Yes, Of Course It Was Jihad

Below are the many posts across which Andrew examines the motives of the Boston Marathon bombers, including debate with other bloggers as well as readers.

Apr 22, 2013 @ 11:30am

There are many nuances to the story of Tamerlan and Dzokhar Tsarnaev – and there is no doubt that, like all human beings their acts were, as my shrink often unhelpfully puts it, “multi-determined.” And there is a huge amount to learn from the stoner kid who got caught up in his brother’s religious fanaticism. But Glenn Greenwald veers into left-liberal self-parody this morning:

The overarching principle here should be that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is entitled to a presumption of innocence until he is actually proven guilty. As so many cases have proven – from accused (but exonerated) anthrax attacker Stephen Hatfill to accused (but exonerated) Atlanta Olympic bomber Richard Jewell to dozens if not hundreds of Guantanamo detainees accused of being the “worst of the worst” but who were guilty of nothing – people who appear to be guilty based on government accusations and trials-by-media are often completely innocent. Media-presented evidence is no substitute for due process and an adversarial trial.

But beyond that issue, even those assuming the guilt of the Tsarnaev brothers seem to have no basis at all for claiming that this was an act of “terrorism” in a way that would meaningfully distinguish it from Aurora, Sandy Hook, Tuscon and Columbine. All we really know about them in this regard is that they identified as Muslim, and that the older brother allegedly watched extremist YouTube videos and was suspected by the Russian government of religious extremism (by contrast, virtually every person who knew the younger brother has emphatically said that he never evinced political or religious extremism).

Legally, the case for the presumption of innocence is absolutely right. But come on. One reason the Miranda rights issue is not that salient is that the evidence that this dude bombed innocents, played a role in shooting a cop, shutting down a city, and terrorizing people for a week is overwhelming and on tape. And yes, of course, this decision to commit horrific crimes may be due in part to “some combination of mental illness, societal alienation, or other form of internal instability and rage that is apolitical in nature.” But to dismiss the overwhelming evidence that this was also religiously motivated – a trail that now includes a rant against his own imam for honoring Martin Luther King Jr. because he was not a Muslim – is to be blind to an almost text-book case of Jihadist radicalization, most likely in the US. Tamerlan may have been brimming with testosterone as he found boxing an outlet for his aggression, bragging to his peers of his coolness and machismo and piety, and all of that may have contributed. Who knows if the delay in his citizenship application because he was beating his wife was the proximate cause. But does Glenn wonder why Tamerlan thought it was ok to beat his wife, whom he demanded convert to Islam? Does Glenn see no religious extremism here:

The dramatic confrontation between Tamerlan and his imam began when the 26-year-old interrupted a solemn Friday prayer service three months ago. The imam had just offered up assassinated civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. as a fine example of a man to emulate – but this reportedly enraged Tamerlan.

‘You cannot mention this guy because he’s not a Muslim!’ Muhammad recalled Tamerlan shouting, shocking others in attendance according to the LA Times. Kicked out of the mosque for his outrageous behavior, Tamerlan did return to the prayer service after his outburst according to Muhammad.

‘He’s crazy to me,’ said Muhammad. ‘He had an anger inside.… I can’t explain what was in his mind.’

This is from the Daily Mail – which is almost as unreliable as the New York Post – but the sourced quotes from his own imam seem legit. So we see perhaps the core of what is in front of our noses: this was not about Islam or being Muslim as such. Look at Tamerlan’s family and his own imam. They all saw a young man drifting into something far more extremist, fundamentalist and bigoted. His uncle saw it:

‘I was shocked when I heard his words, his phrases, when every other word he starts sticking in words of God. I question what he’s doing for work, (and) he claimed he would just put everything in the will of God.”

We see the sexual puritanism of the neurotically fundamentalist. We have his YouTube page and the comments he made in the photography portfolio. To state today that we really still have no idea what motivated him and that rushing toward the word Jihadist is some form of Islamophobia seems completely bizarre to me.

When will some understand how dangerous religious fundamentalism truly is? And when will they grasp that a religion that does not entirely eschew violence (like the Gospels or Buddhism) will likely produce violence when its extremist loners seek meaning in a bewildering multicultural modern world? This was an act of Jihad. That does not mean we elevate it above crime; it means we understand the nature of the crime. It only makes sense in the context of immediate Paradise, combined with worldly fame. And those convinced of the glories of martyrdom – of going out with a bang – are the hardest of all to stop.

(Video: Introductory clip from the YouTube account of Tamerlan Tsarnaev)

Update from a reader:

In your recent post about the issue of religious extremism and the alleged acts of terror by the Tsarnaev brothers, you said: “But does Glenn wonder why Tamerlan thought it was ok to beat his wife, whom he demanded convert to Islam?” Just a quick fact-check query. The coverage I seemed to recall reading and hearing indicated that although the elder brother, Tamerlan, was charged in some kind of domestic violence incident, as I understand the facts, it was for something he did to a former girlfriend who is NOT his current wife. And separately, as I understand the reporting, he did in fact push and convince his current wife to convert to Islam when they married, but it appears that that was not concurrent with domestic violence against her.

