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The cynical exploitation of the Orlando shooting

Various interest groups have cynically used the tragedy to further their own political agendas, by making claims about the shooter's motives

At 2am on 12 June 2016, in Orlando, Florida, US citizen Omar Mateen walked into the Pulse nightclub and began shooting those inside leading to 49 fatalities and 53 wounded.

No sooner had the bloody events come to an end, Islamophobes began blaming Islam for the massacre and argued this was yet another example of Muslim "jihad" against all non-Muslims.

Right-wing alarmists and populists argued it was "radical Islam" and another attack by Islamic State on the US. Hardline secular liberals who are intolerant of traditional Islamic thought (ironically calling themselves "counter-extremists"), argued that the shooting was inspired by "Islamism", and "Islamic extremism" within the Muslim community, concluding that Islam needed a reformation. Some of these even argued that this exposed a "huge problem" of homophobia in the Muslim community.

Other voices from the US left-wing argued that the incident occurred due to the availability of guns, pointing out that killings from firearms greatly dwarf statistics of terror deaths in the US. Some cite the existence of widespread homophobia in the US, while some feminists made the argument that "toxic masculinity" was to blame for shooters tending to be male.

Unfortunately, time wasn't taken to wait for the evidence to come to light to make the causes clearer before people jumped to conclusions. Instead, various interest groups cynically used the tragedy to further their own political agendas, by making claims about the shooter's motives, to tout their solutions which conveniently supported their causes.

Was Mateen radicalised by an interpretation of Islam?

A narrative that has been commonplace and cliched is the claim by Islamophobes and intolerant secular liberals, especially those involved with the "counter-extremism" industry, that the spread of an "extremist" interpretation of Islam is the cause, or a cause, behind an individual's resort to violence. Consequently, every terror attack involving an identified Muslim is immediately interpreted and presented as the result of the individual's ideology, and Mateen's attack has been cited as another violent attack by a Muslim turned radical, and motivated by religion or a religious interpretation.

However, evidence has inevitably come to light about Mateen's background that questions these presumptions. It has been reported that Mateen has had a long-standing history of mental health problems, instability, isolation and violence. He was reported to have lived a lifestyle of night-clubbing, drinking alcohol and seeking sexual encounters with men, suggesting his practice of religion was as nominal as many non-religious Americans.

Mateen's father, Seddique Mateen, is actively involved online in Afghan politics, but it appears only from a nationalist viewpoint. It was claimed that Mateen's father may have been a factor in Mateen’s radicalisation because he supported the Taliban by calling them "warriors", but this seems unlikely as Seddique was mentioning them only from a nationalist perspective. He regularly published YouTube videos of himself with the Afghan national flag (the Taliban's flag is white with Arabic script). He also proclaimed a desired to seek the presidency of Afghanistan. Both Mateen and his father are clean shaven, and Mateen never appears in available pictures with a beard.

Despite Mateen's last-minute pledge of allegiance to IS on the phone and Facebook posts, and the overheard demand for the US to stop bombing "his country" (which may refer to Afghanistan), the full details of Mateen's personal opinions and ideas on religion and politics are not known as of yet. Mateen reportedly called a CNN affiliate during the attack and said “I did it for ISIS. I did it for the Islamic State" - but it is known that IS does not like the acronym “ISIS” after they changed their name to "Islamic State".

Despite some apocryphal reports, no credible report currently alleged Mateen even shouted "Allahu Akbar" while he was carrying  out his heinous deed. How do we know that Mateen was following any interpretation of Islam? As past cases have shown, an individual supporting IS is not likely to be a devout Muslim (in fact, quite the opposite). Mateen's ex-wife Sitora Yusufiy thought her husband wasn't too religious, nor radicalised, neither did his father.

Strangely, during the attack, Mateen was reported to have asked if there were any "blacks" in the club, to which he then allegedly said: "I have no problem with blacks, they've suffered enough." The theory, then, that Mateen’s sole imperative that day was to murder non-Muslims, or homosexuals, is thrown into doubt when it is reported that he seemed to want to distinguish his potential victims by race. 

The cause of the violence is therefore unlikely to be because Mateen believed in a religious imperative to kill "infidels", but is most likely due to other causes. Likewise, we simply don't know enough about his personal opinions or theology to describe Mateen as an "Islamist". Currently, his only expressed views have been his criticism of American foreign policy in the Muslim world. He has made no reported mention of the word "Islam". He reportedly published on Facebook: "You kill innocent women and children by doing US airstrikes… now taste the Islamic state vengeance."

