Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts What Orlando Doesn’t Mean
What Orlando Doesn’t Mean

What Orlando Doesn’t Mean

Omar Mateen (Orlando Police Department)Omar Mateen (Orlando Police Department)

There comes a time when frustration can turn into disgust, and I’m closer to the transformation after seeing yesterday morning’s Washington Post, in which a front-page article authored by William Wan and Anne Hull refers to Orlando shooter Omar Mateen as an Arab American: “Being Arab American meant he stood out in a small South Florida town. . . “They repeat the description later via a quote from a former schoolmate: “He was probably one of the only kids of Arab descent. That made him stand out a bit . . .”

After many decades of experience teaching undergraduates and lecturing to a wide range of adult groups, no one needs to instruct me about what typical Americans don’t know about the Middle East. Typical Americans, it seems, cannot distinguish a term for an ethnicity from a term for a religion, so that “Arab” and “Muslim” are effectively synonyms in their Romper-Room level infosphere. That is why, to this day, most Americans still think that Ayatollah Khomeini was an Arab, and the thugs who took our diplomats hostage back in 1979—Arabs, all of them. So it stands to reason that if Persians en masse are mistaken for Arabs, Pashtuns like Omar Mateen and his father Saddique Mateen stand absolutely zero chance of avoiding the label “Arab”—as if Arabs living in the United States don’t already have enough problems without being tarred by association with the atrocity in Orlando.

But William Wan and Anne Hull are, presumably, not typical. As professional journalists writing at least indirectly about Middle Eastern/Southwestern Asia topics—not to mention the editors here in Washington who presumably read their copy before sending it on to the printer—such mistakes are simply unacceptable.

It’s not just the “rectification of names” problem that bothers me. I am long since used to the reality that since most Americans—even those with four-year college degrees—cannot properly define the words “country,” “nation,” “state,” and “nation-state,” or for that matter “regime” and “government,” it is futile to expect them to understand a part of the world where the relative relationships of all those terms differ significantly from their own mostly tacit understanding of them. It is too much to ask people to construct meaningful sentences about this sort of subject, let alone accurate ones, when they do not know the meaning of key words in the sentence.

And it is way too much to ask them to make distinctions if they can’t even compose simple sentences about a given subject. So no wonder Ba’athi Iraq remains linked to 911 in the minds of most Americans, even though it wasn’t; that ISIS is blamed for the San Bernardino shootings even though there is no sign of any operational connection between ISIS and the shooters; and the same with Orlando: There is zero evidence that anyone in Raqqa ever heard of Omar Mateen, let alone fed him instructions. It won’t matter. If all Muslims are Arabs and all Arabs are Muslims, then any and all conflations are not only possible but very, very likely.

No, it’s more than just the abuse of language. I know what’s coming next because it always does, just as it has from the denouement of 911 all the way to San Bernardino. As already suggested, we’re going to experience galactic-scale conflations of different groups, ideas, and beliefs about which speakers and writers will know little or actually nothing at all. (“What’s a Pashtun?” could become a popular question despite the fact that the U.S. military has been fighting in Afghanistan for more than 14 years.) We’re going to hear more blather about Islamist “ideology” as the real enemy and the need for a stepped up “war of ideas.” We’ll soon be inundated with a highly misleading debate about the supposedly religious sources of Islamist mass-casualty and suicide terrorism. Given the specific nature of the Orlando shootings, we’re going to hear more than the usual amount of xenophobic nonsense about supposedly primitive “Arab” [read: Muslim] attitudes toward sexuality compared to the enlightened gender-advanced and gay-friendly West. And as a minor subset of the coming nonsense, we’re bound to get a strong whiff of incredulity at the seemingly endless incompetence of the FBI.

So let’s take all this, briefly, in turn—and let me apologize in advance to some readers for having to repeat some points I have made before in the probably futile belief that it might make a benign difference.

Ideology, Baloney!

Between the Western worldview on the one hand and that of terror-prone Islamism on the other there is little intellectual or ideological conflict of significance that can be remedied by a “war of ideas.” There is a conflict, yes, one between two universalisms: Western Enlightenment liberalism and Islamist supremacism. But this conflict is not the proximate source of our terrorism problem.[1] Want logical evidence? This conflict of universalisms has been with us for at least four centuries, but our Islamist terrorism problem dates back less than four decades. If this conflict causes terrorism, then how to account for the 360 years without it? We can’t, because it doesn’t.