Apr 22, 2013 @ 1:19pm

When Jihad Meets Columbine

How Olivier Roy understands Western-bred Jihadists:

The main motivation is not religious. Most of the guys, they were normal, they were not especially religious. One of them who went to Tehran became religious. It is not the process of Islamicization, through going to mosque, through studying the Koran. They go for action, they take the al Qaeda thing because if you do that in name of Al Qaeda, you will have a far hotter act than if you do that in the name of something else. They are disconnected in fact from the Muslim community. Many security officials thought the best way to spot these guys was to use the local Muslim communities to control the radical mosques, to engage mainstream imams to ask for help. And most of them comply with that, they want to help but they can’t comply because they guys are not part of these communities. They are loners.

With the Western ones, there may be some strange fusion of loner Internet Jihadism with simple fame-seeking testosterone. But the idea that religious zeal is not behind this seems to me perversely blind.

Roy’s second point, however, is a vital one. This is not about mainstream Islam. It is not about tradition or Muslim communities as we have long known them, especially in America. It is about the fusion of the most extreme and violent versions of Islam (a religion whose founder committed violence), with global Internet culture, and the lost, desperate souls of modernity.

With such an easily available, literally explosive combination, it amazes me, in many ways, that we have not seen more of this before.

Apr 22, 2013 @ 4:31pm

The Greenwald-Harris Debate

It was about the term Islamophobia – a conflation, in my mind, of legitimate and important secular criticism of Islam with racist, xenophobic bigotry. I think there’s a difference between these two phenomena – and in the wake of the Boston bombings, I can’t think of a better time to re-examine the issue. Here is the email exchange between Sam and Glenn that prompted this long piece of self-defense by Sam. My favorite point from Sam:

[E]ven if Noam Chomsky were right about everything, the Islamic doctrines related to martyrdom, jihad, blasphemy, apostasy, the rights of women and homosexuals, etc. would still present huge problems for the emergence of a global civil society.

How can one seriously deny that? All religions contain elements of this kind of fanaticism. But Islam’s fanatical side – from the Taliban to the Tsarnaevs – is more murderous than most.

Apr 22, 2013 @ 7:37pm

By Faith Alone

That’s what the AP is now reporting about the motives of the Boston bombers. I should caution that this doesn’t preclude some kind of interaction by Tamerlan with terrrorist elements when he visited Russia – and the evidence searches continue. But faith – especially fundamentalist, violent strains of Islam – is by itself a sufficient explanation. Many don’t understand this. But, as anyone with familiarity with strong religious faith will tell you, there are few things more powerful.

Apr 23, 2013 @ 11:49am

Yes, Of Course It Was Jihad, Ctd

Drum counters me:

What we know about Tamerlan Tsarnaev is that he was (a) Muslim and (b) enraged about something. Was he enraged, a la Sayyid Qutb, about the sexual libertinism of American culture? Was he enraged about perceived American support for Russia against Chechen rebels? Was he enraged about American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Was he acting on orders from a foreign terrorist group?

We don’t know yet. Yes, there’s plainly evidence of his growing Islamic extremism over the past three years. But if there’s anything we’ve learned over the last week, it’s that jumping to conclusions on this stuff is foolish.

This is high-minded nonsense. We know full well that Tamerlan had become a total extremist in his religion. He was thrown out of his own mosque for being a bigot; his family complained about his obsessive religiosity; he berated others for not being sufficiently devout; he had archaic notions of women’s role in society; he gave up his beloved boxing because of Islam. His YouTube account is full of Islamist extremism. And he deployed terrorist violence because of it.

That’s Jihad, Kevin. It’s religion in its most toxic form – as the AP finally acknowledged last night. It doesn’t need a foreign terror group for it to be Jihad; it’s obviously not Chechen nationalism – because that would mean attacking Russia, not the Boston Marathon, a symbol of co-ed multi-cultural secularism. I think some liberals who have never experienced religious faith find it hard to imagine how faith alone can spur someone to mass murder. They need to get out more.

Friedersdorf writes that, if forced “to bet right now on this case, I’d put my money on the jihadist explanation too.” But he agrees with Drum:

Since 9/11, there have been numerous instances in which jumping to conclusions based on imperfect information caused damage. Think of all the people who confidently insisted on the obviousness of Dr. Steven J. Hatfill’s guilt, or Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction, or the notion that all Guantanamo Bay prisoners were “the worst of the worst.” Has any harm ever been caused by a War on Terror pundit’s stubborn insistence on delaying judgement?

Yes, the information is imperfect. Yes, if all of this is some kind of set-up, I may have to recant. And I have always said that personal and psychological dynamics are obviously part of the picture, as they are with any crime. But just as silly as jumping to conclusions prematurely is the posture of aloof skepticism when the bleeding obvious is staring right at you. This was religious violence – the most terrifying any can be, because its perpetrators believe that God Almighty is protecting them.

And, to make an obvious but often overlooked point: here is a core difference between diagnosing Jihad and responding to it Cheney-style. You can do one without the other.

Apr 23, 2013 @ 1:21am

Dissents Of The Day

Many readers are upset with this post:

Wow, Andrew. I’ve been with you since 2007, and I can’t recall reading a more blatantly ridiculous statement from you than this one: “And when will they grasp that a religion that does not entirely eschew violence (like the Gospels or Buddhism) will likely produce violence when its extremist loners seek meaning in a bewildering multicultural modern world?”

You know it’s bullshit too. Because otherwise you would’ve said “Christianity” instead of “the Gospels,” keeping it consistent with your blanket characterizations of Buddhism and Islam. But you knew you couldn’t, because of Christianity’s and the Old Testament’s indisputable record of violence, which refutes your narrative that doctrine was the primary cause.

