Orlando and Religion

Mohammed A. Malik, who attended the same mosque with Omar Mateen, reported him to the FBI. The FBI dropped the ball. Malik met Mateen at a Iftar dinner. He watched Mateen break his Ramadan fast with a protein shake. They became friends.

In 2014, a man from their Mosque, Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha, became the first American-born suicide bomber, driving a truck full of explosives into a government office in Syria. Abu-Salsa was a happy person, so nobody thought he would be a terrorist. Mateen had the dark outlook, but Malik still didn’t believe he was capable of violence.

Abu-Salsa was a fan of the lectures of Anwar al-Awlaki, the same Yemen-based imam who influenced the Fort Hood shooter. In 2009, Nidal Hasan perpetrated what apologists describe as a case of “work place violence.”

Mateen also watched the video lectures and told Malik that they were “powerful.” This was why Malik turned him in to the FBI.

In an op-ed for The Washington Post, Malik wants people to know that his community abhors hate. The imam at the mosque where he, Mateen, and Abu-Salsa studied Islam did not preach violence or hatred, he assures his readers.

But there is a deeper question we need to address. What did Mateen and Abu-Salsa learn in that mosque, in their community, in their culture, that provided the context in which the videos of Anwar al-Awlaki were circulated? What is in the environment that made watching them such a powerful experience that two members of community would go on to commit horrific acts of terrorism? Ideas don’t drop out of the sky. Why don’t al-Awlaki’s videos move me? Why do they scare me instead?

German antisemitism created a context in which Nazism could thrive. Without a fertile ground of Christian conservative-nationalist ideology, with its hateful attitudes towards gays and Jews and women, it would not have been possible for Nazism to take hold of so many people. The same is true for white supremacy and Christianity in the United States.

When people grow up in a culture rooted in warped conceptions of justice, morality, sexuality, gender relations, etc., they are more susceptible to extremist outgrowths of the underlying ideology. It is not only easier to groom them for terrorist operations, but they are at a greater risk of “self-radicalizing,” an unfortunate term for a very real phenomenon.

We saw this with Dylann Roof, who shot several people at a black church in South Carolina. The phenomenon is not exclusive to the Muslim world. Extremism and terrorism are not random or happenstance. They are the result of the availability of extremist directions associated with mainstream religious, conservative, and nationalist ideologies in a person’s environment.

We can draw a least two conclusions from Malik’s testimonial, the release of the transcripts from the night of the shooting (finally released unredacted), and the many other facts in this case. First, we can put to bed the question of whether the shooter was motivated by Islamic belief. Omar Mateen’s motive is clear. He was an Islamic soldier in the project to establish a caliphate. The Islamic State has declared war on the West and Malik answered the call. To be sure, Bush and Obama (and Clinton as Secretary of State) helped create the power vacuum that allowed this poisonous ideology to spread (and maybe that is what they wanted), but getting hung up about the past isn’t going to protect women, homosexuals, atheists, and other despised groups today and tomorrow. The West is going to have to take serious steps to defend its security and its ideals and these steps are going to have to reckon with the ideology of Islam.

Second, we can see the importance of advancing the critique of religion generally and of Islam particularly. Extremist notions do not occur without the support of deeper and more fundamental notions of right and wrong. Islam creates and supports profoundly immoral and unjust system of social relations. Islamic law codes and penalties are barbaric. There is nothing in any religion that necessarily provides the basis for an adequate morality.  Religion exists – like white supremacy – to divide the population and provide justifications or short-circuiting universal moral actions. Islam is the religious ideology that is at present causing the most trouble in the world.

It is not just that we can no longer allow a hateful ideology to hide behind religion. We have to understand that this is what religion is: a system that gives people the motive to divide, hate, and oppress. Religious people who act violently are not appealing to religion to cover for actions spawned by some other cause. Religion causes their actions. It is not just violence that makes religious thought a problem. We can get distracted by extremism. It’s the normal character of the religion itself that is most objectionable.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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