This is a guest post by Muhammad Syed. He is the founder and president of Ex-Muslims of North America (EXMNA), the first Ex-Muslim advocacy and community building organization in North America, and be reached directly on twitter at @MoTheAtheist.
This week, we were again forced to confront the face of religion at its extremes — this time in the largest single-shooter killing in American history. 49 people were killed at a gay nightclub in Orlando, with an additional 53 sustaining injuries. The shooter, a 29-year-old American-born man of Afghan descent named Omar Mateen, had pledged allegiance to ISIS in a call to 911 during his attack.
The target seemed to be chosen for its clientele. The shooter’s father, Seddique Mateen, claimed to have witnessed his son rage at the sight of a public display of affection between a gay couple: “He saw two men kissing each other in front of his wife and kid and he got very angry,” he told NBC News.
Seddique added, “This had nothing to do with religion.” Meanwhile, the shooter’s imam and ex-wife blamed mental illness as the culprit.
Is it possible this was an extreme case of run-of-the-mill homophobia, one driven by mental illness to an exceptionally brutal end? Or did religion play a role?
When a supposed expression of love between two adults may have led to this level of violence, we’re duty-bound to examine the larger tapestry of hate that generates such individuals and actions.
It’s possible that mental illness, aggression, and internalized homophobia may be all it takes for an individual to slaughter innocents — but is it rational to assume that is the case, disregarding the relevance of his faith and allegiance to the Islamic State?
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the younger of the Boston Bombers, showed no signs of an aggressive personality or derangement — in fact, he was widely thought to be quite the opposite by his friends and associates. He was frequently described as having a laid-back demeanor and even a “heart of gold.” Mateen may have been different from Tsarnaev in that regard, but it is what the two had in common that should concern us most. Neither mental illness nor a history of aggression is necessary to drive one to murderous rampage. But when they’ve pledged allegiance to extremist Islam, we can’t ignore the obvious.
Does this mean we should paint all Muslims with the actions of Mateen (or the Tsarnaevs, or the San Bernardino shooters Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik)? Of course not. Are Muslims as a group culpable for the extreme actions of terrorists? Not at all. As we’ve heard time and time again, if all Muslims were capable of the same level of violence as terrorists, the world would be a much bloodier place. The average Western Muslim is appalled by the acts of these extremists — not only because it will surely result in more anti-Muslim bigotry, but because they believe such extreme violence is not acceptable in principle.
However, while the vast majority of Muslims do not agree with the violent actions of Mateen, the hatred that underpins those actions is pervasive in the Muslim world. This hatred is not arbitrary. It originates from the root of the faith, from the very foundational documents of Islam.
The scriptures colorfully narrate genocide conducted by God against homosexuals — the Qur’an describes the destruction of the entire nation of Lot (Qur’an 7:80-84) as punishment for acts of homosexuality amongst the population (Qur’an 27:54-58). There are explicit calls for punishment for homosexuality (Qur’an 4:16-17), including the death penalty (Hadith).
Obviously, the Old Testament also contains strong language condemning homosexual acts; in this sense, Islam isn’t different. Christians have justified persecution of homosexuals using their scriptures throughout history (and some pastors have even celebrated the Orlando shooting, stating that homosexuals should be executed).
But we must accept one key difference, no matter how bitter a pill it is to swallow: Compared to Christians, more Muslims take their religion literally.
Acknowledging this does not absolve Christianity. On the contrary, it makes clear how a weakened faith correlates with greater tolerance. Those pastors applauding the deaths of the victims were roundly condemned by Christians everywhere. Yet how often are imams condemned after issuing fatwas against individuals? The bigotry propagated by Christianity has been slowly waning throughout the centuries, but that simply is not (yet) the case in the Muslim world. The Western world has seen monumental advances in LGBT rights (particularly over the past 20 years), however a medieval attitude towards homosexuality is deeply embedded in the Muslim world, and it is reflected in the attitudes of believers and the legal systems of Islamic countries across the globe.