And otherwise you wouldn’t have qualified it with that long modifier of producing violence “when its extremist loners seek meaning in a bewildering multicultural modern world.” How many contingencies do you have to stuff into the interpretation and practice of a religion before you realize those contingencies matter a hell of a lot more than the words in the document everyone’s reading into in whatever way suits their condition? What a logically, linguistically, and sociologically inept attempt to baldly enforce your double standards of religious causation upon your readers.

I do not write things I know are “bullshit.” They may be, but I write in good faith. Perhaps I should have put it this way: All religion, including Christianity, is susceptible to the violence associated with tribalism and fundamentalism. Christianity’s murderousness through the ages is a matter of historical fact, from the Crusades to the Inquisition and beyond.

What distinguishes Islam is that its founder practiced violence, whereas Jesus quite obviously favored the exact opposite – nonviolence to the point of accepting one’s own death. Unlike Christianity, but like Judaism, Islam also claims sacred land, and, along with extremist forms of Judaism, the divine right to repel intruders from it. Religion is dangerous enough. A religion founded by a violent figure, with territorial claims, and whose values are at direct odds with modernity is extra-dangerous. Which other major world religion believes that apostates should be killed? Or regards negative depictions of the Prophet as worthy of a death sentence? As I wrote more than a decade ago now:

The terrorists’ strain of Islam is clearly not shared by most Muslims and is deeply unrepresentative of Islam’s glorious, civilized and peaceful past. But it surely represents a part of Islam — a radical, fundamentalist part — that simply cannot be ignored or denied.

Another reader:

What is “Jihad”? It’s only a religious war in the minds of those who believe that it is. Do we need to broadcast this to people who may be susceptible? Can’t we fight this war without feeding the enemy’s propaganda machine? My worry is that using Jihad/religious war is going to do two things:

1. Help radicalize more people

2. Rev up the right wing into the frenzy we saw post 9-11, which makes us lose our heads and do dumb things, and also reinforcing point No. 1 – it’s a self fulfilling prophecy: “See, the West is after us. Fight the infidels, etc.”

I think this older brother absorbed these radical ideas through osmosis – speaking to a radicalized (but not a member of a radical group) person, all the messaging in the media/Internet, etc., visiting Russia and seeing/experiencing it. But there does not seem to be a direct link to a radical group, where he was directly trained, was meeting with a group, etc. Maybe we just haven’t learned that yet, but until then, we should not jump to conclusions. It seems to me, media outlets calling this a religious war/Jihad are only going to make these people more susceptible to this stuff and give them  greater justification for their feelings and actions.

If I were writing to maximize public safety, I would minimize the religious aspects of this terror attack. But I am writing in order to tell the truth as best I can. Another reader:

It’s terrifying to me that you can write sentences like: “Legally, the case for the presumption of innocence is absolutely right. But come on.”

“But come on” was the animating logic of the drumbeat for war in Iraq. It was the ideological territory of Cheney, Wolfowitz, and Co. It was why Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib happened. “But come on” says, to me: “I know I can’t justify this with reason so I’m going to appeal to a general sense of hysteria.”

But that is precisely why we have these laws and safeguards in the first place. Mirandizing a suspect, presuming innocence and so on were not primarily intended for the low-key cases that take place in America every day. No, they were in large part designed specifically for moments such as this, to prevent a nation in the throes of a huge emotional overreaction (more on that in a moment) from stepping out of bounds. “But come on” represents precisely the arbitrary, emotional desire for overreach that our Constitution and legal system was specifically supposed to neutralize.

If I had simply said the words “come on” and not followed them with a superfluity of evidence, my reader might have a point. But I didn’t.

Apr 23, 2013 @ 2:15pm

Dismembering Liberal Bullshit On Islam

Bill Maher backs me up. I’m not Islamophobic; I’m trying to tell the truth and understand what happened last week. A reader chimes in:

Here’s a quote from Tocqueville, in Democracy in America:

Muhammad brought down from heaven and put into the Koran not religious doctrines only, but political maxims, criminal and civil laws, and scientific theories. The Gospels, on the other hand, deal only with the general relations between man and God and between man and man. Beyond that, they teach nothing and do not oblige people to believe anything. That alone, among a thousand reasons, is enough to show that Islam will not be able to hold its power long in ages of enlightenment and democracy, while Christianity is destined to reign in such ages, as in all others.

This is a parallel point to the question of violence, or at least Tocqueville is not directly addressing the issue of violence, but it’s not hard to make the connection. Politics is a realm of coercion; the state has a monopoly on violence, as we’re taught in introductory political science courses. Jesus opts out of that whole system. He never sought political power. He never was a law-giver. He founded no political regime. He claimed no direct authority over any land or people. Indeed, he was sacrificed at the hands of the reigning political power.

Tocqueville’s point is that because Jesus was in this sense apolitical (along with not pronouncing on matters of science), Christianity has no intrinsic reason to be in conflict with modernity. Because Jesus laid down no precise pattern for political order, it need not fear the coming of democracy. Because Jesus taught love, rather than scientific theories, nothing Jesus said contradicts what we know through the advance of science. Followers of Jesus, for Tocqueville, can adapt, can engage the age in which they live with a certain openness, rather than hunker down with rage and suspicion. He thought that this wasn’t the case for Islam, not because it was intrinsically violent (neither he nor you are arguing for that) but because the circumstances of Islam’s founding set in motion certain problems that were bound to be exacerbated by modernity.

