The Tsarnaev brothers—Tamerlan and Dzhokhar—of Cambridge, MA are, at present, the sole alleged perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombings.
Tamerlan and Dzhokhar are of Chechen descent and are also Muslim.
“Please, God don’t let it be a Muslim.” This was ArsalanIftikhar’s immediate thought upon hearing of the Boston Marathon bombing.
In fact, since 9/11, Iftikhar has had that thought about every bombing and mass shooting in every corner of the world, but particularly in his home country, the U.S. The April 2007 Virginia Tech shooting; the November 2009 Fort Hood shooting; the 2012 Colorado movie theater massacre; the December 2012 Newton school shooting all had him hoping the perpetrator wasn’t Muslim. Iftikhar, senior editor with Islamic Monthly, and popular blogger of “The Muslim Guy,” worried (like so many peace loving and law-abiding Muslims did) that an onslaught of Islamophobic vitriol and violence would follow violence committed by a Muslim.
His fear is, sadly, rooted in fact. Just hours after news spread globally about the Boston tragedy, anti-Muslim vigilantes surfaced. NPR reported that just outside of Boston a woman wearing a hijab (traditional headscarf worn by Muslim women) was attacked while strolling with her baby. In New York, a Bangladeshi man was accosted resulting in having his shoulder dislocated by someone yelled Islamophobic epithets.
Russian Tsarni, the Tsarnaev brothers’ uncle, expressed thoughts about collective guilt when he told news reporters that his nephews brought shame upon all Chechens.
“They’ve never been in Chechnya. This has nothing to do with Chechnya. Chechens are different. Chechens are peaceful people…. He put a shame on our family,” Tsarni told the reporters. “He put a shame on the entire Chechen ethnicity.”
But the weight of the brothers’ action bares not only a collective guilt placed on Chechens as Tsarni expressed, but their actions also places a collective shame and backlash on Muslims as Iftikhar worries.
“The term terrorism in post-9/11 America has sort of been co-opted to really only apply when it’s brown, Muslim men…. Already today, I have received several pieces of hate mail in my email inbox and I think many brown people in America are feeling very nervous right now,” Iftikhar told NPR.
Salon magazine writer David Sirota’s expressed similar concerns. In his article “Let’s hope the Boston Marathon bomber is a white American” he stated “There is a double standard: White terrorists are dealt with as lone wolves, Islamists are existential threats.”
Tim Wise, one of the most prominent white American anti-racist writers and educators in the United States, wrote a similar article soon after the bombing titled, “Terrorism and Privilege: Understanding the Power of Whiteness.”
“White privilege is knowing that even if the bomber turns out to be white, no one will call for your group to be profiled as terrorists as a result, subjected to special screening or threatened with deportation,” Wise wrote. “White privilege is knowing that if this bomber turns out to be white, the United States government will not bomb whatever corn field or mountain town or stale suburb from which said bomber came, just to ensure that others like him or her don’t get any ideas. And if he turns out to be a member of the Irish Republican Army we won’t bomb Dublin. And if he’s an Italian-American Catholic we won’t bomb the Vatican.”
In August 2012, Wade Michael Page, an American white supremacist, Neo-Nazi and U.S. army veteran, murdered six Sihks and wounded several others at a Sihk temple in Wisconsin. Sihk males wear turbans and are often mistaken as Muslim terrorists. Page’s act was aptly depicted by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder as “an act of terrorism, an act of hatred, a hate crime.”
Immediately following the Boston bombing several “Muslim-looking” suspects were apprehended to the chagrin of law enforcement that later released them and offered an apology.
Not much has changed since September 11, 2011.
I’m reminded of a 2002 incident when Ayman Gheith, Kambiz Butt and Omar Chaudhary were then our recent poster boys of what it means to be “traveling while Muslim.” At a Shoney’s restaurant in Calhoun, Georgia, just two days after the one-year anniversary of 9/11, patron Eunice Stone heard the three men unabashedly discuss their supposedly conspiratorial plot to detonate a bomb in Miami. And Gheith, who had a long beard and wore a Muslim skullcap, cemented Stone’s suspicion.
In an interview on CNN that year , Ayman Gheith said, “I learned that injustice, regardless against whom, is wrong. It is against us today, tomorrow it could be against you.”
As I ask myself the question Gheith poses about who will be America’s next suspect I am reminded of the pink triangle, a symbol known to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer community worldwide. The pink triangle dates back to the Nazi Holocaust when gay men were prisoners and confined to death camps because of their sexuality. Relegated to the lowest rung in the death camps’ hierarchy, gay prisoners were forced to wear the symbol which signified their rank; thus, making them among the first to die.
Suspicion of the “other” has always abounded in the psyche and soul of this country. And oddly, the suspicion of the “other‚” does not have to be a person who is an alien to this country or a person who is stranger to this country’s morals or mores. Suspicion of the “other” is simply predicated on just being different.
And being different, these days, exacts a particular toll not just on Muslims, or African Americans or LGBTQ people, but it exacts a toll on us all.