The brothers “don’t neatly fit into pre-existing boxes,” says Peter Spiro, an international law professor at Temple University. “It is a very complex picture,” challenging the psychological need to “set the boundaries of the in-group and treat others differently.”
For many Muslims, even the possibility that the perpetrators could be Muslim reignited the fear that all people of that faith would pay a price in the form of discrimination or retaliation or shame. “Please, don’t be a Muslim” many tweeted in the hours before the suspects were pinpointed.
The older brother, Tamerlan, 26, was an avowed Muslim, although it is unclear whether his younger sibling shared his beliefs. The question of who the suspects were only became more bewildering as time dragged on. The brothers were identified as having roots in the Russian republic of Chechnya, in the North Caucasus mountains. Did this make them Caucasian — or “white” — in the way many Americans read that word? Misunderstanding ensued, leading to some 1,200 retweets of the following message: “Fox News just said ‘Chechens are not Caucasian’ despite the fact that Chechnya is literally IN THE CAUCUS [sic].” Embedded in the misunderstanding is the stereotype that to be a Muslim, one must be a darker-skinned person of Middle Eastern descent.
Asra Nomani, a Muslim writer, noted that some members of the larger Muslim American communities with Middle East or South Asian roots expressed relief when they saw photos of the accused bombers.
“ ‘Brown’ Muslims were like, ‘Whew, it’s not one of us,’ ” she said. “And then people felt that would protect Arabs or Indians or whomever from being targeted. It’s like a sigh of relief.”
Dalia Mogahed, author of “Who Speaks for Islam?,” acknowledged the human need to try to make sense of something as inexplicable as the marathon bombing by creating categories of a person, and a profile.
“When Sandy Hook happened, we were horrified, but the conversation quickly went to external environmental factors — guns or mental health,” Mogahed said. “It was all about, what environmental factors do we need to fix? From our perception, when the person is a Muslim American, the factors are not environmental, they are individual to that person.”
Add to that the brothers’ names, which many find difficult to pronounce.
“Maybe 2 percent of Americans could accurately pinpoint Chechnya on a map,” Spiro says. Evidence for that point: The Czech Republic’s statement last week that the brothers were not from that country. “They certainly fit our idea of foreign.”
Or do they? According to news reports, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was reared in the Boston area, developed strong relationships there and joined the wrestling team. There is little in his emerging biography that has stood out as foreign.