The consequences of undermining mental health needs for the ‘war on terror.’
Image by Flickr user Otto Magus
By Raad Rahman
This past summer, when the US Supreme Court upheld the sanctity of gay marriage as a federal right, my friends and I rejoiced in New York City. My social network, which spans almost every Muslim-majority nation, was filled with friends who adopted the rainbow flag in their Facebook profile pictures, in solidarity with the LGBTQ community in the US.
Yet, hegemonic western schadenfreude, which equates Islam with terrorism, misrepresents the realities of Muslims like us who celebrate diversity. Concurrently, extremists continue rallying under the banner of Islam to our growing horror. It has become possible that long after ISIS has been eradicated, lone gunmen who invoke ISIS’s name can keep the terror outfit’s legacy alive.
Prior to the massacre at Pulse, an LGBTQ club in Orlando, Afghan-American Omar Mateen, the shooter, called 911 and praised ISIS while claiming affiliation with the terror group. Hours later, ISIS took credit for the largest mass shooting the US has ever seen. Whether there are indeed connections between the two remains unclear. Regardless, the barometer for entry into a terrorist group seems rather low, if all it takes to join their ranks is a declaration of affiliation before conducting a suicidal massacre.
What then can we make of Omar’s earlier statements of affiliations to conflicting terrorist groups?
To be Muslim, then, apparently only affords one a limiting diagnosis: either one is a terrorist, or not a terrorist.
In 2013, Mateen claimed ties and allegiance to both Hezbollah and Al Qaeda: an impossible alliance of opposing Shi’ite and Sunni “Muslim” groups. The FBI interviewed him thrice on potential terrorist charges. Because the interviews were found inconclusive as terrorist threats, and his ties were unfounded beyond lip service, any mental health issues Mateen had, that could have been treated to stave this tragedy, were not even brought into consideration. The conclusion appears to be that if someone isn’t a terrorist, then he must not be a threat to himself or others. To be Muslim, then, apparently only affords one a limiting diagnosis: either one is a terrorist, or not a terrorist.
After the North Carolina shootings of three upstanding Muslim-Americans in February 2015, the white defendant’s “mental illness” was espoused as the reason behind the “parking” issue that caused him to kill.
The bombings by equally ill “Muslim” brothers at the Boston Marathon was immediately deemed by the media to be the work of terrorists. Prior to 9/11, the Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh , and the infamous Unabomber, David Kaczynski, were some of the only instances where white terrorism was immediately perceived as such in the United States.
Psychotic breaks in rationale have indubitably become a race privilege, but all mass killers must be deemed terrorists and held accountable for the homicides and massacres they conduct, without distinctions of illness used as a means to limit the punishment meted out.
Creating limitations along race lines endorses privilege and impunity in murder hearings. Reducing hate crime as specific to a religion, is a construct that upholds the damnable rhetoric of the white man’s burden of alleviating the heart of darkness, by sustaining that Muslims—often non-whites, are the despicable “other.” Such archaic notions foster undue hatred towards peaceful Muslims, and flatten their realities, while detracting from the more crucial fact: all massacres that target innocents are acts of terror, and are de facto hate crimes. Such murders are also acts of mental illness, but this latter fact must not be used to lessen the gravitas of the crime. Instead, the full extent of hate crime law must be brought down on gun-related massacres of innocents, regardless of who the perpetrator is.
To prevent future massacres, distinctions in who is termed ill versus a terrorist, must be renounced. Gun-related murders against innocents must be prosecuted with equal gravitas. This, alongside institutionalized police and media reform in reportage, are crucial correctives to diagnose and treat extreme mental illness.
Not making these correctives suggests that hate crimes cannot face equal repercussions under US law. This places a value on which victims are vindicated. Retaining such a status quo suppresses the rights of vulnerable groups, reducing equal access to justice. Employing unequal punishments for incarceration based on distinguishing psychosis is an act of excusing those terrorists who target children in primary schools.
For the majority of Muslims who cannot imagine killing anyone, we wonder how a man who murders dozens of school children in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, is termed mentally ill, while gunmen in Pakistan who shoot schoolchildren, are immediately termed terrorists.
The winner in the Orlando shootings, however, is ISIS, because their goal is to create fragmentation and fear, and suggest that Muslims cannot live in harmony with non-Muslims, while killing Muslims who challenge this abominable mindset. ISIS encourages murders, even while the Quran decrees that anyone who does not believe in Islam must be allowed to follow their faith without interference. This is indoctrinated in the Quranic chapter, called Sura Kafirun (“The Disbelievers”).
Furthermore, Muhammad, Islam’s founding prophet, also had a close uncle, Abu Talib. Abu Talib renounced Islam till his dying breath, but Muhammad never persecuted his uncle. Who is ISIS then, but sacrilegious anti-Muslim imposters? ISIS may perceive itself to be the voice of Islam, but they are not and have never been thus: they are terrorists.
The focus of equating Islam with extremism creates two very distinct realities: Firstly, it negates and undermines the struggles and issues which can arise in Muslim communities—as in any community—around mental health, whether these be issues of social or sexual acceptance, depression, or other matters which can escalate if left untreated. Secondly, the secular and non-Muslim members of western societies, who help fuel homophobia, sexism, classism, and other issues that prevail and impact Muslims and non-Muslims alike, are compartmentalized as dismissible.
