The bodies of the victims of the shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando were still warm when the first narrative began to take shape. Once it was revealed that the killer, Omar Mateen, was an American of Afghan and Muslim origin, Donald Trump immediately congratulated himself for “being right on radical Islamic terrorism,” while Hillary Clinton made noises about intensifying the military battle against ISIS.
Meanwhile, Arab puppet regimes, so-called Muslim community leaders, and even the Russian government, who for years remained silent on the discrimination and violence perpetuated against their own LGBT communities, marched up to microphones to condemn the attacks. In the media, Islam was once again scrutinized, demonized, and picked apart. Trump reiterated his call to ban Muslims from entering the United States. In all this, the victims — mostly queer and from the Latinx community — were washed white and ironed straight. This was not a homophobic hate crime against queer people of color. This was an attack on us (straight, white, Western) by them (brown, Muslim, terrorist).
Yet it was not long before this binary narrative began to collapse. Omar Mateen had no links to any jihadist groups. In fact, he was not particularly religious, and had at various points pledged allegiance and support to different groups (ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Hezbollah) that are actively at war with each other — revealing his ignorance not just of Islam but also of Middle Eastern politics. Additionally, he regularly frequented Pulse and other gay nightclubs and bars in Florida. Soon enough, it emerged that he was not just someone who may have had homosexual desires, but in fact seemed to have had male lovers.
In the wake of these revelations, the story line of “radical Islamic terrorism” began to unravel. Make no mistake, Islam was still important, but its relevance had changed. The focus quickly shifted to the attitudes of Muslim communities toward homosexuality, and how Mateen’s ethnic and religious background may have played into his acceptance (or lack thereof) of his own sexuality. This confused narrative, oscillating between contradictory discussions of Mateen’s sexuality on the one hand, and his religious background on the other, coalesced around a new story line: that of a self-hating gay man from a culture and religion that would never accept him. Before they were allowed to grieve for their community members slain in Orlando, LGBTQ Muslims were first expected to defend the contradictions of their existence, as if hyphenated identities were puzzle pieces that could be easily disassembled and showcased to those desperately searching for their next sound bite.
The convenience of this narrative is that it absolves the majority of American society from a much-needed moment of self-reflection. This self-reflection is essential, because what gets lost in the narrative of the “self-hating Muslim homosexual” is the role of another powerful and insidious force in Omar Mateen’s personal history: his connections to some of the global institutions and structures in which a specific strand of violent masculinity is exported by the US around the world, a type of masculine aggression that Omar Mateen was, paradoxically, both a victim of and an active participant in.
Masculinity, ISIS, and the War on Terror
Masculinity is not an inherently negative trait. But it is when masculinity comes with a need to control, dominate, and punish that it becomes violent. As Lisa Wade wrote in the immediate aftermath of the Orlando tragedy, underlying much homophobic violence is a desire to punish those who do not conform to strict ideals of masculinity. What better way to exert your manliness than to violently attack and punish those who challenge your ideals of masculinity?
Expressions of such aggressive masculinity can be seen across the globe and yet are rarely acknowledged as such. This violence did not just impose itself in an Orlando nightclub one hot summer night in June, but has imposed itself and continues to impose itself every day: through domestic violence against women in their homes, through sexual violence on college campuses, through xenophobic political discourse, in the brutal murder of Jo Cox by a right-wing Britain First activist, and in the global military and political actions that drive local, communal, national, and commercial interests around the world. The forces that drive a drone strike into the middle of a wedding ceremony in Yemen, that drive a husband to put a gun to his wife’s head, that drive the Syrian regime to bomb schools and hospitals, and that drive groups such as Boko Haram to kidnap schoolchildren in Nigeria, are all part of different yet overlapping violent expressions of masculinity.
Since its very inception, the “War on Terror” has been a war of competing masculinities. This includes the spectacle of airplanes crashing into phallic-shaped towers, the emasculating images that emerged from Abu Ghraib, and even in the hawkish foreign policies of Hillary Clinton, who — despite (or perhaps because of) being a woman — has swallowed whole the logic of masculine aggression in her foreign policy rhetoric.
