Where’s the beard? And the headscarf? In this photo from the 1980s, the Tsarnaevs look secular and modern (Source: Paris Match)
Much has been made of radical Islam and its role in shaping the mental makeup of the Tsarnaev brothers. During their formative years, however, they were scarcely even nominal Muslims. Although their father was Chechen and their mother Avar (another Caucasus nationality), the language spoken at home was Russian, and their culture was the secular and increasingly Westernized one of late Soviet society. At that time, the cultural referents were largely those of the 1980s: heavy metal, New Wave, and Michael Jackson.
Religious radicalization would not begin until much later, after their family had emigrated to the U.S. and specifically in 2008 when the older brother, Tamerlan, stopped drinking and smoking and started attending a local mosque (Wikipedia, 2013).
Already, however, Tamerlan was having problems with anger control. In 2007, he confronted a Brazilian youth who had dated his younger sister and punched him in the face. In May 2008, his other sister said her husband was cheating on her and beating her up. Tamerlan flew across the country to "straighten up the brains" of his brother-in-law. Although his future American wife converted to Islam and started wearing a hijab in 2008, her conversion did not prevent domestic fights in which he would "fly into rages and sometimes throw furniture or throw things." In 2009, he got involved with another woman, allegedly assaulted her, and was arrested for aggravated domestic assault and battery (Wikipedia, 2013). In 2010, as an aspiring boxer, he entered his opponent’s locker room before the fight to taunt him and the man’s trainer (Sontag et al., 2013). In addition to his bad temper, Tamerlan had other behavioral problems. After his marriage, he stopped working and lived off his wife (who had to put in 70-80 hour weeks as a home health aide) and Massachusetts welfare services (to the tune of over $100,000). “He wasn’t really willing to work. That in my mind made him an unsuitable husband. She worked like crazy for him” (Fisher, 2013).
The Boston bombers are often presented as a case of failed assimilation. In reality, they and their family had already been assimilated into modern secular culture. This was, of course, the authoritarian modernity of the Soviet Union, which severely repressed premodern patterns of behavior, i.e., religion, vendettas, child marriage, seclusion of women, etc. The Soviet Union also dealt harshly with what results when premodern impulses are expressed in a modern social setting, namely “hooliganism” and “parasitism.” By emigrating to the U.S., the Tsarnaevs entered a much freer environment that would eventually enable them—first Tamerlan and then other family members—to return to a cultural system that could bring some control back into their lives.
This phenomenon has been observed not only in immigrant communities of the U.S., but also in those of Western Europe. Islamism has arisen primarily in the relatively free environments of the West, and not in the more authoritarian ones of the Middle East. In many cases, the West has helped radicalize individuals who initially come as students or immigrants and later return to promote Islamism back home. Furthermore, when we in the West intervene to overthrow secular dictatorships in that region—Hussein in Iraq, Mubarak in Egypt, Gaddafi in Libya, Assad in Syria—we unwittingly create optimal conditions for the emergence of radical Islam. We refuse to countenance the possibility that some kind of authoritarianism is necessary to make those societies work. The choice is really whether it will be secular authoritarianism or the ultra-religious kind.
The other Chechen revolution
Another example is Chechnya itself. The first and second Chechen wars (1994-1996, 1999-2000) are usually seen in the West as a reaction to political circumstances, specifically the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the inability of its successor state, the Russian Federation, to maintain political control. The Chechen people thus saw an opportunity to reclaim their independence and took it.
There was also, however, a prior weakening of cultural control that can be traced farther back to the late Soviet period. This was a time when official Communist ideology had become little more than an empty shell and when people began to emulate Western ways. School and parental discipline slowly became more relaxed, under the influence of beliefs that children start off good and are made bad by excessive control.
With the collapse of Communism in 1991, the way was clear for this new vision:
Education reform in the Russia Federation after 1991 was an orchestrated attack on what was now perceived as the ideologically impure Soviet system of education, with its ubiquitous administrative centralization, a bankrupt communist ideology and bureaucratic inefficiency. Hurried attempts were made to Westernize Russian education. […] In Russia, these education reforms represented a radical shift in ideology, knowledge and values and appropriately typified the inevitable outcome of the global Weltanschauung of modernity.
