“Muslim Sounding Names” and the Orlando Massacre

Multiple sources have now confirmed that Omar Mateen, the shooter of the Orlando massacre, was himself gay. He often visited Pulse, the popular gay nightclub that he committed the massacre in. Eyewitness reports suggest that Mateen would get so drunk at the bar that bouncers would have to kick him out. He also had attempted to start dates on Grindr, the popular gay-dating application.

In terms of religion, Mateen’s parents have said that he wasn’t “Islamic” whatsoever. Colleagues and acquaintances have gone on record stating that he was really a “loner” and “social introvert”.

Yet, none of these revelations appear to matter. According to the media, what matters is Omar Mateen’s “Muslim sounding name” and his upbringing in a “Muslim family”. Like many other Muslims worldwide, Mateen can’t escape the “Islamic” label, regardless of whether he even practiced Islam or not. That’s the baggage of a “Muslim sounding name”.  If his name is Ali and he shoots another man, media will say “it’s because of Islam”. If his name is Muhammad and he robs a store, media will say “it’s because of Islam”. If his name is Osama and he strikes a child, media will say “it’s because of Islam”. If his name is Farooq and he commits tax fraud, media will say “it’s because of Islam”. You get my point.

And it’s a ridiculous point, I know. Consider these different scenarios. If his name is Michael and he shoots another man, media will say “Michael must have been disrespected”. If his name is John and he robs a store, media will say “John must have been broke”. If his name is Sam and he strikes a child, media will say “Sam must have anger management issues”. If his name is George and he commits tax fraud, media will say “George must be dishonest”. Religion is never discussed in these cases.

And what if your name is Dylan and you go on a mass murder spree? When Dylan Roof, a white supremacist, killed nine black Americans in a Charleston church, media outlets were quick to frame his actions as the “lone wolf” case. The same narrative emerged after the massacres in Newtown, Connecticut and Aurora, Colorado, both of which were carried out by young white men with “Christian sounding names”. News anchors weren’t asking where Roof, Lanza or Holmes were radicalized and whether they had any connections to organizations in the US. Roof couldn’t be a “terrorist”. Nor could Lanza or Holmes. Those aren’t “Muslim sounding names”.

Groups with “Muslim sounding names” like al-Qaeda or Hezbollah are deemed “terrorist organizations”, but groups like the Westboro Baptist Church, which recently celebrated the Pulse nightclub massacre, aren’t. The media doesn’t describe groups with “Christian sounding names” as potential “terrorists” and the media certainly doesn’t connect their activities with Christianity at large. Organizations like the Westboro Baptist Church are pitched as “anomalies” or isolated cases within the larger Christian population, but groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda are covered as if they represent 1.8 billion Muslims worldwide.

These are double standards.

Some people have argued that Mateen committed the massacre because Islam calls for killing gays. Facebook and Twitter have been rife with posts about anti-gay passages of the Quran and hadiths. Many of these posts are made by Christians, who conveniently ignore other Christians who are also blatantly homophobic. Pastor Steven Anderson of the Faithful World Baptish Church in Tempe, Arizona actually defended and celebrated the death of gay people at Pulse. Where is FOX News asking whether Anderson represents the views of all Christians? Where is CNN investigating radical Christianity and its connection to homophobia? The answers to these questions – they’re nowhere to be found. Media outlets uphold the entire “war on terror” narrative, which is: “Muslims are the terrorists and the only potential terrorists walking the face of the earth”.  

The same tired story unfolds after every so-called terrorist attack is carried out by an individual or group that claims to act in the name of Islam. People ask questions like “where are the moderate Muslims?” or “why don’t Muslims condemn these violent activities?”.  And time and time again, Muslims do condemn these activities. The problem is that people never hear these condemnations, largely because media outlets don’t share them. The other problem is that people simply don’t want to hear anything positive about Muslims and Islam.  

After the Orlando massacre, dozens of Islamic organizations in the US did the same thing they always do after violence is committed by someone with a “Muslim sounding name”: they condemned the act and stated that violence has nothing to do with the Islamic faith.  The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) released a statement that read: “We stand with the victims of this senseless act of violence and mourn with the families”. Niwad Awad, the leader of the Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR), strongly condemned the massacre, saying the killer does not represent Islamic values. He noted: “This is a hate crime, plain and simple, we condemn it in the strongest possible terms”.

Awad added, “We will not give into hate. We will not give into fear”. These are wise words. We should heed them.

Speaking of hate and fear, consider Donald Trump’s ideas after the Orlando massacre. He reiterated his plan to ban all Muslims from entering the US. Trump justifies his proposal on the false notion that people with “Muslim sounding names” are more prone to violence than people with “Christian sounding names”. Unsurprisingly, Trump blatantly ignores the facts. A Washington Post report on mass shootings in 2015 revealed that Muslim Americans are responsible for the tiniest fraction of mass shootings in the US. The FBI has reported the same thing. In reality, individuals with “Christian sounding names” are more likely to carry out mass shootings than people with “Muslim sounding names”. Does Trump plan on kicking out Christians too?

We need to stop throwing Muslims under the bus after people with “Muslim sounding names” commit acts of violence. I have a gut feeling that many members of the LGBT community understand that Mateen doesn’t represent Muslims or Islam. It’s our responsibility – as Americans and as human beings – to not take the bait given to us by media outlets, who too easily frame the “’Muslim sounding name’ = terrorist” narrative for their own self-serving reasons.

Written by Craig Considine

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Craig Considine (Irish: Carrig MacConsáidín) is a Catholic American and native of Massachusetts. As a sociologist, he focuses on religion, Islam, Christianity, interfaith, race and ethnicity, identity as well as comparative research and ethnography.