Solidarity for Orlando's 49 Dead? Say the Words 'Islamic Extremism'

And say ‘gun control’. And ‘LGBT rights’. Both Republicans and Democrats have soul searching to do.

People hold a rainbow flag during a rally to pay tribute for the victims of the Orlando shooting, Athens, Greece, June 14, 2016.
Louisa Gouliamaki, AFP

This time last year, the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage and the LGBT community in the United States never felt more accepted. Now, we have never felt more vulnerable. 

There is no making sense of the massacre in Orlando. It is heartbreaking, infuriating, unfathomable, suffocating. And already the political responses have been frustratingly familiar, with both political parties angling to shape the narrative in a way that best serves their agenda and bolsters support ahead of the election.  

Aside from the devastating scale of the killings – it is the largest mass shooting in U.S. history and the deadliest act of terrorism in the United States since 9/11 – the Orlando attack is unique in the way that it touches so many of the hot-button issues that Americans have grappled with in the past year: Gay rights, gun control, immigration, Islamic extremism. 

In one bloody statement, Orlando reminds us that we cannot separate domestic lightning rods from foreign affairs. To recognize this requires both Republicans and Democrats to challenge some of their core beliefs.

In targeting a gay club and pledging allegiance to ISIS, the perpetrator has connected the dots between same-sex marriage and the fight against the Islamic State. 

This is an uncomfortable proposition for those who have fought against gay rights for decades while simultaneously warning of the rise of international Islamic extremism. They have conveniently separated the two, choosing to see an expansion of LGBT rights as an incursion into their religious freedom, rather than as an expression of inclusion that is intrinsic to the American values that Islamist extremists abhor. 

To champion LGBT rights domestically – including the rights of transgender or gender non-conforming individuals to use the bathroom of their choice – is to spit in the face of the Islamic State’s own oppressive gender ideology. The rapid gains in gay rights over the past few decades here are a powerful demonstration of American freedom and the terror attack in Orlando was an attempt to punish all Americans for this freedom. The religious right must now recognize that relationship and stand in solidarity with the LGBT community.

Similarly, Republicans have made gun rights a central tenant of their identity. The Orlando massacre painfully illustrates that this position is directly at odds with their well-founded fears about the spread of ISIS and its potential domestic impact. Our lenient gun laws are now being used as a weapon against us. 

The highest scrutiny and all possible barriers should be in place to prevent a man who has been investigated by the FBI for possible terrorist links from acquiring a military-grade assault weapon. For Republicans to consistently block efforts that would assist law enforcement in identifying potential terrorists is now, quite clearly, to aid and abet ISIS. 

At the same time, Democrats have been reluctant to call out Islamic extremism by name in this, and other attacks, referring generally to “international terror” and “hatred.” U.S. President Obama’s consistent justification is that doing so legitimizes the violent interpretation of Islam that the terrorists subscribe to and assists in their recruitment. Hillary Clinton, though she recently indicated her willingness to refer to “radical Islam,” has followed suit. 

While these explanations may make a degree of intellectual and strategic sense, the decision to speak in generic terms blurs the motivations behind such attacks. Of course it’s terrorism, of course it’s fueled by hate. It is also clearly inspired by a particular, radical interpretation of Islamic texts that cannot be ignored and should be named. Islamic extremism has specifically targeted Jews in Brussels and Paris and it has now specifically targeted gays in Orlando. 

Jews and gays are symbolic communities because of the ideology that motivates the terrorists. To not name and understand that ideology is to ignore and thus fail to effectively combat it.

Of course, in denouncing Islamic extremism, we must also embrace our greatest domestic allies: the millions of Muslim-Americans who grieve with the Jewish and LGBT victims of ISIS attacks. Donald Trump’s cold and almost triumphant response to the Orlando killings called for a doubling down on his anti-Muslim rhetoric, though gun regulation – not his immigration policies – is the only retroactive solution that might have made a difference here. 

Trump’s plan to exclude Muslims from the United States won’t make us safer, it will only foster the isolation that breeds extremism in ghettos like Molenbeek, Brussels. 

To move forward from this tragedy, Republicans need to reassess their approach to LGBT rights, gun regulation and Trump’s bigoted immigration proposals, lest they further play into Islamic State hands. And Democrats need to consciously and linguistically face ISIS head on by naming its ideological tactics. As we mourn the victims of Orlando, both parties have some serious soul searching to do. 

Brian Schaefer is a contributor to Haaretz, based in New York.