3 Facts About Religion and Violent Extremism

In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, it’s important to keep the facts straight about the complexities of terrorism.

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A banner reading "United We Stand for Peace on Earth" stands outside the Islamic Society of Boston mosque in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on Friday, April 19, 2013. (AP/Allen Breed)

In the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, there was confusion and bewilderment about who the perpetrators were and what motivated them to kill innocent people. Speculation swirled amid the sorrow and grief as investigators examined daunting amounts of data and pursued leads. Local, state, and federal officials worked night and day and soon had photographs of two suspects. They released the photos to the public, hoping that someone would identify the two young men in sweatshirts and baseball caps, carrying backpacks filled with explosives. Within hours they had names.

The young men were Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, brothers who came to this country from Kyrgystan with their family when Dzhokhar was 8 years old and Tamerlan was 15 years old. The family was Muslim, and in the months before the Boston bombings, the brothers spent time on radical Islamist websites, and Tamerlan went to Russia for six months. When this news made headlines, it triggered intense speculation about connections between Islam and terrorism, the path of radicalization, mosques as potential breeding grounds for violent extremism,  and more.

All of these claims sound familiar. Without much variation, they echo similar claims made by pundits, politicians, and self-described experts after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. Although we as a nation have made much progress since then in learning the complexities of terrorism, fighting extremism, and devising targeted strategies to strengthen our security—and although there is more solidarity and understanding between Muslim and other communities than in 2001—it is still important to rebut claims that were wrong back then and are still wrong today.

Knowing the difference between speculation and reality is more than an academic exercise. After the Boston bombings, there were reported acts of violence and intimidation against American Muslims, as well as vandalism against mosques. In such a heated atmosphere, facts are critically important. Here are some facts to help set the record straight.

American mosques are effective deterrents against violent extremism in their communities

Despite recent calls by Rep. Peter King (R-NY) to increase surveillance of American Muslim communities because “the threat is from within,” studies show that community mosques actually deter radicalization and extremism through a range of efforts such as publicly denouncing violence, confronting extremists, providing programs for youth, and cooperating with law enforcement. Mosques sponsor Boy Scouts and after-school activities and provide social services similar to those of other houses of worship that serve their communities as an expression of their faith.

When Tamerlan Tsarnaev disrupted Friday prayers at a Cambridge mosque a few months ago by yelling at the imam for praising Martin Luther King, Jr., volunteer leaders took him aside and told him he could not come back if he continued to be disruptive. After the brothers’ pictures were released, members of the mosque who recognized them called the FBI.

There is no clear, predictable path to radicalization

Despite speculation that the brothers became terrorists because of jihadist websites or influences from trips overseas, studies show that there is no measurable link between holding radical beliefs and engaging in violent action. Beyond that, there is no discernible pattern on which law enforcement can rely to determine who will become a terrorist. It is not only virtually impossible to connect the dots—it’s not even certain that there are dots to connect.

Praying five times a day and wearing religious garb is not a marker of violent extremism. It’s much more likely to be an indicator of piety and devotion. In fact, polling research shows that high levels of religiosity and mosque involvement in American Muslim communities are linked to greater levels of “civic engagement and support for American democratic values.” Instead of targeting entire communities because of their faith, law enforcement should focus on individuals who display noticeable tendencies of violent behavior.

Religion is one of many identities within a person and rarely the sole motivator for action

When the perpetrator is Christian, this complexity is more easily acknowledged. Linking violence to Christianity can offend, and so other explanations are sought. When Eric Rudolph bombed an abortion clinic in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1998, for instance, he quoted the Bible to support his violence and claimed Christian teachings in his defense. Despite his self-proclaimed Christian motivation, his act was seen as political rather than religiously inspired.

In the case of the Tsarnaev brothers, there are many nonreligious factors that deserve attention: the older brother’s change of behavior after being blocked from a national boxing tournament because he wasn’t a citizen; his violent temper and alleged violence against a former girlfriend; stresses from his inability to financially support his family; and his descent from a handsome athlete and gifted musician to an unemployed husband and father on public assistance. As for the younger brother, he was a heavy marijuana user who was practically flunking out of college despite his success in high school. In addition, their parents, now separated, left the country last year. The brothers acted as partners, which adds intrigue about the influence of the older brother on the younger one.

We do not know the power of any of these factors—at least not yet. But it would be foolish to essentialize the Tsarnaev brothers as “radical Muslims,” as if those two words accurately describe them or sufficiently explain their actions. Instead, it is important to examine the many forces in their lives, giving weight to the numerous contradictions and refusing to jump to conclusions that aren’t supported by evidence. That is the only way to undertake the arduous and heartbreaking task of piecing together the “why” of this horrific act.

Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Steenland, a best-selling author, former newspaper columnist, and teacher, explores the role of religion and values in the public sphere.

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Sally Steenland

Former Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative

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