One of the central questions surrounding the Boston Marathon bombings is whether they portend a larger wave of terror attacks by homegrown Islamic radicals. The culprits, two brothers of Chechen origin, one of whom was a naturalized U.S. citizen, had both lived in the country for more than a decade. While the older brother is reported to have been sullen, resentful and ill at ease in his adopted country, the younger brother was by all accounts a well-mannered kid, whose main vice was marijuana. Many fear that if these two men could turn viciously against the country that gave them refuge, the same might be true of at least some small number of their co-religionists.
I grew up in a Muslim household in New York City’s polyglot outer boroughs, and the Tsarnaev brothers strike me, in broad outline, as recognizable figures. The younger brother’s Twitter feed, which has attracted wide attention, reads like dispatches from the collective id of at least a quarter of my high school classmates. Also recognizable is the brothers’ lower-middle-class but gentrifying Cambridge milieu, which bears a strong resemblance to the neighborhood in which I was raised. So like many Americans of Muslim origin, I’ve been struggling to understand what exactly went wrong in their heads. How could a “douchebag” and a “stoner” ‑ and here I’m paraphrasing the words of the Tsarnaev brothers’ acquaintances and friends ‑ have committed one of the most gruesome terror attacks in modern American history? We might never have a good answer to this question, and certainly won’t have a good answer anytime soon. But what we can do is get a sense of what we do and don’t know about U.S. Muslims, and what it might mean for our future.
Although I can’t claim to be representative of U.S. Muslims as a whole, my experience leads me to believe that America’s Muslim community will grow more secular over time. My parents are originally from Bangladesh, a Muslim-majority country of 150 million that is currently in the throes of a violent clash over the role of Islam in public life. While Bangladesh has made impressive strides in a number of social indicators in recent decades, its poverty has sent large numbers of migrants to India, the Persian Gulf, Europe, Southeast Asia and, over the past two decades in particular, the United States.