Omar Mateen and the 2016 Orlando Nightclub Shooting

Chayce Perkins
First Year Undergraduate Student, Faculty of Arts

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As modern Western society has continued to progress through the processes of modernity, technological advancement has caused the media to become the most effective means of conveying information to the public. As a result, the media and many news outlets in particular generally include a variety of different views and outlooks on current events. Many contemporary issues have been interpreted in a variety of different ways by the media, as well as by those who choose to read or watch it. For example, the recent shootings and terrorist-considered attacks in America have been portrayed by the media in a multitude of ways. Some individuals believe that these attacks should be considered terrorist-based violence, while others have concluded that they stem from core differences in religious belief. In particular, the recent Orlando nightclub shooting was scrutinized as an event which was perpetrated due to religious hatred and prejudice.

In June 2016, 29 year-old Omar Mateen committed what is now considered the deadliest shooting in American history. After entering a nightclub that supported and catered to the LGBTQ community, Mateen shot and killed a total of 49 club patrons, while wounding another 53. Directly prior to this attack, he had sworn allegiance to the the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. He also claimed that the shooting was “triggered” by the recent killing of Abu Waheeb, a leader of ISIS, perpetrated by the U.S military. Mateen admitted that the American-led intervention within Iraq and Syria triggered his attack, and that he believed the United States had an obligation to stop bombing ISIS. Because of this, most media outlets portrayed this event as a religious hate crime and a terrorist attack.

Although the media depicted Mateen’s actions, as well as the grounds on which he based his actions, as constructed from bigotry, different theories as to why he committed the attack have also been introduced. His portrayed affiliation with Islam was presented by many media outlets in a fashion that was synonymous with stereotypical Islamophobic rhetoric which gave the general public a reason to believe his actions were those rooted in terrorist activity. This popular portrayal was promptly derived from the idea that there was a connection between his affiliation with ISIS and his claimed hatred for the LGBTQ community. Moreover, Mateen being previously described by those who knew him as being extremely racist and homophobic added to the media’s main consensus as to why the crime was committed.

While some of the aforementioned reports about Mateen’s character may be true, the common rhetoric of the attack excluded all discussion on other potential motives and didn’t leave room for critical analysis. Most of the portrayals failed to mention that preliminary reports suggested Mateen had previously attended the same nightclub as a patron himself, and had used dating apps and websites that suggested homosexual behavior. However, this exclusion can be justified due to the fact that there had been no credible evidence to validate these claims. Moreover, there was correspondingly a lack of evidence to suggest that Mateen had any legitimate ties to ISIS.

After critically reflecting on the media’s main portrayal of the attack, it is clear that religion was presented in a negative light. Mateen’s actions supported the generalizations and negative connotations already associated with Islam. Furthermore, the attack also supported the stereotypical generalization that all members of the Islam community are against the LGBTQ community, which is a false representation of their beliefs. By analyzing the main rhetoric of the media’s representation of Mateen’s actions it is obvious that thoughts and opinions are meant to do nothing but encourage Islamophobic thoughts and opinions. Therefore, the portrayal of the shootings provides a biased account of religion in general, as the opinions based on the causation behind Mateen’s decision gives the majority of the Western audience support in believing that Islam can be continued to be associated with terrorism and violence.

vunjq1nde60lvekryh8co-rvqqkumlb5-xlargeThe main authoritative sources that the portrayal refers to included religious officials or representatives. Immediately after the event occurred, many of these figures apologized for Mateen’s actions on behalf of religion, expressing their concerns as to how events such as this force religion to be deemed as harmful or damaging to society. In particular, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee claimed, “violence of this magnitude belongs to no religious, racial or ethnic group.”

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is recognized as a terrorist organization by the United Nations, and thus a contemporary problem in religion and culture. Mateen’s decision to perpetrate the shooting coupled with his supposed allegiance to ISIS suggests that he must have considered following extremist and Islamic fundamentalism more imperative than following the laws of his country. As modernity and our current context of the world continues to progress and change, Islamophobic views remain prominent in modern day society. Events such as the Orlando shootings remind modern day Westerners that cultural hegemony and the belief that certain cultures or religious views should be considered more dominant, and thus more valuable than populations considered non-dominant.