Mental health problems, instability and reports of childhood bullying

An elementary school report about Mateen mentioned he engaged in "much talk about violence and sex (obscenities)", fighting and was disruptive in class. In a report published by the Washington Post, a number of classmates report that Mateen was bullied at school. “He got bullied a lot...It may have been because he was Muslim. But high-school can be rough; people can pick on you just because of your name.” It was alos reported that he didn't have many friends

On the day of the 11 September 2001 attacks, he cheered during class, reportedly saying "that's what America deserves". He also claimed Osama Bin Laden was his uncle. It was also reported that when his father came to pick him up that day, he slapped Mateen on the face. Mateen was then reportedly expelled from the school. This suggests Mateen was not only isolated from his class, but also an attention seeker.

During this time, in 2013, Mateen was investigated twice for claiming he was a member of Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda, and claiming he knew the Boston Bomber and a man who joined Jabhat al Nusra (Al-Qaeda) in Syria.

The problem with this is that, at the time, Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda were mortal enemies fighting each other in Syria. Hezbollah has become widely hated amongst Sunnis because of this. Mateen clearly didn’t know this, which suggests he was just citing any militant organisations that appeared to be well known. When interviewed by the FBI, Mateen admitted that he had made inflammatory remarks only “in anger” at what he perceived was his co-workers teasing him.

A former supervisor to Mateen, while he worked at a GNC, reported Mateen's preoccupation with his father. "He could do nothing right in his father's eyes." Another former colleague, also a Muslim, reported that he would go out with Mateen for a drink, that Mateen would get so drunk he would "black out". When drunk, the former colleague reported that Matten would get "crazy and violent".

A former colleague who worked with him at G4S remarked to a CNN affiliate: "He was an angry person, violent in nature, and a bigot to almost every class of person." He continued: "He would hit things and as he was hitting things, he would yell, and of course there was always curse words involved... And this wasn't seldom, this was all the time." It also reported by a work colleague at G4S that Mateen allegedly complained after seeing an African-American driver, that “he wanted to kill all blacks”, adding “he was above and beyond. He was always angry, sweating, just angry at the world."

Mateen was married to his first wife Sitora Yusufiy, but the marriage only lasted four months, with her reporting needing to be rescued by her family. Yusufiy reported that Mateen was "mentally unstable", and told reported to TIME that Mateen was abusive, prone to sudden and inexplicable violence. Yusufiy mentioned that Mateen's father was very strict and "one of the directions of his [Mateen's] life was to be a perfect son." She also said: “A few months after we were married I saw his instability, I saw his bipolar, and he would get mad out of nowhere, and that’s when I started worrying about my safety.”

A number of people, including the patrons of the nightclub, featured as the scene of the shooting, reported seeing Mateen attend the club regularly, attempt to pick up men and drink. Mateen has a reputation at the club for being "odd" and "strange", and may have been without many friends there too. He was prone to getting very drunk, and making loud and violent outbursts.

Hopefully, time may tell us whether Mateen was a sane individual driven purely by ideology, or “toxic masculinity” or just a mentally unstable and violent person who had repressed anger and found in identifying with Hezbollah, al-Qaeda and later IS, a convenient outlet for his anger and violence. In the meantime, people should refrain from speculations and agenda-ridden discourses that obscure those who should be the real focus of any human tragedy, the victims themselves.

The deadliest shooting massacre in US history?

President Obama described the Orlando attack as the "worst shooting in US history," and this was similarly echoed throughout much of the media

However, Native American news outlets have expressed outrage, stating that this description simply is not true.

In 1864, over 120 American Indians who had accepted US suzerainty and protection were attacked in their village and (mostly) shot dead by armed American militias, in a mass shooting called Sand Creek Massacre - over 100 of the dead were women and children. There are at least two other mass shootings with similar death tolls around this era.

Autumn Depoe-Hughes, a Native-American descendent of one of the victims of the Sand Creek Massacre expressed exasperation at the disregard for her history. "It looked to me like a rewriting of history," she said. "I saw my family's history disappearing before my eyes."

In conclusion, as Native Americans point out, the Orlando shooting isn't the deadliest shooting in American history. However, just because it isn't the deadliest, doesn't detract from its tragedy - in fact ridding political agendas and media sensationalism from this incident is exactly what keeps the focus on the victims of the event itself.

Was the Shooter motivated by homophobia?

The target of the Orlando attack, Pulse, was a gay nightclub, and many have argued that the attack was an act of hate against homosexuals. Although Mateen was reported to have been homosexual himself, some have raised the possibility that the shooter was motivated by his own personal feelings of shame.

