Editor's note: Akbar Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, D.C., and author of The Thistle and the Drone: How America's War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam.
It was the matter-of-fact tone of the Pakistani boy in Brooklyn that disturbed me and brought tears to my research team. Traveling throughout the country in 2008 and 2009 for my book Journey into America, we were in a Shia mosque in an area called Little Pakistan, which has shop signs in Urdu and people walking about in traditional Pakistani dress.
The Pakistani boy was born in the United States ten years earlier and was a toddler when 9/11 happened. And yet he would carry the burden of that day throughout his young life. (Related: Boston Bombing Suspects Raise New Terrorism Questions.)
He recounted to us how he was regularly accused of being a terrorist and beaten up at school. Then, upon a visit to Pakistan, his mother was killed in a bus by actual terrorists. One can only imagine the trauma for this child who was subjected almost daily to taunts associating him with those very individuals who took his mother from him.
I often thought of that young Brooklyn boy. Unless he—and others like him we met—had wise guides among the religious and social leadership of his own community, and a larger society that understood and felt for his pain, I feared that as a young man he could be vulnerable to those who preached hatred of the United States.
Without such leaders he could go either way—becoming someone who loved America and benefited from being American or someone who resented it and wished to attack it for imagined or real grievances. (Related: Boston Suspects Shine Light on Chechnya.)
The two young men who wreaked havoc in Boston last week reflected some of the dilemmas of the Brooklyn boy. The older brother admitted he had no American friends and had recently returned to his ancestral land for several months. The younger one resented being questioned by fellow Muslims at the local mosque about being a convert and may have seen this as a social rejection.
Like the Brooklyn boy, the suspected bombers found themselves suspended in that dangerous territory between two worlds—the old not quite faded from their lives and the new still too new to absorb them.
In addition, the young men had a defined tribal background—and it's in that background that we must look to gain any kind of understanding of their actions. (Related: What Lies Ahead for Boston Marathon Amputees.)
The Tribal Factor
The suspected Boston bombers come from a Chechen tribal community that has been brutalized by the Russians in recent decades and from a Muslim community in the United States that has too often been impugned by the actions of a few.
Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev arrived in the United States as refugees from the violence in their home in Chechnya, having first fled to Kyrgyzstan. Chechnya was devastated by two brutal wars with Russia during the 1990s as it struggled for its independence in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse—wars that killed nearly 10 percent of the entire Chechen population.
Amidst the chaos, the Chechen code of honor and revenge, Nokhchalla, underwent a distinct and horrible mutation, resulting in such attacks as the ones at the Beslan School, the Moscow Theater, and the Moscow metro.
Between the attacks of the military and the terrorist incidents, it is the innocent tribesmen of the periphery who have suffered the most, and many have fled their homes to live as refugees in larger cities or abroad.
Upon their arrival in the United States, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar joined a Muslim community that bore the scarlet letter of terrorism. Expecting hospitality, they felt alienated and disillusioned, even with all of the opportunities and privileges available to them as citizens of this country.
They opted for an act of violent nihilism, of devastation and death. It was a mutation of their religious and tribal codes. Under no circumstances is there any justification for their actions.
The Cost of Stereotypes
For Americans, unsure of the enemy in the war on terror, the stereotyping of Muslims, even in milder forms, only further alienates the Muslim community, especially the younger generation. If children as young as ten are exposed to Islamophobia, who will be guiding them when they become teenagers and young adults?
Unfortunately for the young who are struggling to find their identity between the world of their parents from abroad and the world of their American peers, the Muslim leadership is failing. If not for that failure, the Boston Marathon bombing and other instances of Muslim homegrown terrorism would have never happened.
It is the responsibility of the imams, too often foreign born and trained abroad, and other elders of the community to become better engaged with the broader American culture and understand the environment in which the young are growing up. They will thus be able to guide Muslim youth to be both good Muslims and good American citizens. They should, for example, condemn attacks such as at Boston unequivocally, loudly, and visibly.
When there is a tribal element involved, as in the case of the Chechens, this is further complicated as young Muslims caught between worlds are motivated by the code of honor and revenge. Without guidance from their elders, they too often come under the influence of those who advocate violence or simply act out their own mutated understanding of the code.
Americans, particularly the media, also need to recognize the damage that Islamophobia can cause in alienating these young Muslims away from the mainstream religious and civic community. Already there are stories circulating of a backlash against Muslims in the wake of the events in Boston.
In dealing with the Muslim community, and indeed all minority communities, Americans should recall the pluralist vision of the Founding Fathers.
"The bosom of America is open to receive … the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges," George Washington wrote. "They may be Mohometans, Jews or Christians of any sect, or they may be atheists."