When news of Orlando first broke, my first instinct was that a gay man had perpetrated the atrocities that the world witnessed there. The first fragments of information that came out that mournful morning—Orlando, a gay Latin club, hostage situation—struck me as simultaneously ‘too random’ and ‘too targeted’ to be the actions of any person seeking real political attention or traction. At the very least, and despite popular refrains these days, Orlando is no Istanbul, Baghdad, Medina, or even Dhaka. Moreover, the kind of damage wrought, and the particular cruelties inflicted, seemed to me the actions of someone who themselves was damaged, hurt, angry and, yes, mean. My thoughts that morning returned, again and again, to how deep the wounds of homophobia run in U.S. society, and the cycles of tragic and paradoxical violence these wounds themselves inflict.
There is much that we will never know about Omar Mateen—his sexual desires, his religious beliefs, the contents of his FBI surveillance file—and this post is not intended to either declare or cement any of these complex aspects of his life. Rather, I want to trouble any easy conclusions that emerge out of this tragic incident, fixing attention on some paradoxes of social and political life that often get suppressed during these moments of tragedy. To be sure, one of these paradoxes involves the ‘internal’ policing, shaming, and violence that goes on within any community, majority or minority. And whether we frame the various manifestations of this kind of violence as ‘white-on-white violence,’ ‘self-hating gays,’ or ‘Muslim Islamophobia,’ we need to be both more attuned to the existence of this kind of violence, as well as its causes.
Much has been made of the homophobia of Omar Mateen’s father and his alleged admonitions to his son that homosexuality is a heavenly crime, not a worldly one. These two domain of ‘legality’ are an important distinction in Islamic jurisprudence, but (secular and non-secular) critics of this position seem to suggest that, at the end of the day, it is a distinction without merit. In short, the lurking thought-bubble seems to be that Omar Mateen’s father—a ‘bad Muslim’—was thoroughly homophobic and that he imparted this homophobia to his son—who then enacted heaven’s punishments in this world—and that somehow the result was something different than what most older (white and non-white alike) Americans have openly desired for decades now. As to this last observation, let it be clear that queer Americans have not forgotten the homophobia and homophobic violence they grew up with. As a result, Omar Mateen’s father seems to many of us far more tolerant than the parents, neighbors, and employers we have experienced.
In all this, then, I think we need to be attuned to not only the possibility of ‘self-hating gays’ but also ‘Islamophobic Muslims.’ The ‘Bad Muslim/Good Muslim’ distinction—troublesomely yet commonly made by non-Muslims and Muslims alike—is one memorably explored by Mahmood Mamdani. Jasbir Puar’s work on ‘homonationalism’ is also deeply relevant and important here. Furthermore, while the identification of these paradoxical identitarian phenomena is important, we also need to develop stronger understandings of their genesis. In ongoing scholarly work of mine, concerning a Muslim non-state court system in India, and its secular and Muslim critics alike, I try to understand root causes of secular—and Muslim—Islamophobia. But given space limitations here, I will return to all that in another blog post.