ISIS, for their part, has perfected this performance of militarized masculinity. In just a few years, the group has emerged in the Western imagination as the most extreme, the most dangerous, and above all the most violent group in the world. A large part of this comes down to theatrics: in the group’s notorious beheading videos, for example, the man with the knife exerts complete control and dominance as he looms over the kneeling body of his victim. If there is one thing that a proponent of violent masculinity holds above all else, it is the belief that it is better to be feared than it is to be emasculated. When looked at in this way, is it any surprise that Omar Mateen preferred to be thought of as an ISIS fighter than a gay man?
Mateen and the American Military-Industrial Complex
But the violent expressions of masculinity that drove Mateen to Pulse nightclub are more than simply those of a disenfranchised wannabe-ISIS supporter, and in fact have global echoes. Mateen was, for nearly a decade, employed by G4S, the world’s largest private security company. In many ways, the rise of companies such as G4S and Blackwater represent a dangerous privatization of security in the 21st century — the global manifestation of the US’s Second Amendment. G4S are, in effect, modern-day mercenary armies — part of an American military-security complex that feeds on the “War on Terror.”
The fact that Mateen was able to pass a psychological test carried out by G4S illustrates the wider cultural practices of such companies. Last year, details emerged of serious misconduct and abuse at a G4S-managed juvenile detention center for children aged 12-17. Until recently, G4S also provided services to the Israeli prison system and interrogation centers that regularly hold both children and political prisoners without charge or trial, and where torture practices are widespread. In 2009, a G4S security guard stationed in Baghdad shot dead two of his colleagues, and in 2010, three G4S security guards were charged with manslaughter for the death of Jimmy Mubenga, an Angolan immigrant who was being deported from the United Kingdom.
Mubenga’s final words?: “I can’t breathe.”
The connections are there, if we choose to see them.
What is unique about the particular strain of violent masculinity expressed in American political and military foreign policy is its transnational impact, affecting the lives of hundreds of thousands of people around the world, both directly and indirectly. For instance, this militarized masculinity extends far beyond the immediate victims of US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the politics of repression in the Arab world. Human rights activist Scott Long points to the fact that the Egyptian military — a key practitioner of nationalist masculinity — receives $1.3 billion in military aid from the US every year. The purpose of this aid is to enforce military control over Egyptian citizens through violence, suppressing dissenters, and targeting sexual minorities and refugees. Despite the calls of the 2011 Arab Spring protestors for dignity, justice, and freedom, the US government continues to support violent regimes in the Middle East and North Africa, entrenching and legitimizing local manifestations of these violent masculinities in the process. Such contradictions are hardly limited to the US. This month, Justin Trudeau lead the Toronto Pride march in a tight pink shirt, while his government refused to back down on a $15 billion arms deal contract to Saudi Arabia, a country that beheads gay people.
Those of us who are part of the Arab and Muslim LGBTQ community understand the link between the violent masculinity evident in the military and political strategies of the US government, its allies and its enemies, and the everyday reproduction of this violence on women and the LGBTQ communities. We know all too well how brutalized queer bodies are instrumentalized for political and military goals, here and abroad. We live in the uneasy space between celebrating the advancement of LGBT legislation by governments in Western Europe and North America, while also being victims to surveillance tactics, drone wars, and abusive security tactics these same governments employ around the world. Perhaps this is why, for queer movements across the Arab world, the struggle for protection and equality is intricately tied to broader political issues like the dismantling of authoritarian political and military structures and, in the case of Palestine, an end to the Israeli occupation.
