Domestic Affairs Islamic Studies Reflections

On Terrorism, Muslimness, and the Boston Bombings Sunna Syed

In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, there’s been a lot of talk about assimilation, in particular about the suspected perpetrators’ religiosity and prayer habits and in general about foreign immigration. I’d thus like to take a moment to clear something up.

Muslimness does not make you a terrorist.

I get it. It’s human nature to crave safety for oneself and one’s surroundings. That’s why we install alarm systems and pay for identity theft prevention and buy insurance – we want protection. To protect, we must predict by fitting people into our preexisting schemas: Burglars will usually burgle at night or when the house is empty, so we turn on our alarms before we go to sleep or leave for the grocery store. Identity thieves prowl on the internet, so we limit our online credit card use and sign up for email alerts in case of a breach. Disasters could strike out of the blue, but at least we can breathe a little easier if we know we’re covered.

But terrorism, by definition, is a psychological strategy. Instead of targeting your possessions, terrorism uses fear to target your peace of mind and ability to predict. Indeed, it is effective because the only true goal – terror – is also the inevitable emotional outcome.

You feel, you lose.

You can ask, “Why?” all you want, but the explanation doesn’t exist; indiscriminate violence is not a rational tactic, and terrorists rarely achieve their proclaimed political goals. If terrorism is beyond the reach of rationality, it follows that it can happen anywhere, at anytime, to anyone. To our precaution-seeking brains, that is unacceptable; it makes me uneasy just to type it. To cope and compensate, then, we grasp at straws, searching for the nearest possible explanation that will separate them from us and make predictability and protection possible –

It’s the Arabs, we say, and devise all sorts of litmus tests to smoke them out. A CNN reporter recently characterized one of the suspects arrested in Watertown (when everything was still hazy and no one really knew who anyone was) as being “Middle Eastern in complexion.”

Would you like some non sequitur with that burger? Don’t worry, it’s okay if you have no idea what qualifies as a Middle Eastern complexion – you can ask the group of Hispanic guys who beat up a Bengali gentleman in the Bronx because they thought he was Arab.

It’s the Muslims, we proclaim, and proceed to verbally accost hijab-clad female doctors out on a stroll with their kids and analyze the fact that the suspects in the Boston bombings “prayed five times a day.”

FYI, we all pray five times a day. Or at least we try, because there is no such thing as being “very” or “not very” Muslim – you’re either Muslim, or you’re not. You either commit to prayer and to peace, or you don’t; there is no in-between. The fact is that the so-called Moderate Muslims are actually The Muslims, and I hereby move to reclassify Extremist/Radical/Violent Muslims with Anders Breivik, McVeigh, and the other far more numerous non-Muslim murderers, ideological extremists, and terrorists as The Putrid Scum of the Earth.

Do I hear a second?

It’s them, then, whoever they are, and in order to stop terrorism, they must assimilate. Patriotic, blue-blooded Americans come in only one shape and size, and those who wish to be seen as such must ditch their hummus and weird prayer hats and conform. To what extent, you ask? Until that arbitrary and unclear point in time and space when they stop being “weird,” of course.

And that is where I draw the line.

Because see, my Muslimness does not make me a terrorist, and neither does my supposed difficulty assimilating. Unless you enter this world on Day 1 as a middle-aged Protestant Caucasian male or Ann Coulter, who decided to offer up a solution for the whole grievous situation by proclaiming that a woman “ought to be jailed for wearing the hijab,” you are guaranteed to have trouble assimilating at some point in your life. Ever been to high school? It’s a roiling cauldron of pubescent, flustered boys and girls of all shapes and colors who haven’t the foggiest idea how to assimilate. It’s even harder for people of religious or racial minorities and for immigrants – remember reading In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson in elementary school? And it’s not just immigrants to the US; ask anyone who’s immigrated abroad whether it’s easy to assimilate into British culture (I tried once, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what it meant to be “queuing around”), or Asian culture (four words: Take. Your. Shoes. Off.) or Latin American culture (admittedly the food makes this easier).

Assimilation is no picnic. But even so, the Tsarnaev brothers were remarkably good at it – Tamerlan married an American convert named Katherine, and Dzhokhar was a regular at dorm parties. (I was born here and I’ve never even seen the inside of a dorm because I hold the suspicion that it’s a place of drunken revelry and Facebook poking come to life where propriety goes to die; so I refuse to go, for fear of having my drink spiked and inspiring a tragic episode of Law & Order.)

In fact, the two were assimilated to the point of actually neglecting their religion. Islam forbids premarital relationships and dating, but Tamerlan’s wife was his girlfriend first. Partner violence is condemned in Islam, but he was arrested for battery against a different girlfriend in 2009. Muslims don’t drink alcohol or use intoxicating drugs like marijuana – Tamerlan and Dzhokhar

did, respectively. In fact, Tamerlan was infamous for rudely interrupting mainstream imams at his mosque even after he gave up drinking on the grounds of becoming more religious. He was also a boxer; I’d like to see you try to convince any set of Muslim parents that boxing is an actual career – you will lose and exit the conversation defeated and wondering why you wasted your life becoming anything other than a doctor or engineer.

