On June 12 the world awoke to news of the massacre of 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. From the beginning, the media was full of misleading and politically charged speculation. In the mid-morning of June 12, for instance, Rep. Peter King (R-NY) tersely told CNN that the killer, Omar Mateen, “was from Afghanistan and had weapons training.” Within hours, it was reported that Mateen was US-born and received his training from his employer G4S, the world’s largest private security firm. He had purchased his guns legally in Florida. There was also noticeable discomfort in much of the reaction to the killings about the facts that Pulse is an LGBTQ club and that most of the dead and wounded were Latin Americans. We asked some MERIP friends to comment on the misinformation and the telling silences in the coverage.
In the aftermath of the horrendous shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, many people have rightly pointed out that the hyper-masculine homophobic Omar Mateen does not represent Muslims. Fearing increased violence against Muslims and Middle Eastern immigrants in the US, some have apologetically made statements about how Islam and Muslims do not condone violence, especially during the holy month of Ramadan.
But why is this sense of responsibility imposed on Muslims and not other Americans? What is in a name? Why does a man’s name implicate 1.5 billion Muslims? What is erased in the racist obsession with his religion and his family’s national origin?
Let me outline a few erasures that add a level of epistemic violence to the deadly homophobic violence that took the lives of mostly working-class Latin@s (most of them Puerto Ricans) at Pulse.
The characterization of this mass shooting as a terrorist attack against the United States minimizes the gravity of the violence against queers of color and queer immigrants—the nationalist discourse erases brown and black queer immigrant bodies. Despite the fact that Latin@s are criminalized, deported and incarcerated in massive numbers on a daily basis, violence against queer Latin@s becomes newsworthy only when it is packaged as a “terrorist attack” story. As Che Gosset and Christoph Hanssman aptly point out on Facebook, the US colonial and economic violence in Puerto Rico is forgotten in performances of mourning in a seemingly queer- and immigrant-friendly America. The recent US Supreme Court decision against Puerto Rico’s bid to restructure its $70 billion debt is directly related to the economic inequalities that compel queer Puerto Ricans to migrate to Orlando and other mainland cities in the US. Claiming Latinx bodies after death for nationalistic agendas may be too little and too late in the face of anti-immigrant laws and sentiments in the US. The unquestioned characterization of the Orlando tragedy as the “deadliest shooting in the US history” also whitewashes another colonial violence—the massacre of Native Americans. Through collective amnesia, this misnomer holds Muslims and not the settler colonial state responsible for the bloodiest mass murder in the history of the US.
The focus on the shooter’s religion and national origin reproduces Islam and Muslims as exceptionally homophobic and violent, thus exonerating the hegemonic US culture of its own homophobia, transphobia and misogyny. In a time when a white male college student gets away with raping a woman, when violence against Muslims and Middle Eastern people is normalized in US popular culture and video war games, when the bashing and killing of trans people under the rhetoric of safety is legitimized, when the shooting of black people by the militarized police is considered heroic, and when gun violence is legitimized under the cloak of freedom, Mateen’s violent act is more about his toxic masculinity than it is about Islam. The fact that Mateen worked for the world’s largest security firm, which runs several Israeli prisons and checkpoints as well as many US prisons (including Medway juvenile prison where G4S was accused of abusing the incarcerated youth not too long ago), cannot be forgotten or pushed aside. Neither can we overlook his obsession with becoming a police officer and his love for a racist police force that criminalizes, kills and imprisons people of color, queer and trans people, and immigrants.
The focus on Islam as the explanation for violent acts, as Edward Said has argued, is an Orientalist approach to people from a vast region who, despite their differences and various levels of piety, are reduced to their religion. Nobody asked what Christianity or the Bible says about race when Dylann Roof opened fire in a black church in Charleston. Rather than holding Islam and Muslims responsible for this man’s violent rage, perhaps we should come to terms with the fact that he was an all-American boy who took his lessons from the culture of homophobia, transphobia and violence in the US. Perhaps the problem is not Islamic terrorism; perhaps the problem is homegrown US hetero-patriarchal terrorism. This is not to downplay the violence of fundamentalist groups who have opportunistically laid claims on Islam. Nor is it an attempt to deny the existence of homophobia, transphobia and misogyny in the Middle East or among Muslims. My point is to question the hypocrisy of an exceptionalism that assumes the US to be the bastion of freedom and progress.