It always is difficult, even foolish, to draw a straight line from the origins of a religious tradition to contemporary events. But it also is a mistake to pretend a religion’s point of departure matters not at all. For Christians, however hypocritically or poorly they follow Jesus, the witness of Jesus in the Gospels really is a rebuke to violence and political striving. It always is there as a corrective, and throughout Church history, however corrupt Christian institutions have become, Jesus’s life has inspired movements of renewal and repentance. That is worth noting, as you have. It’s not entirely clear such an unambiguous witness from Islam’s founder exists to perform the same function.

That’s putting it diplomatically.

Apr 24, 2013 @ 10:57am

A Brain-Damaged Bomber?

Boston Marathon Bombing Suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev Boxing Pictures

Travis Waldron encourages medical examiners to check Tamerlan’s corpse for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the brain disease suffered by boxers and football players who take repeated blows to the head:

[I]t’s worth exploring every angle, including the possibility that brain injuries and CTE may have compounded problems Tsarnaev was already experiencing. CTE has, after all, been found in boxers as young as 17, and it has been linked to changing behaviors, depression, and dementia. And though it may seem like a diversion to investigate its role in Tsarnaev’s personality, CTE was an immediate consideration in recent tragic deaths like the murder-suicide committed by Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher and the suicide of Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau.

Anything but Jihad. Yes, we can explore every angle, but this is almost a parody of liberal wish-mongering. Tamerlan’s brain was damaged by religious fanaticism and fundamentalism.

(Photo: Tamerlan Tsarnaev (L) fights Lamar Fenner (R) during the 201-pound division boxing match during the 2009 Golden Gloves National Tournament of Champions May 4, 2009 in Salt Lake City, Utah. By Glenn DePriest/Getty Images)

Apr 24, 2013 @ 12:22pm

Yes, Of Course It Was Jihad, Ctd

Explosions At 117th Boston Marathon

Greenwald goes another round:

The only evidence [Andrew] can point to shows that the older brother, Tamerlan, embraced a radical version of Islam, something I already noted. But – rather obviously – to prove that someone who commits violence is Muslim is not the same as proving that Islam was the prime motive for the violence (just as the aggressive attack by devout evangelical George Bush on Iraq was not proof of a rejuvenation of the Christian crusades, the attack by Timothy McVeigh was not proof of IRA violence, Israeli aggression is not proof that Judaism is the prime motivator of those wars, and the mass murder spree by homosexual Andrew Cunanan was not evidence that homosexuality motivated the violence).

Islam or some related political ideology may have been the motive driving Tamerlan, as I acknowledge, but it also may not have been. You have to produce evidence showing motive. You can’t just assert it and demand that everyone accept it on faith. Specifically, to claim this is terrorism (in a way that those other incidents of mass murder at Aurora, Sandy Hook, Tucson and Columbine were not), you have to identify the “political or social objective” the violence was intended to promote: what was that political or social objective here? Andrew doesn’t have the slightest idea.

I have much more than the slightest idea. I have massive amounts of evidence, outraged testimonies from the family, a horrifying web history, bombs that follow to the letter instructions from an al Qaeda publication, public, extremist spats with his own mosque, and on and on. And this is slippery language:

[T]o prove that someone who commits violence is Muslim is not the same as proving that Islam was the prime motive for the violence …

But Tamerlan was not just a Muslim. He was an extremist, fanatical Muslim who had quite obviously self-radicalized. I have made that distinction repeatedly. If all we had was evidence that he attended a mosque and called himself a Muslim, I’d agree with Glenn. But we have a mountain of evidence that Tamerlan was far more extremist than 99.9 percent of the entire American Muslim population. Why will Glenn not acknowledge this?

His other point is a much more interesting one:

“[T]errorism” does not have any real meaning other than “a Muslim who commits violence against America and its allies”, so as soon as a Muslim commits violence, there is an automatic decree that it is “terrorism” even though no such assumption arises from similar acts committed by non-Muslims. That is precisely my point.

He means, I think, by “terrorism” how terrorism is viewed by the majority in contemporary America. And there is some truth to this point – unfortunately. But does Glenn ever wonder why? Extremist Islam has developed quite a reputation in the last couple of decades, wouldn’t you think? When an al Qaeda enthusiast and religious fanatic decides to bomb the Boston Marathon, is it really outrageous to infer some connection? If he were a Tim McVeigh type, with a web history of black helicopter paranoia, do you think we’d be hemming and hawing about his motives? These terrorist events are designed for maximal media exposure, and they deploy random civilian mass-murder to publicize a cause. They are rational plots.

So to take Glenn’s other examples, they are all hideous killing sprees by gunmen with grudges and fantasies and mental illness. There seemed to be no deeper motive. Fort Hood is a more interesting case – a gun attack on fellow soldiers, while yelling Allah. That seems to me to be clearly at core a terrorist event – but fused with what we can see were workplace issues. He was a Muslim, but the US government continues to describe the attack as an act of workplace violence – not terrorism. I think the evidence points to a confluence of religious radicalism and “going postal.” He attacked his own base and had previously given out cards calling himself a “soldier of Allah.” We have no such workplace frustration to ascribe to Tamerlan: he picked a classic terror target – a televised public event, symbolizing he unity of all people and all faiths in the simple act of running.

Extreme Islamism is a threat to us all. That does not mean we empower it more with Cheney-esque over-reaction or anti-Muslim bigotry (which can create more self-radicalized mass murderers). We can make the distinction between this kind of violent fundamentalism and mainstream Islam, practiced by 99.9 percent of American Muslims. We can stop invading Muslim countries. We can defuse the drama by trying one of the accused in a civilian court. We can ensure that next year’s Boston Marathon is overwhelmed with participants. We should not torture Tsarnaev the way Bush and Cheney did Padilla – on much flimsier grounds. And we can do all this without slipping into the see-no-evil denial that Glenn has, sadly sunk into.

