May 16th, 2013
04:33 PM ET

My Take: What Tsarnaev gets wrong about Islam

Editor’s note: Hussein Rashid is a native New York Muslim. He teaches at Hofstra University in the Department of Religion. He is an associate editor at Religion Dispatches, a term member on the Council on Foreign Relations and fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding

By Hussein Rashid, Special to CNN

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the Boston Marathon bomb suspects, reportedly wrote that “an attack against one Muslim is an attack against all” on the wall of the boat in which he was hiding from police last month. Variations of this refrain seem to be common among angry young Muslim men, especially those who are attracted to violence. However, such a view ignores history, religious thinking and contemporary reality. It should be seen as a crass advertising slogan rather than a declaration of belief.

Tsarnaev's quote seems to be based on the idea of a global Muslim community, called the ummah, that has always been aspirational. The Tsarnaev brothers clearly felt that they were being marginalized, and the fact that they did not belong to an American Muslim community further reinforced that belief. So the brothers turned to the idea of the ummah, a historical fiction that has not existed in practice in all of Muslim history. Muslims are too varied to connect to one way of being a community.

What we are witnessing in Syria, what we saw in Egypt or in Iran during the Green Revolution, is that Muslims kill other Muslims for political gain, and the idea of the ummah is broken. There is no sense from the brothers that they would have been able to understand or choose sides in these conflicts.

Suspect: Boston bombing was payback for hits on Muslims 

However, the slogan worked its magic, allowing them to see aspiration as reality and one that they could achieve. Unfortunately, their nemesis became America, including the millions of Muslims living in America.

There is no universal, binding legal command for all Muslims to support each other at all times. Even if there were, throughout Islamic history, it has been observed in its breach rather than in practice.

Prophet Mohammed’s son-in-law, Ali, was assassinated while praying, and Mohammed’s favorite grandson, Husayn, was murdered after being denied food and water for days. Both of these acts were committed by people who considered themselves Muslim.

Even in the modern period, we see al Qaeda slaughtering thousands upon thousands of Muslims. Tsarnaev may have felt aggrieved by attacks on Muslims, but he sided with a group that wantonly kills other Muslims. He believed the false assumption, shared by extremists and Islamophobes, that one cannot be American and Muslim.

Within Islamic thought, there is not a sense that everything a Muslim does is automatically good. In fact, the Quran calls on believers to compete with people in doing good in the world, and that competition is expressly not limited to Muslims but to all people.

There is also a sense that Muslims must work toward a more just society by encouraging good works and discouraging bad ones and help others to do the same. This last premise is one that seems to have been exercised by the community of the Islamic Society of Boston, which attempted to correct the elder Tsarnaev brother's misreading of Islamic tradition.

Protesting government policies that reduce justice and harm people is an obligation by virtue of being American and Muslim, and it is a right. However, to protest the death of civilians by killing civilians shows a lack of commitment to justice and only a desire for power.

The American Muslim community has a rich history of demanding and working toward justice, including Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Lupe Fiasco and Mos Def. Individuals like Manar Waheed of South Asian Americans Leading Together and Muneer Panjwani of Do Something are actively building a more equitable and just society in America, and they are competing with others to do good.

Tsarnaev may believe that an attack against one Muslim is an attack against all, but he must then question where he sees himself, because on that day in Boston, he attacked Muslims, too. He may have accepted a slogan as faith, but to do so, he had to willfully forget all the varieties of ways one can be Muslim.

For me, and many other American Muslims, faith is believing that you can affect positive change in the world and being willing to commit to do the hard work necessary to build with other people.

Timeline: Boston attack, aftermath

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Hussein Rashid.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Islam

soundoff (322 Responses)
  1. STFU

    People who read the above article might also like to read the today's breaking news from NY:

    "During a 12-month investigation, law enforcement seized more than 65,000 forged NYC/NYS cigarette tax stamps that were not yet affixed to packs of cigarettes, and nearly 20,000 cartons of untaxed cigarettes. The investigation, which has so far uncovered $55 million in illegal cigarette sales, is continuing.

