On the evening of June 12, 2016, a few hours after the mass killing at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, thousands of Seattle residents gathered for a vigil at Cal Anderson Park. The event boasted a compelling roster of speakers including the state governor, Jay Inslee, and Seattle’s first openly gay mayor, Ed Murray. All who took the microphone that evening spoke of sorrow, compassion, and struggle. They expressed their grief over the massive loss of life in Orlando and emphasized the need to persevere in such dark times. But one of the speakers that night brought a particular message to the crowd. Her name was Sonj Basha and, during the few minutes of her speech, she offered the following words concerning the shooting: “The Muslim community and LGBT community are not separate; we mourn together. I am Muslim, I am queer and I exist.”
Muslim and queer. They exist. Basha’s words were the most powerful of the evening. For Muslims like me, her short but compelling affirmations were urgent and necessary. They provided a critical disruption (if only momentarily) of the ongoing normalization of fear as a condition for a national politics of difference as threat.
As most of us know today, the killer, Omar Mateen, identified as Muslim. Born in New York to Afghan parents, he lived his entire life in the United States. He was an American Muslim. During the 911 call and negotiations with police, Mateen pledged his allegiance to Daesh (ISIS). He also expressed anger over the death of a Daesh fighter killed in a US airstrike in Iraq. At no point, however, did he say the killing was motivated by his hatred of the LGBTQ community. And despite numerous investigations into Mateen’s personal life including his sexual behavior, nothing conclusive demonstrated that the murder, brutal as it was, reflected hatred of sexual identity as a motive for the crime.
My point here is not to dismiss the possibility that Mateen’s actions were an effect of his heterosexual hatred of sexual diversity. The point, rather, is to consider how the attack fit into a cultural politics of fear in which difference itself became the basis of a threat that promoted particular kinds of alignments and divisions. Specifically, it is to question the affective workings of fear in the production of Muslim difference.
In her work on the cultural politics of emotions, Sara Ahmed provided a way to see how fear works in the production of threat and reification of difference. According to Ahmed, fear is “the intensification of ‘threats,’ which works to create a distinction between those who are ‘under threat’ and those who threaten.” Moreover, Ahmed suggests that fear functions as a threat in such a way that it affectively aligns some bodies with others. As fear generates ‘a threat,’ it also creates alignments between those who understand themselves as threatened and those they perceive as the threat. Understood this way, fear is not a singular or individual experience. It is, rather, an affective link experienced as threats to some group from some group. Inseparable from threat, fear distinguishes, reifies, and aligns. “I am afraid” thus means “I as us am afraid of you as them.”
In the case of the Orlando massacre, the sense of fear Ahmed describes became clear in its designation as a crime of both terror and hate. The day after the massacre, for example, President Obama acknowledged that the motivations of the killer were unknown yet he nonetheless proceeded to describe the attack in terms of terrorism and hate. During his public address, Obama offered the following words:
“So whatever the motivations of the killer, whatever influences led him down the path of violence and terror, whatever propaganda he was consuming from ISIL and al Qaeda, this was an act of terrorism but it was also an act of hate. This was an attack on the LGBT community. Americans were targeted because we’re a country that has learned to welcome everyone, no matter who you are or who you love.”
Similarly, Nihad Awad, Founder and National Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, denounced the attack with explicit reference to racism, homophobia, and transphobia. In his press conference, he described the attack as “a hate crime plain and simple.” Needless to say, President Obama and Awad were not alone. Throughout the US press and online media, the massacre registered in terms of terrorism and hate. In so doing, an entire affective politics of fear as threat was mobilized. Specifically, the combination of terror and hate facilitated a politics of fear as the intensified threat of the Muslim as Other.
This is not the context for providing a historical account of the Orientalist production of the Muslim subject or for covering the history of American heterosexual violence against non-normative sexualities. Suffice it to say that the vulnerabilities invoked by both terrorism and hate were sufficient for enabling deep-seated historical and contemporary fears that broadened the threat of the Muslim menace. As the president suggested, this was an attack of terror and hate. Americans and the LGBTQ community were thus directly addressed (interpellated) as the subjects of a particular fear and thus threat. Or more precisely, fear as the threat of terror and violence aligned Americans and the LGBTQ community as bodies vulnerable to the violence of Muslim terrorism and hatred.
