From the evidence that has surfaced so far, Omar Mateen, the mass murderer in Orlando, Florida, had no ties to any outside terrorist organization. Radicalized by propaganda on the internet, he was acting alone, driven by his hate and possibly fueled by his mental illness. His heinous crime was made possible by our gun ownership laws that allowed him to possess assault weapons that should be limited only to war-time use by soldiers. This horrific tragedy is doubly tragic for Muslims in America because the perpetrator of this crime happened to have a Muslim name. No sane and true Muslim or a follower of any faith would do what he did. His action is doubly abhorrent because, firstly, it happened during the month of Ramadan that is holy for Muslims and devoted to spiritualism, kindness, and piety. And, secondly, he targeted the community that has always stood by Muslims against Islamophobia in this country.
Even though all major Muslim organizations and many Muslim leaders have condemned this atrocity and expressed their deeply felt pain on this tragedy, those who hate Islam have started blaming all Muslims and their religion for the crime of one man. Mass murders have been carried out by followers of other faiths as well, but those religions are not conflated with the actions of a single fanatic. Logic demands that over 1.5 billion followers of a faith should not be held accountable for the actions of less than .01% of its followers. Just as Muslims do not blame Christianity and Judaism for the actions of a handful of fanatics among them, Muslims deserve the same treatment. They have the right to respectful acceptance by the mainstream when they practice their constitutional right of freedom of religion. Hate-mongers in the mainstream forget the fundamental principle that pluralism works both ways.
We have two very serious issues here – deadly prejudice related to race, religion, and sexual orientation and mass-killing machines that turn that hate into murders. We can start with some basic questions relevant to homophobia. Since, according to overwhelming scientific evidence, people who are gay or transgender are born with that sexual orientation (they don’t choose to be that way), does it make any sense to harbor prejudice against them? Is it fair that societal taboos push many gay adolescents to suicide? Should safety and societal acceptance be limited only to heterosexuals?
As the Orlando massacre was committed by a Muslim, it is also necessary to analyze it in an Islamic context. Curiously, among followers of major religions, Muslims have the least reason to be intolerant of homosexuality. The Bible prescribes death penalty for homosexuality, but nowhere in the Quran does God ask Muslims to kill gay people. Ironically, despite the much stricter anti-gay elements in the Judeo-Christian tradition, both religions have evolved with time and, in some cases, even allow gay priests and rabbis among their religious leaders. Pope Francis recently even apologized to gay people for the abuse and mistreatment that has been inflicted on them by the mainstream Christianity. It is not to deny that fanatics like the Evangelical preacher Pat Robertson and others still exist and continue to poison their listeners’ minds with their homophobia and Islamophobia. A Sacramento Baptist pastor Roger Jiminez, for example, said that the Orlando massacre was justified but not enough. The overall movement among Christians and Jews, nevertheless, has been toward liberation from hatred against gays. Muslim countries have yet to embrace that acceptance just as they need to end honor killings, persecution of religious and other minorities, promote democracy and egalitarianism (a fundamental teaching of Islam), and rein in and educate the fanatics who resort to murder instead of debating an issue in a civilized manner. Without these essential changes, we will continue to destroy each other in this hell of intolerance, self-righteousness, and bigotry on all sides.
Since religion continues to be an important part of most people’s lives, we should learn to use it constructively. One can find what one is looking for in any holy book. If our agenda is peaceful co-existence, why dwell on verses that seem divisive? Why not choose from dozens of verses that emphasize equality and unity of all human beings. They exist in every religion. Here, for example, are some from the Quran:
“O mankind! We created you from a single [pair] of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other [not that you may despise each other]. Verily the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is [he who is] the most righteous of you” (50: 13).
The following lines from the Quran urge kindness:
“We did not create the heavens, the earth, and all between them, but for just ends. And the Hour is surely coming [when this will be manifest]. So overlook [any human faults] with gracious forgiveness” (15: 85).
Educating ourselves to accept pluralism is everyone’s duty, but it is a slow process. We cannot end hate quickly, but we can reduce mass killings by preventing access to certain types of weapons. In Australia, a mass murder took place in 1996. Thirty-five people were killed and twenty-three wounded. The Australian government restricted private ownership of assault weapons. Since then no mass murder has taken place in that country, and the crime rate has dropped by 50%. We need to take similar steps to end mass shootings.
The author is a Professor Emeritus, Interdisciplinary and Middle Eastern Studies, at City College of San Francisco, California.