(Photo: Victims are in shock and being treated at the scene of the first explosion that went off near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. By John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Apr 24, 2013 @ 1:10pm

Yes, Of Course It Was Jihad, Ctd

Dreher notes why extremist Islam may be even more susceptible to violent expression than other religions that have proven extremely bloody in the past:

When a Christian murders, as many have done, sometimes with church sanction, he acts in direct contravention of Christ’s example and command. When a Muslim murders, he sometimes carries out Muhammad’s command, which is to say, Allah’s. … Obviously many, many Muslims choose less bloodthirsty interpretations of these verses, and this is the sort of thing that non-Muslims should encourage, for the sake of peace. Nevertheless, the existence of these verses, and the extremely high regard Islam has for its holy book, makes it harder to come against those who wish to kill in the name of Islam.

Millman counters:

If we were to test the proposition, “Islam is inherently more violent than other religions,” we’d need to compare Islamic civilization across time and space to other civilizations (and control properly for other factors). Are Dreher and Sullivan quite sure of what the result of such a comparison would be? Are they quite sure that, say, things like cousin marriage, or a burgeoning population of underemployed males, or the legacy of Cold War-era arms races, or the coincidence of massive oil wealth in the hands of a particularly puritanical sect on the Arabian peninsula, or the intrusion of Zionism, or the demographic decline of Christian Europe (and Russia), or the ructions of modernization meeting a subordination of women that pre-dates Islam, or . . . well, there’s a long list of theories for why Islam’s borders are bloody now. Are we quite sure that those theories are less-correct than the theory, “they are getting their ideas from a bad book?”

But Millman is completely misrepresenting my post, the third sentence of which is the following:

All religion, including Christianity, is susceptible to the violence associated with tribalism and fundamentalism. Christianity’s murderousness through the ages is a matter of historical fact, from the Crusades to the Inquisition and beyond.

That was also the core point of the essay I wrote over a decade ago and linked to this week and stand by:

[Osama bin Laden’s theology has] roots in an extreme and violent strain in Islam that emerged in the 18th century in opposition to what was seen by some Muslims as Ottoman decadence but has gained greater strength in the 20th.

I have long believed that this kind of Internet-based, tradition-free, radical Islam is a creation of modernity – not integral to the faith as lived by countless Muslims for centuries. I have long put it in the historical context of Islam’s long heritage of peaceful governance and human charity. And in many ways, Christianity has more to account for than Islam over the centuries.

After all, it takes a lot more evil to turn a radical non-violent homeless pacifist like Jesus into the cause for a murderous Crusade than it does to select justifications of violence from the Koran and re-enact them. But my reader’s point about the unique challenge modernity poses to religions that claim territory as sacred and that insist that doctrines cannot be altered one iota from texts written centuries ago is a real one. Christianity has reason and clear doctrines of nonviolence to guard against this. But is bombing abortion clinics Christianist terrorism? Abso-fucking-lutely. Freddie reframes the debate:

To me … the question isn’t whether Tamerlan Tsarnaev believed he was waging jihad. The question is, what’s the difference for our next step? How and why would a religious motivation matter? Where the question of Islamic extremism is made relevant is in our perception that there is a larger network of extremists who are eager and able to launch violent attacks against this country. As you know, I’m a skeptic about the size and destructive ability of that network. But it is ancillary to the conversation, because all of our current best evidence suggests that the Tsarnaev brothers worked alone, and had no connection to Al Qaeda or any other anti-American group. The analogy for the Tsarnaev brothers shouldn’t be to the 9/11 hijackers but to the Fort Hood shooter or the DC snipers. Sure: individuals or small groups have the ability to be inspired (in whole or in part) by Islam, along with personal anger and feelings of inadequacy and grievance against American foreign policy and plain old sociopathy. And because of the reality of modern technology, these people have the ability to kill other people. What they do not have, and should not be mistaken for having, is the ability to represent a serious threat to the basic security and prosperity of this or any other country.

On that I am in total agreement. I don’t think there’s much we can do to stop this kind of thing, except constitutional surveillance, public vigilance, and withdrawal of our troops from Muslim countries. The Tsarnaev brothers do not represent a resurgence of al Qaeda; they represent the permanent threat religious fundamentalism poses to modernity, especially if that religion believes itself under siege and has texts that sanction the murder of infidels and apostates. Of course, this threat may be magnified by psychological distortion, personal history, contingent events, and pure chance. But that does not mean it is a chimera. The blood on the streets of Boston was real and red enough.

Apr 25, 2013 @ 12:00pm

Dissents Of The Day

The in-tray is inundated with upset emails:

Dude, please pay attention to every word in the excerpt you’re trying to refute here. Words like Screen shot 2013-04-25 at 11.49.31 AM“compounded” and “linked to changing behaviors,” and even “depression.” For someone who’s been on the case regarding brain injuries in the NFL and some of the tragedies those injuries may have helped set the stage for, you seem rather inconsistent to label even considering this angle as “parody.” Even if you don’t want to stray to far from focusing on the religious aspects of this attack, wouldn’t finding similar damage to Tamerlan’s brain at least help advance awareness in the debate about sports in America?

