“All I could do was cry,” says Sadiya Abjani. “Cry for my dead community members, cry for the future of my Muslim community, cry for my friends and chosen family who are about to live the next few months constantly looking over their shoulders.”
Abjani, a queer Ismaili Muslim in New York, is describing her reaction when she heard about the shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., that left 49 people dead. The shooter, Omar Mateen, 29, had been twice investigated by the FBI before carrying out the worst mass shooting in American history. He pledged his allegiance to the Islamic State group in a 911 call before opening fire at the Pulse club, killing 49 people and wounding 53.
Abjani says she woke up at 6 in the morning on Sunday, saw that her phone had 23 messages on it and then thought how such a horrific act shouldn’t be happening during Gay Pride Month.
“This was quickly followed by a very selfish thought. I really hoped the killer wasn’t Muslim. Then it turned out he was, and my ability to function crumbled for about 30 minutes,” Abjani writes in an email to The Root. Now she worries and prays that her community is spared from the hate she believes is headed its way.
“Our community is hurt and scared, and still struggling to process,” Abjani says. “A majority of us are queer and trans people of color. That could have been any one of us in that club. But in the same breath we take to mourn our lost queer family, we’re scared for the backlash that’s about to come.”
Abjani was chair of programming for the 2016 Retreat for LGBTQ Muslims and their partners, held at the end of May in Philadelphia. There was a major backlash against the Muslim community in New York City and many other cities around the nation in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. She says that though the imams in New York have been supportive in the wake of this tragedy, as a recent New Yorker who has lived in both Washington, D.C., and Texas, she felt safer in the Lone Star State than she does in the Big Apple.
“Whenever one of Hijabi Muslim sisters is on a train platform, even if I don’t know her and have never met her before, I’ll stand close to her, because I’ve seen and heard the hate that gets tossed at openly identifiable Muslims,” Abjani says, referring to Muslim women who wear hijab, or a Muslim headscarf. “At the mayor’s office vigil for Orlando, someone walked by screaming, ‘Arrest all the Muslims, get rid of them; that’ll solve the problem.’”
Abjani is on the steering committee for the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity, which was among several Muslim advocacy groups that put out statements denouncing the attack and the shooter. The Council on American-Islamic Relations held a press conference Sunday to condemn the shooting, saying it “violates our principles as Americans and Muslims.” The Los Angeles-based Muslims for Progressive Values issued a statement calling on imams across the country to address the mass shooting in Orlando at their upcoming Friday sermon during this holy month of Ramadan.
‘While we understand that every community struggles with homophobia, today it is abundantly clear why the American Muslim community needs to address homophobia in our community and institutions,” MPV’s statement reads. “We must challenge divisive interpretations of Islam that may encourage those like the gunman in Orlando.”
Raquel Evita Saraswati, also on the steering committee for MASGD, says many in the Muslim LGBTQ community are dealing with the effects of both anti-Muslim bigotry and homophobia, both inside and outside of the faith community.
“Still others are dealing with sectarianism, oppression due to their dissent with mainstream interpretations of the faith, colorism, anti-blackness, transphobia and more,” Saraswati says in an email to The Root. “We are not single-issue people, and those burdens are heavy.”
Saraswati identifies as an American Muslim and says many in the LGBTQ Muslim community find themselves in a painful and contentious nexus of this tragedy: “Members of our community were slaughtered in cold blood by a person who proclaimed our faith. This act of terror occurred during the holy month of Ramadan, when it is said the ‘devil is in chains.’ As we saw this past weekend, though, evil knows no restraint.”
She notes that Mateen also carried out this evil act at a time when LGBTQ people are most open about their identities because it is Gay Pride Month. Saraswati adds that the shooter fits a profile that’s been seen before, i.e., a person with a history of violence against women who has been permitted to roam freely, a person who is known not to be especially religious but becomes radicalized “by those who promise salvation through misogyny, hate and violence.”
President Barack Obama spoke out in support of the LGBTQ community in statements following the attack, but Saraswati says she is unimpressed.
“While President Obama and other politicians have said some of the right things, the fact remains that our government, including both major political parties, continues to ally and exchange favors with the very theocrats and fascists responsible for censorship, criminalization, repression, torture and murder of my people,” she says.
Saraswati says that many in the LGBTQ Muslim community are afraid, though she thinks that fear is exactly what terrorists seek to instill in people.
“They wish to strike fear into our hearts, fix a muzzle over our mouths and to tell us that we have no sanctuaries,” Saraswati says. “We must fight this with every cell in our bodies, and every breath in our lungs.”
Allison Keyes is an award-winning correspondent, host and author. She can be heard on CBS Radio News, among other outlets. Keyes, a former national desk reporter for NPR, has written extensively on race, culture, politics and the arts. Follow her on Twitter.