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June 29, 2016

Reflections on the Orlando Massacre

by Prof. Abdul Jabbar

From the evidence that has surfaced in bits and pieces so far, it seems that 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, even though he was a Muslim in his name only. 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. Common sense and logic become rare in a climate of heightened bigotry and racism. 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, and members of gay and transgender communities, made to feel guilty, marginalized, and alienated, are murdered every day? 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 on this topic, all that Muslims’ holy book says is that the Prophet Lot’s people were punished by Allah for disobeying their Prophet, who tried to prevent their homosexual practices (7:80, 81, 84). Nowhere in the Quran does God ask Muslims to kill gay people. For that reason, is it not possible to interpret the Quranic verses to mean that the matter of homosexuality should be left between God and gays?

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 ofverses 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).

On the sanctity of human life, these lines deserve special attention:

“Take not life which Allah has made sacred” (6:151); and “if anyone killed a person not in retaliation for murder or for spreading mischief on earth, it would be as if he killed all mankind. And who saved a life, it would be as if he saved all mankind." (5:32).

This line is clear in its emphasis on freedom of belief for everyone: “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (2:256).

In the story of two brothers, Abel and Cain, it is Abel whose conduct is held up as an ideal in contrast to Cain, who murders his brother. Abel says to Cain,

“If you stretch your hand against me, it is not for me to stretch my hand against you to slay you: for I do fear Allah, the Cherisher of the worlds” (5:28).

The present state of the world requires a united global effort to achieve acceptance of pluralism worldwide. Some Muslim thinkers like the great Muslim poet-philosopher of the twentieth century, Muhammad Iqbal, have written eloquently to inspire Muslims and broaden their intellectual horizons in every way by practicing ijtihad (independent reasoning). Not just Muslims but everyone can learn from Iqbal’s following words from his famous book The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam. These words are of general relevance to achieve attitudinal changes for a better world:

“It . . . must be remembered that there is no such thing as finality in philosophical thinking. As knowledge advances and fresh avenues of thought are opened, other views, and probably sounder views than those set forth in these lectures, are possible. Our duty is carefully to watch the progress of human thought, and to maintain an independent critical attitude towards it.”  Iqbal cautioned that “. . . the world is not something to be merely seen or known through concepts, but something to be made and re-made by continuous action.”

Educating ourselves to accept pluralism is everyone’s duty, but it is a slow process. In the meantime,some urgent steps need to be taken to mitigate lethal gun violence that has become an epidemic in this country, as is evident from these few examples: A self-declared white supremacist killed nine black worshippers in a church in South Carolina; a white man killed, execution-style, three young Muslim students in North Carolina, and a white man killed six Sikhs inside their holy temple. In one of the worst mass murders in recent history, a Muslim man killed 49 people in a gay night club in Florida. Such manifestations of murderous intolerance and hate do not belong in a civilized society.

We cannot end hate quickly, but we can reduce mass killings by preventing access to certain types of weapons. The escalating mass shootings make such restrictions an absolute and urgent necessity. 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%. Those who use the Second Amendment of 1791 to still support private ownership of battle-grade weapons should pay closer attention to the wording of that Amendment: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." It is clear that the purpose of owning guns was state security. Today the situation is different because now we have an army to defend us. There is thus no justification whatsoever to put battle-grade guns in the hands of private citizens and expose people to the ongoing recurrent carnage that we have been witnessing.

The author is a Professor Emeritus, Interdisciplinary and Middle Eastern Studies, at City College of San Francisco, California.