Tsarnaev Motives: Islam Was Not a Real Factor


Finally, it's over, and justice will be served.

During the media onslaught of speculation over whom perpetrated the heinous acts of terror in Boston on Monday, one thought continued to cycle throughout my brain: "God, please don't let it be a Muslim". I was shocked at the mere thought of wanting to make excuses for anyone in light of the gruesome act that were unfolding, but instead of ignoring the impulse to dismiss this controversial thought, I embraced it.

Yes, I had meant what I thought. The association that many of the news outlets were making echoed the same story about a Saudi national under guard in a Boston hospital. While other outlets did more to insist upon the preliminary nature of this information and urged viewers not to jump to conclusions, others took no such care. Other reports of a dark-skinned man lurking about Boston also circulated around network television and online news aggregates. Behind these small, disbursed leaks throughout this week was the insinuation of an elephant in the room: the Muslim jihadists were back again ready to terrorize American cities. 

On September 11, 2001, a tenth grader from a small town in northern Michigan asked himself a question, staring bewildered at his television set: "How can people hate us so much?" That day was the day this boy decided to dedicate his life and future career to finding the answer. While his question was certainly not a unique one, his journey has been eye-opening. Now a graduate student at the University of Houston, my question has taken through course work in the Arabic language, Islamic culture, and various Arab cultures. I have traveled to and lived in predominately Muslim countries, including Morocco, the "dangerous" southern border of Lebanon, and Jordan. I studied abroad in Egypt for a year and was in-country when the revolution broke out in February 2011. I have spent my life studying Islam comparatively with Christianity, and the historical context in which the Quran was written. Where I found controversy, I have sought historical context. Where I had my suspicions, I sought out personal experiences. I tested my assumptions, and I was often wrong. It has been an incredible journey. I have come to appreciate the naiveté of my question, and perhaps, the realization that we as Americans often ask the wrong question. We've been looking in all the wrong places to the detriment of furthering our common knowledge of the complexities of terrorism. 

I have dedicated my life to a question, and so far, I have only begun to uncover the answer. I have come to appreciate that this cycle we live gets us nowhere: terrorists attack, speculation of the perpetrator's demographics circulate, rumors about his religion crop up, and paranoia ensues. It ends with Americans wearing headscarves and turbans being attacked on American streets. The rest is cyclical and predictable, and mere heuristics guide us through the rules of the game. Islam is a violent religion that necessarily leads its adherents to a life of violence.

And yet, these heuristics do not get us anywhere. Has violence against a Muslim on the street in America ever emerged in an arrest of a terrorist? Stopped a terrorist attack? Made you feel safer? If Islam has such violent teachings, then how is it possible that there are millions of Muslims in America that live normal, American lives with normal, American hopes and dreams and live a life of non-violence? How was it possible for me to live in two predominately Muslim countries and not be overwhelmed by a sense of impending doom or my life being in danger? If Islam were so violent, then how was it possible that so many wonderful people came to my aid during the outbreak of the Egyptian revolution to comfort my group, provide for us as friends, and arrange for our safe departure?

To start with what I know and following from these rhetorical questions, Islam is not a violent religion. How can it be when the vast majority of its over 1 billion adherents do not practice random acts of violence across the world? Whatever one thinks about Islam or their opinions about the other aspects of its practices, it is not a religion that encourages violence. This truth has been repeated in the media since 9/11, along with numerous public officials, 2 U.S. presidents, Christian religious leaders, and other prominent public figures. It has been repeated by specialists who have devoted their careers to studying Islam, Muslim societies, and Muslim communities within the United States. 

Attributing violence to a religion as a unique characteristic is a red herring for the underlying causes of political violence, and the assertion that terrorism seems to be associated with Muslims in general, no matter how few cases there are, seems to suffer from its own problems empirically. As any statistician, economist, and social scientist will tell you, correlation does not imply causation. Starting with this simple rule has saved me many a false start. While these ideas might on the face seem controversial and apologetic, they have been found to have substantial explanatory power in uncovering the motives of individuals who have used terror and the organization of terrorist groups as a means of violent political expression in Europe and other regions of the world. It is often economic hardships and exclusion, social ostracizing, and political disenfranchisement that leads people to desperation and acts of terror in their own countries and abroad. When these crucial systems of socialization, power, and security exclude or brand a human being as a deviant or an "Other," many people, especially youths, fall susceptible to the simple black-and-white persuasive power of extremism. Moreover, humans who harbor hatred in their hearts will search for reasons to justify their feelings and the heinous acts they wish to unleash upon those who are not suffering as they perceive themselves to be suffering.

This has nothing to do with religion, but one of many reactions an individual employs in the process of overcoming the perception of personal or group persecution in an act of violent assertion of power over another. In light of this and various other psychological and sociological reasons, those who justify their gruesome, murderous acts against other humans hide under the cloak of religious extremism. All religions and their texts tend to suffer from ambiguities and are often taken as anachronistic interpretations of how the world should be viewed and treated today. It is these ambiguities and ahistorical contexts around which extremism forms and justifications for the most disgusting and heinous crimes are committed. This is not religion. It is an exploited conduit through which preexisting hatred, powerlessness, disenfranchisement, and corruption are channeled.