We face not an esoteric intellectual but a full-fledged sociological problem in the greater Middle East, one having mainly to do with the stresses of modernization on traditional and, in many cases, still largely tribally structured societies. There is a vicious civilizational churning going on in the region that divides societies against themselves and happens to spatter blood beyond as well as within its borders. It sometimes does so here in the United States through the actions of immigrants from the region who have brought the churn with them—the Tsarnaev brothers and now Omar Mateen are obvious cases in point, as was Nidal Hasan of the 2009 Fort Hood shootings.

This larger and deeper social context, which feeds off of collective emotion rather than the tracts of Sayd Qutub or the tape-recorded rants of Osama bin-Laden, explains why newly vogue U.S. countermessaging efforts are a waste of time and money. Those efforts are bound to fail because those messages are, in Scott Atran’s words, “disembodied from the social networks in which ideas are embedded and given life.”[2] The notion that a bunch of people on the fifth floor of the State Department are one fine day going to discover the perfect set of words placed in perfect order and translated perfectly into Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, Pashto and so on, and that set before potential or extant fanatics these words are going to suddenly change their entire point of view, is a rationalist fantasy that only Enlightenment-“lite” creatures could possibly take seriously. But we do.

What Western observers often label as ideological is really theological; but then we would do that, wouldn’t we, since its been centuries since most Western observers have taken theology as a social force seriously. We of a secular mien pour all our ideational debates into the category of ideology and imagine mistakenly that all others do the same. Meanwhile, most Muslims pour all their ideational debates into the category of theology, and wrongly imagine that all others do, too—because they do not take the category of the secular seriously. This is, again, why Western rationalist arguments made on a rarified ideological plain to Muslims will get us absolutely nowhere.

Now, there are similarities between ideology and theology; both are essentially creedal systems of abstract thought. But they are not the same. Theology is a recursive, non-falsifiable system of ideas about abstract matters. Ideology, on the other hand, as abstract as it may be, is at length testable against the flow of historical reality. Take the trajectory of Communism: Its arc of rise and fall traverses about a century, but fall it did because all of the avowed test cases of the ideology failed by their own lights. Insofar as there is an Islamist ideology, it seems to be approaching the same fate, and for more or less the same reason.

Moreover, defined properly, there just isn’t very much Islamist ideology. As that term is commonly used in the West, at a minimum an ideology needs to specify: some ideal political economy; some ideal relationship between society, state, and authority; and some ideal relationship between a given society and the world outside it. There is nothing special in these regards about current Islamist thinking. There are a few innovations of note that distinguish it from traditional Islam—the very strict segregation of the sexes in public spaces; the insistence that non-Muslims cannot hold public office; the re-merging of religious and temporal authority in the caliphate—but there are too few and too marginal to create much of a difference from the standard traditional Muslim understanding of the relationship of religion and politics. Hence, for example, the supremacist assumptions of Islamism are also characteristic of mainstream traditional Sunni Islam, making it impossible for us to “message” against it without alienating Sunnis who are not our enemies and who are critical extent and potential allies.

This reflects the key fact that there is nothing specifically ideological—again as we understand the term—about Islamic attitudes about the intersection of religion and politics. Neither Islamist nor Islamic “ideology” is commensurate with any system of Western political ideas. Liberalism as the epitome of the Western way of thinking about politics is based on deeper philosophical currents, but it is not a mere lesser-included case. It has its own weight, its autonomy, its own discourse. The political world is a lesser-included case within Islamist (and Islamic) thinking. It is not autonomous but derivative. It does not have its own credentialed authorities and discourse, only the authorities and discourse of the clergy whose concerns far transcend politics.

Please try to remember all this the next time you hear someone call for a “war of ideas” against Islamist “ideology.” That person does not know what he or she is talking about; that person is, in fact, making a category error that comes from absentmindedly projecting his or her own frames of reference onto others where they just don’t belong. That person could be an American politician, but ah, I—channeling Mark Twain, of course—repeat myself.

Religious Terrorism

Siddique Mateen insists that his son’s actions had nothing to do with religion. Most Americans probably just don’t believe him. Trump supporters overwhelmingly don’t believe him. Who is right?

Now, I have just explained that salafi extremists do not think in and act out of mainly ideological but mostly theological categories, so right away the “excuse” that the motive is not religion but some hijacked politicized derangement of it becomes inadmissible. And however popular a claim it may be, it is inadmissible, and so it returns us directly and honestly to the question of religious motives for terrorism. Are there any?