By now it is not surprising that when an angry white man commits a mass shooting, he is characterized as a “lone wolf,” but when a Muslim or Middle Eastern man is the shooter, he is characterized as a terrorist, and by default, an ISIS or al-Qaeda agent. There is no evidence, except for Mateen’s last-minute claim (perhaps to make his homophobic attack seem like a heroic act), that he was connected to ISIS. Yet, if we truly believe that Mateen’s murderous act was an ISIS plot, then we have to ask where ISIS gets its support and why it emerged in the first place. We may have to question the instability and chaos that the US military intervention in the region has left behind. We may have to ask questions about the Saudi government’s support of ISIS. As a friend posted on Facebook, ISIS has become the deterritorialized imagined community where anyone who wants to defy certain social rules can claim belonging (or is assigned belonging). I would add that this association only “sticks” to certain bodies, while others are assumed to be misguided or troubled white boys who were denied a proper nuclear heterosexual family upbringing. In fact, on the same day as the Orlando shooting, a white man with ammunition was arrested at the Los Angeles Pride festival. As expected, this violent homophobe was not characterized as a terrorist. Had he had a Muslim name, it would be unimaginable that allegations of a concerted terrorist attack would not circulate and produce calls for heightened national security and policing. Not only does this racist division of violence assume an inherent risk of terrorism to be hidden in Muslim and Middle Eastern bodies, but it also minimizes the terror that numerous mass shootings committed by white men (including those by the police in places like Ferguson) incite in many people’s lives.
It is also predictable how the US discourse on terrorism recycles its own regurgitations. A day after the shooting, the media was obsessed with Mateen’s alleged queer desires. Not unlike the stories of fagdom among the Taliban, Islam’s promise of 72 virgins in heaven and Mohammad Atta’s perverted desires, we are told that the Muslim terrorist fag’s pent-up sexual desires, repressed by Islam or his “culture” motivated him to kill. As Jasbir Puar and Amit Rai have argued, terrorism studies, which has been producing this form of knowledge for decades, places the blame on bad mothering or dysfunctional family structure. It is the immigrant and non-white families (like Mateen’s Afghan family), we are told, whose cultural backwardness leads their children to psychological compulsion. The homonationalist (Jasbir Puar) and homonormative (Lisa Duggan) narrative then goes something like this: “Come out, get married and be normal! You can even join the military to kill the terrorists and sacrifice yourself for this great nation! And if you are celibate, we may even let you donate blood! And immigrant families: Get with the program! This is America, land of the free!” Hidden in this narrative is also the assumption that Islam and queerness are incommensurable and that queer Muslims are in need of rescue from their “barbaric and homophobic cultures.”
The liberal valorization of coming out as the remedy for violence distracts from the nuances of this shooting. Despite the criminalization and the profiling of Muslims, the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of shooters in the US are white, and all of them are cis men (Dylann Roof, Robert Lewis Dear, Aaron Alexis and George Zimmerman, among others). Perhaps it was not Mateen’s “closeted gayness,” but his performance of a homophobic and misogynistic American masculinity enabled by everyday militarism, and constructed vis-à-vis the “failed masculinity” of the Muslim other, that led to this massacre. As a matter of fact, many people in the US do not “come out,” precisely because they fear this kind of toxic masculinity on the streets, at work, in school and at home. Those of us who are queer and Muslim know what it means to be blamed for anything from natural disasters to mass shootings. We know what it means to be profiled and what it means to be bashed and spat on by those who claim authenticity on the basis of monolithic imaginations of the “Muslim culture” or the “American culture.”
In a time when the US presidential candidates call for the bombing of ISIS as a retaliatory measure, it is crucial to unravel the way that homophobic and transphobic violence, Islamophobia, domestic violence, economic violence, racial violence, police violence, increased security and prisons, and the US imperialist wars are entangled in a web that implicates all of us. It is the time, again, to say not in our name!
The hurried characterization of Omar Mateen as a foreign bogeyman goes well beyond reactionary formulas—it is the lens through which all American Muslims are viewed. The widely held belief that Muslims are incapable of existing as members of American society, and specifically that they are thus incapacitated by their Muslim identity, is used to “other” them in times of tragedy. They are rejected from the folds of American culture, and their crimes are quickly pinned upon the faith they have chosen to follow.
