In the days following yet another mass shooting in the U.S., 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:
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-bred 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 on’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:
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
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