After Boston, fear of backlash against Muslim students

When she learned that two bombs had been detonated at the Boston Marathon, one thought crossed Ifrah Inam's mind: "Oh God, don't let it be a Muslim."

This is an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, America’s leading higher education publication. It is presented here under an agreement with University World News.

The day after the bombing, the student in the pharmacy programme at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in Boston briefly considered visiting Boylston Street, the site of the attack. She decided not to, in part because she worried what the reaction might be to her hijab.

"You couldn't help but be paranoid," said Inam, who is president of her campus's Muslim Students Association.


Paranoia has been in ample supply since the two bombs killed three people and injured more than 175 others. Before the suspects were named in the twin blasts, several young men, mostly South Asian or Middle Eastern, were convicted in the court of public opinion.

A Saudi Arabian national who was injured in the blast and then questioned by the police was erroneously labelled a person of interest by several news outlets.

An Indian-American student at Brown University who has been missing for a month was tagged in social media – in error – as being one of the bombing suspects who engaged in a deadly gunfight with police officers early on Friday morning. [He was later found dead.]

Those stories joined other episodes after the bombing, in which South Asians and Arabs were reportedly assaulted.

"Of course we are concerned about backlashes against our students," said Mody Alkhalaf, assistant attaché for cultural and social affairs at the Saudi Arabian Embassy. "There are still some ignorant people who find stereotyping appealing and easier than dealing with others as individuals."

Bomber brothers

The revelation that the suspected bombers are the brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 19 and 26 respectively, has both confirmed and confounded stereotypes – although the story of what motivated them to allegedly kill innocents remains unknown, and investigators are cobbling together fragments to try to make sense of it.

This much is known: Their family hails from Chechnya, the predominantly Muslim region in the Caucasus with a bitter history with Russia, one fraught with terrorist attacks. The young men moved to the United States about 10 years ago and settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

News accounts have portrayed Dzhokhar as seemingly well integrated into American life. President Barack Obama gave voice to the mystery of their motive. "Why did young men who grew up and studied here, as part of our communities and our country, resort to such violence?" he asked.

The leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, pointed a finger at the United States. "Any attempt to make a link between Chechnya and the Tsarnaevs, if found guilty, is in vain," he wrote on Instagram. "They grew up in the US, their views and beliefs were formed there. The roots of evil must be searched for in America."

A mental health issue

Many Muslim students and their advocates fear that the Tsarnaevs' religion will be seen as the determining factor in their actions, and that the kind of suspicion that followed the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 will re-emerge.

Foremost in many of the students' memories are the efforts by the New York City Police Department to infiltrate Muslim student groups. The police defended their actions, which largely took place in 2006, by saying that terror plots in England had involved Muslim student groups at universities there.

Faculty members in New York condemned the surveillance. Jeanne Theoharis, a professor of political science at Brooklyn College of City University of New York, was among them, and she fears its resurgence. She said that several campus associations of Muslim students hang signs during meetings imploring students not to talk about politics.

"If you don't feel comfortable talking about certain things, you don't develop as you should," she said. "That's very costly in terms of education."

Theoharis said different standards also seemed to be at work in how people thought about the Boston Marathon bombings compared with other recent high-profile tragedies in Arizona, Colorado and Connecticut. In those cases, lone gunmen killed and injured scores of innocent people.

The gun-related killings are seen as the work of mentally unbalanced individuals, she said. White people, like her, don't have to answer for the actions of those white killers in the way Muslims are generally expected to after horrific episodes of mass violence of the kind that occurred in Boston.

"We should be looking at this through the frame of mental health," she said of the marathon bombings. "It's the frame we're comfortable with for other tragedies."

Akbar Ahmed, a professor at American University's School of International Service and a former ambassador for Pakistan, sees another paradigm at work in Boston and its aftermath.

The bombing, he said, is not evidence of a grand ‘clash of civilizations’, as posited by Bernard Lewis and Samuel P Huntington. Instead, Ahmed argued, tribalism is what drives acts of terror.

An anthropologist, Ahmed studied 40 remote tribal societies for his new book, The Thistle and the Drone: How America's war on terror became a global war on tribal Islam. Such societies are driven by a code in which honour, hospitality and revenge are paramount. Many of those precepts run counter to the tenets of Islam, he said.

"Islam had nothing to do with it," he said of attacks like the one in Boston. The real dichotomy, he said, is one in which the centre, or the modernised, prosperous world, conflicts with the periphery, or the tribal world.

When violence scars tribal areas in Chechnya, Pakistan, Somalia or Waziristan, for example, anger boils up among its men, he said. They look for ways to fight back. Since they are suffering on the periphery, men in those tribal regions reason, those who live in the centre should, too.

"They respond with their own mutated sense of revenge," Ahmed said.

While the Tsarnaev brothers had lived in the United States since the early 2000s, he said the legacy of Chechen tribalism ran deep. "The code is so strong."

Ahmed said this more nuanced understanding of Islam and of tribalism would ultimately help those who are targets of terrorism better integrate the alienated and disaffected products of tribalism.

He also thought Islam needed to do a better job of offering young men a fruitful path. "They have to get imams who understand youth culture," he said.