For many young men, "some nonsense" about Islam has become an escape.

Photographer: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post/Getty Images

The Messy Mind of Omar Mateen

Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg View columnist. His books include “From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia,” “Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond” and “An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World.”
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The massacre of 49 people at an Orlando nightclub by an American citizen named Omar Mateen brought a predictable response from Donald Trump. He denounced Muslims for not informing on the terrorists in their midst and insinuated that President Barack Obama, who doesn't publicly use the phrase "radical Islam," was actually sympathetic to such extremists.

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Emerging facts about Mateen’s background soon muddied this picture. A security guard, Mateen was mentally unstable, according to his divorced first wife. His Afghan-born father spoke of his son's hatred of gays. Obama confirmed that the Islamic State had not directed the attack even though Mateen invoked the terrorist group in a call to a police operator. And then it emerged that Mateen had apparently used gay dating apps and frequented the gay club where he staged his mass murder.

To Trump and his followers, evil perpetrated by Muslim individuals justifies restricting immigration, if not launching more wars in the Middle East and Africa.

But the available facts about Mateen’s own life -- homophobic and violent tendencies, failed marriage, weak religiosity, potential suppressed homosexuality -- show that people exceed in practice the single religious, racial or sexual identity that is ascribed to them. Locating any single motivation in their conflicted selves is an impossible task.  

Moreover, the volatile psychology of self-hatred, shame and murderous rage manifested by Mateen is hardly unique to the present. All through the 19th century, educated young Europeans were tormented by the malaise borne of a loss of traditional faith and the growth of aspirations "beyond the fitting medium of desire," as Byron wrote.

Many of them rushed to fight for Greece’s independence (and often died just as swiftly and futilely as Byron himself). Thousands of European young men went off to South America to fight for soul-stirring but poorly understood causes. Many participated in the first phase of global terrorism in the late 19th century, assassinating several heads of state and attacking crowded public places for no clear reason. 

Ideology or doctrine barely mattered to what Byron famously called the "wandering outlaw of his own dark mind." These young men, feeling diminished by social, economic, and sexual insecurities, desperately wanted, like Rudin in Turgenev’s eponymous novel, to surrender themselves "eagerly, completely" to "some nonsense or other."

For many young men in our age, especially those who have neither a religious background nor any secure footing in the modern world, "some nonsense or other" about Islam or the Middle East has also become an escape from feelings of confusion and inferiority. 

The quest for a moral victory over a weak and unmanly self has led many to affiliate themselves with whatever organization comes to hand: Casting around for one, Mateen himself could not tell the difference between the bitterly opposed extremist groups Islamic State, al-Qaeda and Hezbollah.

Another typical outlaw of his own dark mind was Anwar al-Awlaki. A respected American imam entrusted with defusing radical Islam after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Awlaki mutated unexpectedly into a preacher of jihad. His rants on blogs, social media and YouTube spawned a whole generation of "Facebook terrorists" in the West.

But when he charged in his popular lecture series that "a global culture" had seduced "Muslims and especially Muslims living in the West," and that Muslims "are suffering from a serious identity crisis," he was actually speaking of his intimate and painfully divided self. Monitored by the FBI, Awlaki seems to have left the U.S. out of fear that he, a fire-breathing scourge of fornication by the day, might be exposed as a frequenter of prostitutes by night.

Mateen, too, like many domestic terrorists and mass shooters, seems to have struggled with a severe identity crisis before dissolving it in mass murder last weekend. Any counter-terrorism program is helpless before individual pathologies that widely available assault weapons can easily ignite. But we can try to be smart, as Trump put it, and recognize that Islamic State and Islamophobes feed off each other.

Islamophobia represents an unfocused fury among people who find all social, political and economic forces determining their lives to be intolerably opaque. It serves the same purpose for many people as the menacing vision of the Muslim umma under attack: an escape from deep uncertainty and confusion, accomplished by inventing and persecuting a single enemy. It is as much a gift to demagogues as anti-Semitism once was: a desperate and dangerous attempt to deny that our selves as well as our societies are irrevocably plural.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Pankaj Mishra at pmishra24@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net