It has been more than a month since the Orlando shooting took place, but the details surrounding the tragedy remain dubious. It is still unclear why the shooter, Omar Mateen, killed forty-nine people and wounded many others at a gay nightclub. Initial reports have suggested Mateen was motivated by terrorist groups such as ISIS, even though his alleged support for rival groups like Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah indicates that he may not have totally understood what these groups actually stand for. Officials have also investigated the possibility that Mateen himself was gay and was carrying out a revenge killing.
Regardless of Mateen’s real motives, the Orlando shooting has reignited important conversations on a national scale about homophobia, gay rights, and safe spaces for the LGBTQ community. Although American Muslims have had a part in these conversations, with scholars like Hamza Yusuf stressing the mistake of imposing Islamic beliefs on others, we need to make a more serious and vocal effort to connect with the LGBTQ community.
Responding to Orlando
In the aftermath of the bloodshed, American Muslims overwhelmingly responded with an outpouring of condolences for the LGBTQ community and vigorously condemned the attack. Unfortunately, this is where the support seems to have stopped. Although many American Muslims have taken steps to reach out and empathize with members of the LGBTQ community, some of this support has been hollow. In many cases, it has been entirely absent.
A statement (the “Orlando Statement”) released and endorsed by hundreds of American Muslim leaders decrying the Orlando shooting has, for example, been heralded as a powerful expression of solidarity. In reality, however, the statement makes no actual reference to the LGBTQ community other than to acknowledge that Mateen attacked a gay club. A closer inspection reveals that the statement is more about Islamophobia than about homophobia:
On behalf of the American Muslim community, we, the undersigned, want to extend our deepest condolences to the families and friends of the victims of the barbaric assault that occurred early yesterday morning at Pulse, an LGBTQ nightclub in Orlando, Florida. We unequivocally say that such an act of hate-fueled violence has no place in any faith, including Islam. As people of faith, we believe that all human beings have the right to safety and security and that each and every human life is inviolable.
We know that, given the tenor of the times, some will associate this tragedy with the religion of the perpetrator. While we may never learn conclusively what motivated this misguided individual, many news sources claim that he was motivated by his faith, which would be a reprehensible distortion of Islam adding the religion to the long list of innocent victims in this callous crime. Any such acts of violence violate every one of our Prophet’s teachings. For Muslims, that this carnage occurred in the blessed month of Ramadan—a month of charity, introspection, and self-purification—only adds to the foulness of this enormity.
Since September 11, 2001, many Muslims have been victims of collective guilt; yet, numerous Americans of good conscience have stood by their fellow citizens, despite differences in faith or lifestyle, including many members of the targeted community. Difference is no justification for violence. While most American Muslims adhere to a strict Abrahamic morality, the Quran is clear that its injunctions apply only to Muslims who choose to follow them: “There is absolutely no compulsion in religion.” In America, individuals are at liberty to pursue happiness as each sees fit; it is our cherished political right. Those of us who live in this country, irrespective of our beliefs, must respect the equality of all Americans under the laws of the land.
We feel compelled to state that it is an egregious offense against the culture and laws of America—as well as Islam’s—to place collective guilt on an entire community for the sins of individuals. “No soul bears the sins of another,” says the Quran.
Three days ago, Americans honored the memory of one of the greatest and most beloved men in American history: Muhammad Ali, who was a devout Muslim. The Islam Muhammad Ali followed is one of love, tolerance, and respect for all. American Muslims everywhere felt that he ended, once and for all, the vacuous claim that one cannot be both Muslim and American.
We, as American Muslims, follow the openhearted and inclusive Islam of Muhammad Ali and completely reject the hatred, provincialism, and intolerance of those who trample upon the rights of others, besmirching and defiling the name of Islam. The criminal who took the lives of dozens of patrons of the Orlando nightclub and injured many others was an aggressor, plain and simple. The Quran says, “Do not be brutal or commit aggression, for surely God does not love brutal aggressors.”
There are extremists in America and abroad who view the world through a Manichean lens: American Manicheans want Americans to see themselves as entirely “good” and all Muslims as entirely “evil.” Muslim Manicheans want Muslims to see themselves as entirely “good” and all Americans as entirely “evil.” This is a catastrophic recipe for unrelenting violence, and it must be rejected: We will not allow the extremists to define us, mold us in their benighted image, or sow the seeds of discord among us. We are one people, so let us all in good conscience and human solidarity reject this extremist narrative and assert our shared humanity and mutual respect for the sanctity of all human life.
While Islamophobia is a serious problem in the United States — especially since Donald Trump began using it over the last year to amass support for his presidential campaign — it is highly inappropriate to hijack one cause to raise awareness about another. While there is nothing wrong, in principle, with expressing concern for the Orlando shooting’s likely consequences for Muslims, the statement did not give appropriate weight to the victims of the tragedy. It should not come as a surprise, then, that LGBTQ folks found the “Orlando Statement” to be lacking.
Silence on LGBTQ Issues
The statement is also representative of a general climate among American Muslims when it comes to questions about LGBTQ rights. There has long been a silence in the mainstream Muslim community about sexuality. Many Muslims have treated homosexuality as a taboo topic, as a result of the Islamic position on homoeroticism. That position, in a nutshell, is that, while same-sex desire may be innate, acting on it is immoral.
Ask an average Muslim candidly about their views on the issue, and they will typically respond by saying that, while Islam teaches us to be welcoming and tolerant, people who have queer leanings should suppress their urges and not discuss them openly.
If this position is as deep as contemporary Islamic thought goes on the issue, then it stops way short of where it needs to be. It is effectively a failure to recognize homosexuality and the struggles of the LGBTQ community, despite Islam’s history of pluralist thought. It also fails to answer the pressing question of how to reconcile two apparent truths: that acting on homosexuality is forbidden in Islam, and that queer people exist, whether or not they can help it.
This is not a call to change the letter of the law when it comes to homosexuality in Islam, but to try and reconcile these competing realities in order to deepen solidarity and understanding between Muslims and members of the LGBTQ community. To accomplish this requires some deeper thought, and that begins by rejecting baseless taboos.
A failure to do so would be problematic for Islam, which is a proselytizing religion. Queer people generally will be turned off by Islam’s seeming rigidity. Queer Muslims will also have to keep quiet, move away from the religion, or form their own, isolated communities, which has unfortunately been happening more and more frequently.
If we want to continue to tout Islam as a religion of unity, then it is incumbent upon us to openly discuss and confront Islam’s attitude toward homosexuality, in the hopes of creating stronger bonds with the LGBTQ community, both within and without the faith.