A lack of compassion and active disregard for the rights of others made the Tsarnaev brothers terrorists – not their Muslimness, because Muslimness does not make you a terrorist. Please stop saying that it does, because once upon a time, there was a man who grossly mischaracterized a group of people and in so doing, single-handedly precipitated what is perhaps the ugliest stain to date on the fabric of civilization – also known as the Holocaust. Accusation holds immense power, and blame misplaced is the gunpowder of crimes against humanity; heard of the ongoing mass genocide of the Rohingya Muslims in Burma?

I will not change my Muslimness. If you would have me prove myself patriotic by wearing shorts and drinking alcohol and dating guys and tweaking the color of my skin and frying bacon every Saturday morning – I’m sorry. I can’t do that, because I believe in something different. As my sister said quite aptly, that’s not assimilation – it’s “ethnic cleansing but without the whole violence thing.” But I’ll tell you what I will do, and not because I fear retaliation:

I will pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands. I will condemn with every fiber of my being the taking of innocent lives by anyone – whether they call themselves Muslims or followers of the Flying Spaghetti Monster – as a crime against humanity and a personal offense against me as a human being. I will love my neighbor and treat others as I would like to be treated. I will make friends with people different from myself (kind of a no-brainer, because I’ve taken inventory, and my circle contains a disproportionate number of atheist and agnostic friends and people who tell me to calm down). I will even show you my birth certificate from a Southern US town in the middle of nowhere, my collection of all-American pinch pots and macaroni art from elementary school, and my fabulous apple pie recipe (the key is Granny Smith apples; I don’t believe in cooking secrets). I will pray next to you, with you, for you to the God I believe in – the God of Abraham, the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth, the Gracious and Merciful, the End and the Beginning of our existence Who created us with love in His image and will call us back to Him come Judgment Day. I will accept your peaceful beliefs, and learn about them when I’m not drowning in textbooks. I will use my talents and skills for good, and I will try to leave this world a better place than I found it. I will wholeheartedly embrace my right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of pepper spray. I will bear witness against injustice, discrimination, and the culturally ubiquitous glass ceiling. I will, finally, refuse to lose hope in humanity’s capacity for love and solidarity. And I hope you’ll join me, because after all, there’s nothing more un-American than eating an apple pie alone.


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  • mashallah, well said and long overdue, I have been waiting for an article from this website about this particular theme, which is in all the moslem communities hearts and minds, and it takes someone to write about it so beautifully.

  • Fantastic fantastic article. Thank you for putting into words so eloquently and precisely what my thoughts are. Even the Dorm bit!

  • There’s something un-Australian about eating apple crumble alone too… More power to you sister. Thanks for sharing.

  • Salams.

    The God of Abraham the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth………. Who created us with love in His image ……. – I thought it is a Christian Concept that humans are created in God’s image. Don’t we Muslims believe God is Unique and NOT like his creations?

    Perhaps, I misunderstood your sentence. If so, I apologies.

    • Thank you all for reading, and for your feedback and kind words!

      W salaam, Darya, thanks for bringing this up! I think it’s important to keep in mind that Christianity was once God’s perfect religion, too, and as such, there are many similarities between our beliefs – that is, the fact that Christians believe something doesn’t mean that we don’t. Christianity is an important part of Islam’s history, which is why, for example, although we don’t celebrate Christmas, we still respect the Bible.

      I was surprised when I learned this, but idea of man being created in God’s image is actually believed in Islam – far more metaphorically than you’re thinking. Christians add a literal spin to the idea of man being created “in God’s Image,” i.e. that Jesus is God’s human form who lived out the human experience and then gave himself up for mankind. We obviously don’t believe that, but there are Hadith and passages in the Quran that reference our attributes as being derived from those of God.

      There is a Hadith narrated in both Muslim and Bukhari that states “Allah created Adam in His own image” that can be interpreted in a variety of ways, which you can see here:

      The Quran also states in Surah As-Sajda, “Such is He, the Knower of all things, hidden and open, the Exalted (in power), the Merciful – He Who has made everything which He has created most good: He began the creation of man with (nothing more than) clay, and made his progeny from a quintessence of the nature of a fluid despised: but He fashioned him in due proportion, and breathed into him something of His spirit. And He gave you (the faculties of) hearing and sight and feeling (and understanding): little thanks do ye give!” (6-9).

