Sunday, July 12 2016, I will always remember as the day I woke up to the post-tragedy grief of the shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando. As I write this the day after, I still find trouble finding the right words to express how I am feeling or how I am processing–if one can ever really process such a horrific act of violence. But writing is often a kind of medicine and so here I am, writing. Not so much to add my own voice of mourning and anger but more so for myself as I make sense of it all.
Sadness and anger defines much of my reactions: sadness over the death of 49 queer people and 54 more of us injured; anger towards the kind of hatred that has caused such horrifying violence.
For LGBT people, nightclubs and bars are the very places we assume that we are safe from prejudice, hate, and violence. This news was particularly jarring for me, as my boyfriend and I had been out the night of the massacre, spending time with friends celebrating pride weekend here in Boston.
What I cannot get out of my mind: this could have happened to us.
One falls into even deeper devastation as we are reminded of other bloody violations of safe spaces such as theaters, churches, and schools as Keith Ellison expressed in his public statement: “Sadly, Orlando has now joined Aurora, Charleston, Newtown, Oak Ridge, and many other communities rocked by gun violence.”
It is easy to fall into paranoia.
Dad called me the night of the 12th. We speak very little about anything gay or queer. But he wanted to know how I was and to remind me to be safe, watch out for suspicious activity, and be aware of my surroundings.
Anger is there too.
I’m angry at the kind of prejudice and hate that lead to this massacre. And I’m angry at the complacency of so many Muslim communities when it comes to addressing this prejudice and hate in our mosques. I find great strength in my queer Muslim family in the wake of this tragedy. I am incredibly thankful for having these wonderful people in my life who are hurting like everyone else. And the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity released a powerful statement. But it angers and saddens me that more mainstream communities are not showing up for queer people–outside and inside our mosques.
I am exhausted.
I am tired of the sad reality that the only kind of conversations our normative Muslim communities are willing to have are those which remind us what Islam “says” about how haram it is to act on any a-normative orientation and gender (but we’re mostly talking about male homosexuality here). I’m tired of Muslims in my own community patting themselves on their backs for having the same “correct” thoughts on queer people and congratulating one another for the disgust they share over what we may or may not do in bed or in public with our spouses, lovers, or one-night stands. I’m fed up with this common-place “love the sinner, hate the sin” discourse. I’m tired of imams talking about what is haram and halal in our bedrooms and how sinful it is for men to act, dress, and talk effeminately. And I’m tired of the silence our families, friends, and communities relegate us to.
These thoughts make me think about what is not being said. It makes me think about silence. And the tragedy in Orlando makes me think about a more permanent silence. In response, what echoes back to me are these words of Audre Lorde:
“In becoming forcibly and essentially aware of my mortality, and of what I wished and wanted for my life, however short it might be, priorities and omissions became strongly etched in a merciless light, and what I most regretted were the silences. Of what had I ever been afraid?….
I was going to die, if not sooner than later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silence had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.”
I think of those at that nightclub who were navigating closets and (not) coming out. Did their silence ever save them? Yet for those who were out, did the publicity of their truth save them? Then I think again about the silence in mainstream mosques. What are the silences of allies and maybe-allies keeping them safe from? What do they fear?
I want to say that there is something redemptive, something essential to our salvation as a species, when we break our silences.
There is a verse in the Qur’an that comes to mind, revealed in the context of a marginalized community pitted against a hateful majority:
“[Prophet] say, ‘Running will not benefit you. If you manage to escape death or slaughter, you will only be permitted to enjoy [life] for a short while.’ Say, ‘If God wishes to harm you, who can protect you? If God wishes to show you mercy, who can prevent Him? They will find no one but God to protect or help them.”
Qur’an, 33:16-17 (transl. Abdel Haleem)
This tragedy reminds us how short life is and how avoiding our enemies does us no good. There are many ways to face an enemy. As for standing up against the hate against sexual and gender minorities, I want our Muslim communities to break their silence and their complacency. What are closeted allies afraid of? Are they afraid of repercussions from the community? Are they afraid of losing legitimacy? Losing authority? Losing respect?
