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. ricke1949

    When a religion states the a tenet is to kill the infidel, it is not a religion of peace.

    May 16, 2013 at 10:07 pm |
  2. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things

    May 16, 2013 at 10:06 pm |
    • Pole dancing for Jesus

      Then pray for a brain

      May 16, 2013 at 10:20 pm |
    • darren

      of course show athesits are the most ethical of all groups with the highest morals. Oh right religon doesn't believe in those things

      May 16, 2013 at 11:39 pm |
    • .

      atheists which may be similar to athesits are known mass murderers when given power
      is it ethical to kill millions

      May 17, 2013 at 6:45 am |
  3. Pamela Ward

    As average Americans come to know and understand their neighbors who are Muslim, we cannot help but respect and admire them. Thank you for a wonderful article, and thank you for being one of the hundreds of millions of Muslims who are leaders in our world. Average Americans like me know, in our hearts, that judging an entire religion by the bad actions of a single individual is crazy. The Muslim's I know are honest, hard working, thoughtful, intelligent, kind, and disciplined.

    May 16, 2013 at 9:10 pm |
    • Ken Margo


      What you wrote is true. But be honest, if see a Muslim with a back pack, don't you get a little suspi'cious?

      May 16, 2013 at 9:15 pm |
    • Shut Up

      Get bent much, Pam?

      May 16, 2013 at 9:36 pm |
    • Loc-Nar

      Pamela, your lies give you away. This is not a village of idiots. We can see right through your lies very easily.

      May 17, 2013 at 12:13 am |
    • H.B.

      All I can say to you, sweet girl is: "remember Glasgow." Go to the news archives and read what the people who knew these Muslim doctors in Scotland thought of them before they went berzerk. Like you, they were thunderstruck that people who had been so good, so helpful, so civilized, so worthy of great respect, could suddenly try to blow up an airport. You are in their position, right now, their position before the doctors turned to jihadis. The Muslims you know MUST do violent jihad at some point in their lives. It's one of Allah's mandates. There can be no weaseling out of it.

      I'm not saying you should rebuff and yell at these Muslims you know. Just be VERY wary. Nothing about our Western civilization has the smallest impact on the way Muslims think and believe. Even at their friendliest, they always maintain a reserve, and a secrecy to which only other Muslims are permitted access. This is so, whether they live in Islamic enclaves, or in integrated neighborhoods. Unless you are a Muslim yourself, you are not deemed to be fully human. Only true Muslims are truly human, in their worldview. I know it's ugly. But must we turn away and pretend it isn't real, simply because it IS so ugly?

      So please be careful, and very VERY skeptical.

      Each Muslim must do violent jihad, but each of them may choose when, where, how, with what methods, and against whom, they will fulfill their duty to jihad. Until then, if they live among infidels, they're allowed to lie like rugs to them, because gaining their respect and trust will leave them vulnerable, when the time comes.

      At the moment, they seem peaceful and tolerant, even kindly and sociable. But they are not peaceful and tolerant, not if they really ARE Muslims. They are merely quiescent. They are waiting.

      I know it's hard to be skeptical toward people who seem so nice. So just be careful, okay? Stay safe.

      May 17, 2013 at 1:45 am |
    • Wisdom

      Have you heard of Osama bin Ladin? Was he one of the Muslims you know and are honest?

      May 17, 2013 at 8:28 am |
    • joy please

      Pamela, do you know of any other religion whose founder went to war and killed people ?

      May 17, 2013 at 11:22 am |
  4. Rod Munch

    Don't let a few million bad apples spoil the bunch.

    May 16, 2013 at 8:51 pm |
    • Curious

      Why would you believe in punishing a guilty "group" rather than guilty individuals?

      May 16, 2013 at 8:56 pm |
    • Shut Up

      Thank You Rod. I'm sure we can agree that when the writers of Star Trek created Klingons and Romulans that they were thinking about Shiite and Sunni Muslims. Yeah, no comparison at all here!!!!

      May 16, 2013 at 9:42 pm |
    • Shut Up

      Thank You Rod. I'm sure we can agree that when the writers of Star Trek created Klingons and Romulans that they were thinking about Shiite and Sunni Muslims. Yeah, no comparison at all here!!!! Like fighting nazi's is a bad thing.

