Saturday, April 20, 2013

What journalists can't tell you about the Tsarnaev family

Did you know that Neil Armstrong heard the Adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, on the moon? That Americans always elect Jews to the Presidency, including Lincoln, both Bushes, and Barack Obama? That if men would only eat (holy) bread, they wouldn't get weak-- no other food is necessary (and various similar dietary helps)? That populous China doesn't invade much less-populated Siberia because they actually tried that once in the 1980s and secret Russian weapons destroyed the entire army? That America has never done anything to help a Muslim country? That all Jews working in the World Trade Center received a phone call a day before 9/11 warning them of danger

Those of us who have lived in Central Asia long enough know these myths by heart. They're repeated as fact  by well-traveled PhDs as well as the local farmer. Americans have the luxury of going to Snopes.com for debunking help, but if you don't speak English and don't have access, who are you going to trust? Probably not some foreigner telling you that you're incorrect.

Caucasian Muslims are, by and large, nominal Muslims. It's an ethnic heritage more than a religion, and one that is not widely understood. Most people groups have simply pasted Islam over their much more ancient customs-- they may worship ancestors, visit witchdoctors, drink moonshine, and never see a Koran. (I was told on more than one occasion visiting Lezgin villages along the Dagestani border that "Real Muslims drink alcohol," among other things Islam actually forbids.) Hence, they have no love of radical Islamists who forbid what is commonly practiced in their historically pagan cultures. (Full disclosure: In northern Azerbaijan, I was accused of being a Wahabbist simply because I didn't drink or visit prostitutes.)

These are aspects of the Tsarnaev family's world that Americans can't understand. So, when you hear the Tsarnaev's father repeating that his children were framed, that there's a conspiracy by the U.S. government, it sounds quite plausible to many Caucasians or Central Asians. Much stranger conspiracy theories are accepted as truth. It's a fantastic thing that Suspect #2 was taken alive-- else the father's claim that the government was covering something up by killing him get quicker traction. Don't underestimate the presupposition in much of Central Asia that this is just the latest example of an anti-Muslim conspiracy by the U.S. government.

Most U.S. journalists covering this story have never been to Dagestan or the North Caucasus. They may have toured Moscow but be only vaguely aware of how different the rest of the country is. This leads to wild speculation, like this one by David Remnick in this widely-circulated New Yorker piece that
"If Tamerlan did what he is suspected of doing, he might not have got his education, or instructions, entirely through digital means. On January 12, 2012, (Tamerlan) flew from New York to Moscow, a regular target of Chechen rage; he didn’t return until seven months later." (end of paragraph)
The suggestion is that Tamerlan Tsaraev a) stayed 7 months in Moscow and b) it somehow radicalized him to live in the "target of Chechen rage."  However, The same interview that Remnick quotes the Tsarnaev father from, Mr. Tsarnaev says that Tamerlan stayed in Maxachkala with the family for those months, pondering staying there rather than returning to the U.S. where he was reportedly denied citizenship. Fact: You can't fly from the U.S. straight to Dagestan, you have to go through Moscow. Fact: Moscow has 12 million people, including tens of thousands of Chechens and other ethnic Muslims. Terrorist attacks are very few. Many are working there (many illegally) because the wages are higher than just about anywhere else in the former Soviet Union.  I know plenty of Caucasian Muslims who have worked happily in Moscow, it more than fed their families.

So, the fact that Tamerlan Tsarnaev happened to travel through Moscow, or even stayed with his family in Dagestan, means absolutely nothing. Dagestan is such a dangerous place that Russia puts travel restrictions on Westerners who want in. This has little to do with Chechnya and more to do with the massive amount of organized crime and its ongoing violence. Car bombs, kidnappings, and assassinations are rather frequent, and Westerners would make great targets for ransoms. Some pundits on CNN seem to link Chechnya and Dagestan as the same place. Dagestan has 30 different common languages, it's a huge home to dozens of people groups, only one of which are Chechen. They have co-existed for millenia. I recommend Yoav Karney's Highlanders book for ways in which these co-existing peoples are all quite diverse.

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