    While it hasn’t been established yet where the illicit proceeds ended up, similar schemes have been used in the past to help fund organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah."

    fyi – I saw the few names, and they sounded like middle eastern, Abu, Ali, Mohammad

    May 16, 2013 at 6:27 pm |
    • Bobbb

      death to islam the shlt religion of the world

      someday these evil ones will die. time works for us and reveals their plans. we will win for they are filthy dogs eating dirt.


      May 16, 2013 at 6:55 pm |

    • Drones reach out and touch someone -ism.

      May 17, 2013 at 3:11 am |
  2. expakistani

    The professor has his opinions but they are not supported by the Islamic texts and as such mean nothing to orthodox Muslims.

    May 16, 2013 at 6:23 pm |
    • sam

      One of the problems that islam shares with christianity is that no one can agree on what the texts really say, how they should be applied, which parts are literal or not, etc.

      It's embarassing to watch.

      May 16, 2013 at 6:30 pm |
    • Operaman

      Agreed. This is a religion which from the start has sought to replace truth with lies. It seeks to steel the Jewish blessing through Isaac, usurp the Holy of Holies and remove the Christian history of Jesus Christ dying on the cross with a blasphemy. It is not that we are intolerant but the mere fact that Islam at its core cannot tolerate anything but itself as ruling authority.

      May 16, 2013 at 6:37 pm |
    • HA

      You're wrong. And by the way who the hell are you to speak on behalf of all orthodox Muslims. You should change your handle from "Ex Pakistani" to " Ex Muslim."

      May 16, 2013 at 8:24 pm |
    • derp

      "but the mere fact that Islam at its core cannot tolerate anything but itself as ruling authority"

      Sounds a lot like the people who claim America is a "christian nation" and want to force christian beliefs into US law.

      The only thing as scary as a muslim, is a christian.

      May 17, 2013 at 9:33 am |
  3. ahmad

    where was the world when Timothy McVeigh blew up the federal building in Oklahoma. Where was the world when the KKK existed and Slavery. Muslims are being picked on because people see these issues in today's headlines. Life goes on my friends. All i can say is that there is no God in any universe that wants people to die. I just heard recently that the first police officer to respond at the world trade center was in fact a Muslim. What do you folks have to say about that.

    May 16, 2013 at 6:22 pm |
    • Answer

      "I just heard recently that the first police officer to respond at the world trade center was in fact a Muslim. What do you folks have to say about that."

      --The first responder was a policeman.

      What you want everyone to think is..."well gosh look we have a muslim there helping."

      And the bomber that was a muslim was a "fanatic" to you but you want to distance the "muslim" name away from the person that gave you a bad name.

      It's the same ploy.. "if they're doing good.. they are a part of us. if not they aren't."

      Too bad.

      May 16, 2013 at 6:25 pm |
    • Beetlejuice

      Actually, Joker has it right. Muslims owe their allegiance first to Allah, then to the Ummah (the worldwide body of Muslims), and "defense of Islam" is justification for ANY Muslim to do anything, to anybody, at any time.

      You have to understand how Mohammed twisted the notion of "defense of Islam" to justify his raids on neighboring villages if you want to get the full picture of the Islamic mindset (he was of course the Very First Muslim). If a person or group is "invited to accept Islam" and refuses to do so, that person/ group is guilty of "offending Allah" and of "insulting Islam" – which is the same as "attacking Islam" – which means that EVERY Muslim is called to rise up and *DEFEND* Islam by smiting the "offender" in any way possible. This is how Muslims can look Westerners in the eye and swear that the only violence acceptable to Muslims is "defensive" in nature. According to Islam, the will of Allah is for the whole world to live in peace under Islam with a divinely appointed Caliph as its just and benevolent ruler. ANYONE WHO OPPOSES GOD'S PERFECT PLAN FOR MANKIND IS ATTACKING THE VERY ESSENCE OF ISLAM, and –obviously– it is required of True Believers to DEFEND God's perfect plan. And *THERE* you have the essence of the mindset of the jihadists. (And, by the way –despite the wailing of "moderate Muslims" proclaiming that their "peaceful" religion is being misunderstood or perverted by "extremists"– this "violence in defense of Islam" is TOTALLY supported in Islamic scripture. As noted above, Mohammed himself initiated it, and then gloated "I am made victorious by terror". You can Google the quote.)