      May 16, 2013 at 9:45 pm |
    • Dippy

      Nazis... Not Nazi's.

      May 17, 2013 at 1:45 am |
  5. Ngau Hu Phart

    What ISLAM doesn't get about the REST of the worlds is – we're getting tired of your radical teachers, urging 'true believers' to kill innocent people, because someone of the same nation, or same faith, or just a different sect of their OWN faith does something – almost anything – counter to their interpretation of their religion. I'm one who is drifting from a pretty liberal ideology, to giving a thumbs up to a genocidal sweep.

    May 16, 2013 at 8:33 pm |
  6. broadcasting

    Tamerlan Tsarnaev wasn't defending fellow Muslims or their faith. He acted out of anger because he didn't get what he wanted which was U.S. citizenship and a spot on the Olympic team. His younger brother was taken in by tales of martyrdom.

    May 16, 2013 at 8:22 pm |
    • BRB

      Both of these terrorists are merely acting like the spoiled children they really are. Glad one is dead and the other not far behind.

      May 16, 2013 at 8:49 pm |
    • Hogwash

      Hogwash it is.

      May 16, 2013 at 8:50 pm |
    • joy please

      Yes, both were failing their college courses and high expectations. So the cowards took the easiest way out of life's struggles.

      May 17, 2013 at 11:27 am |
  7. The_dude

    Everyone already knows Obama is lying

    May 16, 2013 at 8:08 pm |
    • Joe

      ...and that your a fool!

      May 16, 2013 at 8:44 pm |
    • DavidTX

      The straw Obama the Republicans have created is failing, but that is what it was designed to do. It's a pretty easy recipe to follow to make your own Straw Obama:

      Step 1: Against all evidence, claim he's not even American but Kenyan.
      Step 2: Against all evidence, claim he's not a Christian but a Muslim.
      Step 3: Convince all your supporters that anything the government does now that a black Kenyan Muslim is in the white house is not only his fault but is obviously a conspiracy to overthrow our government.
      Step 4: Keep up the lies like a volleyball player keeps the ball in the air, never let a lie sit in one place too long or it will get discredited.
      Step 5: Mask any racism and bigotry in Patriotism and righteous indignation.
      Step 6: Cheer at any failures in our government and don't work to fix the problems but attempt to use those failures to show the inefficacy of government, at least one under a black man, so you can take America back and give it to your white evangelical grandchildren.

      Republican Mission Accomplished, that is, if we don't stand up for truth and use our votes kick these racist bigots in the nuts and right out of congress.

      May 17, 2013 at 11:41 am |
  8. MediaMuslimMania

    This author is another pathetic apologetic Muslim. He didn't get anything right or wrong about Islam. He was upset about the killings of innocent Muslims and idiotically killed innocent Americans. It's like you punching my daughter in her face and I go and punch your aunt in her face, and you claim "I got something wrong about Islam". Give me a break! This has nothing to do with religion, only politics.

    May 16, 2013 at 8:01 pm |
  9. John

    thank you for communicating this message to all people....it helps us put in proper perspective these brothers failed understanding of doing God's good will and works in this world, regardless of the prophet that show us each the way.

    May 16, 2013 at 7:58 pm |
  10. Ken Margo

    What he got wrong was reading it in the first place.

    May 16, 2013 at 7:16 pm |
  11. Dyslexic doG

    Islam will be a "Religion of Peace" when EVERY Muslim who is not an extremist, is a Muslim who abhors extremism and is fighting Muslim extremism with thoughts and actions every day.

    As long as Islamic terrorism is tolerated by Muslims, Islam IS NOT a "Religion of Peace".

    May 16, 2013 at 7:14 pm |
  12. We cannot disagree with your statement

    "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."

    May 16, 2013 at 7:09 pm |
  13. These things only grow

    An individual is responsible for an individual's behavior. A group is not responsible for an individual. Each individual should be individually accountable.

    May 16, 2013 at 7:04 pm |
  14. STFU

    Mohammad A. Dar:

    I typed a word "muslim terrorists" in Google search window and I had 72,500,000 (72.5 millions) results in 25 seconds. Who is lying you or Google?

    May 16, 2013 at 7:04 pm |
  15. These things only grow

    The more people are obsessed with religion and politics the more they are distracted from their own development and growth. The more people are willing to get emotional the easier they are to control and the less likely they will be to think for themselves.