On the other side, Americans see another Muslim bombing another Western target. In a world in which we are constantly bombarded with image loops, it is understandable that a person who turns on the six o'clock news for 20 minutes and sees a man with a turban and a machine gun in the desert would think, "This is one of those Muslim terrorists. He's bad. Islam is violent." The media does a fine job of highlighting the exceptions and not the rules. As I have discovered, the story is much deeper than that. The "question" I alluded to earlier (the "wrong" question we often ask ourselves), is "What is his religion?" Instead, we should be asking, "Why is he holding a machine gun?"

We should be asking ourselves what pushes people to commit random acts of hatred and carnage: a bus bombing in Tel Aviv, the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City, hijacked, makeshift missiles on 9/11, a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, a series of bombings during an international sporting event in Boston, the IRA bombings in London, the Atlanta Olympic bombings, and the assassinations of Israeli Prime Minister Yizhak Rabin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, just to name a few. All of these events are acts of terror, but we tend to label them differently, the ones that are not committed by Muslims in one camp, the ones committed by Americans or foreign, non-Muslim nationals in another. We sort and order nationality, motives, religion, and ethnicity in different orders, and our ordering is quite subjective. All are carnage, all are murder, and all are acts of terror.

But not all are so quickly attributed to supposedly intrinsic characteristics of religion. By separating these events from one another, we are mischaracterizing the fundamental nature of these events as different from one another. 

The gift of living in an open democratic society is the freedom to obtain and disseminate information. It is the hallmark that distinguishes us from closed societies around the world. This "gift," however, does elicit with it a great responsibility. We have the responsibility to seek a more well informed opinion. This might seem like an impractical goal, but it must be done, especially in a society and a world in which trust has become a rare currency that we are almost universally unwilling to spend. As democrats (with a small "d"), we have a responsibility to protect our society from the malevolent, violent acts of others and to preserve the liberties upon which our nation was founded. But this requires seeking information about the fundamental causes of political violence. This cannot be done if we allow simple, ill-informed rules of thumb drive our understanding of the world. In a environment of evolving threats and a heightened sense that we live under the constant threat of terrorism, shouldn't we be asking ourselves why terrorism occurs? Shouldn't we be trying to seek out the nuances that lead individuals to be seduced by oversimplified, dangerous interpretations and philosophies of life that lead to bombs detonating along finish lines?

Clearly, jumping on Islam as the clear source of the problem has not worked. How could it? When you blame a religion (essentially: a "philosophy") for the reasons why we suffer attacks over and over again, this gets us nowhere. We spin our wheels. We learn to distrust others around us, including the silent, law-abiding majority of Muslims around America and the world. Our communities grow smaller. People are "Othered." We further alienate ourselves from each other. The cycle of perpetual alienation spreads indefinitely without borders. It is used as a justification to recruit more disenfranchised, alienated, and impressionable individuals to a cause that purports to alleviate their suffering in the most simplified of terms. Propaganda ensues, and recruitment continues to build up organizations of hate. Terrorism is carried out against Western targets. More terror. The media reports that it was a jihadist. A disproportionate and poorly thought-out response ensues. More alienation. More recruits. More of the same cycle of senseless violence. 

The question I have learned to ask is not "Why do they hate us". This question can just as easily be thrown back at Christian Americans, to which the reply might be "because you hate us." This is frustrating and explains nothing. The questions I have learned to ask:What drives people to use political violence"? How is extremist interpretations of Islam so effective at attracting the most impressionable? Is it poverty? Political oppression at home? Military interventions? Separatist movements in the Caucuses? Civil wars? Famine? Genocide?

Until we are able to divorce our correlations from causations, this cycle will continue, to no ones benefit. The Samuel Huntingtons and other demagogues will continue to dominate the conversation. What should be clear by now is that this article is not an endorsement of Islamic extremism. It is a much needed call for a conversation about the actual causes of politically motivated and other acts of mass violence in America and around the world. Religion is a convenient conduit behind which cowardly and violent people hide to justify the malevolent preconceptions of and intentions for the world.

It is about time we vigorously focus on the causes that lead an individual along a seductive path of violence. It is about time we focus on the root causes of the inception of jihadist and extremist fundamentalist groups from all religions and walks of life. It's about time we end the cycle that is spinning forward toward yesterday. This conversation needs to go public, not just carried out in the media and the halls of academia. Some might criticize this article as "too soon," "missing the point" of this awful tragedy, or even "exploitative." But the way I see it, we have too much at stake to lose perspective in our response to how we treat others in the aftermath of this disgusting act of terror. We need a new strategy to combat political violence that does not include blaming over a billion people for the acts of a few.

If a Methodist tenth grader from a conservative, rural, northern Michigan border town can care enough to dedicate his life to understanding the road that leads some to unspeakable violent atrocities, it's not inconceivable that others can find it in their spare time to do the same. We all have skin in this game. It's about time it paid off.