ISIS is converting non-Muslims from around the world to its brand of extremism. Their appeal appears to have less to do with Islam than it does with countering the alienation, ennui, or desperation, which prevails in a society of identity seekers, status seekers, and westerners who reject “western” notions of culture. Western-born individuals who wage war on egalitarianism, equanimity, or diverse sexual expression, seem to find roots in embracing ISIS.
The word “terrorist” appears to have become exclusively reserved for Muslims. This term wrongly privileges extremism as the lingua franca of an entire religion.
In the fifteen speeches US President Barack Obama delivered immediately following gun related massacres, he mentioned the word “terror” in only two instances.
In the fifteen speeches US President Barack Obama delivered immediately following gun related massacres, he mentioned the word “terror” in only two instances: in the aftermath of the San Bernardino murders of December 2015, and the deadly attacks that took place in Orlando this month—both instances where the perpetrators were “Muslim.” While addressing the deaths of innocent children in school shootouts, Obama has condemned attacks, but the severity appears to be missing, when terrorism is not seen as such. There have been hundreds of school attacks since Obama took office in 2008—exponentially more than those by “Muslims.” The emerging rhetoric is that white terrorists are termed “mentally ill.”
This form of compartmentalizing is the unfortunate continuation of the legacy that Obama inherited from his Islamophobic predecessor George W. Bush, who used “terrorism” to rationalize the invasion of Iraq, with falsified claims of weapons of mass destruction in the Arab state. The Iraqis initially even welcomed the invasion, hoping for their despotic ruler to be unseated. But even after Saddam Hussein was murdered, the war did not stop. ChevronTexaco and Halliburton’s coffers were amongst the corporations enriched by Bush’s terrorist legacy. Ironically, he will never be tried as a war criminal on US soil, and can happily engage in art therapy unless he sets foot in Switzerland.
What of Rupert Murdoch and all the hate speech acts touted as sound logic by Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump? Hatred clearly has a following: Trump has fuelled Islamophobia by calling to ban the world’s 1.7 billion Muslims from entering the US, to growing cheers by xenophobic Americans. Has the US learned nothing from how fascist Hitler annihilated Jews? Or how they themselves persecuted Japanese-Americans in internment camps during the same period?
To Obama’s credit, after the San Bernardino shootings, while ISIS claimed responsibility, Obama asked the media to be cautious in their predictable fait accompli, when he said, “It is possible that this was terrorist-related, but we don’t know. It’s also possible that this was workplace-related.”
However, that Obama needed to use the word “terrorist” in relation to the San Bernardino attacks, even if to ask for restraint in labeling, showcases exactly how inseparable terrorism is perceived to be from Islam. Even while the FBI found the murders to be of an unhinged couple, the media jumped on ISIS claims of taking credit.
Obama did not bother to exercise his own advice after Orlando, when he immediately validated Mateen’s claims to Islam by calling the murders “terror” related, but failed to speak of deranged mental sickness.
Why is violence “unimaginable” within the US, when the US has the worst civilian-led gun deaths in the world?
Never has a group been miscredited with so much power, as has ISIS. Hegemony perpetuates itself through habit and repetition. When global leaders, presidential hopefuls, or media reporters tag only Islamist killings as terrorist attacks, but fail to call gun killings of schoolchildren or minority groups as such, the results are dangerous, and unacceptably problematic, testing the very freedom from persecution upon which the US was founded.
Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, a naturalized American “Muslim” who was behind the Chattanooga shootings in 2015, was sent by his family into rehabilitation for mental health and substance abuse issues. His family claimed he was fascinated with being “martyred,” and though the FBI initially claimed to have an open mind regarding whether he was “self-radicalized,” they eventually concluded “there is no doubt that [Abdulazeez] was inspired, motivated by foreign terrorist organization propaganda.”
After the Washington Navy Yards shootings, Obama said, “And [the victims] know the dangers of serving abroad, but today they faced the unimaginable violence that they wouldn’t have expected here at home.”
Why is violence “unimaginable” within the US, when the US has the worst civilian-led gun deaths in the world?
Addressing mental health issues, providing timely treatment, and perceiving extremism as inseparable from mental illness are necessities to tackle gun control reform with the urgency it deserves. These are some of the many necessary steps to combat the bloodthirsty rationale that guides the National Rifle Association’s successful lobbying for uncontrolled gun ownership. The FBI’s questioning of Mateen should have resulted in mental health checks and treatment. He should have been prevented from ever buying a gun. Instead, forty-five US senators continue to block background checks on gun ownership.
Climates of violence are sustained by creating distinctions. No deaths are inexorable. Binaries that equate Islam with terrorism are xenophobic. Last year, there were strides to expand the definition of terrorism beyond Islam, after the Charleston shootings by a white killer in a black church. This expansion must continue in order to create systemic changes in gun control legislation. America needs to free itself from the shackles of prejudice and discrimination, to allow for true justice for all those slain by acts of terrorism.
Raad Rahman is a writer and a communications, advocacy, and partnerships specialist who has worked with the International Center for Transitional Justice, UNICEF, and the Asia Society. Her writing has appeared in The Guardian, VICE, Global Voices Online, and several international publications. Raad is currently completing a novel, and splits her time between London, New York, and Dhaka. You can follow Raad on Twitter.