Pundits and politicians continue to say that Mateen’s homophobia, transphobia, misogyny and racism were all due to his Islam. They refuse to allow his actions to be divorced from the religion he is said to have called his own. His horrific crimes are attributed not to the culture of violence that continues to find safety in US politics and law, but to his parent’s birthplace and the religion they passed down to their son.
For too many Americans, indeed, there are no factors that can override an Orientalist view of The Muslim, who lives a life of irreducible marginalization. It is a caricature of The Muslim that we are sold in the media: The Muslim is only in repose so long as he is able to subdue his barbarity. He is a beast on two legs lying in wait. The Muslim feigns patriotism and practice of American customs, but it is a trick, so he must be watched for signs of savagery as he prays in the mosque and goes about his business. The Muslim American is a hyper-visible yet invisible being who will have his American-ness stripped from him the moment he errs.
What is it about Omar Mateen that made him less American than Eric Rudolph, who so hated what he called an “aberrant [homosexual] lifestyle” that he bloodied Atlanta during the 1996 Summer Olympics? This is a face of America that many refuse to come to terms with, because otherwise they would have to face the implications for the myth they peddle that this hatred is largely imported and not homegrown.
There is nothing foreign about Mateen’s beliefs, nothing alien about his actions. The conversation must change in order for there to be a remedy. What this will take is organizing against those that target marginalized communities, and there can be no organizing without first acknowledging material realities.
There are times when language and analysis seem inadequate to representing the moment, its emotion, its feeling, its horror. The murder of 49 people and maiming of 53 more in a gay nightclub in Orlando is an incident that must be analyzed, and yet it is a spectacular horror that seems to escape representation, at least at the moment. It is enough to focus on the people murdered in Orlando; and yet, the spectacle in Orlando is merely a fragment of a larger mosaic. How can we think about violence relationally without diminishing the localized, focused response to violence and victimhood? And how can we push our analysis beyond nationalism, so that it can account for the violence of the state and the multinational corporation, as well as the violence of a lone individual?
Here is an attempt at piecing together some of the fragments, with full recognition that many more people will need to be heard in order for the full mosaic to emerge.
Just a few days prior to the Orlando massacre the United States attempted to incorporate Muhammad Ali into the nation; President Barack Obama claimed that Ali’s story was only possible in America. At the same service, Malcolm X’s daughter, Amb. Attallah Shabazz, appealed to Ali’s membership in a fraternity of black radical anti-imperialist thinkers for whom the horizons of black freedom were global and not national. At Ali’s funeral, just a few days prior to the Orlando shootings, Islam was adopted into a vision of US nationalism, even though Ali was considered un-American back in the day.
The US has a robust killing program across the Middle East, in Arab and Islamic societies, through a drone program that barely rises to the level of interest in US public debate. In the days leading up to the Orlando massacre, the US committed four murders by drone in Yemen—a country on which the US has not declared war. Arabs and Muslims have been killed with imprecision and regularity by a targeted assassination program across Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa. It would seem that precarity for most is the precondition for security for some.
The Orlando shooter worked for G4S, the largest security company in the world. A multinational security firm based in Britain, G4S makes plainly visible the transnational scope of militarized and masculinist violence, as it secures the US national border—another way, perhaps, in which many of the Latino Orlando victims were targeted—and borders across the Middle East, such as in occupied Palestine.
The Orlando victims were in a club made necessary by a homo- and trans-phobic culture that demands that queer intimacy and sociality take place in designated queer spaces, and in which bathrooms are contested terrain. Queer spaces like the Pulse nightclub have been refugee camps, of sorts, or spaces of hope, where queer sociality and freedom are possible, even as they have also been targeted by police, the state’s executioner of rampant and violent masculinity.
The discursive machine will quickly turn to the purported Islamic motives for anti-queer violence. “They hate our freedom,” some will say, even as the queer nightclub was already a space of hope within an American society that hates queer freedom. Hillary Clinton is already appealing to “radical Islam” as a culprit while Donald Trump is, well, Donald Trump.
The state will raise the specter of gun control and some may even call for revamped hate crimes legislation, but neither of these appeals will incorporate the Yemeni family targeted by the war on terror. No nightclub protects the Afghan family—queer or not—from death by drone, just as there is no safe space for queer freedom in a society structured in heteropatriarchy. Moreover, far more people will call for increased securitization and masculinist violence in geographies designated Muslim.
