Looking at the history of Omar Mateen, as well as the religion itself, throws into doubt the gunman’s understanding of the faith he claimed to represent. The same goes for larger terror cells, writes Michael Brull.
In the aftermath of the massacre in a gay nightclub in Orlando, many LGBTQI people and groups expressed solidarity with Muslims, urging that this attack not be used to demonise Muslims or Islam. Muslim intellectuals and groups have reciprocated the sentiment, expressing solidarity with the victims and LGBTQI people generally. Dr Ibrahim Abu Mohammed, the Grand Mufti of Australia, responded to the massacre immediately with condemnation on moral and religious grounds. On Wednesday, a similar statement was released by Muslim organisations and prominent figures.
While others have responded with critiques of the overt racism of some of these voices, in this article, I want to explain why these claims about the responsibility of Islam for this massacre are substantively wrong.
Early Muslim Culture Was Often Warm To Homosexuality
The University of Chicago Press published John Boswell’s National Book Award winning study, Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality 16 years ago. In his landmark book, Boswell discusses early Muslim attitudes to homosexuality. In this passage, he discusses the aftermath of the Muslim invasion of Spain in the eighth century (I omit the footnotes). He explores at length the extent to which homosexuality was regarded “with indifference, if not admiration”, and widely featured in contemporary poetry:
Boswell then gives various examples of cultural expressions of homosexual relationships:
Boswell concludes that acceptance of homosexuality was pervasive, even as it was ruled by rigid Muslim jurists who were regarded as “fanatics in the rest of the Islamic world”:
In a 1997 essay in Feminist Issues, As’ad AbuKhalil argues that current Islamic opposition to homosexuality is a result of Western influence. AbuKhalil wrote that the “regularity and apparent legitimacy of homosexual relations” in the Muslim world “were seen by Medieval Christians as evidence of the moral decadence of Muslims”:
What passes as Islamic mores and conduct in much of the Islamic countries is in fact the impact of Westernization. ‘Puritanical Islam,’ which people from the past like medieval Christian polemicists or even Max Weber would never associate with the religion of Muhammad, owes much to European Protestantism. This change in Islamic treatment of the sexual question came about after centuries of Christian criticisms of Islamic moral permissiveness.
Whereas Christianity “stood for a puritanical morality and strict ethical code, Islam was ridiculed as the religion of sexual permissiveness and ethical laxity. Short of polytheism, all is forgiven in Islam. Medieval Christians found the God that Muslims worshipped too forgiving for their taste.”
AbuKhalil concludes that homophobia, “an ideology of hostility against men who are homosexuals, came out of the Christian tradition and has no counterpart in the Islamic tradition despite the homophobic inclination of individual Muslims, like ‘Ali or Abu Bakr in early Islam.” Furthermore, “violence against homosexuals, which is still common in Western societies, is quite rare among the Arabs”.
The point of revisiting this history is to illustrate a simple but important point. Religion, like culture, is not static. It develops over time, and is influenced by a variety of factors, just as religion can influence individuals and societies in complex ways. Blaming “Islam” for anything is simplistic, because it is not monolithic, it does not have one essence, and it is not consistent.
Today, there are many Muslims who regard homosexuality as sinful. There are also many people of other faiths who are opposed to homosexuality, including Jews and Christians. As noted by Glenn Greenwald, a US poll found American Muslims have comparable levels of approval (45 per cent) of societal acceptance of homosexuality as American Protestants (48 per cent). Among ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel (Charedim), only 8 per cent expressed support for gay people having full equality, as opposed to 89 per cent of secular Israelis.
The overwhelming majority of people of all faiths who object to homosexuality do so without that hatred manifesting in murder. There is a passage in the Torah that calls homosexuality an abomination, explicitly urging the execution of a man who lies with another man as with a woman. This is ignored, just as Jews ignore the passage ordering the execution of disobedient sons.
This is because the way people interpret their religious texts is complex. While fundamentalists and Islamophobes may insist that Islam is one thing, now and forever, that is not really how religions work.
The Complex Motives Of Omar Mateen
While the usual suspects were eager to blame Islam (or “radical Islam”) for the Orlando shooting, it is hard to take this too seriously. The murderer was apparently a regular at the gay nightclub he attacked, and was also a long time user of an app for gay dating called Jack’d. Much has been made of his statement of support for ISIS. Yet he has also declared support for Hezbollah and the Al Nusra Front. All three groups have killed each other’s members in Syria. It seems his understanding of these groups was about as sophisticated as that of Australian Islamophobes.
The murderer used to talk “about killing people all the time”, according to a former co-worker. He used to beat his ex-wife, who said he wasn’t very religious. She also claimed that he was “mentally unstable and mentally ill”. She said he had bipolar, and used steroids. His father, an admirer of the Taliban, commented that the murderer “doesn’t have a beard even”.