    May 16, 2013 at 6:58 pm |
  16. Jim

    When one guy tries to take over the world, the solution's pretty simple and attainable. What do you do when it's a billion people trying to take over the world? Or at least, a few hundred million, with hardly any of the others causing much of a stink about it because honestly, they wouldn't really mind all that much.

    Containment. Wiping them all out is probably a poor idea. But look what worked on the Soviet Union. Wreak havoc on their economies by any means necessary. Keep them as poor and as isolated as possible so as to minimize their ability to get at you, and accept the small amount of crazies who make it through the cracks. Everybody is always criticizing every road that doesn't lead to a perfect world, and in their lifetime. But how childishly idealistic is that? Relax. It will never be a perfect world. For us OR them. It sucks that the other 700 – 800 million have to be forced to be poor. But if they don't like it maybe they should take a closer look at the fact that they wouldn't mind a globally unanimous muslim society. Maybe they should object a little more vehemently to the minority of crazies who came from the same cities and towns they grew up in.

    May 16, 2013 at 6:57 pm |
    • Shut Up

      Mr. Rashid PLEASE, really, please. Muslims are to " compete to do good in the world, and not for Muslims only " huh. So that's why I'm always tripping over Muslims volunteering at the local soup kitchen. Islam is a disease no different than the Third Reich. The majority of Muslims in the world show NOTHING more than what is real ( fact ). They have no good will towards anyone not even themselves, suppressing beating or killing anyone they think isn't as holy I m, as them.

      May 16, 2013 at 7:43 pm |
    • MarkMI

      Wise proposition. However, the collective human conscience is so elevated these days that we feel the pain of hunger and disease in the unprivileged countries. Africa deserves it and doesn't exploit... can we say the same about Pakistan, Afghanistan? They are known to divert humanitarian aid to their militaries.

      So, containment with the intent to keep some countries is difficult to achieve especially if the free world is the coercer.

      May 16, 2013 at 8:55 pm |
  17. Contrarian

    The focus of this column is about how the Tsarnaev brothers were tricked into thinking that they were "at one" with Muslims in Iraq (among other places). What wasn't discussed is whether or not the Muslims in Iraq have a legitimate "beef" with the United States for the 100,000+ civilians that were killed in Iraq during the 2003-2009 time period after the U.S. invaded. If the Boston bombers had been upset Iraqis, what would the discussion then be about? It wouldn't be about how someone was tricked into thinking that they were attacked like his Iraqi Muslim "brother." It would be about someone who was actually attacked.

    There's no justification for what the Tsarnaev brothers are accused of doing in Boston. In the U.S., we value the lives of others, and many people were very upset over the tragedy that caused the death of three people and injuries to a couple hundred people. And that's the way it should be.

    However, at the same time, many people in the U.S. don't give a second thought to the 100,000+ civilians that were killed in Iraq. It's easy to understand how some people could be angry at U.S. policy and the U.S. government for what happened there – especially if that person lost loved ones.

    We were told that others hate the U.S. "because they hate our freedoms." Well, some people might just hate the U.S. because we invaded their county, which resulted in years of calamity that caused death to thousands. And for those that are angry at the U.S., they might not give a second's thought to three people who died in the U.S. – perhaps similarly to how some in the U.S. don't give two thoughts to the many killed in Iraq. But that's not a popular discussion. It's easier to say that others must "hate us for our freedoms," and that when U.S. policies result in death to others in foreign countries, it's always justified.

    May 16, 2013 at 6:45 pm |
    • These things only grow

      It's a snowball effect and it just escalates and escalates and both sides keep it going and growing bigger.

      May 16, 2013 at 6:52 pm |
    • Contrarian

      An apologist would say that what happened was justified. I don't think it's justified, and said so. This is where it gets complicated. There is actually a difference between a justification and an explanation. If my neighbor runs over my pet dog, and I then kill my neighbor, it's not justified, but there is an explanation. The explanation is that I was so angered by something that happened, that I then did something terribly wrong.

      The other point that I'm making here is that there are multiple lenses to view the same events. One view is that it's OK if 100,000+ civilians are killed if Saddam is overthrown. That must be a popular view in the U.S. If you are Iraqi, and lost your family, you will most likely have a very different view.

