Opinion: Don't confuse identity with motive
After the tragic Boston Marathon bombing on April 15, a dramatic firefight in Watertown and the final capture of one of the two suspects, there are two names tied to this tragedy: Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, two brothers believed to be behind the attack.
We are learning quite a bit about them: where they grew up, what the older brother may have believed and how friends and family remember them.
However, whatever we learn about them does not tell us why they did what they did -- only parts of who they are. It is easy, in the initial aftermath of the bombings, to make careless associations between identity and motive, similar to post 9/11 reaction.
But this time, there is a change in rhetoric of how potential suspects are identified, particularly if they are Muslim. It is because of this change we are learning to move past paralyzing fear and maturing in how we think of what it means to be American.
After 9/11, there were times when Muslims, Arab-Americans and others felt like it was a "witch hunt" to find who committed the acts, which resulted in misplaced searches and error. Then, after the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil, there was swift action to protect and condemn. It resulted in the fatal shooting of innocent men like Balbir Singh Sodhi. He was killed by Frank Roque, who wanted to "kill a Muslim" in response to the terror attacks.
He was not alone in being targeted after 9/11.
The implication that all Muslims - and those who "look" Muslim - are out to get Americans flies in the face of the history of American Muslims. It is also contradicted by hard data that shows how few attacks against Americans are carried out by Muslims, and the outsize perception of Muslim participation in terror attacks.
Study after study also shows that Muslims who are engaged with their mosque and in their communities tend to be more civically engaged, like the Muslim leader who recently thwarted an attack in Canada.
Tamerlan was not well-integrated into the mosque he attended.
There are reports that perhaps he was radicalized, connected to a larger network of individuals and influenced by abhorrent videos that may have been a motivation.
There is more to be learned.
But America is reacting differently to this suspect than to American Muslims after 9/11. This is in part because American Muslims are much more visibly engaged in political and civil society structures, and that active engagement has also resulted in a more confident expression of what it means to be American and Muslim. In the immediate aftermath of the bombing, the Islamic Center of Boston Cultural Center provided 40 medical professionals and volunteered the center as a disaster relief area.
This time, there seemed to be more acknowledgement that these tragedies really are orchestrated by all sorts of Americans. While there are reports of attacks on Muslim Americans, and fears of further attacks against Muslims and Sikhs, it has not been to the extent of fear after 9/11.
There has also been a more sophisticated discussion about how these brothers were acting in an American mold, following the boys of Columbine.
Along with college students, prominent clerical and political figures are actively speaking out against Islamophobia and indiscriminate hate against Muslims.
There are mosque leaders encouraging their congregations to not hide, but to educate. There have been a variety of books, like "Love, InshAllah," and the "I Speak for Myself" series, that express a variety of experiences of Muslim Americans.
These are all signs of confidence from within the American Muslim community, and that comes with support and acceptance of the broader society that Muslims are American.
This change in rhetoric around looking for simple answers gives me hope. It means we are healing from the tragedy of 9/11 -- and growing stronger.
The sad fact is that we cannot predict attacks like this, as much as we would like to. The best we can do is build true communities that are resilient and where we recognize that being American does not mean one ethnicity or faith.
We are looking to create something better, and not live in fear.
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