Sense and Sensitivity

Dr. James Miller
Professor of Chinese Religions, School of Religion
Director of Cultural Studies
Queen’s University

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Teaching and researching religion in China has been one of the enduring passions of my academic career. Contrary to what you might expect, there’s a wealth of research and teaching about religion that takes place in China. China is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world, with 54 official minority nationalities, each with their own culture and tradition. China is also one of the most religiously diverse countries, and officially recognizes five faiths, Protestantism, Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism and Daoism. Only one of these, Daoism, originated in China, so China’s religious landscape is a fascinating and diverse patchwork of cross-cultural influences from all over the world.

Since 1979 the Chinese constitution has guaranteed freedom of belief. Given the previous crackdowns on religion, this has meant that there has been an enormous boom in religious activities, with temples, churches and mosques being newly constructed or restored all over the country in the past thirty years. But China’s ruling communist party remains officially atheist, and this revival of religion has inevitably been a cause for concern, in part because of China’s long history of struggle between surging sectarian movements and the state.

Last year I was involved in a project funded by Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs, which examined the lives and livelihood of Muslim communities in Shanghai. Our international research team carried out this research with a Chinese partner organization, and although we managed to oversee several research projects, the process was fraught with difficulty because Islam was deemed a “sensitive” topic. Nevertheless along the way we sponsored a one-day workshop at Fudan University in Shanghai, that featured research on Islam in China that was being conducted by minority students there. The Canadian consul in Shanghai stopped by and I think we achieved a frank exchange of views about the hot-button issues of minorities, racism, and indigenous peoples in both Canada and China.

Although religion is a sensitive issue in China, it’s probably fair to say that it’s a sensitive issue everywhere in the world.

js60653723New Zealander Phil Blackwood spent 13 months in prison in Myanmar for posting this image on Facebook to promote a drinks special in the bar he managed. His crime was offending Buddhism.

A few weeks ago Dutch citizen Klaas Haijtema was arrested on a similar charge for pulling the plug from a loudspeaker relaying a Buddhist sermon that he claims was preventing him from taking a nap in his hotel.

Whether you’re selling beers in Buddhist Myanmar, researching religion in Shanghai, or studying world religions and native traditions in postcolonial Canada, it’s likely that you’re going to run into some kind of sensitive issue. Learning how to negotiate these issues requires scholarship and learning on the one hand, but also tact and diplomacy on the other. It’s a matter of sense, and sensitivity. Balancing the two can sometimes be difficult, especially when the a scholarly perspective conflicts with that of a religious community. But learning this balancing act is one of main benefits of religious studies.

Is Bernie Sanders “Spiritual But Not Religious”?

Galen Watts
Cultural Studies PhD Student, Queen’s University

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Watching the current American election from Canada is like watching a hurricane from a seemingly safe distance, and hoping (perhaps even praying), that it doesn’t come any closer, and that it ends soon.

There have been many theories proposed by media pundits and scholars to make sense of what seems to be a growing polarization between camps in contemporary American (and more broadly, Western-European) politics: populist masses versus cultural elites, nationalism versus internationalism, cultural pluralism versus nativism, support for political correctness versus the allowance of unfettered freedom of speech, the breakdown of traditional ideological structures, Angry white people versus, well, everyone else. Let me say, I think there is some truth to most, if not all, of these proposals, however, I want to here focus on a set of factors (not entirely separate yet nevertheless distinct) that were mentioned quite often early on in the election—at least during the time when Sen. Bernie Sanders was still a possible (however unlikely) contender for the Democratic nomination—and which, I believe, hold interesting insights for scholars of religion. Those being: millennials versus boomers and spirituality versus religion. It’s true that these factors do not explain the polarization entirely—and some might argue they really only apply to divisions on the Left—but nevertheless, I think their further investigation might help us to make sense of an important shift in values and discourses that are taking place in North American culture.

