Authorities have identified the Orlando gunman as 29-year-old Omar Mateen. He was born in 1986 in New York to Afghan parents. Since 2007 Mateen had worked as a security guard at G4S, the largest private security firm in the world. The FBI interviewed Mateen in 2013 and 2014 for possible terrorist ties. According to The New York Times, he was placed under FBI surveillance for a time, but the agency eventually closed its inquiry. There are reports that Mateen called 911 around the time of the assault and declared his allegiance to the Islamic State, but no audio of the call has been released to the public. We speak to Imam Daayiee Abdullah, executive director of Mecca Institute. Imam Abdullah also is one of the first openly gay imams in the Western Hemisphere.
AMY GOODMAN: Vigils are being held across the country following what’s been described as the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history. At least 50 people died in Orlando, Florida, early Sunday morning after a gunman opened fire at a packed gay dance club. More than 50 others were injured, the victims overwhelmingly Latino and young, between 20 and—in their twenties and thirties. Authorities identified the gunman as 29-year-old Omar Mateen, who used a semiautomatic weapon that would have been prohibited under the assault weapons ban that Congress allowed to expire more than a decade ago. On Sunday, the Council on American-Islamic Relations condemned the shooting. This is the group’s executive director, Nihad Awad.
NIHAD AWAD: Our hearts, thoughts and prayers are with the victims of their—with the victims and their families. We offer condolences to the families, and we pray for the recovery of the survivors. This is a hate crime, plain and simple. We condemn it in the strongest possible terms. It violates our principles as Americans and as Muslims.
AMY GOODMAN: Joining us now is Imam Daayiee Abdullah, executor director of Mecca Institute, one of the first openly gay imams in the Western Hemisphere.
Welcome to Democracy Now! Can you show your thoughts, Imam Daayiee Abdullah, about what took place in Orlando, Florida, this weekend?
IMAM DAAYIEE ABDULLAH: Yes. Thank you, Amy, for inviting me. And I’m wearing black today because I’m still in mourning, because I want to give out condolences to the families and friends of the—and the community there—of the victims there in Orlando, and basically to say that, overall, violence is never the answer to any type of response, but there are a number of different issues that, in intersection, lead to a major question as to why these things happen. It’s not just because of an individual with just hate, but there are things that underlie the reasoning behind them so that they can choose to use violence as a way to make a statement.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about how the media is portraying what took place? I mean, when the words across the bottom of the screen, when people woke up yesterday, on television, “terror attack,” you almost knew immediately it wasn’t a white supremacist who did this, because it would have said “white supremacist attack.” “Terror” has become synonymous with “Muslim” in this country. Can you describe your response to hearing who was involved with this attack and what they’re saying about Omar Mateen right now?
IMAM DAAYIEE ABDULLAH: OK, well, typically, like any other attack that has happened, most Muslims, you know, there’s a gasp of breath, and they go, “I hope that they’re not Muslim.” And there’s times, as being a black male, that I hope it wasn’t a black male that did this. So it’s a very similar feeling. But the way in which the media has portrayed, and continues to portray, it has gotten better, but the problem is that there’s always this leap directly towards, if the person is Muslim that did it, then it’s terrorism rather than someone who may have a mental illness or someone who have other causes that led them to fall into the process of using violence in terms of what they do.
So, I think that, generally, when it’s a white male, then it’s mental illness is the first thing that they utilize after reporting the crime. But in this instance, it’s always terrorism. And as Donald Trump commented yesterday evening, that this is—you know, keep the Muslims out. So it’s always a direct attack towards Muslims, who are American citizens, and as well as other individuals who are here who believe in their faith. And we find that we are now in a position again of trying to protect ourselves, and, again, in some instances, causing people to become more sequestered in their day-to-day lives.
AMY GOODMAN: You talk about mental illness, and you talk—we just played a clip of Sitora Yusufiy, his wife, his ex-wife, who said that he was mentally ill and that he beat her when he was married to her, Imam.
IMAM DAAYIEE ABDULLAH: Yes. Well, one of the issues I think is very important, in many communities of color, there’s a stigma about mental health. And in my pastoral counseling that I provide to not only LGBT Muslims, but also young Muslims, interfaith couples, older Muslims who are now in a different culture, we find that the shaming that comes from acknowledging that one may have some issues that may relate to mental health, often people are not willing to go and seek additional help because of that shaming or that cultural stigma that’s associated with it. And I think that we need to make this change in how people approach mental health, so that people can be helped much earlier in the process if they should exhibit certain issues or certain ways of—in which we show there’s some mental illness issues.
AMY GOODMAN: If you could talk about also his fascination with guns? Speaking to reporters Sunday, his ex-wife, Sitora Yusufiy, also described Mateen’s interest in guns.
SITORA YUSUFIY: He wanted to be a police officer. So he trained with his friends who are police officers, and he had a license to have a gun in Florida. You’re allowed to do that. So, he didn’t practice anything in front of me, but I’m sure he went to shooting ranges.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Sitora Yusufiy. Your response, Imam?
IMAM DAAYIEE ABDULLAH: Well, in growing up in Detroit, Michigan, both of my parents were gun owners, and that they taught us how to safely and carefully utilize them, because we had businesses, and they showed us out of a sense of protection. But that was something that was used to never use a gun unless you intend—never, you know, play with a gun unless you use it to intend—intend to use it. But it was for protection only.
And I think one of the issues quite often, from a mental health perspective, that people find power behind a gun. And I think this may be one of the issues that was prevalent with Mateen, in that he used that as a source of power where he may have felt powerless. There are other speculations for reasons why he may have felt powerless, too, which I’m not certain if we should even try to delve into until we have more information about it. But frequently, that is the issue behind most people. They feel a loss of power. They use a gun to sort of equalize things. And, of course, once the process begins, quite often people die in that process.