It’s interesting to observe the multiple contending ways different folks are trying to define the tragedy that occurred in Orlando. You have many “security experts” claiming that it was clearly an act of “Islamic terrorism” simply because the perpetrator called 911 and admitted he was pledging his allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The man’s father claims it had nothing to do with religion or ISIL: It was a crime committed against gays, for whom his son had special scorn. President Obama says it was both an act of terrorism and a hate crime. Right-wing Republicans want a more black-and-white definition and prefer to just call it “Islamic terrorism.” Others, especially progressives in the gay community, are pushing for it to be defined as a homophobic act. Orthodox secularists want it — like the security experts and the right-wing Republicans — to be defined as a religious act and, more specifically, as an act of Islamic terrorism.

So we have three contending definitions:

1) For Republicans/security experts/orthodox secularists: Islamic terrorism.

2) For Obama/Hillary Clinton/mainstream gay-rights activists: Terrorism plus hate crime.

3) For the father and for progressive gays: Hate crime.

Whoever wins this battle of definitions will get to set the type of policy the state adopts. If Republicans/security experts/orthodox secularists win, we can expect a draconian racial response in which Muslims and any others who empathize with their repression will be under tremendous surveillance and harassment. If the Obama/Clinton/mainstream-gay-rights-activist folks win, it will be very similar, simply because of the way the current bureaucratic security system is organized around dealing with “Islamic terrorism.”

The least troubling approach from a civil-rights perspective is the father/gay progressive perspective, which asks us to spend our energy and public resources on targeting hate groups instead of racial profiling. But, to be fair, this last group’s claims eventually will be processed by a security system that has a tendency to fall back easily into racial profiling and that most likely will adopt a security policy that will not look all that different from that adopted by the other definitions.

However, there is also a fourth approach that we can call anti-racist/anti-war/anti-violence: Those who struggle to end the violent form of imperialism that nation-states such as the U.S. and Israel continue to follow in the Middle East, as well as those struggling to eradicate the rise of a racist and Islamophobic West. This is usually overlooked in our examinations of violence, in which we limit the discussion to a disingenuous diatribe about Muslims and fail to look at our own complicity (and that of the so-called “only democracy in the Middle East,” which has for nearly 50 years been illegally occupying a population with absolutely no rights) in the creation of a violent relationship.

The equivalent in the Middle East to these anti-war/social-justice activists in the West are those struggling to create social movements that both end colonial occupations and help to rejuvenate a social pact that transcends ethnic and religious differences and also to make as their main objective the creation of a cross-ethnic and religious system of pluralism. That will, of course, entail the creation of a state that is not organized around sectarian competitive grounds, which the U.S. helped to create in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

What’s important to remember here is that these definitions have major consequences for who gets caught up in the net-widening reach of the security state apparatus. Also note that the rights and civil liberties of the public are most reduced by the Republican/orthodox secularist/Obama/Clinton/mainstream-gay-rights approach, in which we’d have lots of innocent folks being dragged into a modern witch hunt that would destroy the lives and careers of the accused, who would become the scorned folk devils of their neighbors and the public.

By far the most effective policy is to ally with those who are interested in devising a strategy that does not hand the results of its struggles to a security state that is organized on a highly racist template and that continues to enact injustice overseas. Instead, this movement is interested in creating a strong civic public that has social justice as its major objective — one that, instead of placing all of the blame on them over there, looks honestly at itself as partly to blame for a dysfunctional relationship.


Khaldoun Samman is a professor of sociology at Macalester College and is the author of “The Clash of Modernities: The Islamist Challenge to Jewish, Turkish, and Arab Nationalism.”