On June 12, 2016, a horrific mass-shooting terrorist attack occurred at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Forty-nine people were savagely massacred and fifty-three others were terribly wounded. The depraved gunman, Omar Mateen, was eventually killed by police after a three-hour siege. The unpalatable number of deaths is of scary import – it is the deadliest mass shooting by a single gunman in the history of the US, as well as the deadliest incident of violence against LGBT people in history of the US. Not only that, it is also the deadliest terrorist attack in the US since the September 11 attacks.
We recently found out that the killer, an American-born whose parents are of Afghan background, apparently was – according to conflicting reports – a regular habitué of the nightclub. During the attack, Mateen pledged allegiance to The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). However, investigators have not formally linked Mateen to ISIS, and cautioned that the attack may have been ISIS-inspired without being ISIS-directed.
A lot of commentators have been proffering various explanations for Mateen’s despicable act. Some have argued that it has nothing to do with Islam – rather, his actions are the result of a nation’s institutionalised homophobia and the West’s imperialist past. Others, however, have argued that it’s a mere reflection of the inherent homophobia that is imbued within both the history and ancient texts of Islam.
Now, it is important to recognise that whilst it is all too easy to proffer an offhand explanation for Mateen’s actions, the motivating factor is likely to be a very complicated one. Whilst it is easy to single out one encompassing determinant for his depravity, it is important that we discuss the matter with compassion, complexity and nuance. I have witnessed too many commentators dispassionately capitalise on such a tragedy by dint of cursory explanations that squarely inveigh against those groups they deem antithetical to their principles.
I am sure in the coming weeks we will see more things unearthed regarding the motivating factor in question. A prevailing view at the moment is that he had a significant mental illness, many suspect that he faced social deprivation, many also claim that he was a repressed and guilt-laden homosexual who was not warmly welcomed by the Islamic community.
Now, if it is indeed true that he did indeed pledge allegiance to ISIS, there is a question that surely must be confronted: is there anything within the Quran and/or the Hadiths which either actively supports or condones the slaughter of those LGBT members – as many suspect? I’ve witnessed some very welcomed retorts by progressive Muslims against arguments that the motivating factor is Islam’s inherent homophobia. Many of the retorts claim that there is no fundamental statement within the Quran that explicitly puts forth a punishment for homosexuality. Even if the story of the “people of Lot” is typically cited as justification for bigotry – and worse – against homosexuals and of the LGBT+ group more broadly, such retorts refreshingly draw upon hermeneutical points to attenuate any straightforward discriminatory ‘edicts’ that explicitly penalise homosexuals.
That’s great! But, is it really enough? Whilst I warmly welcome progressive-Muslims doing their utmost to sap the rather dominant idea in mainstream Muslim thought that homosexuality is a punishable crime and a sin, such complacency should be cautioned. Why do I say this? No matter how nobly progressive-Muslims lambaste the rather morally regressive strands which occupy mainstream thought within the religion, there is nothing within the Quran – or the Bible or Torah for that matter – that, at the very least, actively sanctions or, at the very most, explicitly promotes, LGBT+ rights. What is more, even if there is no fundamental statement within the Quran that explicitly puts forth a punishment for homosexuality, we know that there is a serious and dispiriting problem within the current mainstream Islamic-world regarding LGBT+ rights. We know that extreme prejudice, both socially and legally, exists in much of the Islamic world against people who engage in homosexual acts. In Afghanistan, Brunei, Iran, Mauritania, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates and Yemen, homosexual activity can result in the death penalty. In Algeria, the Maldives, Malaysia, Qatar, Somalia and Syria, homosexual activity is illegal.
Given that there are unnerving problems at present within the current mainstream Islamic world regarding LGBT+ rights, how is it, then, that we find ourselves in a position in which large swathes of Muslims (and Christians, Jews, etc.) around the world are champions of LGBT+ rights? Whilst such an important question can churn out so many different explanations, I think that the issue of what I call ‘value referencing’ should not be overlooked. Putting the issue another way: upon which foundation do we posit our values?
Those venerably progressive Muslims, progressive Christians, progressive Jews, Humanists, etc., all share a similar position: they rightly posit higher-values in this world. They believe that this world has an inherent value of great purport in and of itself. What is more, they believe that their fellow human-beings have an inalienable dignity that cannot be violated even in light of some antithetical edict handed down from a perfect godly being from a “perfect” and “beyond” world.
These commendable people do not require some unimpeachable commandments conferred from another world in order to respect or actively champion LGBT+ rights in this world – they acknowledge that this world is awash with a profuseness of meaning to such an extent that it gives rise to unassailable precepts in and of itself. Another world or not, divine edicts or not, they’ll continue to be dignified guardians of human rights.
Now, as I have already said, whilst many explanations for Mateen’s despicable act can be given – none of course justify the depraved act – I think it is important that we ask ourselves the following question: what role did the idea of ‘another world’ play in the disgusting infractions we saw him commit on the 12th of June? Like many an ISIS mercenary, there is a mutually shared view that this world is merely a preface, merely a ‘test’ to see how obedient we are to Allah before we enter the everlasting and perfect world. Woefully spawning a mentality that sees ends justifying the means, depraved acts become justified insofar as they comply with timeless, transcendent rules they deem handed down by the perfect creator, a compliance that begets everlasting reward in the next world. They flatly deny that this world, our world, can have any inherent value in and off itself if there is no impeccable, perfect other world from which this world can be related. They also dismally deny that humans and other sentient life have an inalienable dignity that cannot be violated even in a godless world.
Does this sufficiently explain away the atrocity committed by Mateen? No. However, I think that this certainly played a role in his own justification for committing such an act of barbarity. This ends-justifies-the-means mentality which is underpinned by his idea of – or crazed hunger for – the otherworld in which the idealised, complete life resides provides a pillar – alongside others – that effectuated the reprehensible act in question. This is a pillar that composes the majority of terrorism that has a component – however large or small – of theism – albeit the kind of theism that maintains a twofold distinction between earth/paradise, appearance/truth.
Now, in addition to the legal investigations, the compassion and care for the bereaved and those who are still injured, and solidarity with the LGBT+ community, there are additional demands that we must face. First, I am of the conviction that it’s absolutely essential that the progressive mind-set becomes infused within current mainstream Muslim thought. The current mainstream Muslim thought (that is not to say muslims as a whole) as it currently stands is morally regressive, and it does not merely do enough in its championing of – it currently poses a worrying danger to – LGBT+ rights. Secondly, we all need to thump for a human mentality that sees values readily and unshakeably sourced in this world with the conviction that humans have an inalienable dignity that can never be encroached upon.
Lastly, we need not turn to holy text to adjudicate upon fundamental moral issues. We are fully acquainted with the fact that many religious people are proponents of LGBT+ rights, champions of the rights of women, supporters of contraception, and rightful repudiators of slavery. Many of these issues are either neglected or completely proscribed by the Bible, Quran and the Torah. However, and here is the important thing for us all to remember, whilst they are champions of their religions, many are still wonderworking champions of LGBT+ rights. Whether religious or not, we must do more – and we can all do more – to ensure that human dignity is safeguarded and defended by all. This requires a reformation within – indeed another Renaissance within – current mainstream Muslim thought that rehabilitates its current corroded propriety towards those in the LGBT+ community and those behaviours and/or proclivities that are principal within it. The current mainstream Islamic world mustn’t just listen actively, compassionately and openly to those progressive disciples within it, they must also valiantly mirror them.