WASHINGTON – Chechen? American? Immigrant? Citizen? Muslim? Boston Marathon bombing suspects Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev may be all of the above, but how Americans attempt to come to grips with the attacks allegedly perpetrated by the brothers has much to do with how Americans identify them.
The brothers “don’t neatly fit into pre-existing boxes,” says Peter Spiro, an international law professor at Temple University. “It is a very complex picture,” challenging the psychological need to “set the boundaries of the in-group and treat others differently.”
For many Muslims, even the possibility that the perpetrators could be Muslim reignited the fear that all people of that faith would pay a price in the form of discrimination or retaliation or shame. “Please, don’t be a Muslim” many tweeted in the hours before the suspects were pinpointed.
The older brother, Tamerlan, was an avowed Muslim, although it is unclear whether his younger sibling shared similarly strict beliefs. The question of who the suspects were only became more bewildering as time dragged on. The brothers were identified as having roots in the Russian republic of Chechnya, in the North Caucasus mountains. Did this make them Caucasian — or “white” — in the way many Americans read that word? Misunderstanding ensued, leading to some 1,200 retweets of the following message: “Fox News just said ‘Chechens are not Caucasian’ despite the fact that Chechnya is literally IN THE CAUCUS (sic).” Embedded in the misunderstanding is the stereotype that to be Islamic one must be a darker-skinned person of Middle Eastern descent.
Asra Nomani, a Muslim writer, noted that some members of the larger Muslim-American communities with Middle East or South Asian roots expressed relief when they saw photos of the accused bombers.
” ‘Brown’ Muslims were like, ‘Whew, it’s not one of us,’ ” she said. “And then people felt that would protect Arabs or Indians or whomever from being targeted. It’s like a sigh of relief.”
Dalia Mogahed, author of “Who Speaks for Islam?,” acknowledged the human need to try to make sense of something as inexplicable as the marathon bombing by creating categories of a person, and a profile.
“When Sandy Hook happened we were horrified but the conversation quickly went to external environmental factors — guns or mental health,” Mogahed said. “It was all about what environmental factors do we need to fix? From our perception, when the person is a Muslim-American, the factors are not environmental, they are individual to that person.”
Add to that the brothers’ names, which many find difficult to pronounce.
“Maybe 2 percent of Americans could accurately pinpoint Chechnya on a map,” Spiro says. Evidence for that point: The Czech Republic’s recent statement that the brothers were not from their country. “They certainly fit our idea of foreign.”
Or do they? According to news reports, Dzhokhar was reared in the Boston area, developed strong relationships there and joined the wrestling team. There is little in his emerging biography that has stood out as foreign.
Dzhokhar became a naturalized citizen last year. His brother, who died during a confrontation with law enforcement on April 19, was a lawful permanent resident, but he never obtained citizenship and once aspired to box on the U.S. Olympic team.
“American Muslims face being labeled collectively guilty more than any other minority group in America today,” said Arsalan Iftikhar, senior editor at the Islamic Monthly. “As an American, I have a great deal of confidence in the American public and am hopeful that people will understand that Islamic extremists are about as ‘Muslim’ as the Westboro Baptist Church should be considered ‘Christian.’ “
“I wonder,” Mogahed said, “had these brothers been American-born white kids, would the talk be about violent sports like boxing and wrestling? That would be what we’d be discussing!”
Sen. Lindsey Graham called last Monday for Dzhokhar to be classified as an enemy combatant and “held and questioned under the law of war” without an attorney. The White House rejected that notion and on Monday charged the 19-year-old in federal court with the use of a weapon of mass destruction. The revelation that the alleged bombers are immigrants also had repercussions, slowing down what had appeared to be momentum for a revamping of immigration laws.
Mogahed said many Muslim-Americans were alarmed that the alleged bomber’s legal status was being discussed and that questions were raised about whether he should be tried in federal court, with full legal protections, including the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney. To some Muslim-Americans, “they can only hear one thing: That Muslims are not full Americans,” Mogahed said. “Why is he being treated different than other despicable domestic terrorists? I think we all want to see him punished and rot in jail and get the justice he deserves if he’s convicted.”
Jihad Saleh, a government affairs representative with the aid agency Islamic Relief, understands the fear, the defensiveness, the feeling of collective guilt when a self-identified member of one’s community commits an act of terrorism. When he heard news of the Boston bombing, he braced himself for the news that a Muslim was involved. It was a feeling he’d felt before.
“As an African-American male, when I hear about a shooting in Southeast (Washington, D.C.), I think: ‘Please don’t let it be an African-American,’ ” Saleh said. “That’s a reasonable reaction.”