This is true of most immigrants, myself included, who find the patriotic fervor for their home country increases when living in the U.S. to a level much higher than when back at home.
Last week I argued that this inclination may, in large part, explain the motives behind the suspects of the Boston bombings, as second-generation Chechen immigrants whose ethnic origins are laden with political strife and nationalistic ardor. Yet it does not appear that either of the Tsarnaev brothers were longtime radicals; rather, they lived relatively normal lives, pursuing the American Dream, and only recently (as it currently appears) did Tamerlan Tsarnaev embrace a radical Islamic ideology.
Yet there are many other pieces to this puzzle, all comprising a sad tapestry that led two young men, and many others before them, to believe there was a positive utility in killing and injuring hundreds of people in the very country that they called home. I believe three of these additional factors are as follows: disillusionment with the American Dream, opposition to American secularism, and gradual social marginalization of Muslims.
While there is no comprehensive profile of a terrorist, there are often common traits. Terrorists always have a particular grievance, whether it is real or imagined, that motivates their opposition to a government or society. Typically this grievance is borne out of frustration — perhaps something identifiable such as a repressed ethnic group, but equally as often, simply frustration with personal inadequacies, perceived failures and underachievement. Many terrorists have come from such margins of society, having achieved little in terms of professional or educational goals, or at least a feeling that they deserve more.
Many such people find externalizing this frustration to be a convenient coping mechanism: blaming their inadequacies on society rather than accepting responsibility themselves. This, of course, is not a trait unique to terrorists, particularly in societies of entitlement, as the U.S. and other Western countries have become in recent decades. Such externalization of frustration explains a great deal behind the Virginia Tech, Aurora theater and Sandy Hook shootings.
Inaccurate conceptions of the “American Dream” contribute to this frustration, whereby individuals may perceive themselves to be surrounded by wealth and success, and believe it to be easily attainable. Falling short of achieving such goals therefore reflects failure and the status of a social pariah. For many such individuals, terrorism provides a haven for similar-minded individuals to vent their frustration, offering an “us” group pathology that results in sweeping generalizations of “them” and often leads to indiscriminate acts of violence perceived as vengeance.
A second prominent factor for many “home grown” terrorists is increasing opposition to secularized American society. Commonly cited as the founding father of modern Islamic extremism, Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian author and theorist, spent two years studying education administration in the United States in the 1940s. Upon his return, he had grown so disgusted by what he perceived to be sexual immorality, superficiality and materialism in Western culture, that it became his goal to prevent Islamic society from being so poisoned. Qutb would later inspire Ayman al-Zawahiri, who in turn would play a major role in turning Osama Bin Laden against the United States.
It remains to be known whether American culture was instrumental in radicalizing the Tsarnaev brothers in the same way as Qutb. But such an assumption would not be outrageous, given the hundreds, if not thousands, of American citizens and residents who have turned their sympathies toward Al Qaeda and the broader concept of jihad, particularly since 9/11.
The third factor I believe often causes, or at least exacerbates, anti-American Islamic radicalism, has been the gradual isolation of Muslims in American society. Suspicion of Muslims and ignorance of Islam have caused generalizations about a religion and culture that have left many Muslims feeling outcast. Such behavior is counterproductive to say the least, as marginalization is much more likely to increase disconnection from American society rather than promote integration.
This has been the case in Europe where Muslims generally fall at the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder. Large enclaves of society have formed into Muslim “ghettos,” which provide a breeding ground for radical ideologies and a hotbed for recruitment. Fortunately, such has not been the case in the U.S., as Muslims here are positioned much higher in terms of income (at least equalling that of the average American household). Again, we do not yet know whether the Tsarnaev brothers felt subjected to such discrimination, but in many cases this has been a major factor in domestic radicalization.
A great deal remains to be discovered about the Boston bombers, while much will forever remain unknown. It is likely that some combination of the four factors I have discussed (self-identification, externalized frustration, opposition to American secularism, and social isolation) played a role, yet exactly how such ideas came to be formed may forever remain a mystery, as the complexity of this thing we call “terrorism” continues.