According to numerous reports, Mateen attended the nightclub as a regular and was himself homosexual, allegedly joining gay dating apps and trying to pursue male customers of the nightclub. However, though there are reports by regulars at the club who spoke with Mateen before the attack, claiming that Mateen spoke about his family, wife, child and father, there are as yet no reports of statements he made expressing hatred against homosexuals or same-sex intercourse, even during times he had reportedly became seriously intoxicated at the club.

One of the club attendees, Ty Smith, told media: “We didn't really talk to him a lot, but I remember him saying things about his dad at times... He told us he had a wife and child.”

It was widely reported in the media that the father of Mateen, said his son may have been angered by seeing two gay men kissing while they were in Miami. This seems unlikely, since Mateen would've presumably have seen gay men kissing quite regularly at the club he reportedly attended as a "regular".

Furthermore, why attack a nightclub in Orlando for an incident that angered him in Miami? Later, Mateen's father was reported in the Guardian to have suggested that the incident was overblown. “But that was a couple of months ago and he never talked about it afterwards,” he said. “I don’t think that incident would trigger this kind of violent reaction.”

Although the target of Mateen's attack was a gay club,  it could be possible that the media assumed it was a homophobic attack, because America and other Western countries have had a long history of violence committed against gay nightclubs (see below).

It is, however, possible we may be presuming the shooter attacked it because it was a gay nightclub, rather than merely a public social venue he used to attend regularly, much like the killers behind the Virginia Tech and Columbine High School shooting massacres and the Aurora Theatre shooting, who targeted venues they attended regularly and knew the layout of. In those incidents, the shooters were also socially dysfunctional and felt ignored by people.

A former classmate of Mateen, during their training at Indian River State Police Academy in 2006, said: "He just wanted to fit in and no one liked him." This would seem to fit the profile of other social dysfunctional individuals who committed previous mass shootings in America.

While it is possible that Mateen committed the attack for homophobic reasons, there are more questioned that need answering.

In the Facebook posts, witness statements and phone calls currently released, there appears to be no mention of homosexuality as a motivating factor by Mateen. Instead, we hear messages of foreign policy and support for IS. It was reported that Mateen posted Facebook messages saying "Real Muslims will never accept the filthy ways of the West", but then went on to talk about the civilians casualties sustained in Western bombing campaigns in the Muslim world. “You kill innocent women and children by doing us airstrikes.” 

It is currently unclear what he was referring to by the phrase "filthy ways", and perhaps further evidence will make this clear.

The US Attorney General, Loretta Lynch, announced that transcripts would be released of the 911 calls Mateen made to the police. She was asked by CNN “Did he talk about his feelings about gay Americans?” She replied: “You know, he didn't get into that. And so we're still exploring why he chose this particular place to attack.”

If homophobia was Mateen's intended message behind this attack, he certainly didn't make it clear in his declarations that we have available.

Is violence against the LGBT community of the US new?

The Orlando shooting incident has been used to argue that Muslims are bringing violence and hatred against the LGBT community to the US. Donald Trump argued that this vindicated his stance on Muslim immigration. The act of violence which occurred in an Orlando gay club is portrayed as evidence that the Muslim community is not "assimilated" with the rest of American society.

However, what only some have noted is that the LGBT community has a long history of being on the receiving end of violence in the US (and other Western countries), perpetrated by mostly Americans from general society.

According to a Gallup survey, 3.8 per cent of Americans identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT), and FBI data on hate crime presents 18.6 per cent of reported incidents are committed due to the sexual preference of the victim. The Muslim community is certainly not the main cause of that statistic.

Homophobia in the United States

It is being argued quite hypocritically by many right-wing commentators in America that the Muslim minority of America is failing to assimilate into America and causing intolerance of LGBT people.

Hardline secular liberals, like Bill Maher, effectively blamed Islam for the Orlando shooting, and right-wing Republican senator of Alabama, Mo Brooks, argued that Muslims want to kill every homosexual in the US. 

In response to a question on a radio interview on why the American left is refusing to acknowledge that it is “mainstream Muslim thought” to put homosexuals to death, Senator Brooks replied "[the left-wing] are in a perplexing position. On the one hand, they’re trying to appeal to the gay community, but, on the other hand, they’re trying to also appeal to the Muslim community, which, if it had its way, would kill every homosexual in the United States of America.”

