Diaspora and Terrorism: The problem with relativism

July 21, 2013 § Leave a comment

Janet Reitman‘s Rolling Stone feature on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is a fascinating read in many ways, as she explores just what might have radicalised him and turned him into a terrorist.  Reitman talked to pretty much everyone in the Boston region who knew him growing up.  He comes across as the pretty stereotypical American urban kid.  As a Bostonian, the article interested me for obvious reasons.  But as an historian, I was struck by questions and notions of diaspora concerning the Tsarnaev family and the youngest son, especially.

Reitman talked to Brian Glyn Williams, who teaches Islamic Studies at UMass-Dartmouth.  UMass-Dartmouth, of course, is where Tsarnaev went to school.  Interestingly, Tsarnaev, who by all accounts was interested in his history as a Chechen and a Muslim, didn’t take a single one of Williams’ classes.  But Williams also comments on the older brother, Tamerlan, who by all accounts was the ring-leader.  Williams, says Reitman,

believes that Tamerlan’s journey – which he calls “jihadification” – was less a young man’s quest to join Al Qaeda than to discover his own identity. “To me, this is classic diasporic reconstruction of identity: ‘I’m a Chechen, and we’re fighting for jihad, and what am I doing? Nothing.’ It’s not unlike the way some Irish-Americans used to link Ireland and the IRA – they’d never been to Northern Ireland in their lives, but you’d go to certain parts of Southie in Boston, and all you see are donation cans for the IRA.

I find this comment interesting.  Being an Irish Canadian, and having spent much of the past decade-and-a-half studying the Irish in North America, I’ve always been struck by the willingness of Irish-Catholics in both Canada and the United States to identify with the IRA.  Usually this identification with the IRA came without complications.  Supporters never thought about where that money in those tins was going, what it was going to be used for.  What happened when the guns and bombs it bought were used, who got hurt, who got killed.  If they had stopped to think about this, if they removed the romanticism of the struggle back “home” (even if Ireland hadn’t been home for several generations), I’m sure support for the IRA would’ve dried up pretty quickly.  Not many Irish Canadians or Irish Americans actually went back to Northern Ireland and got involved in the fight.

And yet, Tamerlan Tsarnaev did.  He went back to Chechnya and Dagestan.  He was, however, told by a cousin in Dagestan that this was not his fight.  So he brought the fight home.  I shudder at the consequences.

But that is exactly what makes Williams’ comparison invalid after a certain point.  All those Irish in Southie who contributed to the IRA’s cause have several degrees of separation from the consequences of their donation.  Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev quite literaly have blood on their hands as a direct result of their actions.

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