In the hours after Omar Mateen’s June 12 attack on the Orlando, Florida, nightclub Pulse, digital journalists flooded social media with various memes and tweets designed to shut down debate over whether he was motivated by his Islamic beliefs to murder gays and lesbians. Mateen, they said, was simply a closeted gay man whose internalized homophobia caused him to lash out. People came forward—secret lovers, Pulse regulars—to back up the story. Even after 911 transcripts demonstrated that Mateen considered himself a Muslim who was carrying out an attack in the name of Allah and ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, plenty of commentators continued to refuse to see a link between the Orlando massacre and Islam. Killers like Omar Mateen aren’t actually real Muslims, they said, because Islam is a religion of peace.
It’s true that many Muslims across the globe work for peace, and categorically reject violence in the name of their faith, as a recent global Pew survey makes clear. But the same survey paints a more nuanced—and disturbing—picture of global Islam. For example, at least 10 percent of Muslim respondents in more than ten countries said that suicide bombing in defense of Islam is sometimes or often justified. This number rose to almost 40 percent in Afghanistan, where Mateen’s parents were born and where the maximum sharia punishment for the “crime” of homosexuality is death.
The best question I’ve seen asked since Orlando comes from the wall of one of my Facebook friends, a Muslim professor at a state university. He wrote that he found it curious that so many Muslims, in reaction to Orlando, took to social media to claim that Islam doesn’t teach violence against gay people. “Do me a favor,” he wrote. “Wait for a month or two, let the media coverage of the Florida shooting die down, then ask your Imam what is the sharia punishment for homosexual acts between consenting adult homosexuals.” The answer, of course, is death. Homosexuality is punishable by death in ten countries, and all are majority Muslim. The professor’s point wasn’t to bash Islam, or to demonize his fellow Muslims, but to encourage them to reflect deeply about the way their faith speaks of gay people. “Reforms are long overdue,” he concluded.
There’s a divide in this country when it comes to questions, with the Right usually wondering what’s wrong with asking them and the Left usually shouting down any that might come off as offensive. Donald Trump’s meteoric rise has been powered in part by his knack for asking questions, no matter how outrageous and unspeakable they seem to coastal media elites. One way the Left could weaken Trump would be to take away his monopoly on questions. To do that, though, the Left would also have to surrender its habit of reacting with outrage every time some well-meaning person asks a question that contains a politically incorrect word or phrase.
Mateen’s access to guns doubtless played a role in his massacre, as did his homophobia—but it shouldn’t be off-limits to ask whether it was a homophobia learned from and nourished by the conservative Islamism of his Afghan father. “Homophobia comes in many forms,” wrote Ayaan Hirsi Ali in the Wall Street Journal recently. “But none is more dangerous in our time than the Islamic version.” She’s right. In the twenty-first century, Islamic homophobia certainly seems different than Christian homophobia. The extremist, antigay Westboro Baptist Church celebrates the deaths of “fags” and those who “enable” them, but so far they haven’t murdered any LGBT people.
Rather than jumping to distance Islam from homophobia, we should encourage Muslims to challenge their communities, especially those in the gay-friendly West, to reconsider their religion’s ancient prohibitions. We’ve been encouraging Christians and Jews to have these conversations for years; Islam shouldn’t get a pass. Plenty of people in the Western world are bigoted against Muslims, of course, and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise. Nor should we pretend, however, that every attempt to look at Islam critically is an instance of Islamophobia.
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