural violence against the LGBT community, perpetuated by anti-gay laws and political campaigns that have polarized public opinion against a certain group. Placing his actions within a purely political sphere of operation conveniently conceals this antiquated anti-queer prejudice that several modern liberal societies have meticulously fostered for ages now. Theirs is a past and present that, more often than not, goes unnoticed (or consciously redacted) in most political and cultural dispositions. We do not need further omission, but rather a discursive inclusion; and America’s elite establishment isn’t helping.
All of the above lead us to the belief that “terrorism” is as layered as the “terrorist”, demanding case-by-case scrutiny of incidents. Even the administrative understanding of terrorism in the US (U.S. Code and FBI definitions) is premised on heavily political considerations.
But, the argument here is that “terrorism” isn’t a simple phenomenon that can be defined in purely politico-cultural binaries. Rather, it is a symptomatic manifestation of a whole spectrum of socio-psychological drivers that play out differently depending on prevalent social and political norms. While religion is an important component of this complex interplay, it isn’t the only one.
An abusive personal relationship, the political norms of the country he grew up in, easy access to assault rifles, and an innate masochistic hatred for gays are some critical contributing factors behind Omar’s violent behaviour that a majority of the analysts, commentators, journalists, and politicians out there have skirted. In doing so, they have only perpetuated the normative core of terrorism — an oversimplified response to a complex problem.
[This piece was published on 16 June 2016 in Huffington Post India]