Muslim. Afghan. American.
These are the identities that mainstream media has defined Pulse nightclub shooter, Omar Mateen. In the tragedy of 49 people killed and 53 more injured, lots still remains unclear as to what exactly his motive was and what pushed him to commit such a horrible act of violence – an act equally against humanity.
Uncertainty remains in the wake of the shooting, especially within Afghan-American and Muslim communities, as each wonder in disbelief how something like this could happen.
The Samovar Network, a group of Afghan-American activists, scholars, educators, and professionals that come together once a month to have critical discussions on a myriad of topics, met recently for an “Afghans Reflect on Orlando” session in a show of solidarity to those lives lost and the LGBTQ+ community. In this discussion, much was said about the collective guilt some in the community can’t help but to feel, the need to discuss homosexuality and homophobia, as well as proactive steps to be more inclusive of the queer members within our communities.
“The reality is, the shooter was Afghan, and I hate to say it, but I felt some kind of responsibility and guilt – and I was trying to shake that off and process. [I’m] just heartbroken for what happened to the LGBTQ+ community and that something so hateful could happen… It’s awful,” shared Saba Maher , a lawyer and community organizer. “All people deserve and have the right to live freely without fear of being targeted for their sexual orientation, for their faith, for the color of their skin.”
Another community member, Reza Hessabi, stated, “I felt a little responsible, too, in a way. Even though I’ve never met any Afghan from Florida, ever. At the same time, intellectually I realized, I’m not responsible for his actions. We’ve never met him before… we’re not responsible for his actions.”
Although several claims by family members that Mateen wasn’t religious, it does not negate the fact that his upbringing as an American born of Afghan descent certainly had elements of religion intertwined with a masculinity-focused Afghan and American culture. All of which could explain many sides of his ever evolving background from being bothered by two gay men kissing to potentially being gay himself, frequenting gay bars and having a profile on a gay dating app.
We are unclear on if any of the reports made are true regarding his allegiance to ISIS, or his sexual orientation; but what we do know is that he attacked an LGBTQ+ safe space, and that it is clearly an act of homophobia.
It is this homophobia, whether influenced by Islam, Afghan culture, American culture, or a combination of all, that needs to be examined by every single community to foster healthy dialogue on an issue that can no longer be taboo and swept under the rug. Today, whether our communities are ready for it or not, we’re facing the reality of this examination in the aftermath of the shooting.
“There is a culture of homophobia within the community that we need to combat, not just within the Afghan or Muslim community, but also within the American community as well, that just all coalesced into this one man’s actions,” Hessabi commented.
Speaking about these taboo topics, though, have long been considered too taboo to speak on; elements of cultural masculinity and religious fear helping to keep these topics as far away from verbal utterance as possible.
Krystle Lialah Ahmadyar, a Bay area vocalist and songwriter, says it is time to examine homophobia, “We are ready for [LGBTQ+ issues]. We’ve been ready for it, and it’s something we need to look at.”
Looking at homosexuality in Afghan culture and Islam most certainly requires a critical lens – one that thoroughly examines history, the concept of gender roles, and understanding of a group that has long been “othered” – which will hopefully lead to broader acceptance.
“We need to foster a community locally that promotes acceptance, that empathizes with people across the community,” said Ali Olomi, historian and a Ph.D candidate at University of California, Irvine.
In Olomi’s published work “The Roots of Homophobia and Anti-Gay Sentiment in the Muslim World” he astutely points out:
“Though homosexuality as an identity and category is a predominantly modern construction, gay, lesbian, transgender, and intersex individuals have always been present in history.”
This includes Islamic history, Olomi argues:
“From the time of Prophet Muhammad on, intersex individuals known as mukhannathum lived in Islamic society and occupied publicly visible, though sometimes marginalized spaces. Many of these individuals, like Gharid and Al Dalal, were openly gay and had lovers… In both Umayyad and Abbasid history, gay individuals were not only present, but quite public.”
This history, of course, does not come without re-evaluation of religious scripture, which Olomi alludes to as well. Further breakdown of religion in regards to homosexuality can be found by Muhsin Hendricks, here and by Intersections International, here.
“I think the most radical thing I can do, as a practicing Muslim, is be in spaces where people don’t expect me to be in,” said Nura Sediqe, a PhD candidate at Duke University, who focuses on intersectionality of race and gender, suggesting showing up in LGBT spaces to offer solidarity and support, “loving and opening spaces with other people.”
“The only way we’re really going to transform is if people in privilege; meaning straight Afghan men, begin discussing these issues and really challenging homophobia. This is just one example of creating change,” Ahmadyar commented.
“Queer Afghans are Afghans. It’s not a separate community,” Olomi remarked.
Neda Said, a community organizer and activist, summed it up quite well:
“Queer folks, we’re here for you, we see you. Know that people are doing work within our communities and doing work to make this a safer world for you to be in.”
It’s difficult to determine Mateen’s true motives, however it certainly goes without saying that hate against a marginalized group of people makes it ever more important to combine efforts in order to bridge a gap that has stayed at a comfortable distance for way too long.
Members of the LGBT community, know that Afghan-Americans stand in solidarity with you.
To the families of those who lost a loved one, I pray for your patience and peace during this difficult time. To those recovering from injuries, both physically and mentally, I pray for your healthy recovery and for your healing.
Please read about the victims, here.
(Check out the full video of the “Afghans Reflect on Orlando” via The Samovar Network).