By: Amir Hussain
One often hears talk of “Islam and the West” or “Islam and America”. This brings up an image of two mutually exclusive realities. If we change one simple word, we get instead “Islam in the West” or “Islam in America”. That simple change makes all the difference. Instead of posing two warring factions, “Islam” and “America”, we see the reality of their interconnectedness. Islam is, of course, a “Western” religion, sharing deep roots with Judaism and Christianity. Muslims are much closer religiously to Jews and to Christians than we are to “Eastern” religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. Muslims are also a strong presence in “the West”. Islam is the second-largest religion in Canada, Britain, and France, and may well be the second-largest religion in the United States. “Islam in the West” recognizes the entwined heritage of Islam and the West. The West as we know it would not be what it is without the contribution of Muslims. Think quickly of our number system, for example, and ask yourself if it is easier to do multiplication and division with Arabic numbers or with Roman numerals. To be sure, the number system came from India, but it was the Arabs who named it. Yet we often don’t see our connections, and people here in America often have a fear or hatred of Muslims.
My new book, Muslims and the Making of America, describes the realities of Muslim life in America, and highlights the contributions made to America by its Muslim population. To take only one example, American Muslims have served in the United States military since the Revolutionary War. There were some 300 Muslim soldiers who served during the American Civil War. That’s not a large number, certainly, but it also gives the lie to the oft-repeated claim that Muslims are newcomers to the United States. At the end of 2015, ABC News reported figures from the US Department of Defence that some 5,896 Muslims were serving in the military. That number may be higher, since some 400,000 service members did not self-identify their faith. So almost 6,000 American Muslims serve in the armed forces, helping to defend the country.
In America, we still think of violence as something unique to Muslims, and don’t seem to realize the violence around us. Charles Kurzman is a sociologist at the University of North Carolina who studies home grown Muslim terrorism. The numbers are, unfortunately, greater than zero, where they should be. But they are much lower than many people think. So for example in 2015, 19 Americans were killed in mass shootings by Muslims in America, 14 by the San Bernardino shooters (I will not glorify murderers by naming them), 5 by the shooter in Chattanooga. That’s less than the number of American Veterans who commit suicide each day (approximately 22), and about the equivalent of the number of Americans shot in any 8 hour period each day. Unfortunately, that changed this year.
On June 12, 2106, less than 2 days after the funeral of Muhammad Ali, an American Muslim killed 49 people and injured over 50 more in the worst mass shooting in the United States. The shooter was known to law enforcement, and had been questioned multiple times about ties to terrorism. His ex-wife told the Washington Post that he “wasn’t a stable person” and that he had beaten her. A former co-worker described him to the Los Angeles Times as “angry at the world”, as well as being “unhinged and unstable”. However, he was still able to legally purchase guns in the week before the shooting.
In a horrific way, the shooter also represented America, taking on our worst characteristics as a society. He was homophobic, and chose to attack an LGBTQ nightclub during Pride Month. Sadly, LGBTQ Americans are the most likely to be violently attacked in a hate crime. There were reports that the shooter had frequented the nightclub, as well as having a presence on gay dating sites. His ex-wife as well as a classmate thought he might have been gay. So his homophobia may have emerged out of his own sexual identity, which he may have had to suppress.
He also attacked the nightclub on Latin night, and the majority of those killed or injured were LGBTQ Latinx. So there was a deeper tragedy, of those marginalized for both their ethnicity and their sexuality being the targets that the shooter chose.
He also, as noted above, used guns that he had purchased legally to commit his murders. America’s gun deaths are a national disgrace and a national shame. In the ensuing debate over the murders, very few people mentioned that he used the guns that he had purchased for their intended purposes. Assault weapons, by definition, are designed to kill large numbers of people. You can use a rifle to hunt with, or a shotgun or handgun to protect yourself. But the only reason to have an assault weapon is to kill large numbers of people. And yet assault weapons are easily obtainable in the United States, even by a person who had been under the scrutiny of the FBI since 2013.
On a 9-1-1 call during the shooting, he pledged his allegiance to the Islamic State. He also posted extremist Islamic statements on Facebook. Clearly, his interpretation of Islam is important here, and this part of his background needs to be investigated. But people belonging to other religious traditions have also committed mass shootings, and homophobia is sadly not unique to Islam. Matthew Shepard, to take only one tragic example, was not tortured and killed by Al-Qaeda.
American Muslim groups were quick to condemn the shootings (as they always do), and remind people that their sympathies were with the murdered, not with the shooter. The shootings also caused many Muslims to think about homophobia in their communities, and perhaps to rethink their views on homosexuality. There is so much work ahead that we need to do, both in Muslim and non-Muslim communities, to make the connections between misogyny, homophobia, and other hate crimes.