A fog of prejudices
In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings,examines the revival of anti-Islam myths and lies--and the distorted depiction of the history of Chechnya.
THE HUNT for the "whos" ended last Friday with the death of one suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings and the capture of a second. But the search for the "whys" has continued in high gear--and it has uncovered depressing evidence of how xenophobia and anti-Islam bigotry shape post-9/11 America.
The bombings were a horrific act. The devices were constructed to maim and planted as if to guarantee that the victims would be random--people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, unlikely to have any power or position of responsibility in society.
So people everywhere naturally want to know why anyone would carry out such sickening violence. But the answers the media have been providing are filled with misinformation and colored by prejudice.
This was true to some extent from the start. But whatever degree of restraint the media showed in the first days evaporated once the bombing suspects Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were identified as Muslims who had immigrated to the U.S. as children from the Caucasus in Russia.
It hasn't been just the ranting windbags of the right-wing media, either. To be sure, the reactionaries at Fox News seized the chance to heap abuse on their favorite scapegoats. Like Laura Ingraham, who declared that the U.S. should shut down all immigration from countries with a Muslim majority. "Dagestan, Chechnya, Kyrgyzstan, uh-uh," she said. "As George Bush would say, 'None of them 'stans.'"
But supposedly objective media outlets have added to the muck--with their scramble to broadcast any and all scraps of information about the suspects, with little regard for the source or the context.
These reports often come with a qualification--like the CNN reporter who described an innocuous tweet by one suspect and then declared: "It may mean something. It may mean nothing. We don't know." After days of being flooded with "we don't know"--trivia and disconnected facts, half-truths and whole untruths--it's all too easy for people to come up with wrong answers about the "whys."
As Matthew Kupfer wrote at Registan, a website that covers Eurasian politics, when the media report that Tamerlan Tsarnaev chose Islam from a list of religions to describe his "worldview" at a Russian-based social media site, the implication is that he must be a radical fundamentalist. Likewise, the two suspects' Chechen origins are tacitly associated with the armed struggle against Russian repression--without any evidence that there is an association.
The aftermath of the Marathon bombings has led to a revival of the kind of anti-Islam myths and falsehoods commonplace after the September 11 attacks--as well as a warped depiction of the history of Chechnya and its people.
If these go unchallenged, they will become part of the justification for the agenda of militarism and state repression, at the expense of people around the world, including in the U.S. So those of us who want to stand against violence and injustice have to start by dispelling the media's fog of prejudice and misinformation.
WITHIN HOURS of the bombing suspects being identified, the media had pieced together whatever could be learned about the two Tsarnaevs into a narrative that fit the "war on terror" stereotypes about disaffected Muslim youth who became "radicalized" via the Internet, under the influence of groups like al-Qaeda.
Relatives said that Tamerlan Tsarnaev recently began praying five times a day. This is seen as the duty of devout Muslims, but in the media's telling, it was a consequence of his "radicalization" during a trip last year to Dagestan, a republic in Russia that borders Chechnya. Tamerlan visited his parents who now live in Dagestan, and rebel groups in both Chechnya and Dagestan have denied any connection to the Tsarnaevs, but that hasn't stopped the media from reporting that he "may or may not" have sought them out as a purpose of his trip.
Tamleran made bitter comments on the Internet about the "American lifestyle" and once told a photographer, "I don't have a single American friend. I don't understand them." That could describe the attitude of other alienated youth in the U.S., Muslim and not, but the media counted it as evidence of a commitment to "jihad."
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was harder to fit into the picture--he had a loyal group of friends from the prestigious Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School and was reportedly not particularly devout. So he was portrayed as the follower, who his brother "could manipulate," the New York Times reported.
Thus--in bits and pieces, and without really taking responsibility for it--the media have painted a picture of two "Muslim terrorists," despite the fact that, as of now, there is no hard evidence that the Tsarnaevs were inspired by radical Islamism to commit the bombings, much less connected to international networks or groups like al-Qaeda.
Referring to the specific definition of "terrorism" given by the U.S. government, Ali Abunimah of Electronic Intifada wrote: "So far...absolutely no evidence has emerged that the Boston bombing suspects acted 'in furtherance of political or social objectives' or that their alleged act was 'intended to influence or instigate a course of action that furthers a political or social goal.'" As Abunimah continued:
It may seem pointless to quibble with this description: after all what could be more "terroristic" than setting off bombs at a peaceful sporting event killing three persons, one a child, and injuring or horrifically maiming dozens more? But in fact, how the act is described is very important in determining government, media and wider societal responses, including ramping up racism and bigotry against Muslims, Arabs or people of color.
Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald argued that the media are ignoring what the Boston bombings have in common with recent mass shootings that aren't described as "terrorism"--most of all, because the perpetrators are white. Evidence may still emerge, Greenwald wrote, that the motivations of the two brothers were "political or religious. But it's also certainly possible that it wasn't: that it was some combination of mental illness, societal alienation or other form of internal instability and rage that is apolitical in nature."
IN THE meanwhile, though, the claim that the Marathon bombers were "jihadists" fits well with the Islamophobic propaganda being recycled from the post-September 11 period.
Speaking to a New York Times reporter, Brian Fishman of the New America Foundation dusted off his best "danger within" rhetoric: "I think there's often a sense of divided loyalties in these cases where Americans turn to violent jihad--are you American first or are you Muslim first?" Akbar Ahmed of American University in Washington, D.C., likewise warned darkly: "They are American, but not quite American."
It probably doesn't need to be pointed out that Fishman and Ahmed wouldn't describe the fanatics of the Christian Right as "American, but not quite American"--despite their "divided loyalties."
Meanwhile, all kinds of anti-Muslim myths go unchallenged. One particularly galling one is the portrayal of Islam as especially violent. At his Informed Comment blog, Juan Cole responded:
Muslims are not more violent than people of other religions. Murder rates in most of the Muslim world are very low compared to the United States. As for political violence, people of Christian heritage in the 20th century polished off tens of millions of people in the two world wars and colonial repression...
I don't figure that Muslims killed more than 2 million people or so in political violence in the entire 20th century, and that [was] mainly in the Iran-Iraq War [from 1980 to 1988] and the Soviet and post-Soviet wars in Afghanistan, for which Europeans bear some blame. Compare that to the Christian European tally of, oh, let's say 100 million (16 million in the First World War, 60 million in the Second World War--though some of those were attributable to Buddhists in Asia--and millions more in colonial wars.)
Most disturbing of all is that people who would reject such myths in other circumstances--if they came, for example, from the mouths of George Bush and Dick Cheney, or the blowhards at Fox News--will accept some or all of them amid the tide of propaganda after the Marathon bombings.
On Tuesday, the Washington Post reported that an anonymous source claimed Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had, during questioning by federal agents, "cited" his and his brother's opposition to the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Cited" how and for what? That isn't made clear in the Post article. If he merely "cited" his opposition to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev can count himself among the majority of the U.S. population. But the clear implication is that he participated in the Marathon bombings because of his opposition to U.S. wars.
THE MEDIA portrayal of the conflicts and struggles in Chechnya are as distorted as the depiction of Islam. To judge from the articles written after it emerged that the Tsarnaevs were of Chechen origin--though neither ever lived in the republic--most Chechens are motivated primarily by hatred of the West, inspired by fundamentalist Islam.
In reality, if Chechens have used violence for political ends, it has been in response to the much, much greater carnage inflicted upon them. Chechens have endured what must be described as genocidal violence--not once, but several times.
As Lee Sustar wrote for Socialist Worker, "[I]n the 1830s...the Tsars of Russia carried out a war of colonial conquest that paralleled the U.S. extermination of Native Americans taking place at the same time." Chechnya became part of an empire that the Russian revolutionary Lenin called "the prison house of nations."
After the 1917 Russian Revolution toppled the Tsar, the newly established workers' state established the principle of self-determination for non-Russian national minorities. Some nations chose separation from Russia--others decided to remain part of the workers' state.
But the counter-revolution that soon brought Joseph Stalin to power, presiding over a dictatorship as fierce as the Tsars', reversed this. Stalin seemed to have a particular hatred for Chechnya. In February 1944, following an uprising against USSR rule, Stalin declared that the republic had collaborated with the Nazis and ordered the expulsion of the entire population of nearly 500,000 people to Central Asia.
Russian troops, directed by Stalin's notorious henchman Beria, herded Chechens into railroad box cars like cattle. The elderly, sick and pregnant were declared "non-deportable" and killed on the spot. Many more shared the same fate in the transfer. All told, an estimated 30 percent of the Chechen population died.