I am reminded of June Jordan’s poem, “Moving Towards Home,” when, after witnessing the anti-black violence of Rodney King’s beating by the Los Angeles police and Israel’s Operation Grapes of Wrath assault on southern Lebanon, she thought about the relationality of violence. After asserting that she, as a black woman, had “become Palestinian,” she writes, “against the relentless laughter of evil, there is less and less living room, and where are my loved ones?”
It has been almost a week since a mass shooting at Pulse, an LBGTQ nightclub in Orlando, killed 49 individuals and wounded more than 50 on a Latinx night. These killings have inspired national conversations about gun control, the rights of LGBTQ communities and continued homophobia in the US, and Islamophobia and the war on terror. I would like to underline three points that stand out in the media coverage and look forward to action aimed at producing solidarity and political change.
First, it is critical to continue to highlight that the victims of this mass killing are mostly Latinx—and mostly Latinx youth. In much of our analysis, including my own, there is a tendency to focus on the question of terrorism, or the war on terror, and its twinning with Islamophobia and the US security-imperial state. There was also much writing on homophobia and homosexuality “in” Islam, the most helpful and comprehensive of which was written by Mehammad Amadeus Mack. Many of us felt compelled to respond in this register, and these are necessary interventions in a time of war and during a US presidential campaign where Islamophobia seems to be a political platform.
It is necessary, however, to think through the gendered hyper-securitization of Muslim-Americans alongside the gendered hyper-securitization and criminalization of Latinx peoples in the United States. In fact, the hyper-racialization of the killer matched the deracination of the victims in much mainstream and political commentary. It was no accident, since the war on terror works in racialized, national and gendered binaries. The deracination of the victims (and the de-queerification of the club and the victims by many politicians) was necessary to produce the attack as “one on America” at a time when mainstream US political and national culture is deeply xenophobic, homophobic and suspicious of Latinx communities. As academics and as activists, it is important to critically bring together conversations on anti-Latinx and anti-Muslim discrimination and the ways that discourses on gender and sex operate as technologies of hyper-visualization and securitization both nationally and imperially. A vital part of this task is to think about the war on terror alongside the war on drugs. We must continue to research and write on criminalization, racialization and securitization within an expansive framework that includes the ways in which black, Latinx, indigenous, Muslim and immigrant Americans have been and continue to be differently and relationally incorporated into the structure of the white-dominant but “multicultural” US settler state. After all, the two communities directly targeted by anti-immigrant and anti-immigration platforms are Muslims and Latinx, and it is no coincidence that discourses on sex, gender and security are tied together in conversations around immigration and national character.
This point is directly connected to a second one, regarding the global and national hierarchy of human life and the ways in which we mourn those murdered in mass killings and terrorist attacks. It is crucial to think about the politics of citizenship, nationality and nationalism in this context—after all, there are undocumented victims of the Pulse shootings who cannot be mourned nationally precisely because, as “illegal aliens,” they are figured as threats to the nation. Furthermore, the mass shooting at Pulse and the global outcry that followed—which included the almost farcical shows of support and mourning by rulers of Arab states that routinely harass, imprison and brutalize LGBTQ communities—underscores the ways that (deracinated, de-queered) American lives and American tragedies are global tragedies that circulate as international events. In a war-on-terror world, there is an injunction to grieve in public for American lives lost to terrorism in order to ward off suspicion and further targeting. This injunction applies as well to the dead in France or Belgium, but not to victims of terrorism (state or otherwise) in Iraq or Nigeria or Syria. This phenomenon is directly related to the ways in which US political discourse on the war on terror has starkly divided the world into victims (Europeans and Americans) and perpetrators (Muslims and Arabs). Additionally, the public and international circulation of mourning related to the Pulse shooting emerges from the teleology implicit in homonationalism, where the US is configured as the end point—the resting place—of a global journey of LGBTQ struggle.
Finally, it is important to back up our words of outrage with action. Such action includes working toward opening up academic and professional space within the field of Middle East studies. Work in the areas of sexuality, gender and human rights is increasingly central to thinking and writing about the war on terror. More scholars from a variety of disciplines should pay attention to this work, and this frame for understanding what is happening. In terms of professional space, we could use the field’s flagship annual conference, the meeting of the Middle East Studies Association—to combat heterosexism, conservatism and tensions around gender non-conformity in our multiple academic communities.