Republican Ted Cruz, commenting on the Orlando attack, said: “They will claim this attack, like they claimed every previous attack, was isolated and had nothing to do with the vicious Islamist theology... If you’re a Democratic politician and you really want to stand for LGBT, show real courage and stand up against the vicious ideology that has targeted our fellow Americans for murder.” This is rather odd and raised questions, considering that Ted Cruz and other Republican senators attended a political rally which saw an influential Christian pastor argue that the Bible demands the death penalty for homosexuals. What "vicious ideology" or "theology" was Cruz referring to, the one publicly proclaimed in his presence by his Baptist Christian supporters?

What interpretation of Islam, or "Radical Islam", was an American Christian Arab, Shehada Issa, following, when in April 2016 he shot his son allegedly because his son identified as "being gay"?

A number of Christian Baptist pastors have even praised the attack, causing outrage from other groups (and Christians) in the USA. A Californian lawyer, Matt McLaughlin, in 2015 proposed a bill to execute all homosexuals called "the Sodomite Suppression Act".

Are Muslims to blame because 39 percent of Americans would be upset if their son identified as being homosexual? Did Muslims create the huge preponderance of homophobia that has existed in the US long before the Muslim community became a maligned minority to politicians?

Mateen wanted to join the local police force at one time, drank alcohol, joined gay dating websites and apps, and reportedly attended the same gay bar he heinously attacked.

Mateen clearly wasn't a cultural isolationalist, nor foreign-born or unassimilated. Nothing of what Mateen did is new in America unfortunately, nor rare, but part of an ongoing violent phenomenon in American society. Mateen should be considered a criminal, but an American one.

Furthermore, the vast majority of Muslim scholars, thinkers and notables in the US published a statement condemning such violence, and the local chapter of one of the largest Muslim organisations, CAIR, called for the Muslim community to donate blood to the victims - without any opposition from the community. The fact that portrayal of Muslims by Republicans and intolerant liberals does not represent the reality shows that these agitators are flagrantly attempting to whip up fear of Muslims amongst the American people.

It is not a necessity for Muslims to accept same-sex intercourse, in order to be kind, compassionate and helpful to others who may practice it in their private lives. Many Muslims in America donated blood to help the victims of the Orlando shooting, and do not not have to agree with other people's lifestyles and tastes in order to show compassion.

As American pastor and writer Rick Watson says: "The problem is that tolerant has changed its meaning. It used to mean 'I may disagree with you completely, but I will treat you with respect. Today, tolerant means – 'you must approve of everything I do'. There's a difference between tolerance and approval.”

Conclusion

Is Islam, or an interpretation of Islam, or the Muslim community, somehow to blame for the Orlando shooting? The answer is no. If a man is mentally disturbed, unstable and violent, what need does he have of becoming radicalised? The evidence of the support for violence and mental instability of Mateen is overwhelming. Mateen enunciated contradictory beliefs and allegiances throughout his life, and seems to have been searching for an outlet for his violence.

NPR’s counter-terrorism correspondent, Dina Tempton-Raston, noted that the investigations into the history of Mateen showed none of the typical signs of radicalisation, saying: “we've been talking to intelligence officials and investigators and they're becoming, as you say, increasingly convinced that the motive for this attack had very little or maybe even nothing to do with ISIS... they believe he may have invoked ISIS's name...to get more publicity for the attack...”

Tempton-Raston noted that investigators have “been struck by how closely Mateen's biography adheres to profiles that they usually associate with typical mass shooters,” continuing: “He was bullied as a kid in school. He had well-documented behavioural problems. He was aggressive toward other kids. As he got older, things didn't get much better. He took steroids. He jumped from job to job. He had a history of domestic violence. And all these things together fit into a mass shooter's profile.”

In short, Mateen appears to have been a deeply mentally disturbed individual and a criminal, but a distinctly American one.

Update

Now, more evidence has come to light, including the full transcript of Mateen's 911 calls to the police, which have not given much further information beyond what was already released, and the testimony of an alleged former-lover of Mateen, "Miguel".  Miguel argues that there were bigger gay nightclubs frequented by Mateen and claimed that "the truth is that he didn’t do it for terrorism. In my opinion he did it for revenge", claiming that that Mateen had been angered when he was told after intercourse with a male, that the individual was HIV positive. Miguel continues "He adored Latinos, gay Latinos...but he felt rejected. He felt used by them, there were moments in the Pulse nightclub that made him feel really bad". After Miguel's testimony, CCTV footage of Mateen alongside a man, entering the hotel mentioned by Miguel, has also come to light.

- Abdullah al-Andalusi is an International lecturer, thinker, speaker and debater on Islamic and Muslim issues. You can follow him on Twitter @AbdullaAndalusi

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: A view of the Pulse Nightclub main entrance on 21 June, 2016 in Orlando, Florida (AFP).