      Our intelligence and our ability to love extend far beyond the biological instincts that animals possess. We have the capacity to learn, to create, to care, to forgive – those qualities have to come from somewhere, and they are all limited portions of God’s unlimited capacities. We derive from Him – NOT vice versa. God gave us knowledge – a very limited portion of His knowledge – that He did not give the angels. He gave us free will to live our lives as we choose on Earth, under His limited parameters. It is said that a mother’s love for her child is nothing compared to the love He has for His creation – another indication that what we are capable of is just a fraction of His capability.

      None of this means that we are in any way divine, or that He is in any way human – quite the contrary. We can’t do anything without His will, and the idea that we were made in His image simply means that any good we have in us is a gift from Him, a mere glimmer of His own qualities. We were given certain privileges because He knew what the angels did not. And then, of course, we have qualities in us that are uniquely human and we do not attribute to God, like eating, sleeping, sinning, etc.

      I hope that clarifies what I meant :).


  • Seriously, backbiting about a Muslim after he is DEAD? And his Muslim wife, about her past??

    And where’s the part where a kind Christian woman had to arrange the funeral for Tsarnev because muslims refused to do so?

    • Forgive me because I have not read the whole article but sometimes you find other Muslims on the web who what I term as ‘Apologetic Muslims’ who want to let others non-Muslims Know how sorry they are about everything and end up putting Islam in the dock like it’s some kind of a criminal, rather than pointing out their problems and showing how their actions lead to others reacting in this way but that it is there actions that are responsible for the chaos and violence all over the world.

      • Salaam everyone
        I disagree Brother Naseer. The thing is if something criminal has taken place in the Name of Allah or Islam, we as Muslims should condemn it and not overlook it. Our mission in this world is to worship Allah, and we shouldn’t think for one second that this is just for the Arabs, the Indians, the Africans etc etc but for everyone! How do we do that? By spreading the Message of Islam. If there are people who think the only way we can spread this Message or show dominance of Islam through violence…well it hasn’t exactly achieved anything but more hatred, and if people hate to accept Islam because certain terrorists have made them lose confidence in it, who is to blame? We are! In fact we will also be punished for allowing such a person to enter the Fire because we made them hate Islam.
        Now we can’t satisfy everyone that is true – some have made it their mission to damage the reputation of Islam, and terrorists do nothing but give these Islamophobes the ammo to attack Islam. These Islamophobes insult Islam and the Far-right Extreme Muslims go nuts about it, and do further bombings – it just becomes a cat-n-mouse game! Also I do feel what happened was wrong – if they did kill those innocent people then they will be held accountable for their deaths on the Day of Reckoning – even if they were muslim or not. One should realise that being a muslim isn’t something small – its a big thing! Its a ticket to Allah’s Mercy i.e. Eden! So we need to set by example! We are the chosen ones of Allah!
        Some will say “oh those people dead were non-muslism therefore they deserved it” – well what about those brothers and sisters who have died by suicide bombs, car bombs, etc etc in public places in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Egypt, Syria…need I go on?! I want to know has terror reached to such an extent that we are killing our own people to justify the means to an end – which is what? Allah’s wrath or Allah’s mercy?
        Now Sister Sunna you have said the mind of a terrorist is irrational – they have no logic to them. But could it be that some become terrorists because they are brainwashed? I mean it is easy to make a non-practising muslim an extremist. If they have been leading a purely westernised lifestyle, but want to be “reborn muslims” they will do anything to negate their previous lifestyle by going to the other extreme and do things which they feel, in a perverted distorted way, duties for the Ummah like kill as many non-muslims as possible. Also because they have felt they led a life of sin, they feel that martyrdom will be the only way to negate that. But then you want to know are they (who are wanting to do these missions in public places) doing it out of sheer selfishness? I mean their goal is to be one will stand in their way – be it some young girl, or an elderly lady, a muslim etc etc. As martyrdom carries huge benefits in the Hereafter, and it is a pillar that stands alone in Islam, have we become blinded by the notion of martyrdom that we will do ANYTHING to get it – we will start fights and hope that we get martyred in the process, and if an innocent is dead – “no biggie as long as I am a martyr”. Regarding those brothers and sisters who blow themselves up as a means of desperation… one can kind of sympathise with their reasons (although I will still not agree with them) -they have lost everything, be it family members, their livelihood, wealth etc. Their voices are no longer heard -Their government have failed them – justice has failed them. They have become the very thing they didn’t believe in – after all it’s the only way to make the government notice them.

        Read Hamza Yusuf’s blog article of Deferred Dreams, Self-destruction and Suicide Bombings:

        In certain cases certain people become terrorists because they are promised that their families will be looked after especially if they are poor. For instance, one of the terrorists, involved in the Mumbai Attacks in India, said he did it as long as his family were given money from which they could look after themselves. Then there are some terrorists who want to do it simply for the fame and power, like Breivik in Norway. But are all terrorists associated with religion? What about those terrorists who go into schools killing innocent children? Why aren’t those murderers considered terrorists by the mass media and by the people???

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