(A guest post by Jamil Khader)
Conservative right-wing and liberal leftist reactions to the catastrophic mass-shooting at Pulse, the friendly gay club in Orlando, falter around the shooter Omar Seddique Mateen’s Muslim background. While conservative pundits and populist anti-immigration politicians drum up the perpetrator’s Islamic background, liberal commentators, including members of the Muslim and LGBTQ communities, try to downplay it. The former get caught up in right-wing Islamophopbic histrionics and the latter in politically correct taboos.
Both responses, however, are misguided, since they shift the discussion to cultural issues, thereby displacing the important question of the political economy of terrorism and homosexuality. These responses thus obfuscate the ways in which these terrorist acts be it homophobic, religious fundamentalist, or white fascist supremacist, are byproducts of the dynamics of global capitalism, in which sexual violence, including homophobic violence, has become central to its hegemony around the world.
The Fascist Islamophobic Backlash
Opportunistic politicians and conservative media pundits are using this homegrown lone-wolf terrorist act to continue framing the massacre in terms of the failure of liberal multicultural ideology and integration. They are adamant about making political capital out of this tragedy, by stoking the fire of Islamophobia. They resort to hackneyed colonial Orientalist narratives of the “clash of civilizations” between allegedly distinct and homogenous cultures and the “domestic radicalization” of immigrant Muslim youth.
Political leaders in both U.S. and around the world wasted no time pointing the finger at the homophobic Muslim shooter and to pay lip service to the humanity of the LGBTQ community. At the same, these same leaders have consistently supported anti-LGBTQ legislation or exploited LGBTQ issues as well as the massacre to pinkwash their atrocious records on human rights violations.
But Mateen’s links to ISIS or any other radical Islamic terrorist group remain tenuous at best. Although IS radio claimed responsibility for the massacre, which they referred to in Islamic military terms as “ghazwah” (incursion), Mateen had actually pledged allegiance to two ideologically opposed radical Islamic terrorist groups at war with each other. While the FBI has just confirmed that prior to the attack, Mateen had no connections whatsoever with ISIS, the FBI was the only organization that tried to recruit Mateen to commit terrorist acts.
By drumming up his religious affiliation and spurious terrorist connections, right-wing politicians and conservative commentators simply displace deeper socio-economic changes that result from the contradictions of the global capitalist economy onto a whole faith, culture, or race. The anti-Semite’s Jew of yonder years has been effectively replaced by the fascist’s Muslim. This fascist rhetoric also covers up not only the FBI’s “indirect role” in inadvertently fostering a culture of domestic terrorism. More importantly, it occludes the imperial interests of Western countries and their role in supporting the same radical Islamic terrorist groups, against whom they are supposed to be waging the “war on terror.” This way they can push their hysterical campaign to consolidate an “expanded police state” in the service of the global capitalist class.
The liberal reaction, on the other hand, understandably downplays the shooter’s Islamic background. Even if Mateen’s links to ISIS were categorically proven to be inexistent, however, it is counterproductive to suggest that the shooter’s Islamic background played no role in shaping his views. Mateen’s putative links to ISIS notwithstanding, the fact remains that this fantasy of membership in a terrorist group is what sustained his sense of reality and what gave it consistency. His actual links to ISIS or any other terrorist group are really beside the point.
Predictably, liberals also seeks to demonstrate that homophobic terrorism is democratically distributed across all faiths and cultures. They tend to pin the Orlando massacre down on Christian fundamentalist homophobic rhetoric. This might be useful in dealing with the guilt Western liberal leftists feel about their putative Islamophobia or the Western role in fragmenting Arab and Islamic countries, but it does not help account for the deeper causes of homophobic terrorism across the globe.
Blaming the massacre on cultural discourses simply ignores the structural changes that global capitalism has introduced especially, in gender and sexual norms, around the world. A better explanation is needed of how homosexuality is rejected even among Christian fundamentalists in the West as a byproduct of (Western) liberal discourses of gender performativity or postmodern permissiveness.
This can also shed better light on homophobic terrorism as an expression of the desire of different cultures and traditions to reclaim the past and return to fictitious traditional notions of cultural and religious purity, in which homosexuality did not allegedly exist.
The liberal response also insists on using the mantra that every individual, friend or foe, has a story of suffering and victimization. By providing a personal story to criminals and perpetrators, as the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek notes, “the monstrous murderer reveals himself to be a deeply hurt and desperate individual, yearning for company and love.” Along the same lines, liberal leftist pundits insist on reconstructing Mateen’s story, giving him a human face and making it possible to identify with his tragic humanity and suffering.
According to these reports, Omar Mateen is “a simple, Americanized guy,” who was going through a cultural and sexual identity crisis. He changed his name from Omar Mir Seddique to Omar Mir Seddique Mateen and was believed to be a closeted homosexual who “chose to hide his true identity out of anger and shame.” Indeed, Mateen has been reported to patronize gay bars, use gay chat apps, and even befriend a drag queen. This also explains his history of domestic violence.
