In tsunami of Boston info, there are basic faith questions

As the drama keeps unfolding in and around Boston, it’s safe to say that journalists now face crucial decisions about the role of religion — specifically radical forms of Islam — played in the motives behind this act of terrorist.

There is no way to read everything that is being written, at the moment, but we’re trying to stay informed (even while, in my case, teaching classes). However, over on the journalistic left, Mother Jones has published this sobering information:

Authorities have identified the deceased suspect in the bombing of the Boston marathon, which killed three and injured more than 170, as Tamerlan Tsarnaev. A user by that name has posted a video to his YouTube playlist extolling an extremist religious prophecy associated with Al Qaeda. It is not clear yet whether the user is the same Tsarnaev as the deceased suspect.

The YouTube page includes religious videos, including one of Feiz Mohammad, a fundamentalist Australian Muslim preacher who rails against the evils of Harry Potter. One playlist includes a video dedicated to the prophecy of the Black Banners of Khurasan, which is embraced by Islamic extremists—particularly Al Qaeda. The prophecy states that an invincible army will come from the region of Khurasan in central Asia.

“This is a major hadith (reported saying of the prophet Muhammad) that jihadis use, it is essentially an end-time prophecy,” says Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy “This is definitely important in Al Qaeda’s ideology.”

Buzzfeed has posted a virtual shopping list of information about the accused brothers, who continued to be identified as Chechen even through these appear to be ties that are rooted in emotional rather than lived experience and upbringing.

The Muslim card is clearly in play, after social-media links provided quotes such as these — drawn from Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s “Will Box For Passport” mixed martial arts site.

“Originally from Chechnya, but living in the United States since five years, Tamerlan says: ‘I don’t have a single American friend, I don’t understand them.'”

“Tamerlan says he doesn’t drink or smoke anymore: ‘God said no alcohol.’ A muslim, he says: “There are no values anymore,” and worries that ‘people can’t control themselves.'”

To what degree is it news that there are radical Muslims who look at American and feel primarily anger, as opposed to millions of other Muslims who have come to have varying degrees of acceptance and affection for this nation and its emphasis on religious freedom?

What are the crucial questions at this point?

GetReligion readers will not be surprised to learn that I think the best questions are the old ones, the questions that might yield factual information that journalists can use when attempting to portray the degree to which faith did or did not drive those behind these acts. It is also crucial to learn everything that can be learned about the form of Islam that the brothers claimed, repeat “claimed,” to have been following. Why? Because the world is Islam is large and complex and there is no one monolithic Islam that can be described in simplistic language.

What kind of questions are we talking about?

I was struck by one claim that I have seen in several publications. Here is the Buzzfeed take:

Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev, 19, is the remaining suspect in the Boston marathon bombings — the subject of a massive manhunt Friday morning in Watertown, Massachusetts, multiple sources reported Friday morning. His brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, has been identified as the first suspect and died overnight following a firefight with police.

NBC News’ Pete Williams said earlier Friday morning that the two suspects likely had “foreign military training,” and had been in the country for about a year.

Later he said they were brothers, and added, “They were legal permanent residents. They were in this country legally, at least a year. They appear to be from Turkey, possibly Chechens from Turkey. That seems to be the nationality here.”

Just before 7 a.m. Friday morning, the Associated Press confirmed Williams’ reporting and naming Tsarnaev.

Foreign military training?

Now, hours later, some of those claims are in question — primarily since it appears the brothers had been in America for a number of years (as verified by some family members). This NBC interview with an uncle is getting lots of attention:

Authorities were not sure of a motive and cautioned that other people may be involved. NBC News learned that counterterrorism officials were examining possible links between the brothers and the Islamic Jihad Union of central Asia, a terrorist group. Chechnya is predominantly Muslim.
“Somebody radicalized them, but it wasn’t my brother,” the men’s uncle, Ruslan Tsarni, told reporters Friday from Montgomery Village, Md. He encouraged his nephew to turn himself in and said the two had brought shame on Chechens. He said that he had encouraged his own family to stay away from that part of the family.

“What I think was behind it: Being losers,” he said. “Of course we’re ashamed.”

Once again, what kinds of questions should reporters being asking?

I hate to say this again, but I addressed this just the other day — in a post that some GetReligion readers misread, thinking once again that I was attempting to focus negative attention exclusively on Islam. Actually, the post included material focusing on questions reporters needed to have asked when investigating that massacre in Norway, and the life and times of Anders Behring Breivik.

