Navigating the Discussion of Islam in Modern Society

Pulse nightclub


In the days following yet another mass shooting in the US, this time by a man professing ISIS sympathies, Kelly James Clark offers valuable perspective on the connection between religion and violent extremism as well as the narratives on which ISIS-like terror groups rely. Writing for 3 Quarks Daily, Clark’s “Religion and Violence” is an important and timely piece that should give us pause before rushing to conclusions about the 29 year-old gunman who shot up a gay nightclub in Orlando last week.

Discerning the specific motivations or impulses of mass shooters is hardly if ever a clear-cut exercise. There isn’t a single socio-psychological profile to which gunmen like Omar Mateen adhere, but we do observe patterns of contributing factors. As it turns out, religious ideology is particularly far down the list in terms of the driving force behind both mass shootings and terrorist involvement. Radicalization, à la ISIS militants, is much more a function of cultural isolation, disempowerment, revenge for grievances (whether real or imagined), the quest for adventure and a sense of belonging or purpose. In fact, we have consistently found that Taliban and ISIS recruits are woefully unpracticed in the religion they claim to represent. As referenced in Clark’s article, England’s MI5 concluded the following:

“…far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could…be regarded as religious novices.” Indeed, the report argued, “a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalization.”

In the case of Omar Mateen, his identity as a Muslim has quickly taken center stage, but ongoing investigations appear to cast serious doubt on this particular narrative. While many key indicators of radicalization were absent, he does fit comfortably into the profile of a typical mass shooter. Mateen was largely a loner, with a history of aggression toward other kids in school that continued into adulthood in the form of repeated domestic violence against both of his ex-wives and other physical abuses, including steroid consumption. Together with his scattered employment status, the overall picture is one of a self-destructive and unstable lifestyle.

Al-Qaeda- and ISIS-led attacks, rather, tend to be preceded by a heightened showing of ideological commitment, a severing of ties with friends and family, and an increased attachment to one’s violence-justifying ideological group. According to FBI investigations, Mateen was loosely religious—preferring the gym to the mosque—and, given his contradictory and often incoherent posts on social media, may have been confused about the distinctions between various Islamic groups around the world.

More disturbing are reports that the 29 year-old had been to the Pulse nightclub on several occasions over the last three years and had profiles with multiple gay dating apps, including Grindr. This, of course, flies in the face of what those closest to him have referred to as his irrational hatred of gay people. If confirmed, Mateen may simply be the latest example of someone whose history of virulent anti-gay sentiment served as a cover for his own closeted sexuality. More and more the real impetus behind this attack looks to have been internalized oppression borne of a deeply homophobic culture—a psychological burden that became too great to bear. Instead of seeking help outside his social circle, he lashed out at those who would have most understood and accepted him.

If true, it is not irrelevant that Mateen was Muslim, but not for the reasons one might at first suppose. Mateen, after all, was raised by his fundamentalist Afghan father, and full LGBTQ acceptance is still a minority view within most streams of Islam. Prolonged exposure to faith-based instruction that casts a sinful shadow around one’s sexual identity is surely a recipe for a lifelong struggle with pain and darkness. It was this deep-seated homophobia—endorsed, justified and encouraged by his religious upbringing—which created a demonstrably unstable person and which ultimately resulted in that person getting hands on guns and ammo and externalizing that oppression through violent means at a nightclub he could, in a different world, have called home. Thus the riddle of the Orlando shooting is not ‘ISIS because religion’ but ‘religion because uncritical acceptance of tradition and outmoded conceptions of sexuality’.

The ISIS Narrative

Given the details of Mateen’s life, officials have become “increasingly convinced that the motive for this attack had very little — or maybe nothing — to do with ISIS.” It seems more likely, then, that Mateen invoked the ISIS brand during his last moments to boost publicity or legitimize his actions.