Yes, maybe. But my mockery was not about CTE which is a serious condition (but not often found on those as young as Tamerlan). It was about some ideological liberals’ desperation to find some kind of way to blame this on anything but Jihad. Why?


What is up with you this week? “liberal wish-mongering” “liberal bullshit” “high-minded nonsense”. Is this how you shore up your conservative bona fides these days?

It is dispiriting to read a usually articulate and considered writer flailing about, knocking down strawmen for what seems like no purpose. Are you getting lots of hate mail? It’s worth noting that your moral compass with regard to terrorism does not work very well, as you highlighted a couple months ago during the 10th anniversary of the Iraq invasion. You have admitted to a form of post-9/11 PTSD. Perhaps it’s worth taking a step back and remembering that “to see what’s in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”

I am not a blogger who tries to shore up my liberal or conservative “bona fides”. I have offended both sides just as much over the years, depending on events and issues. I write what I think is true. I think a desperate search for something other than religious motivation for the terrorism is a form of denialism. Another:

For a guy who over reacted rather shamefully after 9/11 (“fifth column”, support of the Iraq war) maybe you want to tone down the utter confidence in your understanding of what has just taken place, a confidence that is producing rather routine snide dismissals of anyone who wants explore the issue in directions you disagree with, or simply want to say “we don’t know yet”. You may be entirely right in your assessment of what took place, but there is going to be a lot more information to come out. Neither your finest, nor more interesting moment. Frankly, rather brutish and bullying.

The most original reaction:

Your smug knee-jerk rejection really crottles my chitlins.

Knee-jerk rejection? When I explicitly wrote: “Yes, we can explore every angle.” One angle a little more fruitful might be a check on his testosterone levels. He looks a little juiced to me in the photos we have. And that could exacerbate his religiously-inspired violence. CTE seems much larger a stretch.

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Apr 25, 2013 @ 1:38pm

Yes, Of Course It Was Jihad – In Canada Too

Just listen to the plotter of an attack on a railway line, caught before he even had a chance to get the explosives. Any idea why he may have done it? Take a wild guess:

“Only the Creator is perfect,” said Esseghaier, who refused a court-appointed lawyer in favour of representing himself. “We know that the Criminal Code is not (the) Holy Book. So if we are basing our judgment (on Canadian laws), we cannot rely on the conclusions taken out from these judgments.”

No extremist religion there at all, is there, Glenn?

Apr 25, 2013 @ 2:42pm

Theology As “Intellectual Foam”

Millman, Dreher and I have been debating the importance of certain violent passages in the Koran. Razib Khan has a long, fascinating addition to the debate. Read the whole thing, but this is the gist:

Theology and texts have far less power over shaping a religion’s lived experience than intellectuals would like to credit… On many specific issues I agree with Rod Dreher a great deal when it comes to Islam. I do think too many Muslims and their liberal fellow travelers attempt to squelch justified critique of the religion by making accusations of bigotry (I’m on the receiving end regularly). Obviously I disagree with that. But, where I part with Rod is his “theory of religion.”

As a religious believer with a deep intellectual predisposition I doubt Rod Dreher and I will be able to agree on the primal point at issue. Not only do I believe that the theologies of all religion are false, but I believe that they’re predominantly just intellectual foam generated from the churning of broader social and historical forces. Some segments of the priestly class will always find institutional politics exhausting, mystical experience out of their character, and legal commentaries excessively mundane. These will be drawn to philosophical dimension of religious phenomena. Which is fine as far as it goes, but too often there is an unfortunate tendency toward reducing religion to just this narrow dimension. But I have minimal confidence that most people will accept that the Christianity church has little to do with Jesus and that Islam has little to do with Muhammad. And yet I think that’s the truth of it….

I wonder if Tamerlan Tsarnaev or Richard Reid believed that Muhammed has little to do with Islam. I’m not talking about an intellectual grasp of theological nuances. I’m talking about a text that, unlike the Gospels, is asserted to have been directly given by God through Muhammed with no human intervention or error. And I’m talking about a religious genius who wielded temporal power from the get-go. Jesus accepted powerlessness in the face of Roman imperialism. Muhammed? As Khan notes,

Muhammad was his own Constantine. That is, he was not simply a spiritual teacher, but also a temporal ruler. More broadly, while Christianity became an imperial religion, Islam was born an imperial religion.

And it seems strange to me that that early, critical fact has not had an impact on Christianity’s eventual ability to disentangle itself from worldly territorial power and on Islam’s inability to do so. Jesus allowed himself to be crucified by power. Muhammed was an expansionist conqueror, who waged war for territory. I do not believe, as Khan does, that those two facts are irrelevant to the manifestations of Christianity and Islam today – especially in their compatibility with secular government.

May 6, 2013 @ 12:18pm

Yes, Of Course It Was Jihad, Ctd

A couple of points that may inform two long-running debates between me and Glenn Greenwald. The first is the motive for the Boston bombings. Of course, we should always wait for the full evidence, and there is always an interplay between a particular psychological journey and religious fanaticism. I’ve said that from the get-go. But we can now pretty safely say – as we could pretty quickly – that the bombings were an almost text-book case of Internet Jihad, a chilling example of how fundamentalist zeal can become murderous right here in our midst, with no necessary international network.