This is not an easy matter to parse, but it can be done. Following Atran and many others, we see that conventional religious motivation for terrorism—particularly suicide terrorism—is scant. No Islamic school of jurisprudence condones either suicide or the murder of innocents, and all uphold the inadmissibility of coercion in religion: You can’t just up and kill non-believers or sinners on your own dime, just because you feel like it. Even within the ISIS caliphate there is a pretense of law before gruesome things are done to innocent people, not wild vigilantism. But ultimately the question of religious motivation for terrorism depends on how one defines the ambit of “religious.”

In most cases, suicide terrorists do not act as one-off agents. They are indeed embedded in social networks, and only in that form do seemingly religious ideas take shape and guide behavior. Hence in the sectarian conflicts of the Middle East today, brothers, cousins, and extended families generally tend to cluster together to form fighting groups, and whether terrorism is or is not a part of their tactical instrumentalities is almost beside the point if we want to understand how social dynamics take up ideas and freeze them into forms that motivate behavior. So we are faced with a kind of chicken-and-egg problem: Do religious ideas shape social networks, or do the networks shape religious ideas? As is usually the case with chickens and eggs, it’s some of both.

Even Omar Mateen did not act outside a social network, though his was far narrower than most as an immigrant in South Florida. He seems to have been clearly influenced by his autocratic father’s pro-Taliban, anti-American views, a man who, if he is not a U.S. citizen, could usefully be deported for incitement given what he has reportedly said on his Pashtu-language cable show. Omar reportedly cheered, publicly in school, when he heard of 911. He liked what the Boston Marathon killers did. So his hateful views were not new to him last week or last month; in one form or another, they seem to have been learned at the hearth. He seems to have imbibed his household’s supremacist assumptions about Islam and the standard premodern zero-sum understanding of power and how it is used. And the fact he may have been psychologically unstable changes absolutely none of this; his actions cannot and must not be medicalized away, even in postmortem terms.

Now, is that religion? Is that theology? Yes and no. It is how most Muslims understand Islam’s place in the world, and it has a basis in scripture; but it is not a simple-minded, unvarnished worldview because over 1,400 years Islam has had to accommodate itself to a recalcitrant reality. That accommodation both pluralized and moderated the Islamic attitude toward this-worldly politics. Islamic tradition is a synthesis of scripture with experience. Religious law evolves through serial interpretation, and so Islam has learned to coexist with non-Muslims as a world-majority and to enable Muslims to live contentedly as a minority in particular societies, such as the United States. So much, then, for the canard that Islam is monolithically aggressive and implacably murderous. (That does not make it “a religion of peace” either, but that’s another story.)

That said, there is something indelibly and more deeply religious about the actions of the Paris, Brussels, and Orlando shooters, but it may not be what you think it is. It is not about a verse in Qur’an or a hadith, and it is not anything contained in a sermon from a radical alim. It is, as I say, something deeper, and it is sexually related.

Boys who grow up in a traditional environment—and this goes for Orthodox Jews and Victorian-era Anglicans, by the way, as well as traditional Muslims—are taught certain sexual taboos, and depending on the culture these may be taught by the mother rather than the father. So in traditional Islamic societies, the mother tells her son that you mustn’t masturbate; it’s a sin. You stain yourself spiritually as well as literally when you do that, for you are wasting the seed of life that is a gift of God. You don’t touch any woman who might be menstruating, because during her period she is ritually unclean; and since you can’t ask a woman if she is menstruating, even a cousin, because it is unseemly, you simply avoid touching women other than your own mother until you are married. That means no pre-marital sex, at all—not even adolescent fondling. It also means not looking at licentious photos or videos, because these stir up carnal urges that might lead one to become impure. These are shameful things to do—word chosen very carefully. And this is not a solipsistic experience; virtually all boys are told the same things by their mothers.

Note the stress on impurity and stain, and the consequent need, should one become impure, to atone for one’s behavior in order to get rid of the stain, which in less concrete terms is shame if it becomes known to others and guilt if it does not. This metaphor is taken very concretely in many traditional societies. You can see the entire system open to view in the Torah, especially in Leviticus, and in the liturgy of the Jewish High Holy days; Islamic sensibilities are not appreciably different in this regard.

Now the boys in Molenbeek were known to be carousers, drinkers, and drug users before they carried out their murderous sprees in Paris and Brussels. In their case, socially networked personal commitments solidified their behavior. And though more of a loner, Omar Mateen, we know, used to go out and have a good time as well. He is described as having oscillated between being occasionally very religious and being “normal” and fun-loving most of the time. This calls attention to a pattern that, if you understand what it’s like to be raised in a traditional environment with regard to sexual behavior only to be subsequently drowned in temptation, is not hard to discern. It goes something like this, and let’s use Omar Mateen as our hypothetical case.

