Orlando attack sparks debate among Muslim Americans
The United States’ worst mass shooting attack in modern times heated debates over the shooter’s alleged jihadist motivations, his apparent mental instability, Florida’s lax gun control laws and a potential hate crime against gays — or what some experts are calling a “self-hate” crime given reports that the shooter may have been a closeted homosexual.
The most unexpected result of the June 12th attack on a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, is an unfolding dialogue within American-Muslim communities over lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues.
“The number one thing that this tragedy has brought to the forefront is addressing the reality that there are queer Muslims, that they’re part of the LGBT community,” Ali A. Olomi, a rights activist and Middle East historian, said by phone from his home in Orange County, California.
“So now the community is talking about how to rethink that and what it means to be Muslim and LGBT,” he said.
Reports about the sexual orientation of the shooter, Omar Mateen, who was born in New York to Afghan immigrants, have not been confirmed. The 29-year-old apparently had an account on an online gay dating service and some patrons at Pulse, the gay club where the attack occurred, identified him as a repeat patron. Some said Mateen seemed “nice and comfortable” in the club; others said he was prone to outbursts after drinking.
Omar Aziz is the founder of the Samovar Network, a social platform on which Afghan Americans debate issues. After the shootings, dozens of followers voiced support for LGBT members of their community. Aziz said this was important particularly because of common ground between Muslims in America and LGBT rights advocates.
“I think a lot of us are having the conversation of where do we stand when it comes to support of LGBT because it’s part of the Muslim community,” he said. “But also, let’s face it, some of the biggest supporters of Muslims in the face of Islamophobia are members of the LGBT community.”
During a private gathering of older members of one immigrant community, there was embarrassment about some people’s candour on the tragedy.
“To be honest, I’m sad about the attack but because the victims were gay, I don’t feel the usual sympathy,” said a 79-year-old woman who did not want her name published for fear of retribution. Her friends agreed.
“I know it’s wrong to say this but the truth is my generation was always told that gays are not good people. This sort of talk enters your head and stays there forever.”
Olomi said this generational gap reflects a schism within the American-Muslim community and is a classic example of how religious culture absorbs its current context.
“This is a historical moment. We’re seeing the American context [of Islam] developed in a certain way. All of this plays a factor of how Islam is being defined by American Muslims,” he said.
At the Muslim Friends of Florida- Fort Pierce Islamic Center, where Mateen worshipped, shocked worshippers gave conflicting reports of Mateen’s personality, ranging from “quiet and pleasant” to “aggressive”.
The FBI interviewed Mateen in May 2013, when he worked as a security guard at a local courthouse, after he boasted to colleagues that he had connections to al-Qaeda, was a member of Hezbollah and that he hoped police would raid his apartment so that he could martyr himself.
The FBI recognised Mateen’s contradictory claims of allegiance to both al-Qaeda and Hezbollah and dismissed him as a suspect after a 10-month investigation.
Mateen was investigated again after a worshipper from the same mosque became the first American jihadist on a suicide mission with al-Qaeda in Syria but no evidence was shown of Mateen’s involvement. Mateen acquired a gun licence and legally purchased the assault-style rifle that he used to kill dozens at the club.
Questions about Mateen’s mental state surfaced after his ex-wife described a short and troubled marriage. She said Mateen was physically and psychologically abusive and suffered from bipolar disorder, though it remains unclear whether he was receiving treatment.
The New York-based Soufan Group, a security consultancy founded by Lebanese-American former FBI agent Ali Soufan, downplayed Mateen’s alleged ties to the Islamic State (ISIS) as possibly a desperate attempt to die a hero.
“By claiming Islamic State inspiration, Mateen may have sought to catapult his reputation from that of a homophobic mass-murderer to a ‘soldier of the caliphate’ merely by parroting the group’s name,” Soufan said.
For members of the American- Muslim community at large, some hope that the silver lining in this tragedy is a conversation that will continue.
“We can’t just talk about this when we’re in the spotlight,” said Aziz. “We have to make sure that we continue these debates in between the big events.”