Money quote from a profile of Dzhokhar:

After Mr. Tsarnaev emerged as a suspect in the bombing, Mr. Lamichhane said, a mutual friend from the University of Massachusetts recounted his last conversation with Mr. Tsarnaev, two weeks before the marathon. Mr. Tsarnaev told their friend, “God is all that matters. It doesn’t matter about school and engineering,” Mr. Lamichhane said. “He said, ‘When it comes to school and being an engineer, you can cheat easily. But when it comes to going to heaven, you can’t cheat.’ ”

Five words: “God is all that matters.” If some secular liberals could grasp that a modern human can say those words and mean them, they would have a better grasp of our core predicament. The religious conversion was relatively recent – and had an obvious effect:

A second Chechen friend since boyhood, 18-year-old Baudy Mazaev, said that the older brother and their mother, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, “had a deep religious epiphany” about two or three years ago. At the time, Tamerlan’s new devotion only irritated Dzhokhar, he said. During one visit about two years ago, he said, Tamerlan ordered him and Dzhokhar to sit and forced the two teenagers to read a book about the fundamentals of Islam and prayer… In February 2011, roughly when the boys’ mother embraced Islam, she separated from her husband, Anzor, a tough man trained in the law in Russia who was reduced in Cambridge to fixing cars in a parking lot. The two divorced that September, and Anzor returned to Russia, followed later by his ex-wife. Tamerlan filled the void as head of the family’s American branch. On Twitter, Dzhokhar wrote that he missed his father.

Fundamentalism took over that family. It drove the father away. The second point worth noting (and relevant to a debate Glenn and I have conducted) is the man who personally seemed to have inspired and help train the Tsarnaev brothers from the grave – Anwar al Awlaki:

Two U.S. officials tell The Daily Beast that, during his hospital room interrogation, Dzhokhar told FBI agents that he and his brother were influenced by the Internet sermons of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born preacher who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in September 2011…

We know Awlaki influenced the Tsarnaevs at least indirectly, through one of AQAP’s main propaganda organs. According to law enforcement sources, Dzhokhar has admitted to the FBI that he and his brother learned how to the build pressure cooker bombs they allegedly used in Boston from the terror group’s English-language Internet magazine, Inspire. For much of its existence, Inspire was run by Samir Khan, an American propagandist for AQAP who was close to Awlaki and was ultimately killed in the same U.S. drone strike that killed the Yemeni-American cleric.

It seems to me that Anwar al-Awlaki was clearly complicit in the Boston marathon bombers and that the bulk of his propaganda was about inciting domestic terrorism in the US along the Tsarnaev lines. That makes him a little more than an icon for the First Amendment. It makes him a traitor allied with forces that want to kill American citizens.

May 6, 2013 @ 2:00pm


Moynihan investigates Islamic extremism on the web:

I decided to try an experiment: I would spend seven days creeping through the Internet using disposable IP addresses, inhabiting the milieu of radical sites and Facebook pages. In Manhattan coffee shops, on subway platforms, between tasks at work, I would take up residence in the darkest corners of the Web—and see what I could learn about the fetid swamps where self-made jihadists are allegedly born.

His big takeaway? It works – by numbing followers to violence:

The further I crawled down the extremist rabbit hole and the more caved-in skulls and headless corpses I saw, the more I found that my natural revulsion, usually an uncontrollable instinct, was easier to suppress.

And it wasn’t just my revulsion to violence that seemed to dull: the casual Jew hatred, homophobia (yes, there were references to the “sick” revelation that NBA player Jason Collins is gay), and sexism (“The beauty of a woman lies in her SILENCE rather than her SPEECH”) were so eye-glazingly common that after a week of uninterrupted consumption, I found myself scrolling past it without a second thought.

Americans were jarred by a gruesome—and now iconic—photo of Boston Marathon spectator Jeff Bauman being rushed toward an ambulance, one of his legs blown off below the knee. In the universe of electronic jihad, such images are banal. To be a social-media jihadi for a week is to be reminded of French essayist Alain Finkielkraut’s admonition: “Barbarism is not the inheritance of our pre-history. It is the companion that dogs our every step.”

My earlier take on the Boston jihad here.

(Screenshot from the al Qaeda magazine Inspire, supposedly an inspiration to the Boston bombing suspects.)

May 6, 2013 @ 5:52pm

Awlaki Again

Glenn has now conceded that religious extremism seems to be the main motive behind the Boston bombings, so our real difference is now simply when that became obvious (a legitimate debate) and whether the younger brother Al-Alwaki-booking2was as motivated by religion as his older brother. I suspect a mixture of actual, hidden religious fanaticism and family dynamics, and this piece in the NYT remains required reading on that fact.

But Glenn insists that Anwar al-Awlaki was merely exercising his American constitutional rights in speaking out for violence against the American government, and as such was not a legitimate target at all. We’ve gone through all this before and yes, the First Amendment does apply to abstract calls for violence against the US government.

But Anwar al-Awlaki was not just abstract. Ask cartoonist Molly Harris, now in hiding after participating in “Draw Mohammed Day”. In Inspire, the magazine where the Tsarnaev brothers found their bomb instructions, Awlaki wrote of eight Western cartoonists:

“The medicine prescribed by the Messenger of Allah is the execution of those involved.”

So this was a specific threat of violence against specific people – including a specific American – for exercising their freedom of speech. She remains under fatwa, protected by the FBI. Glenn’s response to that point would be:

This, I guess, is where I differ. The sliver of difference between Awlaki threatening to murder Molly Harris himself – while calling on all other Muslims to murder her while ensconced in Yemen – is not one I consider salient.

If a mob leader orders a hit, he is not exercising his First Amendment rights. He is ordering a hit.