Violent Masculinity and the Possibility for a Radical Queer Politics
I did not attend Pride in central London this year. It was raining, and along with the hangover of “Brexit,” with its dangerous cocktail of half-lies, xenophobia, and the aggressive masculinity of slogans such as “Take Back Control,” there was another, very simple reason that I chose not attend the festivities in Soho: the Red Arrows military jets of the Royal Armed Forces were to fly over the Pride parade in a show of solidarity. As important as Pride felt this year, I found myself unable to reconcile the contradiction of celebrating the radical potential of LGBT politics alongside such expressions of violent masculinity — the same expressions that aggressively drove our governments to war in Iraq just over a decade ago.
The Iraq War remains important. If the war has taught us anything, it is that violent masculinity is never defeated by further displays of violence or aggression. Rather than eliminate it, the US invasion and occupation of Iraq simply caused the violence that characterized the Saddam regime to metastasize. As a testament to this, Baghdad suffered yet another car bomb on July 3. This explosion was one of the deadliest in nearly a decade — killing at least 213 people and injuring more than 200 more. One of those killed was Adel Al-Jaf, a young male dancer who was inspired by Michael Jackson and Britney Spears. Last year, after narrowly escaping a similar bomb blast, Adel had posted on social media that he was lucky enough to still be able to dance. This year, his luck ran out.
As part of a global LGBTQ community, we mourned together for our community members slain in Orlando, Florida. And together we vowed to ensure that their deaths would not be in vain. However, part of our determination to defeat the forces of violent masculinity that underlies modern-day homophobia requires us to link hands with others who suffer at the hands of such violence, even if this means breaking with our own country’s foreign or military policies.
The radical potential of a truly “queer” politics is why — whether in the Middle East or in the United States — LGBT communities can be so threatening to those who uphold these violent ideals of masculinity. The pervasiveness of homophobia in all societies, driven by the challenges that queerness presents to rigid and often violent ideals of masculinity, is precisely why gay bars and nightclubs around the world are seen as “safe spaces” for the LGBTQ community. Our bars and nightclubs are safe because, everywhere else, our mere existence presents a challenge to militarized masculine ideals. Embracing a radical queer politics, displayed by Black Lives Matter activists in Toronto Pride, sends a strong message that rather than align with forces of violent masculinity, queer politics necessitates actively challenging and subverting them.
It has been just over a month since Mateen shot up the nightclub in Orlando, yet in the 24-hour news cycle of social media, it seems like a lifetime ago. Yet we owe it to those who gave up their lives that night to keep on fighting: for a more just world, a more humane world, and ultimately, a world where positive expressions of masculinity can thrive. Despite our desperate search to understand the reasons that drive people to commit horrendous acts of violence, the truth is that we will never know why Mateen did what he did. In many ways I doubt that Mateen himself was able to understand what drove him to Pulse nightclub that Saturday night. In trying to understand what drives individuals to commit such tragedies, we need to strike a careful balance between an individual’s agency and the wider structure in which they operate. Ultimately, Mateen is fundamentally responsible for his own actions. But in order to ensure that this does not happen again we must understand the broader structures and norms that incubated his actions. While it would be both simplistic and untrue to place the onus of Mateen’s actions squarely on the militarized masculinity employed by American military and security policies, it is equally simplistic and untrue to ignore it. Yet that is exactly what our politicians do.
Because of this, the narrative surrounding Omar Mateen remains important. Narratives help us shape tragedies, and provide us with the tools to address their underlying causes. The Orlando tragedy must allow room for us to examine the type of military aggression our governments export to the rest of the world — and enforce on some of our own citizens. LGBT politics has an important role to play in tackling this problem. Recognizing Mateen’s actions, while fundamentally his own responsibility, were shaped in part by a global culture of violent masculinity that drives military and political strategies means we must not limit our activism simply to the immediate victims within our own community. For radical queer politics, acknowledging the multiple links between the death of our Latinx siblings in Orlando and the death of Adel Al-Jaf in Baghdad are necessary to ensure we are not treating fire with fire.
Saleem Haddad has worked as an aid worker in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq, and advises on state-society relations, inclusive politics, transition processes, refugees and migration, and community peacebuilding. Saleem’s debut novel, GUAPA, was published this spring from Other Press.