For the majority of the 1.6 billion Muslims around the world the holy month of Ramadan is one for spiritual renewal, reflection, and peace. In Morocco, where I am observing this holy month, the long day of fast is a reminder of the plight of those in society who are less fortunate, and for whom fasting is a daily reality. But for some inspired by radical violent causes, it is a call to arms where violence carries more reward in accordance to the fossilized interpretations of the minority cult of death that is ISIS. Last month, ISIS firebrand preacher and chief social media recruiter, Muhammad al-Adnani, released a video calling on other self-proclaimed jihadists “to make it a month of calamity everywhere for non-believers . . . especially for the fighters and supporters of the caliphate in Europe and America.” In the U.S., one “lone wolf” in Orlando took heed of this deadly call and committed one of the worst acts of violence in the history of the US.
Like many Muslims in America, I was hoping against all hope that the perpetrator was not a Muslim. Not because a mass shooting perpetrated by a non-Muslim assailant would have made the tragedy less horrific, but because as a Muslim in America, I am fully aware of what ensues in collectivization discourses and abject depictions of all Muslim and Islam, as it is the case for a certain presidential candidate.
Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Muslim Americans have become a “doormat minority” for politicians pandering to the lowest common denominator of bigoted voters. Any politicians wanting to score points with the far right has to excoriate Muslims as a political rite of passage. Islamophobia is the new norm in US political and media discourse. Facile stereotypes of the faith and its practitioners are replete in US shows, and Hollywood portrayals. Even uber liberal Bill Maher did not disappoint as he engaged in one of his usual hate-filled and uninformed rants against Islam and Muslims in his HBO show. Muslims have become accustomed to defining their faith in terms of what it is not, instead of what it is. So when the name of the Orlando shooter was revealed, a sudden drop in our collective guts as Muslims was immediate. Not another act of murder in our name and in the name of our religion.
In their own ways, 9/11 shook many Muslim-Americans out of its abeyance, and have since engaged in every day acts of resistance against these assaults on their faith. These include education, outreach, interfaith dialogue, and rejection of those amongst us who hold extremist Islamist views. Muslims continue to reject radical binaries and tackle literalist, extremist interpretations of Islamic texts, in particular, passages in the Qur’an and Hadith, on war, apostasy, and violence, which must be subjected to new, unequivocal interpretations to fit the modern social and political realities of Muslim-minority states.
In this vein, the Muslim-American leadership has been swift in its condemnation of the Orlando attacks on the LGBTQI community. Nihad Awad of the Council on American-Islamic Relations exhibited sagacious leadership when he declared that “For many years, members of the LGBTQI. community have stood shoulder to shoulder with the Muslim community against any acts of hate crimes, Islamophobia, marginalization, and discrimination. Today we stand with them shoulder to shoulder,” he said. “The liberation of the American Muslim community is profoundly linked to the liberation of other minorities—blacks, Latinos, gays, Jews, and every other community. We cannot fight injustice against some groups and not against others. Homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia—we cannot dismantle one without the other.”
Awad is correct that the fight for equality and acceptance is a common collective struggle, and discourses of homophobia are as dangerous and destructive as those of Islamophobia. He is also spot-on in his unambiguous denunciation of ISIS ideology and violence: “You do not speak for us,” he said. “You do not represent us. You are an aberration. You are outlaws.” He went on, “They don’t speak for our faith. They claim to, but 1.7 billion people are united in rejecting their extremism and their acts of senseless violence.”
The cancer of radical Islamism gnawing at the fabric of Islam is alive and perniciously well, and has yet again reached the US shores. The two are not mutually exclusive. ISIS-inspired attacks have targeted a number of countries around the world, especially as the terrorist outfit’s Manichean war on the “gray zone” of cross-cultural and civilizational dialogue continues unabated even as they are ceding territory in Iraq and Syria. ISIS’s losses on the battle ground in the Middle East has pushed it to shift its strategy towards exporting violence into western cities. The threat of ISIS ideology is evident in the self-radicalization of assailants. The fact that Mateen frequented that same gay club, and may have been on gay dating applications does not mean he couldn’t have been self-radicalized. Self-radicalization and homosexuality are not mutually exclusive. Some of the Belgium terrorists also patronized gay clubs, bars and such. There is no evidence that ISIS directed the Orlando attack, but Mateen did call and pledge allegiance to ISIS, and one can be a gay, Muslim, deranged, ISIS sympathizer all at the same time.
But this is not an issue of radicalism alone, especially in the US where lone wolf attacks are especially devastating because of lax gun control laws. In the United States, the death rate from gun homicides, including mass shootings like Orlando, is about 31 per million people — that is 27 people shot dead every day of the year. The US eclipses other western industrialized democracies in gun-related fatalities so much that the odds of being killed by a gun in Japan are similar to being struck by lightning in the U.S. Easy access to semi-automatic and fully automatic weapons has wreaked much havoc on US society, as politicians continue to shirk responsibility to enact even tougher laws on gun sales.
President Obama’s multiple passionate calls for Congress to remedy the issue have largely been thwarted by the gun lobby, and a segment of the population that views any gun control regulations tantamount to disarmament. The fact is that tougher gun control laws would have probably prevented Omar Mateen from walking into a store, while on the FBI radar, and purchase a deadly AR-15 assault rifle. In any other society, that is cause for alarm and a definition of madness, but in the US, some are myopic and prefer to speak about radical Islamism only, when the FBI estimates that 90% of attacks in the US since 1980 have been conducted by non-Muslims.
Back in Morocco, confusion and frustration are manifold, and some even paid tribute to the victims of the Orlando shooting. In the capital city of Rabat, Moroccan activists took part in a vigil holding signs that reads: “Homophobia kills!” When I told my own mother about the attacks and that they were committed by a Muslim, she briskly interrupted: “No, he is not a Muslim.” Her powerful rejection of Omar Mateen and his violent act was further consecrated when I went to perform the Taraweeh prayers later that night. During the prayers observed in Ramadan only, the imam of my neighborhood mosque recited a Quranic verse that is as poignant as it is timely given the Orlando hate crime: "Whoever kills a person [unjustly]…it is as though he has killed all mankind. And whoever saves a life, it is as though he had saved all mankind."(Qur’an, 5:32) These are the values and true message of Islam that are lost on the minority extremists in the US and ISIS alike.