“A bullet from the back of a bush took Medgar Evers’ blood
A finger fired the trigger to his name
A handle hid out in the dark
A hand set the spark
Two eyes took the aim
Behind a man’s brain
But he can’t be blamed
He’s only a pawn in their game”
Those are lyrics from the beginning of Bob Dylan’s “Only a Pawn in Their Game” (1964), a song in which Dylan memorializes the African-American civil rights activist Medgar Evers, who was assassinated by a white supremacist in 1963.
What’s perhaps most striking about Dylan’s description of the murder of Medgar Evers is his complete depersonalization of the murderer. Two eyes took the aim, a finger pulled the trigger, behind a man’s brain. I think what Dylan wants us to understand here is that it really could have been anyone’s eyes that took aim, anyone’s finger that pulled the trigger, and the refrain of the song “He’s only a pawn in their game” suggests that there are larger forces at play: a system in motion.
Shortly after the mass shooting that shook Orlando, Florida early Sunday morning, during which a gunman stormed a gay club and shot and killed 50 people while injuring 53 more, the public and media alike began grappling with how to best frame this event. Was this a mass shooting? Was it a terrorist attack? Was the murderer, New York resident Omar Mateen, a deranged bigot or was a part of a larger Islamic terrorist threat? The most recent reports have suggested that Omar Mateen was a closeted homosexual himself.
One of the widespread reactions to the event which began surfacing on social media was a reluctance to view Omar Mateen’s actions as in any way reflective of what these observers would call “true Islam.” One twitter user named Chase Strangio posted a tweet which went viral, stating: “The Christian Right has introduced 200 anti-LGBT laws in the last six months and people blaming Islam for this. No. #PuslseNightClub.”
This reluctance to generalize Omar Mateen’s actions as characteristic of all Muslims is admirable, especially as Muslim Americans are an already marginalized group in the U.S., often viewed as suspicious simply because of their religion or race.
However, completely removing Islam or the notion of religious motivation from the discussion surrounding the event threatens to derail an important discussion that American and the international community needs to be having right now; and that is the role of religion in the promotion of homophobia, which, in the American context, includes both Christian and Muslim sources of homophobia.
Viewing Omar Mateen as an individualized, lone-wolf incident can be tempting, because it absolves society from thinking deeply about how violence is almost always the product of a cultural narrative, one which we may be complicit in producing.
Many Americans and the mainstream media made a similar blunder in the case of the Charleston Massacre, where white supremacist Dylan Roof entered an historically Black Church and killed nine African Americans. The media painted roof as a lone-wolf, as someone mentally disturbed, an outcast of society, thereby absolving the public of taking a more critical look at the presence of white supremacy in their own society as a dominant discourse.
It’s easier to view acts of violence or terrorism as random, personalized acts, than to investigate our own culpability in shaping a culture that breeds that same violence again and again.
The sentiment of #NotAllMuslims, while true, threatens to function in much the same way the #NotAllMen sentiment functions. Whenever there is an attempt to discuss the very real issues of sexual assault and violence against women, there is usually a group of men attempting to derail the discussion by pointing out that not all men do those things; which is true, but not very helpful in a discussion about what we can do to change things.
And if there are any suspicions that Omar Mateen was a lone wolf, totally detached from any larger cultural discourses, one need only look at the responses from religious circles, both Christian and Muslim to recognize that the issue of homophobia in religion is much larger than any one man.
Shortly after the attack on Sunday morning, a tweet was posted by a Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick quoting a bible verse that states: “Do not be deceived; God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.”
Many in the LGBT community read this tweet as a direct reference to the Orlando shooting that morning: that Dan Patrick was insinuating the victims of the attack got what they deserved because of their sexual orientation. The Texas Governor later deleted the tweet, apologizing and claiming that it was a scheduled post and not relevant to the Orlando shooting. Another Christian leader, Pastor Steve Anderson posted a mini-sermon regarding the Orlando shooting, celebrating that outcome and stating that: “The good news is that there’s 50 less paedophiles in this world.”
Mateen’s actions received support as well in some Muslim circles, including the world of Turkish social media, where many users celebrated the outcome of the attack. The prominent conservative and government-affiliated Turkish newspaper Yeni Akit posted a piece on their twitter account, with the headline: “Death toll reaches 50 at a bar where perverted gays go.”
A number of Turkish twitter users chimed in, one user Selahaddin Eyyubi-i commenting: “We can’t even call those disgusting creatures dead. They are filth now, just as they were when they were alive.” Another Turkish user named “Where is the peace man” commented: “You don’t give a shit about babies dying in Syria, but you get riled up because a few gays have been cleansed from Orlando. Killing perverts is a religious duty – die!”
These comments emerging from conservative religious circles in the U.S. and abroad after the Orlando shooting clearly reveal that the homophobia that drove Omar Mateen to commit this unspeakable act did not began with Omar Mateen himself.
Omar Mateen is in a sense the product of a cultural discourse of homophobia that has dominated religious communities for centuries. Now would be a good time for Christian and Muslim leaders to have some serious, self-critical discussions about the prevalence of homophobia within their communities.
So yes, #NotAllMuslims, and #NotAllChristians, the vast majority of religious individuals would never even consider taking the actions that Omar Mateen took on Sunday, July 12. But all it takes is one finger on the trigger, one handle hid out in the dark, two eyes to take the aim, but he’s only a pawn in their game…