Was Islam Responsible for the Boston Bombings, or Was “Internet Islam”?

There must be sane ground between the Islamophobia of the right and the tender tolerance of the left. There must be some sense in which indicting the world’s billion Muslims for the crimes of the Tsarnaev brothers not only is false, but also counterproductive, on the one side. And, on the other, there must be some sense in recognizing the avowed and admitted role of religion, and Islam, in particular, in the bombings.

But where is it?

I say this because we all know real Muslims as friends, relatives, co-workers and such, and know that they do not countenance what the Chechen brothers did. We also know enough about the history of Islamic civilization to realize that their understanding of Islam likewise does not as well encourage the behavior of the Tsarnaevs. But, how then to make sense of Boston?

Mark Juergensmeyer speaks of Islam being “hijacked.” In the past, I have too have used this very phrase—to describe the 9/11 attacks, for example. But, I have come to think that such usages have misled us into believing something about Islam that we no longer believe about any religion, or for that matter, any or most ideologies or belief systems. [Mark Silk makes a complementary argument here. –The Eds.]

Mark would have us believe that there is some essential Islam beneath the various appearances ascribing to themselves an Islamic nature. I do not believe this is so, or at least I want to say that it is not quite as Mark would make it out to be. Thus, while I believe that cherishing such an ideal of an “essential” Islam may serve rhetorical purposes, I opt for what I think is more candor.

There is no “essential” Islam which can either be or not be “hijacked.” Yes, holding up the ideal of an “essential” (viz., good, non-violent) Islam gives aid and comfort to those who wish this to be the case. And, one imagines that holding to the belief in this “essential” (viz., good, non-violent) Islam can then play a role in bringing about just such a result. But, the Tsarnaev brothers were not Norwegian Lutherans, hammering their own “99 Theses” onto fair Harvard’s walls of ivy. They identified themselves as Muslims fighting for the sake of Islam. But, however ironic it may seem, as I shall argue, this does not justify Islamophobia, since they assume the same essentialized notion of Islam to which Mark Juergensmeyer makes rhetorical appeal. It’s just that in the case of Islamophobes, Islam is essentially bad. Here, left and right, as is often is the case, mirror each other. I want to put in another perspective.

First, the title of “Islam” is up for grabs, at least in the Sunni world. And, what we are witnessing today are the skirmishes, back-stabbings, cavalry attacks and such of a worldwide struggle among Sunnis.

Interestingly, and ironically, the Shi’a seem relatively far more settled. Hezbollah and the Ayatollahs may have their differences; the Iraqi Shi’a may worry about being swallowed up by their bigger Iranian brother. But, they do not charge each other with not being Muslims. Sunnis do that to Shiites and to each other.

The Sunni world is in turmoil, not the Shi’a. There, many “Islams” contend for the hearts of the faithful, for the right to define what is “essential” Islam. When a scraggly-bearded physician, dug into some cave on the borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan, can declare fatwas whenever he chooses, we can understand how and why Sunnis are in disarray. When a gang of former Ghaddafi “guns” can desecrate the tombs of Muslim saints in Mali honored for centuries, and declare a Sharia-based state there, we know something is amiss. Who appointed them?

And, about Boston: the older Tsarnaev brother, Tamerlan, is reported to have challenged his local mosque leader’s orthodoxy in the midst of the mosque service—on more than one occasion! Authority structures in the Sunni world have gone the way of the demise of the systems of jurisprudence that held that world together for centuries.

Second, “Internet Islam” is here, it’s queer, and we have to deal with it. Conspicuous in the Boston case was how the Boston bombers learned their bomb-making from the internet. No Al Qaeda master or war-hardened foreign “terrorist” guided their efforts. But, going unnoticed was that they learned their religion in the same way!

RD bloggers have rightly asked the question of the depth of the “piety” of the Tsarnaevs. That too misses a vital point. I do not for a moment discount the sincerity of the feelings for Islam by the Tsarnaev brothers. But, what Islam was the object of those feelings? I would offer that it was for an “Internet Islam”—for an abstract, compact, easily rendered Islam, fed by the representations flowing from out of the ether!

When the older brother went to Dagestan, apparently, to find himself, he did not take Islamic instruction there. He hung around aimlessly in his uncle’s apartment, and relished in the call to prayer echoing through the streets. Deep stuff, no doubt. What Tamerlan Tsarnaev did when he moved from the world of “Internet Islam” to Dagestan Islam may be like the let-down felt when moving from the world of internet porn to one’s regular sex partner. Flesh and blood: what a downer! Why should we see the “Internet Islam” phenomenon as different in kind from the phenomenon of white suburban teens who imagine themselves “gangstas” because they wear designer hip-hop gear? Why should we see this kind of Islam as different in kind from the ways we all identify with images in the mass media?

And, although we may be tempted to see “Internet Islam” as “an inch thick,” and thus dismiss it, we should not. 

Like other fads, “Internet Islam” is a “million miles wide.” Indeed, what is to stop “Internet Islam” from making a move to become that “essential” Islam of which so many speak? With the Sunni world in disarray, and authority structures in a shambles, who will speak power to internet truth? In a globalized world, “Internet Islam” links Muslims or wannabes in ways no sermon or newsletter could. And, like internet sex and porn, it makes no demands on us that we do not ourselves embrace.

Is there a “real” (essential) Islam beneath the image flickering on the computer monitor or smartphone screen? There could be if people make it so. It all depends on what people do. What the Tsarnaev brothers did was live their “Internet Islam” dream.