And this has great import for the narrative Western administrations present to the wider public. Obama’s advisers have been resolute on this from the very beginning: there is much more to lose than to gain from emphasizing the role Islam plays in attacks at home and abroad, firstly and not least because the specific motivators are in most cases areligious in origin or otherwise difficult to pin down, and secondly because we would only be doing the terrorists’ work for them.



Dropping ‘radical Islam’ in every press conference and public appearance only serves to validate the ISIS narrative that Islam is at war with the West by collapsing what Clark calls the “gray zone” and perpetuating the myth that Muslims are generally extremist, violent and fanatical, along with the raft of misportrayals already furthered by mainstream media. Broad-brushing engenders more unrest and a reinforced sense of alienation suffered by Muslim minorities around the world, key catalysts on the road to radicalization. As Clark goes on to explain:

“It is very difficult for Westerners to isolate their understanding and loathing of ISIS and other extremists without sliding into Islamophobia. And increasing Islamophobia, ISIS hopes, will entice young Muslims out of the gray and into the fight.”

Effectively navigating the discussion of Islam in modern society is more difficult than ever, but it is also more important than ever. We must not throw up our hands or shirk the responsibility. Real lives and futures are at stake. While we should always be wary of presenting the Omars of the world as typical, we should also avoid using non-religious factors to scapegoat religion entirely. Practicing Islam does not inevitably lead to linking arms with ISIS—far from it, in fact. Even so, fundamentalist thinking as fostered by organized religion can cause grave harm both at the level of the individual and society. By collapsing all outbursts of extremism into a single root cause we not only run the risk of misdiagnosis, but we may unwittingly hasten the kind of terror we all want to extirpate.


External link: Religion and Violence

Further reading:
Why Sam Harris is Wrong on Islam
Trump Surfaces in Islamist Recruitment Film
Islam isn’t inherently violent or peaceful
The Psychology of Radicalization and Deradicalization: How Significance Quest Impacts Violent Extremism
Guide to the Drivers of Violent Extremism

  • David H Prichard

    The unique problem we are dealing with here is that the political-religious system called “Islam” is based on a prophet that is touted as God’s FINAL PROPHET, who recited a holy book that is touted as God’s FINAL INSTRUCTIONS, and the God of Islam expects his followers to cause ALL THE WORLD TO SUBMIT to Muhammad and the Quran by any and all means possible, including killing unbelievers when it is expedient to do so. It *does help* that many Muslims *do not believe* this, because they were merely “born Muslim” and automatically enrolled into that political-religious system.

    It is very difficult, however, to tell just *how many* Muslims do *not want to participate* in the teachings of the prophet Muhammad. If they are attending Mosques, where Islamic texts are taught and Muhammad cannot be spoken against, then sooner or later they will either decide to abandon Muhammad’s teachings – which, by the way, teach that they should be killed for that – or they will be more and more likely to decide that Muhammad really was what Islamic teachings *say* he was. The very *basis* of Islam *comes from* the Quran, the Sunna, and the hadiths, and ALL of these source texts for Islam continually uphold the supremacy of Muhammad as the final and holiest prophet. Muhammad by his own account was being bullied and terrorized by what he thought was a demon, and then he was convinced by his wife to go back to this thing – and he then decided that it was actually the Creator God instead of a demon.

    From that point on, Muhammad’s “god” helped him establish a political-religious system whereby he was the prophet for a bloody army of Islamic warriors who were taught that God was pleased with them lying, killing, stealing, taking and selling sex slaves, and basically doing whatever they wanted within a loose set of guidelines, to all who would not join their demonic cult by submitting to the teachings of the prophet Muhammad. Basically, Muhammad pioneered the most antichrist religious-political system the world will ever know.

