When the bombs at the Boston Marathon exploded a week ago Monday, a familiar chain of events and emotions unfolded for many in the American Muslim community: shock and grief, followed by an unspoken dread that the perpetrators could be Muslim; condemnation of the attack; fear of reprisals – and of being conflated with the acts of violence; and quietly, an inward examination of what went wrong.
It is a routine that Muslim communities in America know all too well – having trodden the same path after 9/11, the Fort Hood shootings, and other acts of violence associated with Islam. But it's a routine they've become increasingly weary of, frustrated that each violent act erases years of painstaking work building trust and becoming part of American civil society.
“We strive every day to be positive, useful and energetic contributors to our society, but all it takes is the acts of a couple of deranged murderers to ruin the reputation of 7 million people,” says Asad Ba-Yunus, a lawyer in Peekskill, N.Y., and a community activist, in an e-mail.
It is, in effect, a fight on American soil for the right to define Islam – with each bomb, shooting, and terrorist plot setting back the efforts of American Muslims to define themselves and to reclaim an embattled faith.
“It is time for us as American Muslims to provide an alternative to Muslim extremism; otherwise, we’ll be defined by it,” says Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council. “That alternative is the moderate voice, the voice for reform, for the theology of life that Islam stands for as opposed to the cult of death that extremists promote through their distortions of Islam in their ideology.”
After the suspects were identified, the elder brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was killed in a battle with police, and hours later younger brother Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was brought into custody, now being listed in fair condition at a Boston hospital. The suspects’ motives have yet to be fully uncovered, but on Monday, the surviving Tsarnaev was charged with using a weapon of mass destruction in the April 15 attack, which killed three people and injured more than 200.
Immediately after the attack, the Muslim community’s reaction was swift, evidence of a well-oiled machine spinning into action. Muslim organizations issued statements condemning the bombing and terrorism and organizing vigils, blood drives, and funds for the victims.
Following the all-night manhunt for the suspects late Thursday and early Friday, mosques across the country were on high security for Friday prayer services. Boston’s main mosque, the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, took the unprecedented step of closing its doors Friday and urging congregants to remain home, partially because of the lockdown taking place in the area. (Friday congregational prayers are mandatory for Muslim men.)
Still, reports of reprisals spread, with two of the sources reached for this story reporting vandalism and break-ins at their local mosques. Also, as was widely reported in the Muslim press, a Bangladeshi man was beaten up outside a Bronx Applebee’s restaurant. And in Malden, Mass., a man approached a Muslim woman heading with her daughter in a stroller to a play date, punched her in the shoulder, and shouted, “F--- you Muslims! You are terrorists! I hate you! You are involved in the Boston explosions! F--- you!”
For many Muslims, this is an ugly, if expected, side effect of the attack, and one that brings increasing frustration.
“We are the ones standing up and condemning these horrific acts, ostracizing these cowardly men, and disclaiming them as part of our flock,” Mr. Ba-Yunus writes. “But we bear the brunt of the public's outrage, and it's simply not fair.”
The attack itself was “a stab in chest,” and now “I feel as though I’m stabbed in the back to be looked at in that way, to be under suspicion,” says Nadine Abu-Jubara, the Orlando, Fla.-based executive director of Nadoona, an Islamically oriented health and fitness organization. She adds, “We’re in this, too, we’re grieving, too. We’re just as upset with [whomever] did it."
Who are American Muslims?
Painting a portrait of the American Muslim community, an incredibly diverse lot, is difficult, with population estimates ranging from 2.75 million to 6 million. According to the Pew Research Center, some 63 percent of US Muslims were born outside the country, of which 70 percent are now naturalized US citizens. Some 69 percent of US Muslims claim that religion is an important part of their lives, according to Pew, while one-fifth say they seldom or never attend worship services.
Pew has also found that of Muslims surveyed, 60 percent feared the rise of Islamic extremism in America, and 21 percent believed there is support for extremism among Muslims in the United States.
In the wake of the Boston bombing, US Muslims have taken to the airwaves, the blogosphere, and the Twitterverse, reiterating their faith’s teachings.
“Islamic law does not permit the random, indiscriminate killing of civilians. It is categorically forbidden,” says Omid Safi, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in a Religion News Service blog post. “[W]e should not conflate their deranged motivations and the teachings of the Islamic tradition.”
In the same breath, some Muslims have expressed frustration with the perceived need to explain and apologize for the alleged actions of the suspects.