A plurality of Muslim-majority countries (34 out of 49) have criminal sanctions against homosexuality. More tellingly, among the countries that prescribe the death penalty for homosexuality worldwide, 9 out of 10 are Muslim-majority. The exception, Nigeria, has varying regional and national penalties for the crime and it is in the Sharia-ruled states that the prescription of death penalty is present.
It is possible, of course, that the positions of the governments and legal systems in these countries may not mirror the sentiments held by citizens. In this case, however, we know this isn’t true. According to data collected by Pew Research Center, between 79-95% of individuals in Muslim-majority countries viewed homosexuality to be immoral, with those in the Arab world standing at 93%.
This is also reflected in the attitudes of Muslims residing in Western societies. A Gallup poll in the U.K. was unable to find a single Muslim out of 500 interviewed who thought homosexuality was morally acceptable.
The Muslim population within the U.S. is perhaps the most tolerant and liberal in the world, yet their attitudes align more closely with the most conservative elements of American society — evangelical Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, etc.
Let me say this again: Even among the most tolerant Muslim community in the world, a majority (52%) oppose equality for LGBTQ individuals, a fact that should give us pause. This isn’t a mere “East vs. West” difference — opposition to LGBTQ rights amongst members of other Eastern minority faiths in America is relatively small (Hindus at 23%, Buddhists at 13%).
Furthermore, these attitudes are not mere statistics. They are borne out by the actions taken by communities, mosques, and other Muslim organizations.
For example, Ontario adopted a progressive sex ed curriculum in 2015, only to face near-universal opposition by Muslim communities. Due to this pressure, the curriculum was watered down. Similarly, a book accepting of homosexuality written by the Pakistani-Canadian author Eiynah was initially embraced by Canadian schools, but later recalled due to outrage from Muslim parents. The author stated in an interview with the CBC:
When I wrote a children’s book, My Chacha is Gay, a lot of people were happy at first to have it addressed from a Muslim point of view. But the outrage from parents caused schools to back down and away from the project. They said it was offensive to the culture and that gay people just don’t exist.
Similarly, the Islamic Education and Research Academy (IERA) has had numerous homophobic speakers tour campuses in the United States and Canada, many of whom have made bigoted comments on the record, including advocating the use of “a more derogatory term like sodomites” instead of gay, and calling for capital punishment for homosexuals. Similar incidents occur on a regular basis.
LGBTQ Muslims suffer from a high incidence of suicide as well, a commonality amongst all religious groups who advocate bigotry towards homosexuals. Just last year, the Guardian covered a story about a 34-year-old doctor in London who faced rejection when coming out to his family and killed himself soon after. This is consistent with research indicating a risk of suicide attempts that is eight times higher among gay individuals faced with rejection by their families.
In fact, recent reports indicate that the shooter was himself homosexual. Some Muslim pundits are using this possibility as proof that his actions were unrelated to his religion. This logic is exactly backwards. Self-loathing is a very real phenomenon, illustrated by the numerous anti-gay leaders who are later revealed to be gay, and is often perpetuated by traditional religious belief. The “homophobe who turns out to be gay” trope is distinctly tied with traditional, conservative, and often very religious backgrounds.
Meanwhile, many “progressive” Muslims have suggested that those living in the West should accept LGBTQ rights merely because it is important to respect the laws of the land, while refraining from demanding the full measure of dignity that those with differing sexual orientations deserve. You’ll also hear that tired compromise made by many Muslims (and Christians): homosexuality itself isn’t a crime, but acting on it is a vile criminal act.
This intention to protect Muslims from bigotry by obfuscating the reality of their beliefs and attitudes will not help anyone, least of which themselves. We cannot demand they enter the 21st century while refusing to admit that their ideology keeps them tied to the 7th.
The good news is that all of this can be overcome with reason, compassion, and most importantly, an honest assessment of where we are and how we got here.
(Screenshot via YouTube)