Omar knows he’s not supposed to lust after women out of marriage, and certainly not after men (what he was doing in Pulse before the shootings and why his profile was posted on mens’ dating sites is still not clear: he may have been a conflicted bisexual, which would help explain his rage; or he may have just been casing future victims). But even when married (twice, apparently) he is exposed to sexual cues and opportunities all the time in south Florida, and he is weak: Maybe he looks at porn and masturbates, or maybe he hires a hooker from time to time.

He remembers very well his mother telling him as a boy that all this is sinful, so he feels remorse. He becomes temporarily pious so that he can get rid of the stain he has caused. He resolves not to sin again, but he fails. He does it again, and he feels intense guilt, leading to more frantic efforts at atonement and stain removal. He falls into a cycle of sin and remorse until he finally realizes that he can never escape. He has sinned too much to be forgiven, or so he thinks. This makes him depressed and prone to explosions of anger and violence, such as beating his wives. There is only one way out now: Having dishonored and shamed his family, especially his own mother, in the eyes of God because of his wanton behavior, he has to redeem the family through his own martyrdom.

This psychological-behavioral complex explains, it seems to me, not all but a fair number of the cases of Islamist suicide terrorism. It is hard to prove, because what goes on in someone’s head is impervious to sure knowledge and, as already noted, what goes on inside someone’s head can never be divorced from the social frameworks in which nearly all thinking is embedded. Even so, it may go far to explain what happened in Orlando. It may also explain why Omar’s father had no idea what his son was about to do, because this is not the kind of problem you can go to your father about—he will just slap you across the face and curse you, which won’t help.

Now, is this a description of a religious motivation after all? At the level of standard theology, no—but theology and the community that embodies it can set parameters on extreme behavior. If a person so afflicted with guilt over sexual improprieties is not bound by such community-buttressed norms—a Mohammed Atta in Hamburg, the rowdies in Brussels, Omar Mateen in South Florida where the mosque was not an integral part of his life—what he might do is far less constrained. So it seems to me that most suicide terrorism is deeply religious in a generic sense, but it is not particular to Islam. Mass murder driven by rage, guilt, or a collapse of self-worth, sometimes suicidal and sometimes not, has happened in many places—Tasmania, Norway, Columbine, Sandy Hook—where the mass murderers were not Muslims. It can exist amid any way of thinking in which sin and shame and ritual impurity have a place.

Why don’t most Western analysts of terrorism make this observation? Because most are not religious people, and so do not really understand the power of traditional, pre-intellectualized religious beliefs. They therefore do not credit them as possible sources of behavior.

Islam and Homosexuality

As already noted, we don’t yet know Omar Mateen’s personal sexual orientation—or orientations, since he may have had more than one. But we do know that the present crop of salafi extremists are, by traditional synthetic Muslim standards, rabidly misogynist, anti-Jewish, and anti-homosexual. Is this just the same as traditional Islam, only more fanatical? Again, difficult to parse, but it can be done.

Islamic scripture no more or less than Jewish scripture defines male homosexuality as a sin. But Islamic history shows significant variation in what that actually meant from place to place and from time to time. The four main schools of Sunni jurisprudence differently interpreted punishment for homosexual acts and how they justified their decisions, and they distinguished between male and female homosexuality and explained why. Only one of the four schools deemed male homosexuality a capital crime, and then only under certain strict juridical conditions.

On the other hand, what the ulema said often had little purchase in society—notably in Central Asia, where the custom of bacha bāzī—“dancing boys”, euphemistically—goes back to antiquity. It’s still rather too popular today in Afghanistan, so when Saddique Mateen speaks of God, not men, being responsible for punishing homosexual behavior, he comes from a culture that knows plenty about it.

Old Islamic texts also speak in descriptive, unemotional terms of mukhannathun—effeminate men. There are also fairly well-known stories from of old of caliphs who ordered women to dress as men so as to enable them to become passionate enough to sire male heirs. There are portraits of some royal types in affectionate poses with “pages,” and so on. It is also interesting to note that neither men nor women, for different reasons, could guard harams, so aside from eunuchs sometimes men dressed as women were assigned the task. Cross-dressing and all it implies were neither entirely absent nor entirely disparaged in Muslim history. So whatever the clergy ordered now and again about homosexual behavior, societies over time developed forms of useful hypocrisy to get by. And of course Muslims societies have hardly been alone in this.

Why is this summary necessary? Because you will probably hear in coming days the claim, based on the Orlando fallout, that Islam is inherently and viciously anti-gay as a whole civilization, going back to its very beginning. And this will be at the very least a vast oversimplification.

FBI: Feckless Bloody Idiots?