After Stalin's death, the survivors were allowed to return to Chechnya--though many remained in Central Asia, including the family of Tamelan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who were born in Kyrgyzstan.
When the Stalinist regimes of Eastern Europe collapsed and the USSR dissolved in 1991, Chechnya declared its independence, along with the 14 non-Russian republics. There was nothing the new regime could do at first. But a few years later, Boris Yeltsin, president of the Russian Federation established after the USSR's collapse, decided to draw the line against the rebellious nationalities.
Once again, Chechens endured a Russian war of genocidal ferocity. The capital of Grozny was virtually destroyed, along with numerous villages where support for independence was thought to be centered. Estimates of the dead ranged as high as 100,000, and hundreds of thousands more became refugees--out of a population at the time of less than 1 million.
Incredibly, the Chechen resistance to the onslaught inflicted a humiliating defeat on Russian troops--thousands were killed in the resulting guerilla war.
But still the barbarism wasn't over. In the late 1990s, the forces of the old regime reasserted themselves, with ex-KGB spymaster Vladimir Putin at their head. Installed as Yeltsin's prime minister, Putin used the pretext of a string of mysterious "terrorist" bombings in Moscow--there was strong evidence that Russian security forces were the bombers--to renew the scorched-earth war in Chechnya.
Chechnya was a springboard for Putin's campaign to replace Yeltsin as president. "This time," as Lee Sustar wrote, "the Russian occupation 'succeeded.' But the operation in Chechnya has been marked by widespread human rights violations by Russian troops, including torture, execution, rape and looting." Estimates of the total death toll of Chechens since 1994 range as high as 200,000.
One reason for the "success" the second time: the support of the U.S. government. Particularly after September 11 and its wars on Afghanistan and Iraq, the Bush administration was eager to maintain a truce with the Putin regime, so it kept mostly quiet about the slaughter in Chechnya.
The anti-Islam rhetoric of the "war on terror" provided the perfect cover for Putin. Chechens were predominantly Muslim, and resistance to Russian imperial rule often took the form of religion. Whenever Putin was feeling pressured by criticism of human rights abuses, he could denounce the Chechens as fanatical Islamist terrorists, and the U.S. backed down.
As the Russian socialist author Boris Kagarlitsky wrote in 2002, "It is the federal army that over the three years abducted and killed Chechens; systematically pillaged and destroyed peaceful villages; has been terrorizing innocent people...If you are looking for terrorists, you could do worse than to start the search in the Kremlin."
IN LIGHT of this history, it's especially appalling to see Chechens portrayed primarily as Islamic fanatics motivated by a religious hatred of the West. But that's what many Americans have been encouraged to believe by the media's misleading descriptions.
No one has proven, as of now, that either Tamerlan or Dzhokhar Tsarnaev planned and executed the horrific Boston Marathon bombings because they were Islamic fundamentalists or because they thought they were contributing to the struggle in Chechnya. Still less is there any evidence that either was connected to any Islamist or international organization associated with violence or armed struggle.
But we also have to challenge the outrage of the media and political leaders that the Tsarnaevs or anyone else would oppose the savage wars carried out by the U.S. government or bitterly denounce American society or look to an alternative in the tenets of Islam.
The United States is seen by countless people around the world--with good reason--as the main source of violence and social injustice around the world, rivaled only by other powerful governments like Russia. The U.S. and Russia have inflicted unspeakable atrocities--and in the name of democracy and justice, too.
If it does turn out that the Tsarnaevs were motivated to commit terrorism for political purposes, it's already obvious that such an act was a terrible failure in advancing any aim they might misguidedly have thought would benefit. The victims of the Marathon bombings bear no responsibility whatsoever for U.S. foreign policy or any other conceivable grievance. And the bombings have opened the way for the U.S. state to act even more savagely against legitimate dissent and opposition to its policies.
But the truth remains that the violence of governments like the U.S. or Russia is incomparably greater. A world built on injustice and repression inflicts horrific violence on many millions of people on a regular basis. These savage conditions create the circumstances in which people will lash back with any means they can think of.
The grief at the Boston Marathon bombings, the outrage at the senseless harm caused to innocent people, the questioning about why anyone would act in such a way--these are understandable responses to what has happened in the past week. But it's important to remember that among people around the world, there is grief, outrage and questioning at the carnage that the U.S. government, particularly its military, causes day in and day out.
The only way to confront violence in this society is to work to put an end to the injustices that inflict it and breed it.