by Esperanza Fonseca
Within hours of Omar Mateen shooting and killing 49 people at Pulse Nightclub, the media and political leaders jumped to describe this attack as yet another instance of radical Islamic terrorism. However, there is no evidence to suggest that Mateen was affiliated with ISIS. Mateen didn’t understand the differences between fundamentalist Islamic groups and his relatives even doubted his religiosity. Furthermore, the CIA has found no connection between Mateen and the Islamic state. Despite the lack of evidence suggesting any connection between this attack and the Muslim faith, the general public was led to believe that radical Islam was at play.
Black Lives Matter released a statement that reads “homegrown terror is the product of a long history of colonialism, including state and vigilante violence.” Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement released a video that states that people of color have a “history in the U.S. of never mattering” and that queer and trans people have experienced this violence since this land was colonized. The role of toxic masculinity has also been examined, as men’s fragility and entitlement has led to the death of many women, femmes, queers, and trans people.
Queer Black theologian Paul Daniels, II writes “Omar Mateen is an ideological stand-in for the daily assaults on Latinx and Black Queer bodies—particularly Trans folks—exacted in the name of God and State, in the name of Christian purity and American civil decency.” Understanding how the media and the State tries to ignore their complicity in this violence, he continues, “we cannot allow mainstream media to pivot away from the complicity of the Christian Church and American heteropatriarchy in this sinister event.”
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On the other hand, Republican frontrunner Donald Trump capitalized on this tragedy to push a narrative that justifies his anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim platform. Shortly after, Hillary Clinton also came out publicly blaming “radical Islam.”
Among progressive circles, Islamophobia is seen as unethical because it violates the liberal value of tolerance. Liberalism teaches us that we should avoid stereotyping people based off of their identities. Therefore, when we witness discrimination – such as Islamophobia – we naturally move to condemn it.
While we should naturally condemn Islamophobia, we must also interrogate the reasons the State would blame Islam for this massacre. Neither Trump nor Clinton are naïve; their Islamophobia is a means to an end. To identify just what ends they are working towards, we have to interrogate the ways the US State actually benefits from a country fearful of Muslim people.
Italian communist theorist Antonio Gramsci reminds us that there is a difference between “common sense” and “good sense.” Common sense, he argues, is a collection of attitudes and opinions that the public generally accepts as true or reasonable, but really stem from the ruling class in an attempt to protect their political and economic power. This is in contrast to “good sense,” which are attitudes and opinions that stem from the experiences of the working class, which can be critical and speaks more authentically to our reality.
We see this concept played out every day in the United States. Anthropologist David Harvey asserts in his book A Brief History of Neoliberalism that “political slogans can be invoked that mask specific strategies beneath vague rhetorical devices.” Because words like “freedom” have become so embedded in our culture, the State can claim that we are fighting a war to protect our “freedom” when in reality we are at war over oil, land, and capital.
The phrases “radical Islam” and “terrorism” have become so deeply linked and embedded in our culture that it is now common sense for politicians to invoke these terms. Since 9/11, the State has continued to generate public fear about terrorist attacks against American people by radical Islamic terrorists. The US has taken countless lives in the name of protecting American values of freedom and democracy.
Harvey goes on to state, “US leaders have, with considerable domestic public support, projected upon the world the idea that American neoliberal values of freedom are universal and supreme, and that such values are to die for.” The State pushes this narrative to manufacture public consent around wars and foreign policy that have the ultimate goal of extending corporate capitalism and US influence.
If the state can craft a message of Muslim violence, making Americans feel like foreign Muslim terrorists threaten their safety, then they can effectively justify wars against predominantly Muslim countries and increase surveillance of American people in the name of “public safety” and the “war on terror.”
This massacre in Orlando is simply one more incident for the State to build public consent around forcefully spreading US imperialism. But the State works in more ways than one to co-opt our movement language and manufacture public consent around their imperialistic agenda.
Activist and writer Grace Dunham reminds us in their Village Voice article that police forces continue to employ pro-gay rhetoric, despite the selective ways that police forces protect us. While we can see this as a response to the increased societal acceptance of LGBT equality in institutions such as marriage and the military, we can also look for deeper motivations. If the public can view the police as embodying the liberal value of tolerance, then the police can successfully argue for expansion of law enforcement agencies. The nature of the police state is that it is always looking to expand its surveillance and militarization of our communities.
In a similar manner, ICE argues for funding and resources to create safe spaces for LGBT immigrants that they are detaining. The FREE CECE! documentary teaches us in a strong way that prison reform is prison expansion. Attempts to reform prisons, such as modifying their policies around transgender detainees, will ultimately only expand both the budget and facilities of ICE. Movements focused on reforming ICE, or making ICE work for trans people, are incredibly misguided because the only possible result will be increasing the amount of trans people locked up in ICE’s cages.
We cannot allow the State to set the agenda for our liberation. As our movement continues to build power, the State will continue to find ways to co-opt our language, taunt our leaders with proximity to power, and exploit our tragedies to further the cause of US Imperialism. The State will redirect our movement’s focus from liberation to the acquisition of equal access to institutions like marriage and military, which is always a losing battle under capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy. After all, in the words of Ynestra King, “what is the point of partaking equally in a system that is killing us all?”