America's new nightmare: The deadly alliance of Islamophobia and gun culture
At approximately 2pm on Valentine's Day, a 19-year-old gunman opened fire on his former teachers and classmates at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, killing 17 and seriously injuring dozens of others. The attack was not only the 18th gun-related incident on a US school campus since 1 January, but also the deadliest school shooting, taking its place as the ninth deadliest on US soil of all time.
At 6am the following morning, the gunman was identified as Nikolas Cruz by authorities, and charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder. While motive has not yet been established, a psychological profile of the mass killer is beginning to emerge, and its one the US is all too familiar with.
All the familiar hallmarks
Described by former classmates as "weird", and a "loner", the headlines to this tragedy include all the familiar hallmarks: guns, mental health issues, an identification with the overt racism of the alt-right, an association with a white supremacist group alongside a particular hatred of Muslims.
Welcome to the new American nightmare.
Again, it's far too early to speculate which proverbial straw broke which camel's back in the killer's mind, as there are far too many possibilities, but the warning signs were there.
"A lot of people were saying it was going to be him," one student told a Florida television station. "A lot of kids threw jokes around saying that he was going to be the one to shoot up the school. It turns out everyone predicted it. That's crazy."
The hatred of Muslims walks hand-in-hand with the almost perverted lust for high-powered weapons in America
What led them to predict Cruz was capable of carrying out such an atrocity, the student did not say, but it's likely the prediction was based on Cruz being repeatedly suspended from school prior to being eventually expelled. And it's likely his social media posts boasting of his love for guns and knives, and hatred of Muslims had something to do with it.
"Everything he posts [on social media] is about weapons. It's sick," the student said, while another described Cruz as someone who would often wear a Trump cap, hyper-patriotic t-shirts that "seemed really extreme, like hating on Islam," and also known for deriding Muslims as "terrorists and bombers".
On Thursday, the leader of a white supremacist group, Republic of Florida – which aims to turn Florida into a whites-only state – said Cruz had participated in their paramilitary training activities, was "brought up" by one its members, and purchased his AR-15 assault rifle from the group.
Islamophobia and gun culture
Ok, so we are clear – this article in no way is blaming Cruz's expressed hatred for Muslims or any other minority for the attack.
As noted earlier, motive is yet to be established by the authorities, but given most of the post-tragedy analysis will predictably examine the need for stricter gun laws and improved access to healthcare, this article will instead examine what has become all but completely ignored in popular discourse: the intersectionality between Islamophobia and gun culture.
The hatred of Muslims walks hand-in-hand with the almost perverted lust for high-powered weapons in America, and the all-powerful National Rifle Association (NRA) is cashing in on the country's rising animosity towards its 3.5 million American Muslims.
At the NRA's 2015 national annual conference, one session instructed members on what to do if Islamic extremists seize control of cities across the United States and enact Islamic law, suggesting that this is a real threat emerging upon American gun owners.
Anti-Muslim conspiracy theories not only become accepted as fact but also go hand-in-hand with a media landscape that rewards those who peddle fear, hatred, and suspicion of Muslims
The presenter told the audience he had been to areas in the US where only Muslims are allowed to go, areas that even police refuse to enter.
"The street signs suddenly went from English to Arabic. There wasn't a single English word on any shop or any street sign," said the presenter. "I have seen it with my own eyes, witnessed it in the backseat of a car and it is for real. No-go zones exist in the United States," he aded while also falsely claiming there was more than "5,000 known terrorist cells in the United States".
The myth of these "no-go zones" was not only started by Fox News, but also debunked by the same network when it admitted later that "there is no credible information to support the assertion that there are specific areas" in the US that "exclude individuals based solely on religion".
But debunked or not, these anti-Muslim conspiracy theories not only become accepted as fact but also go hand-in-hand with a media landscape that rewards those who peddle fear, hatred and suspicion of Muslims.
When you combine all of that with this country's ubiquitous and gratuitous devotion to weapons, you end up with a number of gun stores across the country advertising "Muslim-free zones".
Heavy militia activity
"Even though there is very little coverage on this issue, it is hardly surprising that some of the states with the most anti-Muslim activity are also the ones that have heavy militia activity and unchecked gun culture,” Imraan Siddiqi, founder of human rights watch group Hate Hurts, told me.
"We can look back to the armed mosque protest in Phoenix, Arizona, as a clear cut example of that intersection between gun-culture and Islamophobia. Militia members stood outside a mosque, brandishing AR-15s and other high-powered weapons."
"These type of movements exist in places like Texas, South Dakota, Kansas – not forgetting that a group of Trump-supporting white supremacy militia attempted to bomb a Somali community in 2016."
When I interviewed Omar Suleiman, a well-known American Muslim scholar and president of the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research, he told me how armed groups, waving Confederate flags, and brandishing "long rifles", routinely appear outside his mosque in Dallas, Texas.
"This is what our kids see when they go to the mosque, armed guys in masks, dipping their bullets in swine blood, promising one day they're going to shoot all of us Muslims dead," he said.
When Craig Hicks, an avowed New Atheist, murdered three Muslims "execution style" in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, he, like Cruz and others, had displayed a penchant for posting pictures of his guns and anti-Muslim memes on social media.
“It cannot be ignored that an overlap between gun culture and Islamophobia exists in our society," says Siddiqi. "This is seen in the increase in armed protests as well as horrific acts carried out against individual Muslims, such as the Chapel Hill shooting. Next, it is important to bring light to the issue of Islamophobia - many people are unaware of the extent that individuals are willing to go to express their hate."
To that end, and while we await for a clear picture for how and why Cruz carried out this heinous act of merciless violence, it should be noted that murders by white supremacists more than doubled in 2017 compared to the previous year, according the Anti-Defamation League.
Hate rises while access to guns, meant only for the battlefield, becomes ever easier to procure. Welcome to the new American nightmare.
- CJ Werleman is the author of Crucifying America (2013), Koran Curious (2011), and he is the host of Foreign Object. Follow him on twitter: @cjwerleman
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Cartoon by Katie Miranda, an illustrator, jewellery designer, calligrapher, and cartoonist living in Portland, Oregon. She tweets @KatieMirandaArt. Her website: www.katiemiranda.com