THE BLOG
06/14/2016 03:00 pm ET Updated Jun 15, 2017

Is Islam Responsible For The Orlando Nightclub Shooting?

Spencer Platt via Getty Images

Donald Trump wasted little time after the news broke of the Orlando shootings. He took to Twitter to pat himself on the back "for being right on radical Islamic terrorism" and to take President Obama and Secretary Clinton to task for avoiding the language of "radical Islamic terrorism."

The uncomfortable truth is that Trump's hostility toward Islam resonates in the U.S. Plenty of ordinary Americans equate Islam with terrorism and violence, which explains not only Trump's success as a presidential candidate but the host of programs since 9/11 that have singled out Muslims for "special treatment," including the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), FBI and police surveillance, anti-sharia legislation, detentions, deportations, and torture.

If you factor in other proposals from this year's presidential campaign, including more expansive registration programs and the patrolling of "Muslim neighborhoods," it's clear that Muslims are presumed guilty of terrorism until proven otherwise. In this regard, Orlando provides yet another opportunity to reinforce our prejudices toward Muslims.

Is Islam responsible for what happened in Orlando? To address this question, we must tackle two prevalent myths circulating in the aftermath of Orlando concerning Islam's role in the tragedy. The first has to do with Islam's alleged hostility toward the LGBTQI community, the second with assumptions about the religious motivations of the perpetrator.

News articles appeared quickly exploring whether Islam's lack of acceptance of LGBTQI persons influenced Omar Mateen to target the Pulse nightclub. This raises the question about whether homophobia is a widespread problem in the Muslim community.

There's no denying it. Some Muslims are homophobic. But this is not a remarkable admission in light of the fact that most endeavors to restrict the civil liberties of the LGBTQI community in the U.S. have been led not by Muslims but by Christians. Most major religions have some homophobic members, just as most religions have members who may not be homophobic but who have difficulties with accepting same-sex marriage. Islam is not unique in this regard.

The picture becomes even more complicated when you look at what American Muslims actually believe. According to the Pew Survey in 2014, 45% of Muslims believe that homosexuality should be accepted by society. In fact, Muslims are almost evenly split on the question. Their acceptance of homosexuality is lower than Catholics (70%) and mainline Protestants (66%) but higher than evangelical Protestants (36%), Mormons (36%), or Jehovah's Witness (16%). Muslims, in other words, are less accepting of LGBTQI persons than some religious communities, more accepting than others.

It's also important to stress that the only two Muslims in Congress, Keith Ellison of Minnesota and Andre Carson of Indiana, are fierce advocates of LGBTQI rights. Last year, Carson helped to introduce the Equality Act, which would extend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity. For his part, Ellison was named by ThinkProgress in 2012 as one of the most pro-LGBTQI members of the House of Representatives.

In the aftermath of Orlando, one Muslim organization after another stepped up to the plate to condemn the massacre and to proclaim solidarity with the LGBTQI community. One of the strongest statements came from the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Nihad Awad:

For many years, members of the L.G.B.T.Q.I. community have stood shoulder to shoulder with the Muslim community against any acts of hate crimes, Islamophobia, marginalization, and discrimination. Today we stand with them shoulder to shoulder. The liberation of the American Muslim community is profoundly linked to the liberation of other minorities - blacks, Latinos, gays, Jews, and every other community. We cannot fight injustice against some groups and not against others. Homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia - we cannot dismantle one without the other.

All of this points to one simple fact: Islam does not program Muslims to be hostile, hateful, or violent toward the LGBTQI community. This is true even for Muslims with reservations about same-sex marriage. The responsibility for Sunday's shooting spree lies not with the religion called Islam but with an angry young man named Omar Mateen.

The other assumption that must be exposed is the widespread belief that Mateen, like many terrorists, must have been inspired by deeply held religious convictions.

I don't deny that religion factored into what transpired on Sunday. But was religion the driving force in what took place in Orlando? Doubtful.

Most scholars who study terrorism argue that religion is not the primary motivating factor for terrorists. Many of the young Muslims who become terrorists or join terrorist networks often do so despite the fact that they are religiously illiterate. Marc Sageman, a former CIA analyst and psychiatrist with decades of experience interviewing terrorists, has found that very few terrorists know the Qur'an or other Islamic texts and traditions. This is not to say that terrorists are unintelligent or uneducated, only that their engagement with Islam is shallow and uninformed.

Plenty of stories of ISIS fighters corroborate Sageman's findings. When two young Muslims from Birmingham (UK) decided to head to Syria to fight for ISIS, they logged onto Amazon to order some books that might help them learn about the cause for which they were supposedly fighting: Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies. In his ten months as an ISIS prisoner in Syria, the French journalist, Didier Francois, discovered that his captors were far more willing and able to discuss politics than religion; they did not even possess a copy of the Qur'an, much less a knowledge of it. Lydia Wilson, a research fellow at Oxford University, interviewed imprisoned ISIS fighters and found that most of them could not answer straightforward questions about Islam, including questions on Islamic law, the caliphate, or militant jihad.

How does Omar Mateen fit into this picture? Conflicting reports about his religiosity are circulating in the media. The imam of Mateen's mosque portrayed him as a regular worshiper who nonetheless had few friends and who did not interact with the congregation. Mateen's ex-wife, who described him as abusive, said he was not particularly devout and gave no indication of an affinity with religious extremism during their marriage. Other friends suggested Mateen became more religious after making the hajj or pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.

Then there is Mateen's claim of allegiance to ISIS, made by phone to 911 as he began his attack. ISIS was more than happy to claim responsibility for Mateen's shooting spree, but U.S. officials insist there is no indication that ISIS had any role in planning or carrying out the attack.

What we do not have is evidence that Mateen was a knowledgeable, learned, and invested interpreter of Islamic texts and traditions. None. This fits with the pattern established by many scholars about Muslim extremists in the West. This may change as we learn more, but we shouldn't hold our breath. It's unlikely that when the dust settles from this tragedy, we will discover that Mateen was a walking encyclopedia of Islam. What we are more likely to find is an angry, unsettled, and incredibly bigoted man whose hostility, resentment, and sense of alienation and moral outrage boiled over into a violent rampage that left almost fifty people dead.

Islam is not the culprit behind the Orlando shootings. If anything, greater literacy concerning Islam and stronger relationships with the larger Muslim community may have prevented Mateen from carrying out the attacks. According to a 2016 poll conducted by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, Muslims who are observant and who are connected with the Muslim community are more likely to have a strong American identity and to be engaged in civic life. Islam does not undermine patriotism; it enhances it! This means that Islam does not make Muslims more hostile toward other Americans; it facilitates more meaningful relationships between Muslims and other Americans.

It's time to jettison the idea that America is at war with "radical Islamic terrorism." Islam is not America's enemy. It's the key to helping young Muslims better connect with their communities and their nation. And it's the reason why most American Muslims are not following in Omar Mateen's footsteps but are working tirelessly to prevent future Orlandos.