Islamophobia and the Orlando Mass Shooting

The tragic event of the Orlando shooting, currently making waves around the world, poses grave but crucial questions to any person living in a heterogeneous society. Given that countries have been subject to the powerful trend of globalization since the 1970s and the corresponding large movements of people, technology and culture across borders, no country can ignore the implications of cultural and ethnic schisms. And that is exactly the issue afflicting America, that melting pot of cultures which has become polarized between the strengthening voice of radical reactionaries and the weakening moderate faction. The backlash is particularly marked against Muslims by virtue of the heightening fears of terrorism: the Orlando shooting, carried out by professed Islamic Fundamentalist (though it is not clear if he had official connections with ISIS) Omar Mateen, is the 'deadliest mass shooting in US history', according to Frank Bruni, and it constitutes 'attacks on freedom itself'. The number of casualties stands at 49 - 49 more reasons to combat fundamentalism with greater conviction than ever before.

While it is clear prevailing circumstances will certainly increase Islamophobia, though to what extent it is unclear, far more important is the political polarization galvanized by the event, and the issues of gun control and immigration. More controversial is the idea that there is an innate propensity of adherents of Islam to violent acts of barbarism. Most fascinating is the ability of religious doctrine to cultivate zeal that spills over into a willingness to spill blood.

Parallels have been drawn to the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris. In each case, the perpetrator professed the motivation to be radical, fundamentalist and Islamist doctrine. This last description is also the most important, because it decisively characterizes the violence as something condoned, even encouraged, by religious teaching. Indeed, the consequence has been somewhat predictable, as seen in the more vociferous and vehement rejection of Islam as having no place in free society by some. These proponents come directly into conflict with the moderate-minded elements of society, of which President Obama seems to lead when he said that 'attacks on any American, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation, is an attack on all of us and on the fundamental values of equality and dignity that define us as a country', implying that the gunman does not and should not be taken to represent Islam as a whole, thereby discouraging any reactionary backlash targeted against Muslims, specifically moderate Muslims. The moderate and radicals thus divide the field, with the fundamental issue of contention being 'home-grown terrorism' (which Obama alleges the Orlando gunman is a product of, as opposed to being an actual ISIS affiliate). Whilst investigations are still underway about Mateen's principal underlying motive, it is certain that a confluence of factors made the massacre possible, not least among them being the intractable discrepancies between Islam and Western liberty.

Accessory to this is the question of why the gunman was allowed to procure heavy-duty firearms and thousands of rounds of ammunition even whilst he was under suspicion of being a terrorist and whether immigrants (especially Muslims), should be restricted on account of the potential dangers they pose. The gun lobby in America is a powerful vehicle of interests that cannot be easily defeated. It is certain that lax gun laws were one of the reasons making the massacre possible, yet resolving this issue will require both a massive project undertaken to change the American public's interest in firearms and a political will capable of successfully opposing the gun lobby, exemplified by the NRA.

The power religion has on its adherents is tremendous. It has been true throughout history. Those 49 people who were killed were undoubtedly precious lives, but they pale in comparison to the sheer magnitude of death and suffering throughout human history. One of the exacerbating factors fueling the intense debate on Islam and terrorism is the hypersensitivity of society and the media to such carnage and brutality; such a reaction makes the men of the past seem apathetic by comparison. Sometimes we forget the death and destruction replete in the Thirty Years' War of 1618-1648, or the depredations of the Spanish Inquisition with its torture techniques and execution methods, and more, all of which took place on the European Continent and under the auspices of Christianity and its various sects. The power of religion lies in its ability to, in the case of extremists, so totally colonize the mind of adherents that it seems acceptable to throw away one's life for a 'higher cause'. These concerns of the religious zealot, however, are very rarely rational and calculative, but instead passionate and rash; the zealot perhaps dreams of apotheosis, so moved by his religion to change things to reflect his deontological ideas that he will go to any extent. Islam has established such practices as homosexuality as inherently immoral, and this is dangerous when zealots take it upon themselves to punish that immorality however they see fit. Mateen's violence, however, is liable to make opposition to Islam's efforts stronger, for while submission is the weak man's answer, opposition is a reflection of a power struggle initiated by those who will not accept dominion from an 'alien'.

That is exactly how provocateurs like Milo Yiannopoulos frames Islam:

“Women are treated abominably everywhere in the Muslim world. Gays are treated even worse. It shouldn't be a surprise to us that when we invite these people into western, democratic, capitalist, free societies that bad things start to happen. America is the greatest country in the world. It is a country founded on freedom, freedom of movement, free enterprise, property rights, the rule of law, the First and the Second Amendment. Those principles have created the greatest country in the world. Those things are under threat from an alien culture that respects none of those principles.”

Is it specifically Islam that intrudes menacingly upon American ideals? Is it precisely Islam against tolerance and freedom? Does Islam actively promote violence? No more so than a religious doctrine such as Christianity, whose later conceptions of tolerance (for example Prussia in the 17th century recognized the need for tolerance among the three main confessions: Catholicism, Lutheranism and Calvinism) form the basis for today's multiculturalism. Then as now, there were radicals who did not shirk from bloodshed, and moderate adherents who found such barbarism rather irksome.

Still, the fact that religiosity could spawn bloodshed in the age of modernity, as it has been wont to do in the past, behooves us to deliberate further. Any religion taken to its extreme contravenes rationality and empiricism, the building blocks of economic growth, industrial power and democratic liberty. Suspension of belief (or faith) is the tie that binds adherents to a certain religious ideology despite an inherent inconsistency between the literal interpretation of religious texts and reality, with its incontrovertible laws of nature. Therefore, while religion is based on doctrinal adherence to unscientific ideas, relying on faith as the means to motivate its followers and abjuring civil debate, the possibility is always left open for zealotry, extremism and fundamentalism.

However, issues about the irrationality of religion should not influence the application of the fundamental value of liberty and its corollary the freedom of conscience. Those values America espouses should not be mere hypocritical utterance, for it damages American pretensions of moral authority. Before 9/11, it would have be absurd to say that America discriminated against Muslims in domestic policy. Yet Muslims felt the brunt of America's blatant and flagrant disregard of the boundaries of sovereignty of Muslim countries, as shown by the Gulf War. America's shock and horror at the deaths of 49 people contrasts starkly with their indifference to the vastly greater number of Palestinian deaths per day in the war zones of the Middle East. Taken in this light, the disregard of Americans for Muslim deaths is opposed by the disregard of Muslims for American deaths, taken by Americans to be indicative of Muslims condoning such violence.

And provocateurs like Milo forget that a significant proportion of the human population is Muslim (23.2% as of 2012), and that the only way to stamp out an idea is either genocide on an unthinkable scale, or the improvement of socioeconomic conditions as well as the provision of education that might convince people of the goodness of rationality and the error of doctrine. Violence against faith only begets indignation and further reprisals. The only way to repudiate it successfully is through dialogue, legitimate use of force and tolerance. Disproportionate use of violence will fail, because of the infectiousness of Islam as an idea and the unjustifiable (in modern democracy) lengths that violence must go to in forcibly eradicating the religion.

The chasm between Islam and America can only widen with violence, for real power stems from authority. Authority comes not from the exercise of coercion, but from the threat of coercion sanctioning unlawful action. If America utilizes violence in an unlawful manner, as it has done, then it will lose all legitimate authority, and forfeit forever the means to dissuade Islam from the destructive course of the as yet few. Here, the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious consciences of South-East Asia might be instructive in future dialogues and peace initiatives.




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