WASHINGTON — In 2009, Ruslan Tsarni and his nephew Tamerlan Tsarnaev had a bitter argument over the implications of their faith. Tsarnaev announced he had chosen “God’s business” over work or school. “I was shocked when I heard his words, his phrases, when every other word he starts sticking in words of God,” says Tsarni. “There is someone who brainwashed him, some new convert to Islam.” The falling out ended their relationship.
This was more than a family disagreement. It is a debate being conducted, in various forms, in Egypt, Nigeria, Indonesia, the Caucasus, the Palestinian territories and other places. Over the last several decades, traditional forms of Islam have been challenged by radical variants, which often latch onto ethnic and tribal resentments. Disaffected, angry young men can be particularly receptive, causing turmoil in families, mosques, regions and countries.
In our country, such radicalism is rare — a tribute to America’s special superpower of assimilation — but not unknown. And it seems particularly difficult for us to account for. As the circumstances surrounding the Boston bombings have clarified, some of the reactions have been ideologically reflexive and counterproductive.
Portions of the left turned to any artifice to avoid a serious discussion of radicalism and terrorism. Even the use of the word “terrorism” is viewed as a threat to multiculturalism or the pre- lude to a new round of civil rights abuses in the war on terrorism.
But the threat of terrorism is real, whether a given ideology finds it convenient or not. Consistent pressure on terrorist networks, including drone strikes, has made spectacular, al-Qaida-like attacks less likely. Yet homegrown, jihadist-inspired violence is a continuing danger.
When suspected of radicalism, Tamerlan Tsarnaev was hardly subject to abusive or oppressive treatment. If anything, his case raises the question of what it would take — in addition to the warning of a foreign government, defiance during an FBI interview and international travel to a terrorism-prone region — to trigger heightened scrutiny.
But elements of the right suffer their own form of ideological impairment. Their tendency is to regard terrorism and Islam as interchangeable. During the Boston manhunt, Rush Limbaugh predicted that the politically correct media would “circle the wagons” and say that “this is not because of Islam.”