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Motive in Boston bombings: Look to tribal code of honor

The Tsarnaev brothers, suspects in the Boston bombings, are ethnic Chechens, stemming from a tribal society in which a code of honor and revenge plays a major role. As questions turn to motive, this code may be far more relevant than the brothers' views of Islam.

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The disconnect and tribal code may well have been strengthened when the older brother, Tamerlan,  returned to the Caucasus in 2012 for six months, staying with his father, who had moved back to Dagestan, another troubled tribal periphery in the Caucasus. During that time, Dagestan experienced (and still does) violent, fatal clashes between security forces and the local tribal population.

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When Tamerlan returned to the US, his YouTube account adopted a more puritanical, religious flavor, according to media reports. But if it is a tribal code of revenge that chiefly motivated the suspects, then their purpose in the bombings would have been nothing more than to inflict maximum pain in the cruelest way, evidenced by the targeting of the marathon, which is an apolitical event in which all the people of Boston, whether black, white, Jewish, Muslim, or Christian, come together to celebrate a new season and a historic tradition.

In the long term, the answer to violence abroad in tribal societies in the Muslim world is for central governments, including Russia, to change the paradigm with which they treat the periphery, granting all of their citizens equal rights, respect, and dignity. Government officials and security forces posted on the periphery need to have some idea of local culture and custom. Most importantly they need to act honestly and ensure justice between clans.

Lineage elders and religious leaders in these regions have traditionally underwritten the stability and continuity of tribal life. They have overseen councils which ensure that disputes are resolved and conflict contained. Unfortunately, central government officials and local lineage and religious leaders are now barely functional in most tribal societies as a result of violence. Central government officials have become the target of suicide bombers. Without a slow but determined reconstruction of this three-part administrative structure, there is little hope of peace in the tribal territories in the Muslim world.

Here in the US, Muslim leaders – especially imams and community leaders – need to be vigilant and act as guides to young people. The young need to channel their energy and angst toward constructive projects. Non-Muslim Americans also need to avoid feeding into stereotypes of Muslims as intrinsically associated with terrorism, which also alienates young Muslims. America must not go down the same route that it took over a decade ago, which created a chasm between Muslims and non-Muslims. 

The challenge is to make isolated communities feel part of a larger community, to fulfill the pluralism envisioned by the Founding Fathers of this great nation.

Akbar Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University’s School of International Service in Washington, and the former Pakistani High Commissioner to the United Kingdom. He is the author of "The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam" (Brookings Press, March 2013). 


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