      May 16, 2013 at 7:06 pm |
  4. zaglossus

    Reason and religion are incompatible – a concept that was demonstrated at least as far back as David Hume.

    May 16, 2013 at 6:16 pm |
  5. Tamago chen

    Whenever an anochronistic process is found in the Quran or Hadith, Muslims MUST declare "that is an anachronistic, wrong practice, and Muhammad PBUH/God/Whoever was SADLY mistaken" – That is how the Chinese deal with Mao, keeping loyalty to him while not doing what he espoused

    May 16, 2013 at 6:14 pm |
  6. cosmo

    We all have our opinion. They are nuts is mine. Brainwashed sickos..

    May 16, 2013 at 6:03 pm |
  7. alaricrose

    Religion in and of itself is not the problem. Most religions teach compassion, kindness, and peace. The issue lies with those who use religion as a justification to hurt others who do not share their beliefs, and the motivation is typically political and/or economic gain. It is these people who are the problem, and they should probably actually READ the book that they are supposedly basing their actions off of.

    May 16, 2013 at 6:01 pm |
    • sam

      @death to islam – your trolling permit was not approved. Reapply at a later time (when you're over 18).

      May 16, 2013 at 6:28 pm |
    • sam

      Come where, little troll? Your mom's house, to watch My Little Pony? Give me your address.

      May 16, 2013 at 6:43 pm |
  8. Coexist


    May 16, 2013 at 6:00 pm |
    • Coexist

      I'm not submiting to anything but you are submiting to being a slave to your own politics. The only reason war would be inevitable is because you want it.

      May 16, 2013 at 6:45 pm |
  9. HotAirAce

    What he/they got wrong was getting involved in a delusional cult. If you can trick your brain into believing in imaginary allegedly supernatural beings, you can convince yourself, and possibly others, to do anything.

    May 16, 2013 at 5:58 pm |
    • Coexist

      Hot air..like it or not the only person's mind you are in control of is your own.

      May 16, 2013 at 6:01 pm |
  10. His panic

    The Arab spring did not produce one single flower or plant not even weeds.

    May 16, 2013 at 5:56 pm |
    • Food for Thought

      Only storms.

      May 17, 2013 at 9:20 am |
  11. Tom, Tom, the Other One

    Islam is no less contrived and false than any other faith formed around the odd God of Abraham. "Believing that you can affect positive change in the world and being willing to commit to do the hard work necessary to build with other people" doesn't require it at all and there is so much baggage associated with it you can scarcely do the good you might want to do.

    May 16, 2013 at 5:56 pm |
  12. Johny

    Islam doesn't encourage terrorism and killing. although many people out there think that Muslims think terrorism is good, that isn't true. Jihad doesn't mean holy war, it means to struggle for the sake of god in which you resist you desires and compromise for the sake of others. The war part only comes when as a Muslim nation, you need to fight back people that are fighting you. Muslims don't kill innocent people, we believe in good and peace for all whether Muslim or not. It is important to see that just because al Qaeda kills people and says they are following Islam doesn't mean what they are doing is right. We all Muslims believe that Al Qaeda is wrong in killing innocent people and send out all the people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Middle East who are struggling. Just because if ten Christians,Hindus, Jews, or Athiests just make a gang and decide to kill everybody, does that make Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, or Athiesm bad? Does it make all the people who follow Christianity, Hinduism, Athiesm, or Judaism bad? The answe is no because we as humans can't judge everybody just on the basis of one person's action