What gives me hope are those communities and imams publicly stating their own sadness over the events in the early morning of June 12th. Here in Boston, the ISBCC released a statement, calling the victims our brothers and sisters, mentioned the anger we all share, talked about human dignity, and the holy month of Ramadan:
We woke up this morning to the horrific news of fifty of our fellow brothers and sisters brutally murdered and countless more injured. It does not feel enough to simply grieve, but at the moment grief and prayers to God for healing and justice for the victims and their families is all we can offer.
It is hard also not to feel angry at what this murderer did. This senseless act of violence is an affront to all human dignity, and has no place in any society, community or faith. It certainly goes against anything our faith stands for.
It is particularly painful that such a tragedy would take place during the holy month of Ramadan. Ramadan is a month of worship, reflection, compassion, and community. The day long fasts teach us to care for the other and to feel the pain of the other. To bring pain to another in this month in particular is an abomination to the spirit of Ramadan.
We strongly urge all community members to stand against this hate and violence and urge the authorities to conduct a swift and thorough investigation so we begin to understand how this could have happened.
Words such as these give me hope.
Others have spoken up too. Nihad Awad of CAIR spoke on the tragedy. His statement also touched upon that ever-troubling and recurring theme of Muslims having to condemn acts of violence perpetrated by those who claim our faith. I’m tired of that too.
Yasir Qadhi’s response to the shooting was about this, saying:
Barely 36 hours after one of the most positive exposures to Islam and Muslims in America, via the funeral of Muhammad Ali, it appears all of that good will be wiped away by a senseless act of violence, perpetrated by a nobody who happens to have a Muslim name.
Such is the problem of being a minority under pressure: the actions of one become linked to all…
Along with this issue of Muslims having to go through this familiar exercise of condemning violence, there are also politicians and others in the media who are using and will use this tragedy to further distrust, hate, and violence against Muslims and our communities. Trump’s speech the day after (June 13) is the prime example: running on the fear of immigrants (such a classic fear-mongering tactic which, almost century ago, limited immigration from my maternal family’s homeland) he promised temporary bans on Muslims immigrating into the States while placing blame on those already living in this country.
As I write this, I plan on attending tarawih prayers at a local mosque. It is unsettling that I will have to keep my guard up. Then there was the conversation with my mom about attending a vigil tonight too: again, the parental cautions to be aware of my surroundings. To be careful. To be safe.
Like many faith communities, Muslims have a complex relationship with sexual and gender minorities today and and in our past.
Also, like many people of faith–or of no faith at all–we are human beings who experience pain and loss.
Samra Habib wrote in the Guardian about queer Muslims in mourning. She also points out that Muslims are also suffering and are victims of extremism, citing the March 2016 attack in Lahore, Pakistan that resulted in more than 70 dead at Gulshan-I Iqbal park.
Hopefully the Gulshan-i-Iqbal story illustrates that this can’t be boiled down to us v them. We’re all experiencing the same tragedy together. And I can tell you first-hand: being a peace-loving Muslim who is just as angered by homophobic attacks as everyone else isn’t out of the ordinary.
To put the blame on Muslims and Islam for the massacre in Orlando is unfair. It is unfair because it ignores the pain that we are experiencing too, whether it is mourning the dead abroad or at home here in the States. The disturbing murders of queer activists Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Tanoy in Bangladesh in April of this year is yet another devastating example of Muslims who are victims of violence perpetrated by those who claim religion as their justification.
And if one still needs to be reminded that with or without religion, violence still happens, one doesn’t need to look far. Also on June 12th, a white 20-year old man with assault rifles and material to make explosives was arrested on his way to the pride parade in LA.
There was also Charleston and Aurora.
To incite Islamophobia also evades the real issue: hate against minorities and the fear of difference.
That the killer in Orlando reportedly was disgusted by the sight of two men kissing is a problem. I doubt he would have been equally disgusted if he saw two women kissing. To see two men being intimate with one another threatens masculinity in this culture. Omar Mateen was not immune to what our culture teaches about masculinity, even though the media implicitly suggests otherwise by endlessly reminding us of his Afghan parents. I wonder how he would react if he went back to his parents’ native country and saw the male-male public displays of affection there.
This is not unrelated to the current issue of politicians trying to police public restrooms. Or the violence and murders of transgender people in this country. There is a real discomfort around transgressions along our heavily guarded borders of our gender binary. Or, as my partner suggested to me one day, perhaps masculinity really is that fragile–and by extension, why the borders between men and women are so heavily guarded. The boundaries are permeable and are crossed everyday, even by those who are straight and cisgender. That is why our culture constantly polices them. Omar Mateen’s hate crime is a reminder of our culture’s policing, disgust, and prejudice taken to its violent conclusion.