It is important to note that while the threat here was novel in its production, it was also fragile. Historically, whatever has been signified by “American” has not easily incorporated those who identify as LGBTQ. Indeed, just a few months before Mateen murdered 49 people in an Orlando nightclub, North Carolina passed the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act. Deemed by some as one of the most anti-transgender laws in US history, the act signaled a growing resistance to the inclusion of LGBTQ communities in the legal experience of American equality and identity. Yet after the shootings and despite the new legal exclusions, the American public and political establishment mobilized a politics of fear that depended on the inclusion of the LGBTQ community within the American collective. If only provisionally, fear enabled a particular “collecting together,” as Ahmed puts it, of bodies hitherto distinguished but hereafter united.
But the affective binding of the LGBTQ community to the American national body also produced distinction. As certain bodies aligned, some were excluded. In the case of Orlando, the temporary inclusion of LGBTQ subjects within the American national body involved the exclusion of Muslims through the reproduction of the discourse of the war on terror. Structured according to the binary logic of a victimized “West” and aggressor “Islam,” the narrative incorporation of Orlando’s victims resignified the murder as an act of terrorism in which the violence of Muslim sexual intolerance not only underscored the moral superiority of America but also proved the necessity of American empire. As the President’s words suggested, Orlando was a terrorist attack directed both at the LGBTQ community and America. More specifically, it was the violent expression of Muslim hatred for sexual diversity as a principle of American inclusivity. And precisely because it represented the homophobic hatred of the Muslim Other, it justified the exceptional measures of American empire. Like 9/11, like the Boston bombings, and like the murders of Charlie Hebdo, Orlando demonstrated the moral superiority of Western values and the need for violence in the war against Muslim terror. By branding the massacre an act of terrorism, in other words, the US establishment furthered the narrative politics of the war on terror in which the violence of the Muslim Other highlighted the exceptional tolerance and diversity of the US nation as civilized and the exceptional intolerance and singularity of the Muslim other as barbarian. As Jasbir Puar has argued, it showed that Muslims present an “especial threat to homosexuals, that Muslim fundamentalists deliberately and specifically target homosexuals, and that the parameters of this opposition correlate with those of the war on terror: civilization versus barbarism.” The combining of terrorism and hatred meant that the Muslim menace now represented a specific threat grounded in the hatred of sexual diversity. Fear as the threat of terror and hate was fear of the threat of the terrorist and heterosexist Muslim.
This combination presented a particular problem for Muslims. Unlike previous threats constituted by acts of terror, Muslims were in a much more complex position of defense. While Muslims have resisted the binding of Islam and terrorism in public discourse through careful analyses of its historical roots in colonial racism and the hypocrisy of Euro-American violence against the Global South, what could we say about our collective attitudes towards the LGBTQ community? Whereas Muslims have routinely denounced our Othering by affirming our organic political, economic, and social ties with and as Americans, could we now affirm our organic ties with the LGBTQ community? Did we have any?
For many Muslims, non-heterosexual difference is seen as sinful and even punishable. This has led to various forms of exclusion that reify modern conceptions of sexual identity and suppress the diverse ways Muslims actually live their lives. It has produced mutually exclusive choices for Muslims who live non-heterosexual lives by reifying the idea that Muslims cannot also be LGBTQ.
These exclusions and the politics they entailed were just some of the thoughts I pondered as I stood in the crowd that night. I was there as a Muslim who genuinely believed that my presence at the vigil was no mere performance. I believed it was a natural display of affective solidarities that were irreducible to any single identification. I was there as a Muslim, and much more. But before Basha’s speech, my sense of the growing fear of the Muslim threat and the shifting alignments it enabled left me unsettled. Thus when Basha took the podium and in a few simple words affirmed her – indeed, our – alignments as Muslims and LGBTQ, my own fears were relieved. If only for a single affective moment, neither terror nor hate could claim the event. Nor could fear. Instead, as Basha suggested, it was grief and mourning that we shared, that aligned us.
Perhaps it was just a fleeting affective instance. Perhaps not. But my sense of Basha’s speech was that something akin to what Judith Butler described as the political possibility of mourning took hold. As Basha refused the alignments that divide us, she invited us to reflect on the fundamental ways loss, grief, and mourning demonstrated the possibility of a “we” that refuses the politics of fear. As Butler noted, grief is not necessarily private or depoliticizing. It is, rather, enabling of a “sense of political community of a complex order.” And in that moment of Basha’s affirmation, “I am Muslim. I am queer and I exist,” she offered a glimpse of that “community of a complex order.” In mourning and in loss, fear was overcome and something of a “we” emerged. Who “we” were may be difficult to explain. But whoever we were, it was not united by fear.