A thinly veiled agenda: Orlando and radical Islam

A thinly veiled agenda: Orlando and radical Islam
Comment: Postulating about radical Islam does nothing to tackle the real issues of gun control and homophobia. Instead, it serves to deepen divisions and further political agendas, writes Usaid Saddiqui
7 min read
19 Jun, 2016
Trump accused the government of not being strict enough on border security and immigration [Getty]
In the early hours of June 12th, 50 people were killed and over a hundred injured in the deadliest mass shooting in American history. The perpetrator, Omar Mateen, an Afghani Muslim, went on a killing spree at Pulse, an Orlando gay bar, where members of the LGBTQ community were present, celebrating the month of Pride.

Within hours of his identity being confirmed, the mainstream media was ripe with speculation of an attack directed by the radical extremist organisation, Islamic State group (IS). According to several reports, Mateen had allegedly called 911, pledging allegiance to the extremist group, though the audio remains unreleased to the public.

However, as more details have trickled out, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the attack was not orchestrated from abroad but was very much a domestic incident, similar to the hundreds of mass shootings that take place every year across the US; and one where the attackers religious beliefs seem irrelevant to the crime.

Politicians are nonetheless exploiting the tragedy to serve their own warped agendas, including presidential candidates, who are turning a hate crime and a mass shooting event into an "Islamist" plot, and misusing it as a national security concern.

Religiously motivated?

Mateen's father Seddique Mateen has claimed that his son was not a devout Muslim nor did he hold radical beliefs. "I don't think religion or Islam had anything to do with this" he said. So far, there is no evidence to suggest Mateen was involved with any extremist organisation, a notion backed by the CIA.

According to his ex-wife Sitora Yusufiy, Mateen had abused her repeatedly, leading within months to their divorce. One of Mateen's former co-workers described him as an outright misogynist and homophobe whose conversations would often include disparaging remarks towards Jews, blacks and LGBT individuals. In a surprising twist, it emerged that Mateen may have been gay himself when details of his profile on a gay dating app were revealed, as well as reports of him having previously visited Pulse.

The el-Bakraoui brothers Ibrahim and Khalid, who carried out the March 25th attacks in Brussels were former car thieves and bank robbers who had no notable history of being associated with a radical group. One of the Paris attackers, Ibrahim Abdeslam from Belgium, ran a cafe in Molenbeek (a largely Muslim neighborhood in west Brussels), where he allowed the consumption of alcohol and hashish; and was described by a neighbour as an outgoing person who enjoyed alcohol and made recreational use of drugs.

John Horgan outrightly condemns the radicalisation narrative as a cause of terrorism and considers it to be 'the greatest myth alive today in terrorism research'

In terms of the San Bernardino assailants - Tashfeen Malik and Syed Rizwan Farook - no evidence has been produced to date that they had been through a process of "radicalisation", or had links with a foreign jihadist group. While some messages uncovered by the FBI show the former couple discussing martyrdom and jihad, the agency itself has been cautious to definitively declare the couple as having gone through a "radicalisation" process.

This leads us to ask at the question, if not religion, then what?

Georgetown Professor and highly acclaimed scholar of Islam, John Esposito, asserts that decades of research show that in "many cases terrorists are neither particularly religiously literate nor observant" and that religion is not a "primary driver" of extremist behaviour. An identity crisis, a search for purpose/meaning and a sense of belonging among a host of other social dilemmas are chiefly responsible for turning towards violence.

John Horgan, Director of the International Center for the Study of Terrorism at Pennsylvania State University outrightly condemns the radicalisation narrative as a cause of terrorism and considers it to be "the greatest myth alive today in terrorism research". Horgan concludes that the "overwhelming majority of people who hold radical beliefs do not engage in violence" while going on to state that "there is increasing evidence that people who engage in terrorism don't necessarily hold radical beliefs".

To some extent, this appears true of Mateen, whose conflation of competing organisations such as al-Qaeda and Hizballah showed that he was hardly knowledgeable about radical or Islamist ideologies in any meaningful way. Mateen's love of law enforcement, his previous employment at the private security firm G4S and questions around his conflicted sexuality and his mental health present a far better insight into his actions, than his alleged ramblings about IS.

Political exploitation

For policymakers, the Orlando tragedy has served as a gold mine, helping them to articulate populist views that have in the past, only served to make the lives of law abiding citizens - both Muslims and non-Muslims alike - a nightmare.

Within hours of the attack, Republican nominee Donald Trump accused the current administration of not being strict enough on border security and immigration; despite the fact that Mateen was born and bred in the US, having grown up in Queens New York. For Trump, who has vowed to ban Muslims and refugees from entering the country, this has served as a good opportunity for him to exploit the situation to his own political gain, as demonstrated by his own self-congratulatory remarks on Twitter.

Hillary Clinton, who in the past refused to use the term radical Islam because it associated Islam with terrorism, now says she is open to using the term. Clinton is seemingly using the tragedy to veer further to the right, in choosing to call for efforts to clamp down on IS, rather than talking about the more obvious issues of gun control (a major talking point in her presidential campaign) and homophobia.

Clinton alarmingly said she hopes to re-enact the "spirit of 9/12", a throwback to the political climate in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy

Clinton also suggested that tech companies could do more to challenge IS propaganda online, an understandable proposition but one that reeks of limitations on free speech, and misses a very crucial point; that there is no concrete evidence to suggest that people are radicalised online. So far, no report on Mateen being influenced by radicals or extremist material online has surfaced.

Furthermore, Clinton alarmingly said she hopes to re-enact the "spirit of 9/12", a throwback to the political climate in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy. Such language, whether Clinton realises it or not, led to some of the most catastrophic foreign policy decisions in modern US history. These included the Bush administration trying to falsely link the attack to places like Iraq within days of the twin tower attacks, a nation whose invasion in 2003 led to the menace that is IS.

Arguably, in striving for a 9/12-like climate, Clinton's rhetoric is even more disturbing than Trump's bellicose attitude, given her well-known penchant for militarism, and the fact that she is likelier to be the next commander in chief. 

No lessons learned

Had Mateen not been a Muslim, the ensuing conversation would have been uniquely different. In the post 9/11 era, years of fear-mongering about Islam and Muslims have normalised the paranoid belief that American national security is under consistent existential threat - directly or indirectly - from groups like IS.

While the works of noted scholars like Esposito, Horgan and others would state otherwise, the mainstream media's appetite for sensationalised headlines is impervious to a more nuanced approach to discussing terrorism. Such a frenzy only helps to substantiate the demagoguery of people like Trump and the hawkishness of Clinton.

For policymakers, the Orlando tragedy has served as a gold mine

To consistently frame the discussion as a civilisational problem or to blame Muslims for not rooting out terrorists in their midst, fails to capture the fact that these nihilists are overwhelmingly killing Muslims. Days before before the Orlando shooting, over 30 people lost their lives in Fallujah in an attack coordinated by IS.

Most importantly, postulating about radical Islam will not solve America's mass shooting predicament or curb homophobia, but will only serve to pit one group against another, creating further divisions whose consequences could be devastating, both nationally and abroad.

Usaid Siddiqui is a Canadian freelance writer. He has written for PolicyMic, Aslan Media, Al Jazeera America and Mondoweiss on current affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @UsaidMuneeb16

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.