    May 16, 2013 at 5:54 pm |
    • Gerri

      The Koran also says it is OK to lie to infidels. What you are saying will never be believed. Islam does encourage the slaughter of infidels. Many of your spiritual leaders teach this. You cannot deny this. Most Americans are sick of Muslim apologists whoes first act after an murderous abomination is always cries of "That is not Islam-that is not Islam-that is not Islam. Voicing any concern regarding the infidel victims is usually an after thought in order to keep the lie going. Nice try, but we are not buying.

      May 16, 2013 at 6:05 pm |
    • Bobby

      My concern is that older extremists can use the teachings of the Quran to get younger, less experienced followers to enact violence against innocents. And it appears that this is happening? I am far from an expert but by just looking into a few of the scripture's edicts, it seems that this is an undeniable fact. The following information was taken from a website designed to educate westerners on how Muslims have nothing to do with terror. It says:

      "The Quran defines physical Jihad as being the highest level of Jihad that one can undertake. Its reward is eternal Paradise. It is defined as: Jihad against all that prevents Muslims from servitude to God (Allah), people from knowing Islam, defense of a Muslim society (country), retribution against tyranny, and/or when a Muslim is removed from their homeland by force – Physical Jihad or an armed struggle."

      It seems clear that these words alone could enable an older fanatic to frame an argument against westerners to younger followers. So that terrorist attacks become a kind of "defense of Muslim society", or "retribution against tyranny". Because if they can make that argument (that an individual or group has done one of these things), it appears that what the scripture says is that violence is warranted. It seems obvious that the ingredients to wage violence in the name of religion is baked into this scripture. Can this really be denied?

      May 16, 2013 at 6:28 pm |
    • expakistani

      You're wrong. Break a book and learn something before you express yourself. I suggest the blog, AndrewBostom.org. It is eye opening.

      May 16, 2013 at 6:31 pm |
  13. His panic

    He was in a state of Panic period. Not only was he fleeing from the police but also from his accusing conscience. It is clear that Muslims do Panic, just like anyone else who does not trust God and Jesus Christ God's only Son.

    May 16, 2013 at 5:45 pm |
    • derp

      The only thing as crazy as a muslim, is a christian.

      May 17, 2013 at 9:37 am |
  14. Gerri

    All I got out of this article is that Muslims have been killing Muslims since the manufacture of the "religion" more than 1500 years ago when Mohammed was on the run from his ememies. This sort of sounds like L. Ron Hubbard, who created Scientology. Anyway, nowhere in this article does he condem the murder and maiming of the innocent, most, if not all, of whom were infidels. Instead, he says it is their right as Americans and Muslims to object and protest against American policy. This article is fecal matter that stinks to high heaven. Religion of peace indeed!

    May 16, 2013 at 5:29 pm |
    • Juliett13

      Agreed. Unfortunately most bleeding heart Americans are not going to read between the lines as you have and are going to continue to be "tolerant" of a cult ( I refuse to see Islam as a religion) that follows the teachings of a mass murderer, pedophile, and rapist calling him a prophet. I still can't see the difference between Muslims and Neo-Nazis. Both follow the teachings of warmongering killers with superiority complexes, who traveled from place to place murdering, enslaving, and raping the native populations they came across. Only differences being Muslims are given all kinds of special treatment here in America where Neo-Nazis are treated as psychopaths. And the man Neo-Nazis follow even punished pedophiles with death and allowed women to hold some high ranking positions with command over men. I just don't understand how 2 groups of people can follow the teachings of 2 very similar men of evil yet the one group is spit on while the other is held in high regard.

      May 16, 2013 at 6:10 pm |
    • Sunfire

      Congratulation. You got it right and I almost got fooled, thanks

      May 17, 2013 at 3:11 am |
    • derp

      "follow the teachings of warmongering killers with superiority complexes, who traveled from place to place murdering, enslaving, and raping the native populations they came across"

      You just described christianity.

