Orlando, Brexit and the media
What happens when anti-foreigner rhetoric merges with Islamophobia? Yassamine Mather describes what it feels like to be on the receiving end
The last two months has not been a pleasant time for any foreigner living in the United Kingdom. It is not just the anti-immigration propaganda of the Brexit campaign that makes us feel unwelcome: it is all the talk of how immigrants, foreigners, refugees are responsible for poor education, shortages in NHS services, overcrowded trains, crime .... You name it - it is all our fault.
Yet most of us are not in the UK because we wanted to leave our homeland, many (if not most of us) had no other choice. I would not be here if Iran’s Islamic regime had not sentenced me to death for “waging war on god” - ie, being a member of a leftwing organisation. Tens of thousands of Iranians like me had to leave the country and have been unable to go back. So living in the UK was not a choice - we were forced into this situation.
And, of course, had it not been for the decades of western intervention, military and otherwise, in the Middle East and other parts of the ‘third world’, had it not been for the free movement of capital worldwide, accompanied by border controls for workers, Europe would not be facing the ‘problem’ of dealing with millions of refugees.
If all this was not enough to make us feel a nuisance - a burden for happening to be born in another land - over the last 15 years another problem has been added, haunting in particular all migrants from the Middle East and north Africa. Somehow we should share some of the blame for being on the wrong side of the ‘war on terror’. Since September 11 2001, after every atrocity committed by Islamists of one kind or another we hear open expressions of Islamophobia - and never more so than in the last 10 days, since the Orlando massacre. On June 15, Donald Trump said in a CNN interview: “I think Islam hates us.” He went on to deplore the “tremendous hatred” that, according to the presumptive Republican nominee, “partly defined the religion”, adding that the war the US was engaged in was against radical Islam, but “It’s very hard to define. It’s very hard to separate. Because you don’t know who’s who.”
The implication is clear: anyone who is Muslim, or indeed anyone born to a Muslim family, is a suspect who is assumed guilty until proven otherwise. Most ordinary people in the UK might find Trump’s statement an exaggeration. However, you ask any migrant how they are treated daily in the street, on public transport, in queues, and you will realise how these sentiments - perhaps in a watered-down version - affect our daily lives.
A few years ago, on a plane in the US, the person sitting next to me declared he was from Texas and asked where I was from. When I replied Iran, he promptly asked the stewardess to move him to another seat. Over the last few years I have had so many uncomfortable experiences when reading Persian websites (which use Arabic fonts) on public transport that I have stopped using my phone or tablet for accessing them. The assumption is, if you are reading Arabic you could be a ‘terrorist’.
Who is to blame for this state of affairs? Well, not just Trump, but western governments and the media. No attempt is made at explaining what has created the rage that fuels the atrocities committed by Islamic terrorists. There are blatant double standards: a report of 50 or 100 civilians killed in Baghdad or Kabul might not make it to the daily news bulletin, while a terrorist act costing the lives of westerners will often be the main item on the news for at least a day or two afterwards. Even when a white person attacks and kills an MP, quite clearly for her support of refugees and immigrants, in what is a political assassination, the press tries to divert attention from his politics by concentrating on his mental state - he is definitely not a terrorist. No-one says that people from the region he originated from, or of the religious denomination he might adhere to, should be treated as suspects.
One of the worst examples of the demonisation of Muslims followed the horrific mass murder in Orlando on June 12. The information dominating the immediate news coverage of the event proved to be misleading, yet corrections of the inaccuracies rarely made it to the bulletins. We were told Omar Mateen was a member of Islamic State, yet he had declared support for Hezbollah on a number of occasions. In case you are not aware, IS and Hezbollah are arch-enemies: they fight each other every day in the Middle East. Mateen could not even have been a casual visitor to an IS website, otherwise he would not have missed this basic fact,
There are contradictory reports about what he said in calls he made to the police and in conversations before the siege ended. In one version he told the emergency 911 service that he supported the brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who bombed the Boston marathon in 2013 and died as ‘martyrs’ on behalf of the al-Nusra Front - a group totally at odds with Islamic State! He was clearly unaware that the two groups and Hezbollah are mutual enemies - no-one in their right mind can support all three at the same time. According to the FBI, “Omar Mateen, the suspect, pledged loyalty to several rival groups.”
One police officer interviewed by NPR radio stated that Mateen “claimed family connections to al Qa’eda. He also said that he was a member of Hezbollah, which is a Shia terrorist organisation that is a bitter enemy of the so-called Islamic State.” To which the interviewer replied: “So it seems the shooter had trouble distinguishing between Sunni and Shia extremists, showing perhaps he was less a committed jihadist … and just unstable.1
So who was Omar Mateen, the perpetrator of the heinous crime at that Florida night club? What we can say with some clarity is he was associated with neither Islamic State nor Hezbollah, nor al-Nusrah. According to regulars at the Pulse club, this American of Afghan origin was frequently seen there. Sometimes he had been drinking so much that it affected his behaviour for the worse. This homophobic homosexual, who was also a wife-beater, was a regular user of a mobile app known as Gay Dating and, according to patrons of Pulse, as well as friends and locals, he was a “closet homosexual”.2 According to one witness, “I was in drag. I said hello. He seemed comfortable … he was standing next to somebody, having a conversation … Later on that night he was out there dancing with another guy.”3 According to his father, a couple of months ago Omar got angry when he saw two men kissing - he thinks that may be related to the shooting.
The contenders for the US presidential elections did not wait for the facts before making fools of themselves. Hillary Clinton, the US Democratic presidential hopeful, vowed to make stopping “lone wolf” attackers a top priority if elected. While the gunman may be dead, “the virus that poisoned his mind remains very much alive”. Trump, who is now certain to be the Republican nominee, blamed “radical Islam” for the attack in a speech in New Hampshire.
In the aftermath of the horrendous shooting, many people have rightly pointed out that the hyper-masculine homosexual homophobe, Omar Mateen, does not represent Muslims. Fearing increased violence against Muslims and Middle Eastern immigrants in the US, some have apologetically made statements about how Islam and Muslims do not condone violence, especially during the holy month of Ramadan. But why is this sense of responsibility imposed on Muslims and not other Americans? What is in a name? Why does a man’s name implicate 1.5 billion Muslims? What is this racist obsession with his religion and his family’s national origin?
So Islamic State claimed responsibility for the actions of an alcohol-drinking homosexual, who worked for one of the largest, most militarised security firms in the world, G4S. A man who wanted to be a policeman, but was rejected, a man who claimed allegiance not just to Islamic State, but to its arch enemies, Hezbollah and al Nusrah? No wonder most pro-IS websites quickly retracted the initial claims of responsibility.