Finally, turning our attention away from matters Muslim, a lot of people are very angry at the FBI for letting Mateen twice slip through its fingers. It’s understandable, and predictable. People were furious at the FBI, the INS, the CIA, and you can just about pick any acronym you like, after 911. Some of the anger was justified then, and I’ll say it clearly now: My own experiences with FBI types in and around government have not been encouraging. I could tell some true horror stories about these folks, but I intend to save them for my memoirs if I ever write them (which I won’t).

That said, those who are angry at the FBI over Orlando need to do a little budget math and to understand a little better something about the nature of government agencies. How many disaffected and at least slightly discombobulated young Muslim males are there in the United States? I don’t have a number handy, but I can tell you that the number, whatever it is, far exceeds the supply of FBI case officers to monitor them 24/7. So the FBI is forced to do what amounts to triage. It ranks cases that come to its attention in terms of potential for violence. It’s a gambling game in effect, and sometimes even skilled gamblers lose.

Actually, however, the FBI’s problem is much larger than that, and it has to do with bureaucratic culture. The FBI is part of the Justice Department, and in its origins and whole history until about a decade ago it has grown up to accomplish a singular purpose: to catch criminals who have violated Federal statutes in such a way as to get a solid, appeal-proof convictions in courts of law. To do that effectively can sometimes involve surveillance of a suspect before a crime has been committed, but the American system of justice sharply limits the ability of law enforcement to surveil U.S. citizens without court approval. So mainly the FBI has been accustomed to launching into action only after a crime has been committed.

Now think what a terrorist does: A terrorist avoids attracting the attention of law enforcement until his heinous deed is done. He avoids giving any cause for surveillance, and terror masters do not choose conspicuous types to do their murderous work. And if we are talking about suicide terrorism, there is nothing for the FBI to do after the fact except piece together the “martyr’s” social network and follow it down.

After 911 a debate took place as to whether the FBI could ever jump out of its own subculture to become an effective domestic counterterror organization. Some suggested that if we wanted to be serious about counterterrorism, we’d have to create something like Britain’s MI5, and we’d have to be serious about paying for it. We weren’t serious, and that is how the FBI got stuck will learning a new function that differed significantly from what it had been doing since its creation. As is typical in Washington, Congress in effect added a mandate for the FBI and then failed to adequately fund it. No administration since 911 has exerted anything like real leadership to close the gap between mandate and resources.

Opinions differ as to how well the FBI has come along in learning the domestic counterterrorism business over the past 14 years. Some claim it’s done pretty well; others are not so sure. I am not so sure, but then I favored creating an American equivalent of MI5 back then, when the issue was in play. So am I delighted with the FBI these days? No. Did it screw up in the Orlando case? That remains to be seen, but even if it did, is it all the FBI’s fault? Also no. So be angry with them if you like, but save some emotion for others, then and now, who also gambled poorly.

Myths and Mayhem

Pashtuns are not Arabs any more than Persians are Arabs. “Arab” and “Muslim” are not synonyms; to the contrary many Arabs are Christians and most Muslims worldwide are not Arabs. Islamist terrorism is not mainly an intellectual or ideological challenge, and rationalist methods for dealing with it will never pierce the socially embedded emotional context from which it actually arises. Terrorism is or is not religiously motivated depending on how we define religion, but, even to the extent it is so motivated at a deep level, Islam has no monopoly over the process. Islam is not inherently anti-homosexual any more than the other Abrahamic religions were historically, and history supplies some evidence that it was perhaps more accepting in that regard, at least in some places, than was Christianity before modern times. Blaming the FBI for Orlando masks a deeper set of questions about how to understand and deal with homegrown terrorism.

None of these points is new, and none falls into the category of exotic or difficult to understand knowledge. And yet every time a terrorist atrocity occurs here or in some telegenic European city (and that would be most of them) the same distorted and highly predictable nonsense pours fourth. No amount of expert lecturing and hectoring in whatever form it may come seems to make the slightest difference, certainly not when it has to go up against political demagogues trying to exploit our emotions for their own purposes.

It is frustrating, but one must try to fob off disgust, which is altogether demobilizing. After all, but for the grace of God guiding my ancestors’ footsteps centuries ago, I could be living in Mosul right now. That would give frustration a whole new meaning.


[1] I address this issue in more detail in “Testing the ‘War of Ideas’ Part I: The Facile,” The American Interest Online, January 11, 2016.

[2] Atran, “The Devoted Actor: Unconditional Commitment and Intractable Conflict across Cultures,” Current Anthropology 57:13 (June 2016).

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