“Heartbroken” was the one-word response from Imam Daayiee Abdullah, America’s only openly gay imam, to the attack that took the lives of 49 people at a popular gay night club in Orlando.
“Historically, the LGBT community has suffered violence on an individual basis in America,” said the 62-year-old African-American imam, who’s also a lawyer. “We have seen it from isolated cases like Matthew Shepard’s murder to 28 members of the LGBT community being killed in a fire targeting a gay night club in New Orleans in 1978 and the list goes on.” He added: “the goal of this violence is to sequester and keep us (gays) hidden because some are afraid of change and of people who are different.”
But while America has seen no shortage of anti-gay violence and prejudice, the Orlando attack was unprecedented in its death toll. The gunman, Omar Mateen, reportedly pledged his allegiance to ISIS, but details are still emerging about his mental state and motivations.
Whatever a person’s motives, it’s “easy access to guns,” said Abdullah, that allows someone who hates a minority group to easily commit mass shootings, a point—the exact point President Obama made Sunday, the 18th time this president has spoken to Americans after a mass shooting. Just one year ago this month, he spoke after Dylann Roof murdered nine African Americans in a South Carolina church, motivated by his white supremacist views.
“Nowhere in the Quran does it say punish homosexuals,” said Abdullah, a scholar in Quranic and Sharia interpretation, who added that even in the verified teachings of the Prophet Mohammad there is no support for killing gays.
But, he said, “I can’t deny some Muslims do” have a serious problem with gays, and that some Muslims have been taught that gays need to be punished or even killed. ISIS has murdered homosexuals, and five Muslim countries (out of more than 50) still have a death penalty for homosexuality on the books.
“The actions of ISIS in killing gays is fueled by a perverted understanding of Islam. An understanding typically learned by word of mouth, not an actual reading of the text and understanding of the principles of Islam,” Abdullah added.
While Muslim Americans and the LGBT community have teamed up on issues like fighting for anti-bullying legislation to advocating for human rights for Palestinians, “some Muslims prefer to put their heads in the sand or be silent when others are spewing hateful comments about the LGBT community,” he remarked. “We need more Muslims worldwide to speak out to counter the hate so that those who harbor such horrible views realize their views are not consistent with our faith.
It’s been inspiring for Abdullah to hear his fellow Muslim Americans standing in solidarity with his fellow members of the LGBT community in the common fight against homophobia and Islamophobia—including at a press conference Sunday organized by CAIR and featuring leaders from numerous other American, Muslim groups speaking of Muslims standing “shoulder to shoulder” with their LGBT peers in the face of this hate crime.
Still the Imam hoped to see even more from members of the community who have remained on the sidelines. “It’s not just about speaking out, but creating a Muslim community where perverted interpretations of the Islamic faith are immediately countered—both in person and online where ISIS recruits.”
Imam Abdullah went further, adding that while leaders of Muslim American groups have denounced violence, “it’s now time for Muslims worldwide to “engage in that as well.”
“If not, next they [the extremists] may be coming for you.”
Given that this attack happened only days after many Americans were moved by their first exposure to a Muslim funeral, for an American icon, the question for many will be who truly represents Islam in America: Muhammad Ali or the shooter in Orlando?
The answer depends on if you want to divide or unite us.