“He looks like me,” my son, Shibli, 10, said as we looked at a photo of a young Dzhokhar Tsarnaev flash upon the TV screen Friday night. Indeed, with his innocent eyes and rumple of dark curly hair, he did. As an American, a Muslim, a mother, and an aunt to a nephew on the cusp of manhood, my heart just broke for yet another boy lost in our Muslim community, taking with him the lives of others.
Enough, enough, enough, I say, with the CYA—Cover Your A**—strategy in our Muslim communities. I would like our community to take responsibility for how it is that we—yes, we—have allowed an interpretation of Islam to prevail in this world that turns this boy of innocence into a bomber and murderer. We need to work with compassion and love to guide these boys to a “straight path,” as mentioned in the Quran’s first chapter, Al-Fatiha, “the Opening.” And that straight path should be one of nonviolence.
There is much debate about the “T-word,” or “terrorism,” and whether President Obama took too long to say it in the case of the Boston bombing. In the same way, we—Muslims, journalists, and policymakers—have to dare to say the “I-word”—Islam—because there is no denying that an interpretation of Islam is sanctioning some Muslims to commit terrorism. I believe that until Muslims directly challenge it, we will never really isolate this interpretation of Islam, and the world will judge all Muslims.
Instead we engage in a PR strategy. The Tsarnaevs’ religion “cannot be an issue in this whole story,” says a local leader in one American Muslim community. “This is not jihad,” a Muslim activist in Chicago announces at a press conference organized by the Council on American Islamic Relations. There is the constant use of the Quranic injunction: “To kill one innocent person is like killing a civilization.”
What these statements ignore is the existence of an interpretation of Islam—strains of ideologies with names like Wahhabi, Salafi, and Deobandi—that do sanction violent jihad, much of it borne in Saudi Arabia and exported to the world, from Chechnya to Cambridge.
To address this issue, we have to overcome our collective tendency to engage in denials, demonization, and deflection when the “I-word” emerges in conversations about these kinds of violent incidents. I think of this as “the 3D defense” that too many Muslims engage in. I posted some of these thoughts on my Facebook page Friday night and, while there were many Muslim supporters, some Muslims assailed me with their 3D defense: bringing up everything from Hollywood’s portrayal of Muslims to Iraq, Afghanistan, and the issue of Islamophobia.
In response, I would say this: look into the eyes of the younger brother, Dzhokhar. Did our blaming the West for the problems of Muslims help him? Did our denial of extremism help him? Did our playing the victim help him?
We are mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, and elders to this boy. These are our Muslim boys lost to the ideological gangs of hate. It’s not even enough to talk to, or shout at them in our mosques, as reportedly happened in Cambridge to Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
How many boys do we have to lose before we stop caring about how Islam “looks” and realize that we, in fact, fail Islam when we don’t directly talk about the radicalization that can occur on YouTube and on Facebook? When are we going to challenge, eliminate, and eradicate the culture of excuses, ideological dogmatism, and grievances that claim the minds, souls, and hearts of these young boys and propel them to turn to violence? When are we going to take responsibility for the problem within our communities?
On Friday, I was at the impromptu press interview that the Tsarnaev brothers' Uncle Ruslan gave outside his home in Montgomery Village, Maryland. Standing before a scrum of TV cameras, microphones, and journalists jockeying for position, he fielded questions about his nephews: “When was the last time you saw them?” December 2005. Next: “What do you think provoked this?” “Umm, being losers! Hatred to those who were able to settle themselves!” he shouted. “These are the only reasons I can imagine. Anything else to do with religion, to do with Islam, is a fraud, is a fake.” “Do they have military training?” No, he said.
There was one question that I needed answered. By the uncle’s right shoulder, I asked: “Is your family Muslim?” The uncle looked over at me with steady eyes: “Huh?” I asked again: “Is your family Muslim?”
It was the proverbial elephant in the room. The uncle answered me. “We are Muslims,” he said. “We are Chechnyans. We are ethnic Chechnyans.”
Of course, I wish for the day when neither I nor any other journalist would have to ask such a question at a press conference. But the only way we are going to get there is if we stop walking on eggshells—and acknowledge that an ugly interpretation of our faith is laying claim to too many of our boys. Enough, enough, enough.