So let’s try this once again:

… What are journalists looking for? … We need to know what he has said, what he has read, what sanctuaries he has chosen and the religious leaders who have guided him.

Also, follow the money, since Breivik certainly seems to have some. To what religious causes has he made donations? Is he a contributing member of a specific congregation in a specific denomination? Were the contributions accepted or rejected?

In conclusion, at this early stage, let me recommend the following classic from media ethicist Aly Colon, which ran with the headline, “Preying Presbyterians?” It focuses on the news reports that emphasized that Paul Hill, executed in 2003 for killing an abortion doctor, was a “former Presbyterian minister.”

Colon notes that journalists failed to note what brand of Presbyterianism they were dealing with. I would also add that Hill had been thrown out of these ultra-orthodox Presbyterian bodies because of his theological justifications for violence. In other words, they decided that he was a heretic.

These words from Colon are must reading right now, as journalists look for facts, instead of labels, in Norway. Yes, I would be saying precisely the same thing if it was alleged that the suspect was tied to some form of radical Islam. …

“When we use religious terms, especially designations of denominations, sects or groups, we need to offer more clarity about what they are and what they believe. We need to connect faith to facts. We need to define denominations. Context and specificity help news consumers better understand the religious people in the news and how religion affects what they do.”

So, let’s all try to ask some relevant questions:

* To what degree were Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev active in an Islamic congregation of any kind? Had they been expelled from one?

* Obviously, did they have associates who helped them or perhaps opposed them?

* Had they been overseas in recent years for lengthy periods of time?

* Besides the online materials, is there evidence of digital ties to any particular radical movement linked to Islam?

* What were they reading or viewing? Who produced it? Is there evidence of theological influence, especially linked to apocalyptic teachings and heretical or at least fringe justifications of violence against innocents? (Check out this alleged wish list for Tamerlan.

* This appears to have been a low-tech attack. Yet, when in doubt, reporters should always try to follow the funds used by the attackers.

Once again, as always: Be careful out there.

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  • Wes

    There are now reports that the o.der one had been in Russia as recently as 6 months ago.

  • cvg

    I’d also add, to what extent was their faith just a vehicle that brought like-minded isolationists together? Was Islam causitive or facilitative? See this podcast for some expert thought. Past modelling seems to fit perfectly.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    A moral –constitutional issue is bubbling up here in this most liberal of areas–Many people told to stay locked down in their homes and being told not to answer the door are starting to loudly and frequently say they wish they had a gun handy to protect themselves–for this is an area where few people own guns and are among the biggest promoters of gun control . Is this a debate the mainstream media will allow???? I don’t own a gun–Heck! I’ve never even touched a real gun. I’ve never, in the past even contemplated owning one. But, like some I’ve now heard from, I m having second thoughts. Part of what is pushing the discussion is that the same politicians that are demanding more gun laws and more gun control have been all over our local media surrounded with many very well armed guards. Is there a moral hypocrisy issue to be discussed?? In fact, aren’t most of the Hollywood people attacking the Second Amendment well guarded with armed guards.? Will the media interview any of the good citizens of Watertown, Boston, and Cambridge to see if any wished they had a gun during these days???

  • sari

    I’ve been listening to NPR’s Boston affiliate all day (preempted local programming) and, at this point, feel like the questions should wait until law enforcement has more to report. At one point, an ex-teacher and later school photographer, deluged by exactly the questions you pose, tmatt, said something to the effect of, “Anything I say would be speculation after the fact.” We’ve heard from classmates, teachers, employers, family (estranged and otherwise), terrorism experts (including one who specialized in disaffected teens who turn to terrorism), even a journalist who knew Tsarnaev, the younger, because her kids were his classmates . Lots of talk and lots of speculation and very little verifiable fact.

    One problem I see in this type of situation is that law enforcement tends to move more slowly and methodically and has legal constraints which limit how much and what kind of information they disseminate, whereas the press needs to cater to the public’s insatiable need for immediate information. Ironically, the need for speed tends to generate a terrific amount of misinformation. I’d rather the media wait a bit, take the time to sift through and verify their data before attempting to address questions of religion and motivation. Right now they sound like self-appointed experts who don’t know squat.

