Like Omar Mateen, I grew up Afghan, American, Muslim, and (if he truly was gay) a repressed homosexual. Although I grew up in a household that didn’t support the Taliban, I was still socialized in the same cultural milieu that had a zero tolerance for gays.
In my teens; while living in Irvine, Calif., I was cursed by my father, who repeatedly called me a kuni, a derogatory word equivalent to “fag,” because I loved to dance and acted effeminate. At the mosque, I heard sermons preach homosexuality as an illness and sin and justify the death penalty for gays and lesbians. My entire youth was tainted with fear, guilt, intimidation, shame and untold repression stemming from my same-gender attraction and the psychological violence I was subjected to because of my Afghan roots and Muslim faith.
When I reached adulthood; I was pressured by my parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and family acquaintances to act manly and marry a woman. I spent years dodging the issue and pursued higher education as a stalling tactic until I found myself on the fringes and realized there was no escape. Fretting that I drifted too far away from our tribe and traditions, my parents colluded with relatives to reign me in and forced me to marry a woman even after they knew I was gay. Thankfully, I refused.
So it could very well be that long before Mateen turned his internal rage into a violent rampage at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando last week, that he, too, was a victim of honor violence. Since families give themselves the right to kill anyone who brings dishonor and shame to the family, Mateen had no option of ever coming out if he actually was a closeted gay man. As someone who has averted honor violence and religious bigotry, I know firsthand the struggle of the tens of millions of L.G.B.T.Q. (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning) persons within Muslim communities who continue to suffer in silence from the ongoing persecution and the inability to reconcile their homosexuality with Islam.
After I came out to my immediate family in December 2009, my parents believed I was going through a phase and that being gay was a lifestyle choice. My father, a well-known Afghan intellectual of his generation and a former ambassador of Afghanistan to West Germany, believed that homosexuality was a western invention, used by the United States, to subvert Islam. My father, like Mateen’s father, are byproducts of the ferociously homophobic society they grew up in.
A 2013 study conducted by the Pew Research Center showed that 99 percent of Afghans favor sharia law in Afghanistan. Under sharia, is it is permissible to kill homosexuals since it is considered the worst sin in Islam. In fact, LGBTQ people are criminalized three times in Islam. The first, for the act of liwat, or sodomy; the second, by doing zina, or having unlawful sexual relations outside of heterosexual marriage; and the third time for assuming an LGBTQ identity which threatens the predominance of cisgender Muslim men over women and minorities. In other words, in the eyes of devout Muslims, LGBTQ people are regarded as enemy combatants and an affront to the Islamic way of life.
To protect their Muslim faith and the image of Islam, pro-Islamist activists and scholars argue that the roots of homophobia in the Muslim World stems from western colonialism (such as the British buggery laws) and suggest that Islamic societies have historically been tolerant towards homosexuality. This deceptive obfuscation isn’t helpful or true. In fact, Islam has been the main source of LGBTQ persecution in Muslim communities for a millennium before European imperialism and since Muslim-majority countries achieved their independence in the 20th century. The only historical example of homosexuality of having been decriminalized in the Islamic past was during the Tanzimat reforms of 1858 in the Ottoman Empire. The Tanzimat reforms, heavily influenced by European ideas, were based on secular thinking and nothing to do with Islamic teachings.
Therefore, the one constant in the criminalization of LGBTQ people imposed by Muslim purists and Islamic theocracies like Iran and Saudi Arabia are the passages within the Quran and Hadith that legitimate violence against homosexuals. So the tactic of blaming the West while turning a blind eye to the plight of LGBTQ people in the Muslim world is nothing but a pure distraction from the underlying issue.
If Mateen was gay, he succumbed to the social pressures of conforming to a militantly patriarchal culture, which caused him to live a double life and fail to properly integrate into American society. I, on the other hand, took a detour from the norm but have also suffered incredibly for the post-conventional position I have taken.
In 2012, I returned to my birthplace, Kabul, after living three decades in exile, to work as a professor of political science at the American University of Afghanistan. While I tried to remain discreet, I was still persecuted for being gay. Instead of caving into demands of orthodox Muslims, I fought back by meeting queers in the Afghan capital, mobilizing a gay movement and using social media to promote LGBTQ rights. A year later I was forced to resign from my post and threatened by the Afghan government that I would be arrested, drawn into court, and handed down a life sentence or the death penalty, even though I am a naturalized U.S. citizen, on allegations that my presence and self-expression was destabilizing the social order of Islam. I fled to New York City and in August 2013, I came out publicly to the whole world. Since then I’ve been disowned by much of my family and relatives, deserted by many of my friends and ostracized by most Afghan Americans and Muslim Americans.
While I opted for freedom, it has come at a huge cost. I’ve endured poverty, ending up on the streets and living in homeless shelters. After receiving numerous death threats and a formal fatwa, I continue to live in hiding. Yet, I remain steadfast in advocating for gay liberation in my homeland and across the Muslim world so that future generations of LGBTQ people don’t have to endure the hardships and trauma I’ve encountered.
In Muslim-majority countries, LGBTQ people suffer from mob squads and state-sanctioned terror on top of the honor violence imposed by their families. The suffering LGBTQ people endure in the chaotic underworld of Muslim communities is the hidden war, which we are now beginning to understand with my testimony and scrutinizing the life of Omar Mateen.
LGBTQ victims of honor violence, even here in the United States, are too embarrassed and scared to come forward since homosexuality is still a taboo among Muslims and there’s a culture of stigma about seeking help in the community. Most LGBTQ Muslims would rather die or suffer in silence instead of taking the uncharted path I’ve taken.
If we want to have an honest discussion about why Mateen killed 49 people and injured 53 others, then we have to end the denial and address the root cause.
Last week’s Orlando massacre proves that preventing Islamic indoctrination in the United States is a first step in ensuring the well-being of our society, and safeguarding our national security. Those who’ve experienced honor violence and radicalization have two choices: They can fall deeper into the trap of extremism as Mateen did by embarking on the path to martyrdom by expunging his sins and seeking entry into paradise by murdering other sinners or they can break out of the mold as I did by coming out gay and speaking up even if it means offending Muslims who hold parochial views about gender identity and sexual orientation.
Once we accept the bitter truth that religious indoctrination played a big role in brainwashing and weaponizing an American-born citizen to become an armed Jihadi, we will be able to prevent future terrorist attacks and help LGBTQ Muslims trapped in unending turmoil. Leaving Islam’s punitive line towards homosexuality out of the conversation will ensure that Muslim communities continue to incubate more Omar Mateens.