By Dr. Syed Amir
24 Jun 2016
On June 10, the funeral service for Muhammad Ali, the celebrated heavy weight champion who was hailed as the world’s most famous Muslim, brought dignitaries from around the world to his small birthplace of Louisville, Kentucky. Among them were President Recep Erdogan of Turkey, former president of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai, and King Abdullah of Jordan. The Islamic funeral service strictly followed the script that the champion himself had laid down in detail. It included people of all faiths, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and Jews, reflecting his respect for all religions.
The keynote speaker at the interfaith service, the former president of the United State Bill Clinton, praised Muhammad Ali as the embodiment of religious tolerance and interfaith harmony. Sherman Jackson, an Islamic scholar and a professor, exquisitely summarized Ali’s contributions: “He did more than anyone to normalize Islam in America, and he gave us courage and taught us how to fight.” On the day of the funeral, the entire city of Louisville turned out to honour its most illustrious son. For a while it looked like Islam and Muslims were defined once again by Muhammad Ali’s humanity and compassion, rather than the brutality and savagery of ISIS (Daesh) and its leader Abu Bakar al Baghdadi.
Was he there to meet other gay men, or to fine tune his planned massacre?
It proved to be a brief respite in an environment poisoned by the election-related anti-Muslim rhetoric of the Republican nominee Donald Trump. Alas, the calm did not last for long. On early Sunday, June 12, a man armed with assault weapons stormed a night club frequented mostly by gay people of Hispanic ethnicity. When the killing was over, 49 people were dead and nearly 50 injured some critically. It was the worst tragedy of its kind in US history. When the news first broke early in the morning, the American-Muslim community held its collective breath. Was the old, familiar scenario being reprised? Had another Muslim terrorist, maladjusted and full of rage, been involved in killing innocent people? The name, Omar Mateen Siddiqui, 29-years old, promptly answered that worrisome question.
While the face of the tragedy was familiar, many of its aspects were unique and baffling. Was the assassin motivated by hate of the gays and lesbians who populated the club, or was he committing the crime in the name of so-called Islamic State as he repeatedly proclaimed during his murderous rampage? There were reports that he himself was gay suffering from the known malaise of self-loathing? There is evidence to varying degree for all of these potential motives. The cruel irony is that Mateen was already known to the law enforcement agencies and had been interviewed at least three times by the FBI, but sadly was set free.
Mateen was a second-generation immigrant; his parents arrived here from Afghanistan, but he was born and raised in this country. His case is consistent with the general pattern of radicalized terrorists, who in the US and Europe tend to be second-generation immigrants, often alienated and estranged from the society they live in, conflicted between the culture and norms of their parent’s country and their adopted country. Often, immigrant parents attempt to infuse high doses of their cultural traditions and identity into their offspring. Why children of Hindus, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Japanese immigrants don’t go through the same trauma as Muslims is a subject that is much debated.
Mateen’s immigrant parents settled in Florida, and his father, Siddique Mateen, has taken an active interest from afar in the politics of his birth country, even hosting an ethnic TV show “Durand Jirga” for the Afghan diaspora. He is a supporter of the Taliban, highly critical of Pakistan’s intelligence agency ISI, and does not recognize the Durand Line. By all accounts, Mateen had troubled childhood, smoked marijuana, experimented with steroids, and had been expelled from school for getting into fights with others. A recent article in the New York Times quoted a former co-worker: “He was just agitated about everything, always shaken, always mad.”
The US public is captivated with Mateen’s life story. His Facebook and cell phone records are being examined and dissected. During his short-lived first marriage to a woman from Uzbekistan, he abused and beat her. He was fired from several jobs for bad behaviour, but amazingly had no trouble in purchasing a hand gun and a military style high-powered rifle. There are bizarre dimensions to his story. While there is no evidence that he was a particularly religious person, he found time during his killing spree to call the emergency helpline to declare his allegiance and fealty to ISIS and its leader al Baghdadi. There are reports that in the past he visited more than once the gay club where the killings took place. Was he there to meet other gay men or to fine tune his planned massacre?
Two individuals who saved many lives have emerged from the shadows of the tragic episode. Imran Yousuf, a bouncer at the nightclub, who is of mixed Hindu-Muslim parentage and originally from the Caribbean, is one of them. Braving incoming fire, he managed to open a door, enabling some trapped people to escape to safety. Dr Joseph Ibrahim, who is head of the trauma unit at Orlando Regional Medical Center and son of Muslim immigrant father from Egypt, worked tirelessly in the middle of the night to save lives “of mostly gay Latino men whom another son of Muslim immigrants tried to kill,” commented the New York Times.
The latest terrorist incident has sparked the predicable reaction, condemnation from various Muslim organizations and expression of Islamophobia from some Republican right-wing politicians. What impact will it have on the forthcoming US elections, already marred by hateful rhetoric by the Republican candidate, Donald Trump? He has been calling for a complete ban on Muslims coming into the US, and for instituting FBI surveillance of American Muslims and mosques. The attack in Florida has provided him with an opportunity to gloat that his previous assertions about Muslims and Islam and the danger they posed to the West had been substantiated.
Donald Trump has achieved his success in securing his nomination by disseminating divisive and offensive views about the minorities, Latinos, African Americans and especially Muslims. His rhetoric resonates with many white voters who are unhappy with social changes in America. The American Muslims are believed to be only 1-2 percent of the US population, too few to have a major influence on the electoral process. However, an estimated 17% of the US population is Latino and their votes can sway the November elections. Republican leaders are worried that Trump’s speeches designed to divide people along religious and ethnic lines will lead to his defeat in the presidential elections; worse yet, they think, he might also sink some of the Senators erasing the thin majority the Republicans have in the Senate.
According to the latest polls, the Democratic candidate, Hilary Clinton, has a comfortable lead over Donald Trump. This margin is likely to widen by the election time. As to the impact of this terrorist attack, presently most Americans believe that the larger Muslim community is law-abiding and peaceful, like other Americans. However, this perception may change if more terrorist attacks occur before the elections.