Early in the race for the Democratic nomination, it was often touted that one of the greatest predictors of support for Bernie Sanders was if one was between the ages of 18-34. No doubt, Sanders’ appeal to the millennial generation has to do with a number of things. For instance, many young people in America (and Canada) are deeply frustrated because they find themselves saddled with historically unprecedented amounts of student debt while at the same time facing poor job prospects. Others feel the political establishment ultimately doesn’t serve the interests of the young, and are therefore happy to see a somewhat disgruntled and disheveled old man who self-identifies as a “socialist” railing against those whom they feel don’t really care about them. Moreover, university-educated young people are less likely to associate “socialism” with the Cold War in the way their parents might, and have been (rightly) taught by their Liberal professors that unfettered capitalism is not the social and political panacea that Reagan and Thatcher once suggested. Finally, research has shown that millennials value, above all else, authenticity (or at least what they perceive as “authenticity”). They view any kind of fakery, or skullduggery, as revealing a lack of integrity. They want a person who is true to themselves, not some polished politician who knows how to read a teleprompter well. Sanders seems to them the “real deal.”

Indeed the reasons are multiple and diverse, however, I want to reflect on a possible reason that has not garnered as much media attention as I think it deserves: could it be that Sanders is, despite his not actually articulating it, “spiritual but not religious”?

Research has shown that many millennials self-identify as more “spiritual” than “religious” or “spiritual but not religious.” For my Master’s thesis, I conducted interviews with twenty Canadian millennials who self-identify as “spiritual but not religious” in order to gain a better understanding of what contemporary spirituality is; that is, what kinds of beliefs and practices it entails, what moral logics (if any) it espouses, and ultimately what the social and political implications its recent popularity among millennials across North America might be. Of course, millennials in the U.S. and Canada differ in important ways, and therefore will likely hold differing understandings of what “spirituality” without “religion” is, but nevertheless, I would argue, as others have, there are more similarities than one might think. In any case, an interesting observation garnered through my interviews was that the vast majority of my interviewees preferred Sanders to the remaining Democratic and Republican candidates, and I think this is revealing. My argument is that, among other reasons, Sanders appeals to millennials because he speaks the language of “spirituality” and because he embodies, in certain ways, what it means to be “spiritual”—at least to my research participants.

When asked during a CNN interview what his “spirituality” was, Sanders replied, “we are all in this together.” Asked to elaborate, he responded, “Every great religion in the world—Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism—essentially comes down to ‘Do unto others as you would like them to do unto you’…. The truth is, at some level, when you hurt, when your children hurt, I hurt … and when my kids hurt, you hurt…. I believe that what human nature is about is that everybody in this room impacts everybody else in all kinds of ways that we can’t even understand. It’s beyond intellect; it’s a spiritual, emotional thing.”

There are a number of ways in which Sanders echoes what many of my SBNR interviewees articulated. For one, he makes no reference to the existence of a God, or gods. His spirituality is thoroughly immanent—meaning, this-worldly. Nevertheless, he does not positively deny the existence of a higher power. Instead, his “spirituality” is left theologically open to speculation; he suggests that whatever “human nature is about”, is beyond human understanding and therefore cannot be comprehended simply by means of rational or scientific methods of analysis. Second, Sanders stresses that what is “spiritual” is also, in some sense, “emotional”; the truth of his conviction must be on some level felt. Similarly, my interviewees often spoke of how “spiritual” knowledge had to be attained through lived personal experience. Third, Sanders has no problem boiling the “great religions” down to one single principle—essentially, the Golden Rule. Many of my interviewees, although holding different metaphysical justifications for their view, similarly saw all world religions as ultimately teaching this basic idea. They also, in line with Sanders, saw this aligning them with predominantly Liberal, that is, Leftist public policies. Finally, Sanders seems to gesture towards an understanding of human beings as fundamentally interdependent. It’s difficult to know whether he was referring to a purely material interdependence—for instance, the way in which a Canadian’s large carbon footprint might negatively effect the life of a Fijian by means of climate change, or, say, the way in which the winner of the American election will effect the global order—or if he also meant the way in which we are interdependent on a more immaterial (perhaps “spiritual”) level (i.e. via energy levels or spiritual forces). Either way, it seems clear that Sanders’s view is certainly not what most would call “religious” today.