  • Jerry

    Sari, I agree with you. I also agree with Terry. We need the answers to the questions that Terry asks. And we need them carefully documented in a methodical way. Just one example: the uncle said that his part of the family was staying away from his brother’s part of the family. Why? Does that bear on the crimes committed by the brothers? Is there a religious reason for that split? I have no idea but questions like that need to be answered over the coming days and weeks.

  • John M.


    Eastern culture is, quite apart from religion, different from Western culture. I assume based on your present religion, that you get this. Please don’t downplay their Chechenness (or Dagestanihood, or whatever they turn out to be) based on the fact that it’s been a long time since they lived there. Easterners can feel kinship to places that their parents have never been simply because it’s “where they are from.”


    • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

      John–you make a good point. My father and aunts and uncles were all born in this country. The only person in my lineage who was born in Ireland was my grandfather(my “Irish” grandmother was born in Iron Mountain Michigan.)
      Yet you couldn’t find a more “Irish” bunch than our family–even to the point that some of my relatives trained to go back to Ireland to fight the Brits. And Irish publications were everywhere in our homes. As a teen-ager I had a subscription to the Kerryman newspaper. My father and I have never been to Ireland, but we still feel a tug when Irish music like “Danny Boy” or “Galway Bay” or” Rose of Tralee,”etc. are played .
      (Some historians claim those songs were written in America, not Ireland.)
      And to cap it all off, my father married a Yankee Protestant (my mother) whose ancestors came over on the next boat after the Mayflower.But my father remained typically Boston Irish lacking only a brogue.

  • asshur

    A few thoughts:
    (This one is only marginal to getreligion) I wondered also a bit by the “military training”. The journalist (or the law enforcement source) simply forgot that the world does not end in Cape Hatteras and compulsory military service is still very common around the world, so there is a fat chance that a male non US national over 20 years of age has at least some basic military training, even if he (or she in Israel’s case) is resident in the USA
    I’ve found that basically printed/digital media have been too careful to avoid blaming anyone (even when it started to be clear -since yesterday- where the enemy fire came from). Perhaps with the now infamous exception of the article. It reminds me of the Madrid train bombing of March,11 2004, where depending on the culprit, was an extremly important factor for other short term political issues.
    The fact that the bombers are Chechens, or at least muslim Caucasians -in the strict sense of the term- has gotten almost everyone out of step, so an analisys will probably come a bit later (if Islam terrorism is not really a taboo word for MSM -well’see)
    If the bios of the Tsarnaev stabilize -at least ten years residents in the USA- there is a question which immediately pops-up. And I haven’t seen even a hint. Seeing them as “sleepers” is a bit difficult for age reasons; someone has induced/activated them as “jihadists” INSIDE the USA. But who and how? In my country (Spain) intel sources claim to have a clear picture how young moslems residents are drawn into salafist (or else) groups; even we suffer at this time almost no terror on this side, so no special action is taken …

  • Zeke

    When the first details of these 2 men began to surface, we had many questions. Where were they from? Were they educated? What was their motive? The answers to some of these questions are now slowly emerging. However, it was trivially easy to guess from the beginning – almost bet your life on it easy – their religion.

  • Lynda

    Yes, more facts need to be known and there is lots of speculation. Yes, Islam is not a monolith but there is great consensus on theology and variants of history.

    Islam can be non violent but also violent in the name of their God. Both are orthodox positions. Jihad is inclusive of peaceful witness and killing for the sake of their God.

    Why when, say 9/11 Islamists kill for their God, why are they seen as radicals or extremists? It is an orthodox expression of Islam and jihad killings of enemies (everyone not Muslim) of Islam is the one certain way to enter paradise as a martyr. Not only that but ones family, ones women, are also saved.

    It is orthodox Islam which holds this methodology not extremists, radicals or Islamic heretics. Many Muslims are not that religious and so orthodox or take another orthodox reading of peaceful Jihad. But there is no Islamic authority which can say violent Jihad is wrong…because it is right!

    At any time Islam can quite rightfully, in terms of its own beliefs, wage war and violence on unbelievers. It simply can’t get rid of this orthodox expression as it is in the Quran, the hadiths and most importantly in the example of their prophet.

  • dalea

    The v’kontekt page lists the languages he speaks as English, Russian and something called Nochkhi Mott, which appears to be the Chechen language. One concept that might be useful is ‘Russification’, which refers to the process by which Soviet ethnic people gradually became more and more like Russians. It would be interesting to know how much is Russian and how much Chechen in his views.

  • Johannes Oesch