When homophobia becomes Islamophobia

We are all still in deep shock after the brutal massacre at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida where 49 people were slaughtered by Omar Mateen, a Muslim American citizen. Since the massacre, wrongly described by some media as the ‘deadliest’ attack on civilians in recent American history, we are trying to fathom Mateen’s motives in carrying out this atrocious anti-gay crime.

In the current climate, where Muslims and Islam are tagged with ‘extremism’ and ‘radicalism’, it is deeply worrying that two of the US presidential contenders compete in describing Mateen’s atrocity as ‘Islamic’. It is particularly unsettling that the Democratic contender Hillary Clinton has seen fit to say just a day after that the event that she was not afraid to say ‘radical’ Islam as she countered attacks from the Republican contender Donald Trump that she’s too politically correct to use the phrase. ‘From my perspective, it matters what we do more than what we say,’ Clinton said on CNN. ‘And it mattered we got bin Laden, not what name we called him. Whether you call it radical jihadism or radical Islamism, I’m happy to say either. I think they mean the same thing.’ Compare this outburst with President Obama’s reasoned argument that using the meaningless term ‘radical Islam’ tars millions of believers with a racist religious brush: ‘There is no magic to the phrase “radical Islam”. It is a political talking point. It is not a strategy’.

Apparently Mateen was not only a violent husband whose wife escaped his marital brutality by the skin of her teeth, but also a frequent user of the same gay nightclub he attacked and of gay dating websites, so clearly someone with a conflictual sexual orientation. Having also worked for the security firm G4S he was clearly a complex character, whose motives were anything but simply attributable to ‘radical Islam’, despite the rush by many racists, including representatives of the state of Israel, to use the massacre to further incite against Muslims and Islam.

However, apart from what some commentators attributed to the crisis of masculinity and to the easy access Americans have to automatic assault weapons, and apart from the fact that larger numbers of people have been massacred by white American murderers in the recent past, the important lesson of this atrocity is how easy it is to invoke Islamophobia as a default racist position. These unthinking responses also assume that all Muslims are homophobic even though there are many LGBT Muslims who are as appalled by the slaughter in Orlando as we all are.

As David Graham writes in The Atlantic, queer Muslims are struggling with their balancing several complex identities, as both Muslim and queer. The discussion about the Orlando shooting has become part of a shouting match between two competing narratives, one about Islamophobia and one about homophobia. Because Omar Mateen said he was acting in the name of Islam, these narratives are presumed to be mutually exclusive. For LGBTQ Muslims, however, experiencing both forms of discrimination simultaneously isn’t just possible; it’s familiar. They are the people who are terrified by violence against gay people, but who also immediately start praying, ‘just please don’t let him be Muslim’ every time they hear a news item about an attack on LGBTQ people.

I for one agree with Obama that ‘radical Islam’ as a default option is unacceptable and deplore racist media and politicians such as Clinton, Trump and Netanyahu, who rush to pink wash this heinous anti-gay crime in the name of their deep commitment to Islamophobia.