What makes someone like Dzhokhar Tsarnaev vulnerable to radicalization? A Muslim American parent of two young men asks a question that strikes close to home.
When my son, Justyn, called me to ask if I’d heard about the Boston bombings, I did not react first and foremost as a Muslim. My first thought was not “I hope it wasn’t Muslims,” as it was for some Muslims.
My first response was as a runner acutely aware of the Boston Marathon as the holy grail of amateur distance running. In the same heartbeat, I felt for the city of Boston. I’ve acquired a strain of homesickness for the Boston area since moving from Cambridge to western Mass in 2000. I know the streets the marathon follows. I have friends who have run the marathon. I have friends who might have been watching the race that very day.
Far away in North Carolina, Justyn felt this act of violence personally for a similar reason. That was why he’d called, in fact. He recalled our time in Boston vividly, remembering afternoons at the playground on the Boston Common and ice-skating on the Frog Pond. At his college, students from Massachusetts were following the news intently, calling home often, and checking on high school friends now living in Boston. A seismic shift disconnected them from their classmates, people from other places who did not experience the unfolding drama as hitting close to home.
It was only as we learned more about the suspects that it struck me just how close to home this particular act of terrorism was. At this point, we still don’t know all the facts and the sole surviving suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, has not yet been tried and found guilty. Yet it seems that he has claimed responsibility for the bombings. Assuming he is guilty, I am puzzled. What happened to this young man described in such glowing terms by parents, peers, and teachers? Did Islam play any role in his choices, when even before the bombings he was far from a model Muslim?
I have to wonder. Dzhokhar could have been one of my sons.
My sons are 22 and 19, this year. They spent part of elementary school in Cambridge. If we had stayed there, my sons would have been in high school with Dzhokhar. My older son, Yahya, might have bonded with him about having been born overseas, bearing an unusual given name, and using an “Americanized” nickname instead. Justyn might have played XBOX games with Dzhokhar and they might have traded stories of living in the shadow of an older brother. They might have ended up at the same college, if Justyn had not foregone a scholarship at the University of Massachusetts in order to follow his brother to a private liberal arts college.
Surely, if they’d met, these boys would have connected around the complicated role Islam played in their lives. They were kids raised in Muslim families, who were nonetheless “typical American teenagers,” more likely to spend Saturday night at a dance party with girls than at an all-male Islamic study circle. As they matured, their individual relationships with faith in general, and Islam in particular, may have shifted in similar—or very different—ways.
I have to wonder if Tamerlan Tsarnaev would have influenced my sons, as he seems to have influenced his brother. Would my boys have been seduced by some “radical” interpretation of Islam, far different from the one they learned at home? I am certain that they would not—but then I recall the distraught face of the boys’ mother, Zubeidat, refusing to believe that her sons had become terrorists. What happened between her memory of the boys she raised and the men who placed bombs that killed three people and maimed many more?
The more apt question may be “who happened?”
In Eboo Patel’s Acts of Faith, the interfaith organizer writes that “there is an oft-overlooked dimension to [Osama] bin Laden’s personality, a talent that is absolutely central to his macabre success: he is a brilliant youth organizer.” Even with bin Laden gone, there remain others just as skilled at harnessing the energy and idealism of youth, misdirecting it toward violent ends.
Some of these manipulators follow my religion—or, at least, they claim to. They pray as I do, using the same words I taught my sons. Like us, they bow, put their foreheads to the floor, and raise their hands high, saying “Allahu akbar.”
If only they heard those words as I hear them. The phrase is not simply “Allahu kabir”—“God is great.” It is “Allahu akbar”—“God is greater.” Greater than the petty, small-minded motives of murderers. Greater than the human errors that lead to injustice and systemic oppressions. Greater than our best efforts to right wrongs and work justice in the world. Greater, in fact, than any thought that could follow the comparison; that is the key to truly understanding “Allahu akbar.”
As I learn more about the Tsarnaev brothers and I witness the explosion of Islamophobic commentary online, I find that I am far more conscious of being Muslim. I respond more and more “as a Muslim.” To me, though, that does not mean viewing Muslims as a hegemonic mass with a few bad apples, blamed by an equally hegemonic mass of non-Muslims for the actions of those few. It means accepting that reality is far more nuanced and that God is always greater.
Shortly after the suspects were identified, a Muslim friend posted to Facebook a single comment: “It’s started.”
Beneath the comment was an article about Heba Abobalan, a Muslim doctor in Boston, who was attacked by someone shouting “F— you Muslims! You are terrorists!” Abobalan’s attacker reduced her whole existence to one piece of her identity: her faith. For the attacker, the world had been divided: same vs. different, right vs. wrong—with “Muslim” irrevocably on the side of “wrong.”
As a Muslim, I could accept that line drawn in the sand, look around me and view fellow Muslims as “us” and everyone else as a potentially hostile “them.” Yet I know that’s wrong. None of us are one-dimensional: not Heba Abobalan, not her attacker, not my sons, not me, not the Tsarnaev brothers, and not the victims of the bombings.
The masterminds of terror don’t succeed in appealing to a few young Muslims simply because they are young—or Muslim. What makes someone like Dzhokhar Tsarnaev vulnerable to radicalization is far more complex than a simple checkbox next to religion, or age, or ethnicity, or national origin. It is rooted in what makes us human, the interplay of myriad identities and moments of experience.
I don’t know what the diabolical combination opens the door to darkness and results in “terrorist,” but I do know it is a combination of factors. I also know that we all have millions of opportunities to positively change our own lived experience—and that of others. One place to start is with leaving behind one-dimensional stereotypes in favor of really knowing one another in 3D. That is something the Qur’an inspires Muslims to do, telling us that God has created “nations and tribes, that you may come to know one another” (Qur’an 49:13).
As the dust settles, things shift back into perspective. The picture gets more complicated. We learn that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev may have had a thriving side-business selling pot. His mother, who wears a headscarf like many devout Muslim women, is wanted in Massachusetts on felony charges of shoplifting and property damage (crimes that would carry a much harsher penalty in most Muslim countries than here). My own identity as a Muslim settles back down to co-exist with my identities as a tree-hugging liberal, a runner, a Southerner living in Massachusetts, a writer, educator, and activist, a person with a dog who wants more walks, and a parent of two young men with their own complex—and very different—interwoven identities.
The next time I talk to Justyn, I’m sure we’ll talk about the latest news about the Boston bombing case, but we’ll also talk about his new girlfriend, the classes he chose for fall semester, and his return home for summer. We will talk, too, about the trip we’ll make to Boston a few weeks later—not for any reason related to the bombings, but for Boston Pride. Still, when we cross the Boston Common, I probably will offer a silent prayer of thanks, as I often do, that my sons were mentored by social-justice activists and pacifists, who let in enough light to shut out the dark.
Image credit: jurvetson/Flickr