While it gives me hope that mainstream Muslim communities are standing in solidarity, it also angers me that they remain largely complacent to the policing of gender norms within our own mosques. What I cannot get out of my mind are the words of those Muslims whom I used to call friends that would make comments about gays or other queer people. This was done in group gatherings–as if these spaces of homosocial companionship were so fragile that we had to make it clear that we were safe from anything homoerotic. I hear again the jokes, asking one another “hey, akhi/bhai, are you gay or something?” Or the more sinister commentary on current events. Comments such as “that’s so disgusting” and “you have to be pretty messed up to want to kiss a man” or “why does it have to be in my face all the time?”
What also angers me is my own complacency. The safety of my past-self’s closet that never really made me feel safe much less ever save me. Anger towards my straight-passing privilege I took advantage of while others like me–those more visibly queer and/or doubly or triply other-ed for the visibility of their Muslim identities and/or for being people of color–were living in fear, in pain, or dying.
For some of us queer Muslims, closets can be life-saving. In some contexts, they are a necessity. And for sure, coming out or staying in is never a single moment nor is it uncomplicated. Nor is it an ultimate solution to our personal turmoils or the pain we see on the outside.
But then 49 queer people are shot dead in the very space we believed would keep us safe. What does our silence really save us from if we are dying anyway? I do not ask fellow closeted queer Muslims to come out. It is not up to minorities in pain to fix the oppressions they experience; rather, I demand that straight and cisgender Muslims and Muslim leaders come out as allies.
I heard a wonderful example of this kind of coming out on NPR this afternoon (June 13), where Abdullah Antepli, the chief representative of Muslim affairs at Duke and its the former chaplain. (I have not yet found a link to this interview) Unlike other faith leaders, he expressed his condolences to the queer Muslim community who find themselves faced with both homo/transphobia and Islamophobia.
Questioned about the normative stance on homosexuality, Antepli answered that Islamic tradition is rich and complex. He also insisted that we, living in the 21st century, should not be limited to rulings, opinions, and interpretations developed in different times and places than our own. He also compared the ostracization of queer Muslims to the story of Prophet Joseph marginalized by his envious brothers. As an aside, it is interesting that in the past Joseph had a homoerotic persona in certain Islamic traditions.
What I demand–especially for all of us queer Muslims who do not have the option or privilege to be out–that many more chaplains, imams, and other leaders of the American Muslim communities come out against homophobia, transphobia, and all prejudice and hate (within and without our communities) against any gender or sexual minority. To communicate sadness and offer prayers to the begrieved is only the beginning. Statements such as ISBCC’s mean a lot but what they leave in silence leaves much more to be said. The first thing I think of is the obvious lack of acknowledgement of those queer identities for which the victims at Pulse were killed. And it makes me angry that communities and their leaders are not going as far as Antepli. And what is getting really old are statements such as Yasir Qadhi’s other Facebook posts which regurgitate the same normative opinions on homosexuality, use mental health to scapegoat real issues, and claim homophobia has nothing to do with this tragedy.
Parallel to this anger are doubts about my faith. Comments by those who are close to me–those who stand behind me in my choice to be a Muslim–asking why I would stay in a religious community that treats people like me like pieces of s—.
Why go to a mosque that holds hands with people in mourning yet refuse to hold hands like mine? Why be part of a faith in which safe and sacred spaces are so far and few between? Having attended the LGBTQ Muslim Retreat for three years now I am tired of witnessing people break down over how their families and communities treat them. Or breaking down because being taught that God looks at them with disgust is ingrained in their very relationship to Islam. Why bother anymore? Why am I still here?
These questions and experiences are not monopolized by 21st century Islam. Pain and trauma happens across religious communities. And it happens in our culture and society too. Homophobic comments by Muslims could have very well been uttered by someone firmly a-religious.
And what I grab on to now is this strangely redemptive realization that I am a part of this greater American Muslim community just as I am in this greater American culture and society. For minorities, there are islands of safety. Sometimes the holiness of these sanctuaries are violated. But tonight we will light candles and keep praying–each to our own God or to none at all–hoping and needing a better tomorrow.