National Geographic News
A young Dzhokar Tsarnaev.

One of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects, 19-year-old Dzhokar Tsarnaev.

Photograph from Boston Police/European Pressphoto Agency

Akbar Ahmed

for National Geographic News

Published April 22, 2013

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."

Steve Shapiro
Steve Shapiro

Finally, a thoughtful article.  American will never embrace Islam, until the ISLAMIC LEADERS speak up and condemn Islamic terrorism!  The impression now is:  Once a Muslim, always a Muslim.....they're all part of the 'tribe'....whether peaceful or NOT!

Steve Shapiro
Steve Shapiro

Finally, a thoughtful article....I'm totally FRUSTRATED with the unwillingness of Islamic leaders to SPEAK UP AGAINST Islamic terrorism....Apparently, you are one of the 'tribe' whether you are a terrorist or not.  We Americans will NEVER be able to embrace Islam if the Islamic leaders don't speak up and CONDEMN radical Islamic terrorists!!


Akbar Achmed is practicing the tactic known as Taqiyya. Nice try, muzzie. No dice.  Blaming America for your violent theocracy and the acolytes who carry out the proscribed "religion" in a 7th Century screed ain't gonna cut it.  

Here's what the "peaceful religion of Islam" does on a daily basis:

The Bear
The Bear


It shows that the past 1,400 years of military conquest and genocide in the name of Mohammed the so called "prophet" aren't over yet. Do some reading. These guys have done exactly what Mohammed did: maim, murder and slaughter. That's a historic fact and no politically correct nonsense can change that. Mohammed started as a peaceful preacher, but he was absolutely unsuccessful. Only when he turned to murder, rape and pillaging did the numbers of his little cult swell.

It's not us, it's them.

Simon Orford
Simon Orford

The Boston bombings were wrong. But how can you expect people, especially Muslims not to hate the biggest terrorist organisation (the USA) in the world. I would argue Muslims have to make hijrah away from the USA. Hijrah is emigrating for the sake of Islam away from persecution. They need to do this because of the way the USA government persecutes and terrorizes innocent people around the world. Also the media needs to start reporting fairly. 30 innocent people killed at wedding by America in Afghanistan is far more important then two people killed at the Boston Bombing, Yet there is almost zero media coverage on this...a regular occurrence in so many countries.

I say enough of their fake war on terror when all they want is the resources of the other countries. Spend the money at home and clear their debt and the world will be a lot more peaceful

Nate Whilk
Nate Whilk

"They should, for example, condemn attacks such as at Boston unequivocally, loudly, and visibly."

So why haven't they? I was greatly reassured to hear the bombers' uncle say they brought shame on the family and on all Chechens, although that's going a bit too far because I personally only blame those directly responsible.

Where are all those other voices? I think they would reduce prejudice against Muslims significantly. The only other statement I know of is from the American Islamic Forum for Democracy. They get almost no publicity. I wonder why.

I only have one piece of reliable information. Rick Rescorla (who was the security manager for Morgan Stanley at the WTC and died on 9/11) and his friend Dan Hill predicted 9/11--and they also predicted the 1993 bombing.

After the 1993 bombing, Dan Hill (a convert to Islam) went to various mosques in the area to see their reactions. In all but one mosque there was open anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism. From Heart of a Soldier by James B. Stewart, a book about Rescorla's life: "Many applauded the bombing of the WTC, lamenting that it hadn't done more damage." 

It's a great book. You can read the above quote and other extensive previews on Google Books. Rescorla was born in Wales, but he became an American citizen and fought in Vietnam.

John C.
John C.

The meme all last week from MSNBC, NPR, HuffPo, etc., was that the terrorists were most likely home grown, right wing anti-government Tea Party extremists since an attack occurring on "tax day" was just too odd a coincidence to not fit their presumed modus operandi. 

Imagine the response from the liberal media and Obama administration had the terrorists actually been member of the Tea Party or evangelical Christians. If one of the terrorists had described his world view on Facebook as "Conservative Christian", had spent 6 months attending Tea Party and Evangelical gatherings, and had been quoted publically as opining that the "Koran is just a cheap version of the New Testament". 

We would be suffocating under a tsunami of I-told-you-so's from Chris Matthews, Ariana Huffington, Maureen Dowd and the rest of their smug colleagues. The Southern Poverty Law Center would be screaming for blood and new legislation to "protect" us from and vigorously prosecute these loathsome types . Pres. Obama would be calling for a national dialogue to shine the spot light on the toxic mix of Christian evangelicism and conservative politics as an explosive root cause of terror. 

But, as it turned out, that wasn't the case. So now the same individuals who were so sure about the nature and motive of the terrorists, up until the time when the actual ones were caught, are suddenly bending over backwards to avoid connecting any dots that might spell Islam. And we are treated to endless sermonizing that not all Muslims are terrorists, just to make sure that the unwashed masses don't suddenly conclude that every single one of the 1.6 billion are.

Who seriously doubts, knowing the details thus far, that the FBI and every other agency in government are not vigorously investigating a connection to Islamic jihadism? A stereotype is based on false assumptions, not reflective of reality. On the other hand, a pattern is something entirely different, based on reality. Islamic jihadi terrorism isn't a stereotype. It is a pattern. One that if we deliberately ignore out of trendy political delicacy, as in the case of the Ft. Hood shooter, will come back to haunt us in horrible ways, repeatedly.   

Call Now
Call Now

I see bombing & hijack in US, UK, Middle East, Asia ...., for one thing in common beside bomb & hijack, it's Muslims.

mon mon
mon mon

I see the point of this article and it's close to my heart as my husband (along with his entire family) is Muslim. I remember the first thing he said when this bombing happened was: "I hope the bomber is not Muslim." The extremist, radicals and the plain lunatics go around causing chaos and killing innocent people in the name of the very religion that many more people cherish and truly believe to be a religion of peace. But unfortunately there are those who use religion to guide people into doing things that are horrendous. 

Damage has been done and people suffered and will be suffering, that's a fact, but I think the point of this article was not to excuse the behavior of the brothers, as well as other similar events, but rather to try and see what is causing this to happen. What might have prompted them to act like this. 

I pray for the victims and all affected but I also hope that people will not stigmatized others because of the actions of some. 

Darien Cox
Darien Cox

While the Islamaphobia aspect of this article has merit, not all Americans, or even most, feel that way. My loved ones were nearly killed in the marathon bombings, so my initial reaction to this is it's a bit early/inappropriate for the 'those poor boys' tone of this commentary.

William Cody
William Cody

This is probably the stupidest BS I've ever read in National Graphic. Was the original Tamerlin, also feeling alienated  when he exterminated the Christian population of central Asia?

The Bear
The Bear

@Simon Orford Yes, that will change 1,400 years of islamic aggression towards everything that's not islamic. You Americans are so naive it's utterly laughable.


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