The pop psychological analysis was quick to follow. Writing for Salon, Amanda Marcotte suggests that “Mateen had some self-loathing issues going on” which “he projected onto men who lived more unapologetically queer lives.” She concludes that Mateen “was acting on his sexual resentments more than . . . some well-articulated devotion to the ISIS caliphate.”
Media reports also leave no doubt as to the toxic environment in which Mateen grew up. Mateen’s father, a self-proclaimed homophobe, has reportedly posted a Facebook comment, expressing his shock and disbelief at his son’s actions, since “God will punish those involved in homosexuality.” It is not simply that the father passed his homophobic comments on to his son, as one report suggests, but that he instilled in him a characteristically “homosexual panic” at his own unspeakable forbidden desire.
The father’s political views also seem to have influenced Mateen’s actions. His support for the Afghani Taliban and his resistance to Western imperial intervention in his home country must have trickled down to his son. In a facebook post, Mateen had lashed out on Russia and the US for bombing IS and killing innocent women and children. In the midst of the killing spree, moreover, an eyewitness reported that Mateen told police negotiators on the phone he “wouldn’t stop his assault until America stopped bombing his country.” Nothing can explain this homophobic terrorism better than his alleged anti-colonial sentiments, but the real ideology, whether religious or nationalist, underpinning such anticolonialism is not clear.
Imperial designs were also intermixed with multicultural politics. As a fellow security guard stated in an interview with Newsday, Mateen hated everybody—“blacks, Jews, gays, a lot of politicians, our soldiers. He had a lot of hate in him.” Ironically though, the same eyewitness reported that as he was shooting, Mateen was trying to be politically correct: He made it clear he did not have a problem with “black people,” who have “suffered enough” in this country.
However, less emphasis has been placed on the link between his violent behavior and his employment at G4S. But it is equally important to understand the role this international private security company plays in maintaining new zones of apartheid within the global capitalist system around the world. G4S is responsible for managing prisons and military installations, erecting apartheid walls, and protecting the transnational capitalist class. Indeed, G4S is the same company that is responsible for constructing the 600-mile Great Wall around Mecca as well as the apartheid separation wall in Palestine.
On their part, Muslims around the world, but especially in the West, have fallen in line to perform what seems to be by now a familiar script in the aftermath of catastrophic terrorist acts: They refuse to accept, and correctly so, that these terrorist acts are committed “in the name of Islam” and at the same time, they insist on showing that Muslims account for the majority of victims of extremist Muslim violence.In this particular case, moreover, the focus in Islamic circles has shifted to theological squabbles about the meaning and status of homosexuality in the Quran and the traditions of the prophet Mohammad. As the first openly gay Imam Daayiee Abdullah states, “Nowhere in the Quran does it say punish homosexuals. And historians have also never found any case of the Prophet Muhammad dealing with homosexuality.”Undoubtedly, this theological squabble can be important for deconstructing the tyranny of the literalist interpretation of religious texts. This emphasis on interpretation can also demonstrate the diversity of theological views on homosexuality in different Muslim countries around the world. Indeed, as liberal commentators insist on reminding us, a 2015 Pew poll shows that most Muslims in the U.S. are more tolerant of homosexuality and gay marriages than major Christian groups
Nonetheless, the hermeneutic question keeps the problem within the cultural realm, away from questions about the political economy where attitudes to homosexuality and terrorism can be articulated together. In other words, the attitudes of diverse Muslim countries towards homosexuality should not only be examined in relation to the struggle over religious authority, however important that is for the project of reforming Islam, but more significantly in relation to the impact of global capitalism on these countries and their integration into the global capitalist system.Although some countries endorse homophobic terrorism as an expression of their anti-colonial struggle against Western hegemony, most countries that criminalize homosexuality have major stakes in the geopolitical struggle over power in the region and world, even more as allies of these same Western colonial powers. This might explain the difference in the official governmental position on the issue between on the one hand, more gay friendly or neutral countries such as Indonesia, Jordan, and Albania, and on the other, homophobic countries such as Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia that actively criminalize queer desire and disparage the LGBTQ community as “perverts.”
Re-inscribing the Class Struggle
Understanding homophobic terrorism in the context of global capitalist dynamics clears a space for dealing with the problem of terrorism in new ways. Indeed, no serious measures or policies can be taken to prevent another mass-shooting of this scale, unless the global dimensions of such acts are clearly worked out. By erasing the role of global capitalism in reproducing these acts of terrorism, moreover, conservative and liberal approaches also fail to offer a new emancipatory universal position that can unite diverse groups in the struggle for fundamental change in the global capitalist system.
This cannot be done, as Kenan Malik states, by “celebrating diversity, while treating everyone as citizens, rather than as simply belonging to particular communities.” Since local traditions work well with global capitalism, as Žižek points out, the precondition for a new path of freedom is precisely the renunciation of all roots in favor of an emancipatory universal identity. Žižek is thus right to insist, in his recent book Against the Double Blackmail, on the need to reinscribe the class struggle, since the task of the left today should be building “global solidarity of the exploited and oppressed,” a politics of solidarity structured around a common struggle for a “positive universal project shared by all.” This is the only ground from which a meaningful solution to terrorism can emerge.