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.”