Owen Jones Takes Offence: Dismayed at British Sky Television's handling of the Orlando Massacre, left-wing author and LGBTI activist, Owen Jones, gets ready to disengage from the live media review in which he is participating. Owen's viewpoint, that Orlando should be seen purely and simply as a homophobic atrocity, not an Islamic terrorist attack, while understandable, is, nevertheless, an oversimplification.
OWEN JONES: democratic socialist, LGBTI activist and Guardian journalist: takes homophobia seriously. So seriously, that earlier this week he pulled off his microphone and stormed out of Britain’s Sky News studio in protest at the network’s treatment of the Orlando massacre.
To Jones, what happened in Orlando was very simple: more than a hundred people had been killed or wounded by a gun-wielding assailant because they were gay. Before it was anything else, Jones declared, Orlando was a homophobic atrocity – the worst since the Second World War. Alleged connections with ISIS; the assailant’s religious beliefs; these were secondary to the killer’s primary motivation, which was, according to Jones, the violent erasure of LGBTI identity.
Watching the video, it is easy to see why Jones became so irate. There is an unmistakeable tone of correction in the presenter’s voice when he emphasises the victims’ humanity over their sexuality. It was almost as if he felt unable to identify with the dead and wounded until they had been redefined into persons for whom he could legitimately grieve. Not queers, but “human-beings”.
Jones had been invited into the Sky studio to discuss the way the news media had presented the tragedy. This was, of course, why Jones was so angry. The dominant theme of the British and American coverage was that Orlando represented yet another Islamic terrorist assault upon the “freedoms” and “tolerance” of the enlightened and democratic West. The homophobia which drove Omar Mateen to gun down the LGBTI patrons of the Pulse nightclub was thus elided in favour of a more comfortable narrative: “They [ISIS, Radical Islam] hate us [The West] because of our freedom.”
What must also be acknowledged, however, is that Jones’ determination to keep the focus squarely on Mateen’s homophobic motivation, itself begs the question of what made Mateen a homophobe in the first place? In this regard, Jones’ determination to dismiss the killer’s religious beliefs – along with his declared allegiance to ISIS – as matters irrelevant to his homophobic actions, is, almost certainly, misguided.
If we reject the proposition that homophobia is genetically predetermined, then we must accept it as a socially constructed phenomenon. In the simplest terms: homophobes are not born, they are made.
And if homophobia is a social construction, then we must acknowledge the important roles played by powerful societal institutions – including organised religion – in its creation. The Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam; all of them militantly monotheistic and aggressively patriarchal; have always dealt harshly with homosexuality and lesbianism. Those found guilty of such “abominations” were to be put to death.
It is only in the course of the last half-century that Western statute law has ceased to offer powerful secular reinforcement to these religious strictures. Meanwhile, in the overwhelming majority of Islamic countries, homosexual conduct continues to rank as a capital offence. Even where more liberal and permissive penal codes now prevail, the legacy of organised religion’s condemnation of homosexuality is a strong one. In a great many parts of the supposedly “tolerant” West, anti-homosexual prejudice – homophobia – continues to lurk just below the surface.
How disturbing the apprehension of this intolerance must be for those whose sexual orientation is other than heterosexual. In communities where homophobic antagonism is construed by family and friends, employers and workmates, as obedience to the will of God, the situation for LGBTI individuals is much, much worse. Constantly being made aware of one’s “otherness”, while not being able to either acknowledge it, or escape it, can only generate the most acute psychological stress.
Was Omar Mateen gay? Quite possibly. Patrons of the Pulse nightclub remember him, but only as a loner, someone who held himself aloof from the club’s easy-going conviviality. His first wife remembers him as an angry man, from whose violent behaviour she had ultimately to be rescued by her family. Looking at his many brooding selfies, the world will remember Mateen as someone determined to present his best possible face to the world.
And that could never be his gay face. Was this the crucial negation which fuelled his anger and twisted his perceptions? When he saw two men kissing in a Miami street, did he envy their freedom or resent it? Unlike him, they appeared to fear neither God’s punishment, nor their families’ rejection. How had they done it? How had they moved beyond sin, beyond shame? He could not be such a person. He would not be such a person. He would ask God to make him a different person – a righteous person. He would wage a jihad against his own desires.
In the end, did he despair of ever defeating those desires? Is that when he began to fantasise about martyring himself in the holy war against Western corruption? In the online communities of Islamic fundamentalism he would have found plenty of encouragement. Paradise awaited those who fell in the battle against the sinners; the unbelievers; the enemies of God.
The operator who took Mateen’s 911 call, just minutes before he unleashed hell at the Pulse nightclub, described him as sounding “calm”. In his final moments, before a hail of Police bullets cut him down, witnesses similarly recalled his calm, untroubled demeanour.
These descriptions do not conform with Owen Jones’ characterisation of the killer as some sort of enraged, frothing-at-the-mouth, homophobic thug. It does, however, sound remarkably similar to the descriptions of the early Christian martyrs as they waited to be torn to pieces in the amphitheatres of Ancient Rome.
It is what religion does to people: it transforms their world.
For the early Christian martyrs, the evil arrayed against them was not a barrier, but a portal, to the presence of God. For the contemporary soldiers of Islam, dutifully slaying God’s enemies, Paradise awaits.
On that terrible Sunday morning, where did the broken human vessel that was Omar Mateen believe himself to be standing? At the gates of heaven? In God’s favour? Or, was the Pulse nightclub simply the place where he killed himself – forty-nine times?
This essay was posted on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road on Saturday, 18 June 2016.