“The Tsarnaev brothers’ ... actions do not speak for me or the overwhelming majority of Muslims. I am not compelled to apologize for them or explain their actions,” says Wajahat Ali, a Muslim-American writer and cultural commentator, in an article for Salon. “This is like asking Republican Christians to apologize for Timothy McVeigh or expecting young white males to explain why individuals like Adam Lanza ... used assault rifles to unleash terror on innocent civilians.”
And what of reports that the elder Tsarnaev, who some say turned to Islam after a youth apparently spent drinking, womanizing, and smoking pot, may have been motivated by extremist tendencies?
By and large, Muslims are suspicious, questioning media accounts that Mr. Tsarnaev had become devout – and that this was the reason for his unraveling.
“Without so much as even the slightest indication from the [alleged] bombers themselves as to what their motives were, the media is going crazy and thus raising the public's fears about Islamic radicalization,” Ba-Yunus writes. “I think we all need to focus on Tamerlan's other issues – like his apparent inability to fit in, his aggressive streak, his isolation, his xenophobic behavior. These are things shared by other mass murderers, and should be studied in greater detail.”
The elder Tsarnaev caused problems at the Islamic Society of Boston in Cambridge, Mass., a mosque he occasionally attended, according to mosque officials. On at least two occasions, he disrupted sermons in which a speaker said it was OK for Muslims to celebrate holidays such as Thanksgiving and July 4 and in which the speaker compared the prophet Muhammad to Martin Luther King Jr.
After the latter incident, Tsarnaev was shouted out of the mosque, and mosque leaders later asked him to stop interrupting sermons or else be barred from the building.
“While these suspects did express views counter to our mosque’s philosophy, they never expressed any hint of violent sentiments or behavior,” the Cambridge mosque said in a statement. “If they had, the FBI would have immediately been called.”
The mosque outbursts, combined with the savage Boston Marathon attacks allegedly perpetrated by the Tsarnaev brothers, has led many Muslims to distance themselves, and their faith, from the suspects.
“I don’t care if you call yourself Muslim," Ms. Abu-Jubara says. If you just killed innocent people, "in my eyes you’re not Muslim,” she says. “True Islam does not call for acts of violence, especially not ones on innocent people.”
Adds Yusufi Vali, executive director of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, in an interview with CNN: “I don't care who or what [the alleged] criminals claim to be, but I can never recognize [them] as part of my city or my faith community.”
In fact, at least one Boston cleric, Imam Talal Eid, has refused to bury the elder Tsarnaev according to Islamic rites. “I would not be willing to do a funeral for him," he told The Huffington Post. "This is a person who deliberately killed people. There is no room for him as a Muslim.”
Still, the Muslim community appears to understand the need to confront radicalism within its ranks.
“Radicalism is a problem because even if it recruits one person, that’s one person too many,” says Mr. Al-Marayati of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. “Some 0.1 percent of radicals are relevant to American society, whereas 99.9 percent of Muslims remain irrelevant. We have to change that equation.”
In fact, according to a Muslim American Public Opinion Survey, religious Muslims are actually less likely to engage in anti-American extremism, and “mosques and religiosity are associated with high levels of civic engagement and support for the American political system.”
A potential way forward
Such increased engagement by mosques – both with their congregants and with the larger community – represents a way forward for American Muslims, says Professor Khan of the University of Delaware.
He calls for mosque leadership to cast a critical eye on any suspicious activity within their own communities and to reach out to government officials and interfaith leaders to create transparency. He also advocates that mosques hold town-hall-like meetings to discuss issues that typically upset American Muslims, such as drone attacks abroad. Doing so, he says, “releases the pressure of these issues so upset Muslims don’t go into basements and on the Internet and find forums to become radicalized.”
It's important to find appropriate avenues for dissent, says Shaik Ubaid, New York co-chairman of the Muslim Peace Coalition USA. "The Muslim leadership must put in place programs to teach American youth peaceful ways of showing dissent," he says. "American Muslim leadership must break this cycle of terrorism, demonization, and more terrorism."
Al-Marayati adds that in the US, the battle against extremism has moved from mosques to the Internet.
“Now we’re not dealing with mosques anymore; they’ve rejected Al Qaeda’s ideology,” he says. “The Internet, that’s where the battle is now [and where we] need to put more of our resources.”
“American Muslims are not part of the problem,” he adds. “We’re part of the solution. We are the ones that can take the battle of ideas against extremists and have the authenticity within our communities.”