      May 16, 2013 at 6:57 pm |
    • These things only grow

      It's always important to see both sides of a disagreement

      May 16, 2013 at 7:01 pm |
    • Shut Up

      You wanna know why you never see Baptists killing Methodists? Because they're not crazed animals, unlike Shiites and Sunnis. By the way Contrarian, no one says Iraq wasn't a mistake. It was a mistake to help Muslims. Now we know better, as we've shown in Syria. Keep on killing yourselves, it suits me just fine, just less animals dancing in the streets in support of murdering innocent women and children. Oh, but they're infidels so they deserved it, huh. Like they had anything to do with the decision that imbucile George Bush made. Why aren't these animals trying to blow up his library? Because they don't know what a library is, obviously. They get all their supreme knowledge from their mosque, it appears. Kind of like the Catholic church, when it finally agreed that the world was round.
      IN 1978! After watching people circle the earth for 10-20 years.

      May 16, 2013 at 8:20 pm |
  18. Bobbb

    ALL muslims are terrorists, you just can"t tell it until after they blow up a few people. This theory that only some fringe group is terrorists is WRONG. ALL muslims are terrorists. If it makes you feel better then consider them POTENTIAL terrorists. ALL muslims hav the goal of eliminating ALL non-muslims.

    May 16, 2013 at 6:45 pm |
    • Bobbb

      The longer they can fool you into believing they are not all terrorists the more they can kill before we figure it out.

      May 16, 2013 at 6:47 pm |
    • retrain your brain


      May 16, 2013 at 6:48 pm |
    • American Muslim

      And you are a racist. Maybe you should have a conversation with a Muslim OR...here's an idea...get out of your little bubble and see the rest of the world. I'm sure you've never traveled anywhere and opened your mind to other cultures. So sad. Even if you reply that you have, I wouldn't believe it. Racists are stuck in their own bubbles of power, when in fact they're losers with nothing.

      May 16, 2013 at 7:22 pm |
    • .


      Guess what? The post directly above yours is from a Muslim. Isn't it great?

      May 16, 2013 at 7:31 pm |
    • American Muslim

      well he is a Pakistani muslim and they are all terrorists.

      May 16, 2013 at 8:02 pm |
    • MeInSac

      Bobb, do you even know a Muslim personally? Please have an open mind and educate yourself about other cultures and religions.

      May 16, 2013 at 8:07 pm |
    • BRB

      When a muslim shakes your hand, make sure the hand behind his back does not conceal a knife to slit your throat. Proverb from the wise one in California.

      May 16, 2013 at 8:44 pm |
    • MarkH

      @American Muslim
      Specify the race that is the target of his supposed racism.

      May 16, 2013 at 11:12 pm |
  19. PraiseTheLard

    Religion is a fraud. Anyone who participates in these ancient rituals is either willfully forgoing the use of their brains, has had his brain washed in his youth, or is mentally handicapped.

    May 16, 2013 at 6:43 pm |
    • Dyslexic doG


      May 16, 2013 at 7:11 pm |
    • 2013 Into The Darkness

      Or none of those things and you have no idea what you are talking about.

      May 16, 2013 at 7:58 pm |
  20. McBob79

    One more time... not all Muslims are terrorists, but pretty much all terrorists are Muslim. Sorry, but those are the facts.

    May 16, 2013 at 6:42 pm |
    • Bobbb

      ALL muslims are terrorists, you just can"t tell it until after they blow up a few people. This theory that only some fringe group is terrorists is WRONG. ALL muslims are terrorists. If it makes you feel better then consider them POTENTIAL terrorists. ALL muslims hav the goal of eliminating ALL non-muslims.

      May 16, 2013 at 6:45 pm |
    • STFU

      Mohammad, in that case, all muslims are hindu atheist.

      May 16, 2013 at 6:50 pm |
    • Bobbb


      A Muslim is never a terrorist, secular by faith, but every hindu atheist is a terrorist, secular, self centered by faith.


      May 16, 2013 at 6:51 pm |
    • .

      Bobbb, 'ISLAM' is actually a lunatic from Pakistan named Mohammad, and this is all he does all day – spew illiterate crap on US websites.

      May 16, 2013 at 6:56 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.