In light of news that the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings were from predominantly Islamic Chechnya, students and professors at Boston University said U.S. citizens should not create harmful generalizations about the Muslim community and violence.
“Violence doesn’t necessarily belong to Muslim extremism any more than it belongs to any other form of extreme behavior,” said College of Fine Arts professor André de Quadros, a member of the Institute for the Study of Muslim Societies and Civilizations. “We, in this country, are victims of violence even to people who are not Muslim.”
Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the two suspects, has been described as an Islamic extremist by various media outlets in the days following the attacks. Tamerlan, who was killed after a shootout with police in Watertown, was the older brother of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who is now in police custody.
The relationship between extremist Islam and violence is a complex one, and as such, students must be wary of jumping to conclusions, Quadros said.
“The most dangerous thing that can happen is, once again, that Muslim students, that Muslim peace-loving people, are targeted for hate or exclusion,” he said.
Religion professor Kecia Ali said generalizations that equate the Muslim community with violence stem from the urgency of Americans to understand the attack on Boston on April 15.
“People want to make sense,” Ali said. “When one looks for explanations, simple explanations are often the most compelling.”
She said the media has focused on terrorist events associated with Islam, such as the Tsarnaev brothers’ alleged association with Islam, and other instances of mass violence in America, such as the Colorado theater massacre in July and the Newtown shootings in December.
Ali said since the Marathon bombings, students on campus have had conversations about the way society views violence in America.
“Just as after 9/11, just as in the wake of the Park 51 controversy about building a mosque near the site of the World Trade Center, there are people on campus who are engaged in ongoing dialogue,” she said.
The most powerful tool students have in combatting stereotypes, particularly those directed toward members of the Muslim community, is caution in how they make associations and ask questions, Ali said.
“It’s not necessarily about the answers we give to questions — it’s about the questions we choose to ask and the connections we choose to draw,” she said.
Although she said she does not know exactly how Muslim students on campus are directly affected by prejudices against Islam, Ali said many student groups fight against stereotyping by supporting religious tolerance.
“At BU, student organizations such as the Interfaith Council and others have been really integral to starting ongoing dialogues about integration, coexistence, commonalities, difference and the ways in which religious students from a variety of religious traditions have things in common,” she said.
Ahmet Selim, a sixth-year Graduate School of Arts and Sciences student who identifies as Muslim, said it is not uncommon to see unfair reporting of the brothers’ association with Islam, even in the mainstream media.
“We are seeing an immediate spike in identification of all of American Muslims … as somehow guilty [of the bombing],” Selim said.
Stereotyping can be combated through media and education, he said.
“Muslim organizations … have programs to reach out to the larger public to rectify misunderstandings about Islam and emphasize the point that these radical types are basically the minority,” he said. “But, it is also a civic duty for everyone to stand against hate speech toward American Muslims.”