At this point, we just don’t know why he murdered so many people. Several factors may have contributed. It may have been some form of twisted revenge. As many have argued, it may have been a homophobic attack. If he was gay, it may have been the act of a man experiencing a great deal of inner turmoil. Without wishing to diminish the horrors of the massacre, he too may have been a victim of homophobia, who acted out the hatred he learned and internalised on others.
Calling This Islam Validates Terrorists
When someone commits an atrocity, and claims that they do it in the name of a religion followed by a great number of people, that claim is made to legitimise their act.
Trying to legitimise an immoral action with reference to ideals is not something unique to Muslims. When no WMDs were found in Iraq, suddenly Western politicians and intellectuals claimed the war on Iraq was a war for democracy and freedom. This doesn’t delegitimise democracy or freedom, because that’s not what the war was about. The point of using that rhetoric was to transfer the social currency of those concepts to an unjust war waged on fraudulent pretexts.
Likewise, the shooter in Orlando claimed he was part of a greater cause. Being an angry and hateful bigot is less glamorous, and would not garner the same public attention.
When hateful murderers claim Islam legitimises their actions, we should remember that they are trying to bring themselves under the legitimating umbrella of a faith practiced by about 1.7 billion people. No one has ever appointed any of these people as their spokesperson. While Westerners often call for Muslims to condemn these actions, they never pause to ask who has praised them. Terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS have never received the blessing of any prominent Muslim theologians, and have often been condemned even by other salafi-jihadists.
Though people in the West continue to take seriously the credentials of these groups, many Muslims regard them as theologically dubious or theologically illiterate. Take this interview with Osama Bin Laden, from October 2001. The interviewer from Al Jazeera pointed out that the “killing of innocent civilians” is banned under Islam. Bin Laden responded by agreeing that “the Prophet Mohammed forbade the killing of babies and women. That is true, but this is not absolute.” He then argued inconsistently that the Twin Towers wasn’t really a civilian target, and that anyway, “If they kill our women and our innocent people, we will kill their women and their innocent people until they stop.” He called this “the good terrorism which stops them from killing our children in Palestine and elsewhere”.
Note: this is not a religious argument. And as Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at the American University Akbar Ahmed argued in The Thistle and the Drone, revenge is hardly an Islamic response.
One of the world’s leading scholars on jihadis and Islamists is Professor Fawaz Gerges, from the London School of Economics. In his book on ISIS, he argues that ISIS has even less theological credibility than Al Qaeda. Gerges argues that Abu Musab al “Zarqawi and [ISIS leader Abu Bakr al] Baghdadi are theologically illiterate… What distinguishes the post-al Qaeda wave from its predecessors is its poverty of ideas.” In one telling instance, Islamists in Syria challenged ISIS to submit to a sharia court to resolve a dispute between them. ISIS responded by saying that “The only law I subscribe to is the law of the jungle”. On another occasion, when criticised theologically, ISIS replied that those scholars should spend less time on “writing and authorship”, when they “have never fired a single bullet”.
In the West, ISIS is treated as though they are sophisticated and authoritative Islamic theologians, rather than hyper-violent thugs with a thin veneer of legitimising rhetoric. Gerges observes that ISIS could not have made the strides it has made without “the breakdown of state institutions in Syria and Iraq and rising sectarianism. It is a result of decades of dictatorship, failed governance and development, and abject poverty, made worse by ongoing foreign intervention and the Palestinian tragedy.”
The ‘Radical Islam’ The West Doesn’t Talk About
Australian right-wingers lament the fall of Tony Abbott, and the rise of Malcolm Turnbull, fearing the latter is too soft on “radical Islam”. Yet their beloved Tony grieved the loss of the dead tyrant of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz. He offered his “deepest condolences” for this tragic loss, praising the King’s “many achievements”, and flying the flags at half-mast.
Saudi Arabia beheads dozens of people each year, and practices many of the same punishments as ISIS for “crimes” like blasphemy and adultery. As observed by Gerges, ISIS school education guidelines “seem to borrow heavily from Saudi Arabia’s ultraconservative Salafi curriculum”.
The extreme sect of Islam that is closely allied to the ruling house of Saud is a strain of Salafism called Wahhabism. The outstanding Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn observed that “Wahhabi beliefs are close to the Salafi-jihadi ideology and over the last fifty years Wahhabism has become an increasing influence over mainstream Sunni Islam… Supported by the vast oil wealth of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf those trained to preach and oversee mosques have become increasingly extreme and, while they may not support terrorist attacks, their beliefs provides fertile soil for those who do.” He concludes that until Western states are willing to “confront their Sunni allies in the Middle East… Orlando will only be the latest in a string of atrocities.”
Yet it is not just the governments that refuse to do so. While anti-Muslim ideologues often attack Islam, urge bans on Muslims, or otherwise decry the failure of Western liberals to oppose “radical Islam”, they rarely seem to have any interest in Wahhabism. Whether it’s right-wing politicians, right-wing anti-Muslim movements, or Murdoch columnists, this form of “militant” and “extreme” Islam always gets off the hook.
Because their concern isn’t “radical” Islam at all. Their concern is Muslims. And that tells you all you need to know.