By Pamela Constable
June 15 2016
Two young men kissing on the streets of Miami. A wealthy older man fondling a pretty young boy in Afghanistan.
The first scene, reportedly encountered by Omar Mateen before he started slaughtering patrons at a gay dance club in Orlando early Sunday, represents something that conservative Afghan society teaches is wrong, disgusting, unnatural and against the law of God. It is an aspect of American culture that Afghans say revolts them and against which Muslim clerics preach all over the world. Mateen’s father, after the killings, said he was saddened by what his son had done — but that homosexuals should be punished by God.
The second scene, described by Western journalists and other visitors to Afghanistan, represents something that Afghan society has long accepted as a common if semi-hidden practice, a privilege for wealthy men and macho militia commanders to keep boys for sex. It is not viewed or condemned as homosexual behavior, and any man who does it would be shocked and enraged at being called homosexual.
Mateen was born in the United States, but the mixed messages sent by his native culture may well have added to the stress, confusion and anger that led him to start shooting in a gay club. He was clearly a troubled person. His former wife said he beat her constantly; his former classmates said he was bullied in school and that he laughed and cheered at the World Trade attacks. He regularly visited a mosque and vowed allegiance to the Islamic State during his shooting rampage — but he also reportedly had visited the Pulse nightclub before and communicated with men on a gay dating site.
“Maybe he acted out of self-hate,” one caller to a C-SPAN discussion show speculated Tuesday.
The revulsion Afghans express toward Western gay lifestyles that involve affection and sex between consenting peers, and their society’s simultaneous acceptance of forced sex between powerful men and young boys, is an apparent contradiction that is never confronted, acknowledged or publicly discussed in Afghan society. But it has been reported in detail by Western visitors, including former Post reporter Ernesto Londono, who investigated the practice of older men buying and keeping dancing boys, known as bacha bazi.
This practice was also reported by two U.S. Army officers who were stationed with Afghan militia units. They said they were appalled at seeing and hearing militiamen abusing boys, but that they were told by superiors to ignore the situation so as not to offend the Afghan military officials who were their partners in the war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. One American officer who beat an Afghan fighter for keeping a boy chained to his bed was relieved of his command.
In my own reporting visits to Afghanistan over a number of years, I have seen slender boys in makeup and bangles dancing at parties for groups of older men, and I felt a sick premonition about what would happen afterwards. I have also realized how this tradition, especially among ethnic Pashtun tribes, can function as an outlet for the strict social suppression of what Westerners would call normal romantic relations between men and women.
In Afghan culture, young people are never allowed to date or be alone with members of the opposite sex except for their immediate relatives. Their spouses are chosen by family elders, and even engaged couples may meet only a few times, in formal settings surrounded by relatives. Men may remain single for decades because their families cannot afford expensive weddings. In villages, young girls are sold as brides to much older men or handed over as payment in disputes. If young couples fall in love, they are often forcibly separated and married off to others. If they elope, both may be caught and killed for dishonoring their families and tribe.
These traditional practices are frowned upon by educated civic leaders and women’s groups, and laws have been proposed to criminalize domestic violence, but little is done by government authorities to stop it. The recent retreat of Western troops and international aid agencies from Afghanistan, combined with the increased influence of Taliban insurgents, has enabled such behavior to revive and spread. I have visited privately run shelters where women and girls sought refuge from honor killings and state prisons where others have been locked up for running away with a boyfriend.
At the same time, growing access to the Internet and cellphones has exposed once-isolated young Afghans to Western liberal lifestyles as well as to pornography. On TV soap operas imported from India and Turkey, women’s chests are quaintly blurred by censors, but at Internet cafes, porn sites pop up as frequently viewed — while radical Islamist websites that rail against Western vulgarity and sin are just as popular. With modern technology, the bombardment of mixed messages and temptations has multiplied.
Even more recently, as thousands of jobless Afghans have fled their struggling country and reached Europe, they have found themselves immersed in cosmopolitan societies where girls and women wear skimpy and revealing clothes, where alcohol is available at pubs and bars, and where there seem to be no limits. Often they may feel confused, excited and guilty, with no past experience to guide them through the maze.
Sometimes, violence results. Last month, authorities in Austria reported a series of rapes and sexual assaults against women by newly arrived Muslim migrants, most of them young Afghan men. When others encounter the even more forbidden realm of open homosexuality, they may face sharper conflicting messages and feel a more tormented mix of fascination and revulsion. Such extreme psychic stress may well have contributed to the worst mass shooting in U.S. history.
Pamela Constable is a member of the Post’s foreign news staff. A former foreign correspondent based in New Delhi and Kabul, she reports periodically from Afghanistan and other trouble spots overseas.