Abdo: Boston attacks should not be labeled 'homegrown' terrorism

Since the Boston terror attacks, an all-too-familiar mantra has re-emerged: American Muslims need more policing and increased surveillance. This demand, encouraged by U.S. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., and many others, stems from a lack of understanding of the complexities of Muslim communities here and elsewhere.

There is one important and critical difference between the two brothers who apparently carried out the attacks in Boston and the majority of second-generation Muslims in the United States: the Tsarnaev brothers lived in two worlds, yet apparently did not feel they belonged to either. The brothers were ethnically Chechen, but lived in Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia and then the U.S.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev spent six months in Dagestan in 2012, according to investigators, which could have set him on his radical path. In the U.S., there is no evidence he belonged to a Muslim community - he had no close group of Muslim friends or religious scholars. His wife is a convert.


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So while the brothers lived here, the narrative that served as their main point of reference is that of the Muslim experience elsewhere. Apparently, they blamed state powers - Russia and the U.S. - for the unresolved conflict with Muslims in faraway lands, including in the Caucasus region and Central Asia, where they spent some of their lives.

The conflict in Chechnya with Russia, which raged for five years after a 1994 uprising, has prompted fighters from the region to join the global jihadist movement. They have traveled to Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Caucasus to fight for the same reasons the Tsarnaev brothers apparently thought they were fighting for last week.

This profile is very different from that of a vast majority of second-generation religious Muslims in the U.S. who grew up here and who have socially and economically invested in what it is to be American. Although they follow closely events across the world and may profoundly disagree with U.S policy, they do not identify with conflicts in foreign lands. They do not feel they need to fight a foreign conflict or adopt an ideology which might be prevalent there, but not here. Instead, they are immersed in their own mosque communities, in their family lives, their schools and professions.

Surveys and other research into the Muslim community in this country consistently reveal that they, on the whole, are better-educated and more well-off than the American average - a profile that does not fit the stereotype of a disaffected minority with little stake in U.S. society. Nor have the vast majority of American Muslims sought to alter majority social attitudes, even when they prefer to follow different norms within their own civic and private lives.

Placing mosques under surveillance, conducting raids of Muslims' homes, and taking other drastic measures similar to what happened after 9/11 would end not only in isolating the Muslim American community, after years of healing, but would not address the problem.

The Boston attacks should not be labeled "homegrown" terrorism. The attacks were carried out by two youngsters who only recently came to the United States - some say in 2002 - made frequent trips back home to conflict areas and were from families not engaged in American society. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev became a naturalized citizen only in 2012, while Tamerlan had a green card and was planning to become a citizen. From what is known to date, they were freelancers who may not have belonged to an organized violent group - here or elsewhere. They appear to be self-taught bomb makers and ideologues who got their teaching and instruction from the Internet.

The sad truth of the Boston bombings is that such attacks cannot be prevented, no matter the degree of policing. One underlying cause is the perception that the United States is responsible for the hardships and violence Muslims have faced in countries such as Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq and now Syria. Whether one agrees with this argument or not is beside the point.

While one of the brothers was a naturalized citizen, they were hardly Americans in any meaningful sense of the term. Just because they lived for some time in the United States and carried out the attacks on American soil does not mean their world view was different from any other militant fighting the U.S. in Afghanistan or Iraq.

It would be a tragedy more significant and more damaging than the bombings themselves if Rep. King and company's perspective wins the day and the 6 or so million Muslim Americans are made to pay the price for two brothers who have nothing to do with their lives and experiences in the United States.

Geneive Abdo, a fellow in the Middle East program at the Stimson Center and a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, is the author of "Mecca and Main Street: Muslim Life in American After 9/11."

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