Islam, Sex and Masculinity: What Motivated Omar Mateen?

It’s impossible to know what went on inside the killer’s head. But we can make a few educated guesses.

Californians commemorate the victims of a shooting in an Orlando, Florida gay club in Los Angeles, June 13
Californians commemorate the victims of a shooting in an Orlando, Florida gay club in Los Angeles, June 13 (Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Office)

A lot has been written about Omar Mateen this week, the man who killed 49 people in an Orlando, Florida gay club on Sunday morning. Let me share two pieces that I’ve found the most illuminating.

The first is by Adam Garfinkle, the editor of The American Interest and one of the best-informed analysts of Middle Eastern affairs and Islam that I know, who makes several points.

No civilizational struggle

One is that we shouldn’t give Mateen too much credit and frame his actions as part of a civilizational struggle between Islam and the West.

There is indeed a conflict between two universalisms, Garfinkle writes: between Western Enlightenment liberalism and Islamist supremacism. “But this conflict is not the proximate source of our terrorism problem.” It has been going on for centuries, after all. Islamic terrorism, by contrast — hijacking planes, suicide bombings, mass shootings — is only a few decades old.

The more proximate cause of this are the “stresses of modernization on traditional and, in many cases, still largely tribally structured societies” in the Middle East, according to Garfinkle.

There is a vicious civilizational churning going on in the region that divides societies against themselves and happens to spatter blood beyond as well as within its borders.

He has made this argument before. The sort of young Muslim men (and they almost always are men) who carry out terrorist attacks in the West or travel to Iraq and Syria to wage jihad for the self-declared Islamic State there aren’t motivated by some great idea. They are neither well-versed in Islamist thought nor educated sufficiently to parse it. “They join for other reasons of a run-of the-mill social-psychological sort.”

Sexual taboos

Which brings us to Garfinkle’s second point, which is that men like Mateen — the son of Afghan immigrants — are often torn between the traditional (backward) values of their upbringing and the temptations of the modern world.

Such boys are taught sexual taboos, Garfinkle writes, which tell them that masturbation, pornography, premarital sex, etc. are shameful. They are not supposed to lust after women out of marriage and certainly not after men. (Mateen apparently frequented the nightclub he targeted and was seen on gay dating apps.)

Such puritanical standards only set people up to fail, of course, and fortunately most Muslims — like most people — forgive themselves when they do or, even better, recognize that seventh-century codes of morality aren’t very helpful in our world today.

But some misfits, perhaps including Mateen, do take them seriously and can’t forgive themselves when they invariably slip up. “He falls into a cycle of sin and remorse until he finally realizes that he can never escape.” The only way to redeem himself and his family then is through martyrdom.

It’s impossible to know what went on inside Mateen’s head. Even so, argues Garfinkle, “This psychological-behavioral complex explains, it seems to me, not all but a fair number of the cases of Islamist suicide terrorism.”

Toxic masculinity

On a related note, Amanda Marcotte blames what she calls “toxic masculinity”, writing in Salon that this is a distortion of manhood that “views women and LGBT people as inferior, sees sex as an act not of affection but domination and which valorizes violence as the way to prove one’s self to the world.”

Toxic masculinity aspires to toughness but is, in fact, an ideology of living in fear: The fear of ever seeming soft, tender, weak or somehow less than manly.

This might explain not just what motivated Mateen but other mass shooters and domestic terrorists as well, from the perpetrators of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Colorado to the nine young men who rampaged in Paris last year. I argued at the time that those terrorists lashed out at a liberal society they had refused to assimilate into because they regarded it as feminized and weak.

If there is something to this — and I think there is — then clearly the solution cannot be, as Marcotte argues, more faux manliness à la Donald Trump, “as if all we need to end violence and terrorism is a bunch of silly posturing about who is the biggest man of all the menfolk out there.”

The killings in Orlando are at least partly the result of a “dominance-oriented masculinity,” according to Marcotte, and they happened “right during an election when a overcompensating bully who is completely immersed in the discourse of toxic masculinity is the Republican nominee for president.”

It’s a stark reminder of why we, as a country, need to get past the politics of tough guy posturing and move toward a more thoughtful, inclusive society. One with more dancing and less waving guns around while talking about what a manly man you imagine yourself to be.

Most of us agree, as evidenced by the huge outpouring of sympathy around the world. Or the tens of thousands of Americans who attended vigils across the country. Or the hundreds of Floridians who rushed to donate blood in the wake of the shooting. Or this moving speech by Utah’s Republican lieutenant governor, Spencer Cox.

The placards are right — love wins.

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