Curriculum reforms and implementation of change in Russia during the early 1990s have been “almost completely permissive” […] The ideas of democracy, humanisation and individuation — the three popular slogans of post-Soviet education reforms, which almost echoed the spirit of the French Revolution — liberty, equality, and fraternity, have successfully challenged the hegemony of Marxism-Leninism in schooling, authority, and curricular control in the teaching/learning process. In subjects’ content and teaching methodology considerably more power at the school-level decision-making has been given to teachers, parents and students. (Zajda, 2005, p. 405)
This was a real cultural revolution, particularly in the Caucasus where “in Chechen families there are very strict rules of behavior with a stern social control” (Mikus Kos, 2009, p. 144). By the 1990s, most teachers had been won over to “modern” notions of child discipline:
I had an interesting experience working with Chechen and Ingush teachers during the first Chechen war. The prevailing belief was (which was some decades ago the belief in Europe and the USA as well) that all emotional and behavioural problems in children, and even many learning problems, stem from harming influences of the family and that the unique way to cure them was to provide love and understanding to the child. So there was quite a lot of blaming on parents and teachers and feelings of guilt in parents and in teachers who did not succeed in helping children with difficulties and children in distress. When starting to run seminars for teachers from North Caucasus, I was very eager, guided by the best intention to explain that there are biologically “difficult children”, children with temperamental traits which affect the process of socialisation, and that the problems in normal life circumstances are most often the result of interaction between the difficult child and his/her environment, and not only the fault of parents and teachers. (Mikus Kos, 2009, p. 143)
Since the 2000s, discipline has made a comeback under the growing influence of both Islamism and “Putinism.” There is of course the continuing influence of well-meaning Westerners who come to the Caucasus and try to market their own notions of child development, without considering local conditions:
Instead of using existing local knowledge, values and experience, and synthesising them with the new ones, some international trainers bring a well wrapped package of modern concepts and guidelines […] The value of local explanatory models and old practices should be recognised and respected. Radical changes of paradigm are not working, at least not in practice (Mikus Kos, 2009, p. 144)
A rendez-vous with disaster …
Recent decades have brought a relaxation of external controls over behavior. On the one hand, people from the rest of the world have been emigrating in growing numbers to the West, where behavioral norms are more relaxed. On the other hand, the West has been exporting these same norms to the rest of the world. The situation wouldn’t be so serious if everyone everywhere had the same internal controls over their behavior. But they don’t.
Some societies have gone farther than others along the trajectory that leads to cultural modernity and, in time, behavioral modernity. Wherever strong States have imposed a monopoly on the use of violence, there has been a consequent pacification of social relations, the result being increased trust in strangers and a freer, more open society. This transition also affects the way societies are organized. In premodern societies, the market economy is secondary, being limited to special places at special times, i.e., marketplaces. In modern societies, the market economy is primary and encompasses almost all possible transactions. In premodern societies, kinship is primary, being the main organizing principle of social relations. In modern societies, kinship has little importance beyond the bounds of each nuclear family. The transition from premodernity to modernity in turn leads to a suite of behavioral changes: higher anger thresholds, a more future-oriented time orientation, and a stronger work ethic.
Wherever the social environment has long been pacified, these internal behavioral controls have largely taken over from external cultural controls. Where pacification has been more recent, “correct behavior” is enforced largely through external controls. Not enough time has elapsed to bring behavioral predispositions into line with cultural modernity.
The above analysis may seem unacceptable to most of us. Current discourse allows only two possible causes for the Boston bombings: social exclusion or radical Islam. The “social exclusion” explanation is the weirdest. The Tsarnaevs were accepted as Chechen refugee claimants even though they had spent almost their whole lives outside Chechnya and were in no danger. Tamerlan himself was welcomed with open arms into an American household despite his uncontrollable temper and unwillingness to work. Such indulgence is unusual, and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Tamerlan benefited from an almost pathological fear of seeming to be xenophobic.
The other possible cause, radical Islam, has become the leading explanation, largely by default. But what if Tamerlan had not been radicalized? There would have been no Boston bombings, yes, but sooner or later he would have committed an act of murder or attempted murder (assuming he had not already done so before the bombings) and he would have almost certainly remained a tax consumer, and not a tax payer.
In this latter respect, Tamerlan was not unusual. If we examine immigrant communities of similar backgrounds, their work ethic tends to weaken as they become more and more assimilated. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Turkish population in Germany had a labor-force participation rate higher than that of native Germans. Now, as we enter the 2nd and 3rd generations, the picture has completely reversed: 40% unemployment in Berlin and other cities; welfare dependency three times the national rate; and an average retirement age of 50 (Caldwell, 2009, p. 36). This is the paradox we see with many non-European immigrants: the more they become assimilated, the more different they become. They shed the cultural controls that formerly kept their behavior in line.
What, then, will be done? Nothing, probably, other than that the U.S. will become more and more a society under surveillance. One thing that used to make American society so exceptional was its high level of personal security and personal responsibility. Americans didn’t have to fear being sucker-punched by some guy with a problem. They didn’t have to closely monitor the body language and facial expressions of anyone they happened to meet. And they didn’t have to worry about other people abusing their trust and generosity. In other countries, people do. And that’s a big reason why those countries are less productive and, hence, less wealthy.
Caldwell, C. (2009). Reflections on the Revolution in Europe. Immigration, Islam and the West, Doubleday.
Fisher, M. (2013). The Tsarnaev family: A faded portrait of an immigrant’s American dream, April 27, The Washington Posthttp://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/feature/wp/2013/04/27/the-tsarnaev-family-a-faded-portrait-of-an-immigrants-american-dream/?hpid=z1
Mikus Kos, A. (2009). Psychosocial programmes can also diminish or destroy local resources, in E. Baloch-Kaloianov and A. Mikus Kos (eds). Activating Psychosocial Local Resources in Territories Affected by War and Terrorism, IOS Press.
Sontag, D., D.M. Herszenhorn, and S.F. Kovaleski. (2013). A battered dream, then a violent path, April 28, The New York Times.http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/28/us/shot-at-boxing-title-denied-tamerlan-tsarnaev-reeled.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
Wikipedia. (2013). Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaevhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dzhokhar_and_Tamerlan_Tsarnaev
Zajda, J. (2005). “The educational reform and transformation in Russia,” in J. Zajda (ed). International Handbook on Globalization, Education and Policy Research, Springer.http://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/1-4020-2960-8_26#