The Orlando shooting has shaken the already fragile relationship between the Muslim community in America and the mainstream society. The unexpected and unrivaled violence stemming from a misguided man’s actions has stunned Muslims and non-Muslims alike. It is a tragedy unsurpassed in America’s history of gun violence. The death and injury of so many innocent people is unjustifiable on any account, but especially when the motive is hate towards a specific group of people.
How does such hate, enough to make someone organize and carry out a shooting on a mass scale, even arise? The Orlando shooter, Mateen, was born and brought up in America. Presumably he grew up with the basic American rights of freedom of speech and expression and the freedom to practise one’s religion.
From the interviews gathered since the shooting, it is clear that he did not travel to any country where he might have been brainwashed into being intolerant towards different communities. He did not have a background where he had suffered the ravages of war and political insecurity. From all accounts, Mateen was an American. Just the fact that his parents are Afghani does not mean he was pre-disposed toward crime on this magnitude, because America is a nation that is home to millions of immigrants, from all over the world- Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and the Americas. Not all the sons of all the immigrants do something so heinous. People come to the United States of America as it is a land of opportunity, not because it is fertile soil to grow terrorists in.
So how is it that his hate crime becomes a Muslim crime? Maybe Mateen was insane, and his insanity made him lean towards whatever satanic propaganda is put out by ISIS. If he had not made that 911 call pledging allegiance to ISIS would it not have been considered a crime perpetrated by a so-called Islamic terror organization? If someone chooses to shoot 50 people and happens to have a Muslim name, does that automatically brand all Muslims as a terror-loving, violent community?
So how do we understand such a deep divide, such ingrained hatred? For this we need to consider the related concepts of prejudice and stereotyping.
Prejudice refers to “preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience”. Prejudice has huge potential to create division between people not based on logic or reason, or even experience. Prejudice arises from a set of (negative) ideas about a group of people shared by the dominant group, that serves to alienate or harm the non-dominant group.
Stereotype is defined as “a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing”. Stereotyping Muslims as terrorists is a) incorrect as Muslims do not believe people who carry out such dastardly acts are Muslim, b) violence and killing are against the teachings of the Quran and c) people who mistakenly believe that taking lives and committing suicide earns them a passage to heaven, have been promised eternal hell according to all valid Islamic scholarly literature.
To overcome prejudice and stereotyping, we must employ ‘cultural relativism’, the idea that all cultures, races, religions, view points and beliefs are situated on an imaginary continuum. The continuum ranges from a ‘closest to us’ point to a ‘farthest from us’ point. There is no right or wrong opinion, view or orientation. Just similar or different. Operating from a relativist position, we begin to see differences in people, but also similarities. Difference and diversity need to be celebrated, not minimized or extinguished.