Just as soon as news broke on the ethnicity and religion of the shooter who killed 49 people at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub (and wounded dozens more), we knew what to expect. When a perpetrator is a person of color — and especially a Muslim in the Islamophobic reality that is post-9/11 America — people who share their racial makeup are about to come under attack.
Already tweets and memes abound from people who are attacking Islam and Muslims for the crimes of Omar Mateen rather than blaming Mateen himself and his own extremist fanaticism. Donald Trump chimed in with an “I told you so” regarding keeping Muslims out of the country, while others claim that this somehow proves the evils of Islam and even the Democratic Party.
Mateen, who has allegedly been both a domestic abuser and on the FBI watch list, legally acquired his firearms, including the assault rifle and handgun he used during the nightclub attack. He got them about 12 days prior to the attack. His ex-wife has said that he beat her, sometimes for no reason, in addition to being wildly racist and homophobic, hating black people and gay people.
Let’s be clear: Mateen perpetrated the tragedy at Pulse, not Islam. But while the Islamophobia is disappointing and disgusting, it does not come as much of a surprise. According to analyses done by researchers and civil rights groups, hate crimes against Muslims have surged since the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, late last year.
The ways people react to these incidents are important to analyze when looking at large-scale phenomena in American culture. When a shooting happens and the perpetrator is a Christian and/or white person and/or man, the reactions are nearly always the same: “They aren’t real Christians,” #NotAllWhitePeople or #NotAllMen. And despite evidence that shows a very clear contrary, there is a pattern — one that, a vast majority of the time in cases of mass murderers, implicates white men raised in Christian homes.
Part of that pattern is that white Christians who commit atrocities remain unstigmatized, which is to say that despite the statistics on who commits these specific crimes, there is no stereotype that makes white men scary or stigmatized as criminal in our society.
We have a culture of hate and bigotry in this country, a culture that works against anyone who is not a white, heterosexual, Christian man. When it is a black person or Muslim who commits these atrocities, context is rarely found, and the inaccurate cultural explanations for these problems abound: black-on-black crime, violent gang culture, no culture of expectations at home, rap music or hoodie wearing or “Islam is just a violent religion.”
It is quite telling that many folks will aggressively assert that guns don’t kill people (despite the fact that they were made for this illicit purpose) and will, in their next breath, blame all Muslims for the actions of a small yet violent extremist minority. Islam is the second-most popular religion practiced in the world (behind Christianity), with a whopping 1.6 billion people following the religion worldwide. As of 2015, Muslims make up about 1 percent of the total United States population, which is about 322 million people. And in the United States, professors of the Islamic faith account for a mere 4 percent of the total mass shootings that occur.
All this despite the Crusades, the conquistadors, the missionaries, the Old Testament… a literal catalog of evidence that proves Christianity has a history that is every bit as violent as Islam’s.
That Christianity or its followers are not criticized or stigmatized as widely as Islam or its followers is at the crux of this issue, and it’s not surprising given that the majority of people in the United States who follow a religion follow Christianity, at 70.6 percent. The reactions that seek to exclude Christians from Christianity while not listening to Muslims who say the same about their religion and therefore refusing to do the same show an overwhelming bias — one that shows how Christianity is normalized in our society and how quickly we normalize those who are not Christian (and who are often also not white).
In the aftermath of Dylann Roof, a young white Lutheran man walking into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church church in June 2015 and praying with parishioners before gunning them down, he was not charged with terrorism, nor was his religion mentioned as a cause of his actions. When President Obama called Robert Dear, Jr., the Colorado Christian man who committed the shooting at a Planned Parenthood in November 2015, a “Christian terrorist,” there was Republican outrage at putting those two words together.
This weekend’s reporting on James Wesley Howell, the white man who was apprehended with an arsenal of weapons and allegedly planned to go to the Gay Pride celebration around the same time as the Orlando shooting, shows clearly more large-scale patterns: 1) His alleged intentions are still “trying to be determined” rather than the obvious fact that 2) he was allegedly trying to commit violence against gay people. The man’s religion isn’t being questioned, all white people aren’t being blamed, and they are therefore not in danger of any resulting hate crimes thereafter. Can you see it now?
If a terrorist need only a political affiliation as a motive for their crimes to be deemed a terrorist, why are the Tsarnaev brothers, who perpetrated the Boston bombing, and now, Omar Mateen, terrorists, while Roof and Dear, Jr. are not? The only differences are their racial category and religious beliefs.
Do not put those of us who fight for equality between a rock and a hard place by having to take time away from uplifting the LGBT community, the victims of the Orlando massacre and their families because you cannot keep your Islamophobia in check.