      May 17, 2013 at 9:39 am |
  15. rehabmax

    My take is that most Muslims in America support terrorism but never come out and say so. Privately they applaud this kind of behavior. So it is ongoing problem that most Muslims are distrusted. The violent, jihad part continues to be a disruptive force. Until that goes away the issues remain.

    May 16, 2013 at 5:21 pm |
    • MarkMI

      Right on. Even this article treads a very fine line and harps on nuances that will forever remain discussion points in the drawing rooms of the 0.0001% of liberal Muslims.

      I bet the author CANNOT impress on the rest of the Muslims that the Ummah is only aspirational. Muslims in general believe that Ummah is a religious duty and draw strength and motivation from it. This is visible in every workplace where you can see more than 1 Muslim.

      May 16, 2013 at 5:41 pm |
    • John


      May 16, 2013 at 5:44 pm |
    • John D

      So with that assessment, I must assume you have a vast array of Muslim friends who you can say that this is a fact. Or is it my Muslim friends, and relatives are all fooling me in all of our discussions about the same desires they have as the rest of us to live in a civil society where their children have opportunities as do mine?

      May 16, 2013 at 6:03 pm |
  16. tpobrienjr

    Well-reasoned and well-said, Professor.

    May 16, 2013 at 5:21 pm |
  17. Answer

    Islam, summed up is really just "who gets the control."

    Do you want to follow the group that says:

    1) "the leader of our religion will be the friends / advisors of delusional prophet"


    2) "the leader of our religion will be the family members of the delusional prophet."

    May 16, 2013 at 5:10 pm |
  18. STFU

    "Prophet Mohammed’s son-in-law, Ali, was assassinated while praying, and Mohammed’s favorite grandson, Husayn, was murdered after being denied food and water for days."

    Thank you Rashid for confirming my views on Islam, murderous religion of Peace. Hey ISLAM FOUNDATION OF BULSHlT, I like to know your thoughts; let me guess, you're going to open your post by calling Rashid a hindu denier of truth absolute !!!

    May 16, 2013 at 4:50 pm |
  19. Bill Deacon

    Mr. Rashid allow me to congratulate for making the kind of statement against violent extremism so many Americans feel that Islam must make towards Muslims who perpetuate violent archtypes of your faith.

    May 16, 2013 at 4:43 pm |
    • Not Enough

      ... given the the rate at which Islamic violence is spreading and growing.

      May 16, 2013 at 5:45 pm |
    • death to islam the shlt religion of the world

      bill deacon sees a lying sack of shlt just like him and falls in love like a filthy dog rolling in vomit

      May 16, 2013 at 6:47 pm |
  20. William Demuth

    An attack on one Cryp is an attack on all

    An attack on one Aryan is an attack on all

    Same refrain from groups trying to rationalize aggressions.

    I do not prefer one faith to another, nor do I distinguish much differences between them.

    Just various permutations of the same disease, the same weakness of character. A desire to belong to something that doesn't exist, and a willingness to suspend one's rationality, morality and dignity in a desperate attempt to be the preferred son of a God that does not exist

    Please leave your faith in the third world, we have enough religious wackos here already.

    May 16, 2013 at 4:42 pm |
    • Rizzolo

      I was with you all the way until the last sentence. That was unnecessary and elitist.

      May 16, 2013 at 5:07 pm |
    • Imran

      Sorry to burst your bubble, but we've been here since the 1700s.

      May 16, 2013 at 5:48 pm |
    • death to islam the shlt religion of the world

      imran admits he is a religious whacko ha ha

      May 16, 2013 at 6:08 pm |
    • Non-Muslim

      @Imran – At what have you achieved since 1700's? Grow your population to make become a Martyr?

      May 16, 2013 at 6:16 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.