In Reef flip flops, blue jeans and a Calvin Klein polo shirt, Ruslan Tsarni, an uncle of the alleged Boston Marathon bombers, strode down the driveway of his Federalist-style home last week in Montgomery Village, Md., an upper middle-class Washington, D.C. suburb, past a ground cover of purple wisteria blooming in his front yard and pink tulips across the street.
In the next few minutes, the uncle to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, the alleged Boston Marathon bombers, accomplished something that 11 years of post-9/11 press releases, news conferences and soundbites by too many American Muslim leaders has failed to do on the issue of radicalization and terrorism: with raw, unfettered emotion, he owned up to the problem within.
Instead of being silenced by what they did, he openly said that his nephews had brought “shame” on the family with their actions. This is the same kind of “shame off,” as one admirer later called it, that protesters to the gang rape in India have to win: Are we shamed into silence? Or do we confront the serious issues that shame us?
Hands clasped tightly in front of him, Uncle Ruslan faced off against a pack of about 30 journalists, cameras pointing at him, microphones stuck in front of him, questions about his nephews thrown at him:
“When was the last time you saw them?” He answered: December 2005. Another journalist asked: “What do you think provoked this?” “Umm, being losers! Hatred to those who were able to settle themselves!” he shouted. “These are the only reasons I can imagine. Anything else to do with religion, to do with Islam, is a fraud, is a fake.”
As an American Muslim who has watched the radicalization of Muslims from Louisville, Ky., to Chatanooga, Tenn., to Chechnya, the ancestral ethnicity of the alleged bombers, over the last three decades, I had one question on my mind.
I asked softly: “Is your family Muslim?”
The uncle didn’t hear me well: “Huh?”
I repeated my question: “Is your family Muslim?”
The question was one other journalists later admitted to me that they wondered but didn’t dare ask, the proverbial elephant in the room, only at that moment, on a cul-de-sac with manicured lawns, playground sets and helicopters and Canadian geese overhead. In Washington, D.C., leaders of national American Muslim organizations filled a room at the National Press Club and issued their flat, blanket rebuttals: Islam doesn’t sanction violence, and it doesn’t allow terrorism. When the New York Post made the mistake of writing that a Saudi witness was actually a suspect, bloggers and others took advantage of the opportunity to chortle over the mistake as just one more horrible example of stereotyping.
While it is critical that we don’t jump to conclusions by associating religious affiliation with militancy, there is no doubt that embracing an ideology of Islam that promotes extremism and violence has been a motivator for terrorism, from assassinated al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden to Army Major Nidal Hasan.
Did such an ideology influence the Tsarnaev brothers? Who or what compelled them to violence? What role does Muslim culture play in this type of radicalization?
Rather than worrying about being politically correct, we have to be comfortable asking these difficult questions. And the collectivist-minded Muslim community needs to learn an important lesson from Tsarni: It’s time to acknowledge the dishonor of terrorism within our communities, not to deny it because of shame. As we negotiate critical issues of ethnicity, religious ideology and identity as potential motivators for conflict, we have to establish basic facts.
So when I asked about his faith, Tsarni heard me. And he did something remarkable. He didn’t flinch.
“We are Muslims,” he answered clearly and steely-eyed. “We are Chechnyans. We are ethnic Chechnyans.”
Had the boys gotten radicalized, I wondered. The stories of so many—from Richard Reid, the “shoebomber,” to Faisal Shahzad, the alleged Time Square bomber–have included radicalization. The Boston area mosques haven’t been immune. “Do you think that they got radicalized in the mosques in that area?” I asked.
What I heard I couldn’t believe, I’ve become so used to the tactics of deflection. He looked me straight in the eye, and he said, “…most likely somebody radicalized them. But it’s not my brother, who just moved back to Russia, who spent his life bringing bread to their table, fixing cars, fixing cars.”
What happened when this Muslim American looked us in the eye and admitted the problem?
Tsarni became “Uncle Ruslan” to millions of Americans watching him on TV and later online, winning their respect, first, with apologies and then, with his hands clenched, fierce indignation, outrage and anger over the suspected role of his nephews as the Boston Marathon bombers. And there was his color too: Still using AOL when most don’t even know it still exits, scolding Dzhokhar to turn himself in.
The uncle stunned seasoned reporters, some of them veterans of the trials in Guantanamo Bay and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with his straight talk. First, he expressed his condolences to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings and, then, declared loud and clear that his nephews brought “shame” on his family and the people of Chechnya, the family’s ethnicity: “Yes, of course, we’re ashamed. We’re ashamed. They’re children of my brother, who had little influence of them!” Later on Dzhokhar: “He put a shame on the entire Chechnyan ethnicity!” According to public records, Uncle Ruslan shared the same last name as his nephews but shortened it .
With close-cropped hair, a strong jawline and fit physique, the attorney became an accidental spokesman, instilling confidence as a truth-teller.