When that mob leader has called law-abiding American Muslims “traitors” to the true nation of Islam, when he has left the country and changed his name and joined the group designated as the enemy in wartime by the US Congress, when he has celebrated individuals who have murdered others – and been in communication with them, as with the Fort Hood shooter – then I do not recognize him as engaging in the world of ideas.

I recognize him as engaging in the world of religious murder and the incitement to religious murder. From the grave, he helped murder some more in Boston. And not members of the US military or representatives of the US government. He gave the instructions and inspiration to murder an eight-year-old boy who was waiting to see his dad finish a marathon.

(Photo: San Diego Police Department mug shot of Anwar al Awlaki after he was arrested in San Diego on April 5, 1997. As reported by KPBS San Diego.)

May 8, 2013 @ 11:51am

Yes, Of Course It Was Jihad, Ctd

John Knefel casts doubt on the concept of Internet-inspired jihad, as well as the policies that such thinking leads to:

“Nobody watches YouTube or reads Inspire and becomes a terrorist. It’s absurd to think so,” says John Horgan, director of the International Center for the Study of Terrorism at Pennsylvania State University. “YouTube videos and reading Al Qaeda magazines tends to be far more relevant for sustaining commitment than inspiring it.”

Knefel reports that it’s most often a variety of motivations that converge to make a terrorist:

“I have found that many young home-grown al-Qaeda terrorists are not attracted by religion or ideology alone – often their knowledge of Islamist theology is wafer-thin and superficial – but also the glamour and excitement that al-Qaeda type groups purports to offer,” [notes Jamie Bartlett, head of the Violence and Extremism program at the think tank Demos.] When it comes to why someone chooses to engage in terrorism, Horgan says, “there are the bigger social, political and religious reasons people give for becoming involved” – for instance, anger over government policies or a foreign occupation. But that leaves out a key part of the story. “Hidden behind these bigger reasons, there are also hosts of littler reasons – personal fantasy, seeking adventure, camaraderie, purpose, identity,” adds Horgan. “These lures can be very powerful, especially when you don’t necessarily have a lot else going on in your life, but terrorists rarely talk about them.”

Those are certainly part of the mix. And I don’t think Inspire made Tamerlan a Jihadist. From the evidence we have of his religious epiphany, it was not out of a magazine. But did the online Jihadist network encourage, train and make his act of Jihadist violence more likely? Duh. Meanwhile, apparently the online jihadi community has been unimpressed and even annoyed by the Tsarnaev brothers:

[This] is unusual and borne of several reasons. The first is that al Qaeda attacks in the West are typically characterized by high casualty rates and widespread panic. The death of three civilians and the quick demise and arrest of the perpetrators is, for supporters, something of a comedown.

The second reason is that al Qaeda and the global jihad movement have become far less concerned with the West since the dawn of the Arab Spring. Jihadists are instead now looking back to the Muslim world, where the contours of power still are far from settled in Mali, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and, most dramatically, Syria. “Why should we waste our time on this?” Hamil al-Mask, a member of the Ansar forum, asked. “Lone wolves will always be part of our cause so let’s say Allah Akbar and move on.”

That strikes me as one more reason to stay out of Syria – if a brutally realist one. To turn George W Bush’s phrase around: if they’re fighting each other over there, they’re less likely to fight us over here.

May 9, 2013 @ 1:01pm


Simon Shuster has the latest scoop on the bombers’ ties to radical Islam:

Last year, when Tamerlan Tsarnaev spent six months in the Russian region of Dagestan, he had a guide with an unusually deep knowledge of the local Islamist community: a distant cousin named Magomed Kartashov. Six years older than Tsarnaev, Kartashov is a former police officer and freestyle wrestler—and one of the region’s most prominent Islamists.

In 2011 Kartashov founded and became the leader of an organization called the Union of the Just, whose members campaign for sharia law and pan-Islamic unity in Dagestan, often speaking out against U.S. policies across the Muslim world. The group publicly renounces violence. But some of its members have close links to militants; others have served time in prison for weapons possession and abetting terrorism—charges they say were based on fabricated evidence. For Tsarnaev, these men formed a community of pious young Muslims with whom he could discuss his ideas of jihad. Tsarnaev’s mother, Zubeidat, confirmed that her son is Kartashov’s third cousin. The two met for the first time in Dagestan, she said, and “became very close.”

May 9, 2013 @ 7:45pm


A reader draws the thread to a dissenting close:

It seems to me that Tamerlan is the Lee Harvey Oswald of our time. Was Oswald motivated by communism? Maybe. But more likely he was motivated by a sense of restlessness, a feeling that he was a Boston Marathon Bombing Suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev Boxing Picturesgreat man who couldn’t quite get his shit together. Both he and Tamerlan were frustrated by professional failure. Both went overseas looking for something. Both had strikingly similar domestic situations. Is it a coincidence that Tamerlan, Oswald, Czolgosz and Booth — and even Timothy McVeigh — were all about the same age?

Never mind the conspiracy theories, Oswald was a lone wolf. And so was Tamerlan (plus his kid brother). Had he been a secret agent, an al Qaeda plant and part of a larger terror network like the 9/11 terrorists, that would be something. But the actions of men like this don’t really deserve political or ideological scrutiny. Their actions are just sad, all-too-familiar human tragedies.

Is radical Islam more violent than communism or anarchism or white racism? Hardly. For guys like Tamerlan, ideology is just something to wear in a cold world.

So is theology.

(Photo: Getty Images.)