America has never had a president that did not self-identify as “Christian” or “not religious.” Perhaps Sanders’ appeal to those who prefer to be called “spiritual” is one more reason why his being elected would have been revolutionary (and was therefore unlikely). Nevertheless, his resounding appeal among the millennial generation in the U.S and Canada suggests that discourses on “spirituality” as distinct from “religion” are, although perhaps not yet in vogue, becoming more acceptable in American politics. And resultantly, they may come to shape future elections, and North American culture, in important and enduring ways.

Teaching Religion Through Bollywood Horror Films

Dr. Aditi Sen 

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As a horror film aficionado, I have often wondered if Indian horror films, particularly, successful Bollywood films, could be used as a source for teaching Hinduism. Horror films are rich in themes like mythology, witchcraft, folklore, and it can even help open dialogues about issues like secularism versus sectarianism, western education versus traditional knowledge, and the conflict between religion and science.

purana-mandir-horror-vintage-bollywood-poster-1First, I will very briefly trace the history of horror cinema in Bollywood, and then focus on a few horror films that I consider to be excellent texts for teaching Hinduism.

How do we define horror cinema? Here, I find Noel Carroll’s definition, where he categorically differentiates between natural and art horror, to be useful.[1] In this case, the presence of the supernatural qualifies as a horror film. I will focus on monster flicks and films about evil spirits and witches, a genre that only became popular in Bollywood in the 80s. Before the 80s, horror was not even a recognized genre. There were scary films, but they were mostly murder mysteries and suspense thrillers. These films often had spooky content, but there was always a rational explanation for the supposedly supernatural events. In fact, the protagonist was almost always a man of science who investigated the inexplicable occurrences and solved a mystery. In fact, a very common dialogue that appears in most horror films is, “How can you believe in ghosts when you are educated?” In films, believing in ghosts has always been viewed as a sign of ignorance and lack of education. It is only natural that in the Nehruvian era of nation building the belief in the supernatural was seen as a hindrance to progress, and the film industry reflected that mindset.

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So, what changed in the late 70s and 80s? The answer is neither simple nor straightforward. First of all, films like The Exorcist, Omen, and Evil Dead, did extremely well at the Box Office. These films included themes that Indians could easily relate to. Specifically, the idea of possession appealed to the audience. There are many Indian films on possession, but let me expand on two films. Gehrayee (Depth, 1981) is an excellent documentation of different types of exorcisms, and the continuous struggle between traditional knowledge and modern medicine. Another film on possession called Bhoot (Ghost, 2003) takes place in an apartment in Mumbai, thereby making possession commonplace and an urban event. Both the films explore folk shamanistic traditions, black magic, and also have an engaging storyline.

Another reason for the popularity of horror films is put forward by Valentina Vitali who maintains that the late 70s and 80s were a very difficult time for the nation. India witnessed the emergency, followed by tensions rising in Punjab, which eventually led to Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination, followed by the retaliation against the Sikhs. Vitali points out that horror films helped people cope with that stress, because the population increasingly felt that they had lost control of their lives and their surroundings.[1]

Horror films are also inherently subversive in nature. They often give voice to the ones who have been ignored by mainstream politics and religion. Priests are replaced by shamans, folk traditions replace yajnas, and exorcism replaces science. These films provide a platform for discussing these paradoxes. For example, in Vikram Bhatt’s Haunted (2011) the evil spirit is a Brahmin and only a Sufi fakir knows the way of dealing with him. This film is also a very rich resource for studying secularism, and how Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity find a common ground for fighting evil through compassion.

Horror films are an untapped resource that can be a very useful tool in Religious Studies. My favorite films for teaching apart from the ones I have mentioned are Purana Mandir (Old Temple),Veerana (Deserted) Raaz (Secret), Raaz 3, 13B, Raat (Night), and Ek Thi Daayan (There was once a witch).

 

 

[1] Vitali, Valentina. “The Evil I: Realism and Scopophilia in the Horror Films of Ramsay Brothers. In Beyond the Boundaries of Bollywood: The Many Forms of Hindi Cinema, ed. Rachel Dwyer and Jerry Pinto, 77-101. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2011.

[1] Carroll Noel, The Philosophy of Horror, 12, New York, Routledge, 1990.