Admirers have created memes, or images, of his face, contorted in rage, revealing just how effective he has been in instilling confidence.
One meme headline: “Uncle Ruslan. Mosque Board Chairman 2013.”
His effectiveness reveals that the best crisis management doesn’t require intellectual gymnastic but just plain, honest talk: We have a problem. We know it. And we want to do right. Another “Uncle Ruslan” meme reads, “If you can believe it I have had no media training.” Yet another, “First time public speaking. Nailed it.”
“Uncle Ruslan” proved that folks can handle nuance. “It was wild, dramatic, angry, over-the-top,” wrote Washington Post blogger Alexandra Petri. She added: “People like Uncle Ruslan remind us that it’s the apples, not the barrel.”
She concluded: “Thank you. This was a moment we all needed.”
In this family lies the dichotomy of cross-cultural communication patterns confronting Muslim communities, just like other traditional societies. Many parts of Muslim society hold to traditional cultures which are shame-based; people “save face” to hide “shameful” acts. That’s what we heard from the brothers’ parents and aunt, Patemat Sulemanova.
While her brother said the nephews had shamed their family, Sulemanova, in Canada, told reporters she didn’t believe her nephews were involved in the bombings: “Convince me,” she said.
In Russia, Zubeidat Tsarnaev said her older son got involved in “religious politics” five years ago, but she refused to believe her sons were involved in the bombings, saying the FBI had visited her years earlier, troubled about Tamerlan’s activities, but that the FBI was in “the control” her older son’s activities. “He never told me he would be on the side of jihad,” she said. Typical of the failure of this posture of denial and conspiracy theories, a CNN reporter called it “a rant.”
Also in Russia, the alleged bombers’ father, Anzor Tsarnaev, called his brother “a great attorney,” but said he couldn’t believe his sons were involved. “I’m always telling them study, study, study,” he said. “Someone framed them.”
But back in America, Uncle Ruslan was winning in the court of public opinion.
And it was stunning to see how he acknowledged the shame openly but didn’t allow it to silence his criticism.
The bombing suspects, “put a shame on the entire Chechnyan ethnicity,” he said.
Earlier, Tsarni had told the Associated Press: “When I was speaking to the older one, he started all this religious talk, ‘Insh’allah’ and all that, and I asked him, ‘Where is all that coming from?’” Insh’allah is the Arabic phrase that means “God willing.”
What Tsarni is admitting is something true but politically incorrect to talk about: the increasing use of these phrases of religiosity are code inside the community for someone who is becoming hardcore. It doesn’t mean that they’re becoming violent or criminal, but it’s a red flag. In 2004, when I spoke about women’s rights at mosques at the Islamic Society of North America conference in Chicago, a young Muslim man stood at the microphone during the Q&A and scolded me for not saying an honorific, “Peace be upon him,” whenever I mentioned the name of the prophet Muhammad. He later sent me an electronic death threat I turned over to the FBI. It’s a game of trying to out-Muslim a Muslim.
Instead of playing that game, Uncle Ruslan did something remarkable. He put his hands together as if in prayer, and he showed humility, not defensive arrogance, saying he’d prostrate himself before the victims of the Boston bombings.
Ameen, as “amen” is said in Arabic and Muslim culture, to Uncle Ruslan. I believe it’s time for us American Muslims to take collective responsibility, rather than issue collective denial. That’s the attitude that cultivates confidence and fosters safety—for all.
With his passions expressed, Uncle Ruslan begged his goodbyes. Journalists remained in formation on the street outside the house, one eating a quick Subway sandwich on the lawn outside, another dragging a wicker chair from a neighbor’s garbage, before a cop reprimanded him. Suddenly, Tsarni emerged. Coming down the stairs onto the driveway he turned to walk toward the end of the cul-de-sac. Reporters and camera crews hustled to catch up. He pleaded with them: “What are you expecting from me? I’m just going to my neighbors to apologize to them for the discomfort my family has caused them.”
Rather than waiting for an invitation to RSVP to a superfluous “interfaith” dinner, Uncle Ruslan did something simple but crucial: He extended an invitation, was a good neighbor and took responsibility for the trouble that emerged in his front yard. In short, he owned up.
Surely, the Tsaernev family story is complicated, and there is nobody without flaw.
But Uncle Ruslan showed us where to begin.
With reporters still camped out , he emerged from his neighbor’s porch, his arm around the older music teacher who lived there, leading her warmly into his house. Hundreds of miles away, Boston Police drew close to bringing his nephew into custody, leaving Uncle Ruslan, the rest of Tsaernev family and our Muslim communities to do some real soul-searching about how we lost these boys to the ideology of terrorism.
To me, the answer lies inside a culture shift where we honestly acknowledge the radicalization problems within our communities—so that no Uncle Ruslan has to step outside his home, confessing to something gone very, very wrong.
Asra Q. Nomani, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, is a mother and the author of “Standing Alone: A Muslim Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam.”