Imagine just for a brief moment that you are a Muslim Afghan-American. Most probably you work hard. You pay your taxes. You try to raise your children to be happy, well-behaved and productive members of society. But, still, you often feel under siege. Your religion is maligned by everyone from Donald Trump to Bill Maher. Sometimes just walking down the street attracts looks of suspicion.
Then, suddenly, you hear that a deranged man on a rampage has killed 49 people at a gay dance club in Orlando. Imagine your horror when you learn that he was a Muslim American of Afghan descent. Trump brags about "being right on radical Islamic terrorism" and renews his racist call for restrictions on Muslim immigration. Overnight, your position in this country--and that of all Muslim Americans--is even worse than it was before.
This terrible situation prompted an organization called Women for Afghan Women (WAW), which for 15 years has worked to promote women's rights in Afghanistan, to stage an extraordinary public forum, which I was privileged to attend, at New York City's Judson Memorial Church on June 23. Called a "Town Hall Meeting in Response to the Orlando Massacre," the event brought together various Muslim and LGBT groups and speakers, some of whom were both Muslim and LGBT, to confront the tragedy and its implications. "When the news came in, our hearts sank," declared Manizha Naderi, WAW's executive director. "Another mass shooting....But this time it was a man of Afghan descent born right here in New York...Then came the fear--of backlash, of bigotry--and in that moment we knew we had to act....The hate crime committed by Omar Mateen has no justification." Said Imam Mohammed Sherzad of the Dar al-Taqwa Islamic Center in Queens: "We condemn this heinous crime against humanity in the strongest terms." Wazhmah Osman, a filmmaker, Temple University assistant professor and member of the Afghan-American Artists and Writers Association, warned, "These are dangerous times to be Muslim....Don't make one person a representative of all of us."
It's impossible in a short blog post to do justice to the complex issues discussed at the forum, but before I offer a few highlights, let's try to agree on some basic facts. Yes, there is such a thing as terrorism committed in the name of Islam, and many Muslims are extremists. In other parts of the world there are entire sects, societies and governments that are extreme by American standards. But not every Muslim is an extremist, not by a long shot, and not every extremist is a Muslim. It wasn't a Muslim who slaughtered nine African-Americans in a Charleston church. Hate and violence are not Muslim traits. They are human traits.
Although Omar Mateen invoked ISIS in justifying his massacre, it doesn't seem to have been a simple political act. Evidence indicates that this was a homophobic outburst by a very disturbed man (possibly gay himself) who allegedly abused an ex-wife. WAW's Naderi suggested that Mateen grew up in "an environment that translates authority into exerting power instead of love, and rejection instead of tolerance. We, as women, long ago made the connection between emasculation and domestic abuse, and between a twisted view of religion and intolerance, and between patriarchy and violence." Several speakers readily acknowledged that there are strong strains of homophobia and sexist patriarchy in the Islamic world, just as there are in many Christian congregations. Said Faisal Alam, founding member of the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity: "This is a historic opportunity to join forces and look deeply within ourselves and our communities.....to reject violence against women, the patriarchy, the homophobia, the intolerance and the religious extremism."
Virtually every society on earth needs to do the same. Kristen Rouse, a lesbian U.S. Army veteran who served three tours in Afghanistan, said that "this tragedy strikes me deeply" because she came of age in the Orlando gay club scene. She underscored the fact that Muslims have no monopoly on religious intolerance by citing the extremist leaders from the evangelical Christian community in which she was raised. "What happened in Orlando highlights a simple fact for me," said Rouse. "Some of my fellow citizens simply want me dead. Just a few months ago, my girlfriend and I were approaching the subway on our way home one evening, and a man yelled at us: 'Die and go to hell, faggots'." It could have been a man of any number of religions.
The speakers agreed that Islam is not a monolithic faith. Its sacred texts can be and are interpreted in many different ways. It is not inherently, inevitably violent, sexist and homophobic. "We can be both Muslim and queer," proclaimed Lakshman Kalasapudi, representing LGBTQ South Asians. Sitting nearby was Iman Boukadoum, an Algerian-American attorney with the Interfaith Center of New York, who said that as a straight Muslim, she wanted to stand with her LGBT brothers and sisters: "I accept you as you are, and I want you to be as you are." Perhaps the most poignant moment came with the words of Verónica Bayetti Flores from the Latin LGBT community, which lost so many in Orlando. She doesn't want all Muslims stigmatized by what happened: "We do not want our pain to be used to put any more people on lists."
Donald Trump was not mentioned at the Town Hall Meeting. He didn't have to be. But I'll say that Trump, with his rhetoric of hate and fear, seems to have forgotten that the central ideals that America has been working toward for almost two and a half centuries are liberty and equality for all. "All" most certainly includes Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and atheists. Now, as we see the possibility of electing the first woman President in U.S. history, we are coming to understand that "all" also includes people with any type of gender identity and sexual orientation. It was very clear at WAW's remarkable Town Hall Meeting that many Muslims are working hard to establish these ideals in their communities. As for the rest of us, if we really want to cleanse our society of fanaticism and violence, we should accept these Muslims as strong and essential allies.