    Unlike Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Agnosticism, Atheism, and all the other “isms”, Islam claims to be the SINGLE FINAL religion, while promoting a warlord “holy prophet” who is irreproachable – the prophet Muhammad, who claimed (and recited in the Quran) that the Creator God instructed them to bring all the world to submission to Islam. Historically, many Christians were persuaded to take a similar position for hundreds of years. Those who were thus convinced were mostly illiterate, but even if they could read they were taught that only priests were qualified to interpret the Christian holy texts, which were a vast undertaking for anyone in those days. However, in the last several centuries the translation and publication of the Christian Bible into the language of the people has *proven* to 99.9% of Christians that this was never the intention of the Christian God. The Bible teaches that God Himself will come and judge the world – and it never taught its followers to force the world to accept Jesus or to force them to accept the Bible as being from God. Most Christians today acknowledge that God’s love is their main “selling point”, so-to-speak, and that Biblical principles are designed to work APART from a Theocracy until Jesus returns.

    In contrast, Islam was designed from the start to operate as a Theocracy. It is a religion and a political system in one. And its holy prophet was a murdering warlord who justified lying and killing, stealing and raping, as legitimate means of spreading Islam. Furthermore, Islam as a religion has built such a defense around the prophet Muhammad that it is virtually impossible within the context of Islam to challenge the character of Muhammad, or to suggest that many of his teachings will never be compatible with governing free nations. The Western concept of “Freedom of Conscience” is contrary to the teachings of Muhammad. At most, Islamic teaching allows unbelievers to manage their own conscience only until Islam can force them to do otherwise.

    Islam, as long as it remains subservient to the teachings of Muhammad, can *never* be compatible with the US Constitution, or with the Democratic Republic we call America. Only a modified form of Islam (which arguably would probably not be “Islam”) in which many of the teachings of the prophet Muhammad are CALLED OUT as being INAPPROPRIATE for modern living, can be compatible with Western society and culture. And while I have hope, I do not hear Muslims ANYWHERE indicating that they want to move their religious system in that direction. (Maybe they are out there – it’s a big world.)

    This is one of the primary reasons that I see Donald Trump winning by a Landslide in November. He is the only presidential candidate who had the guts to confront the PC nonsense that keeps avoiding and denying the seriousness of this problem.

    • David,

      I don’t think it’s a matter of PC, but of acknowledging the diversity of viewpoints under the Islamic umbrella. You’re describing a largely fundamentalist understanding of the Islamic faith, an understanding that, according to polls, does not predominate in the Muslim world writ large. See the Pew polling below, which tracks support for Sharia law, gender equality, women’s right to choose, etc.

      Do some Muslims still believe that Islam is a coercive religion that meets its true form under a theocracy? Yes. Is this the mainstream view in some Muslim-majority countries? Yes. Is this the mainstream view in most countries? No. Islamic thought, like Christian thought, has evolved tremendously since the era of Muhammad. Most, especially Western-oriented Muslims today, believe in secular rights and secular democracy. Think of the St. Petersburg Declaration, which unanimously affirmed the coexistence of Islam and secular democracy: “We find traditions of liberty, rationality, and tolerance in the rich histories of pre-Islamic and Islamic societies. These values do not belong to the West or the East; they are the common moral heritage of humankind.”

      Or the consortium of 120 Islamic scholars from around the world who signed an 18-page open letter thoroughly denouncing the beliefs associated with extremist groups like ISIS. It includes such dictums as “It is forbidden in Islam to ignore the reality of contemporary times when deriving legal rulings” and “It is forbidden in Islam to deny women their rights.” As of 2016, the letter continues to gain new signatories from leaders around the Muslim world.

      So lastly, I think the purity question is a red herring. I don’t subscribe to the notion that there is an undiluted form of Islam any more than that there is an unglossed version of Christianity. When we presume those who take the most literal approach to ancient sources are the most “true” form of a religion, we give too much credibility and leverage to fundamentalists, when it is the reformers and progressives we should be propping up. Equally inaccurate is it to assert that only those Muslims who follow specific passages are “true Muslims” or that Islamic teaching is bound by the emphases in its holy texts. Religious communities live out their faith in different ways and do not always practice, and are not bound by, the contents in its founding sources.

      We are not being “PC” by pointing this out, we are simply hewing our speech to reality.