Boston Marathon explosions

Ken Livingstone, the former Mayor of London, has stirred up controversy with his claim, on Iran’s Press TV, that behind the Boston bombings lay anger about Western foreign policy and its attitudes to Islam:

There was such ignorance in the Bush White House about Islam and about the history of so many disputes that exist in the Middle East. People get angry. They lash out. It’s the whole squalid intervention that has disfigured the record of the Western democracies. I think this fuels the anger of the young men, who as we saw in Boston went out, and, out of anger and demand for revenge, claimed lives in the West.

Livingstone may have expressed his argument in a particularly crass fashion, but it is the kind of explanation that many have proffered over the past few weeks. Ever since Tamerlan Tsarnaev was shot dead and his brother Dzhokar captured, there has been a frantic search through their back history to discover the motivations of the alleged bombers and the reasons for their homicidal act. Their Chechen family origins, their attraction to Islam, their radicalization through jihadist sites – all have become part of the narrative of why the brothers could commit such horror.

boston bombers

Out of all this have emerged two broad kinds of explanations. One, mainly from the right, suggests that the Tsarnaevs were driven by their commitment to Islam; there is, runs the argument, something about Islam that makes its adherents irredeemably violent. The other, mainly from the left, insists that the root cause lie in Western policy towards Muslim countries; the Tsarnaevs were, however misguidedly, expressing a sense of anger about US foreign policy. This was Ken Livngstone’s argument. These two explanations have, in fact, framed the understanding of jihadi violence from even before 9/11.  However, as I observed in my book From Fatwa to Jihad, in a discussion of the attempts to make sense of homegrown terrorism in Britain, neither explanation holds up:

Muslims have been in Britain in large numbers for more than half a century. It is only in the past 20 years that radical Islam has gained a foothold. Blaming it all on Islam or on the Qur’an does nothing to explain the changing character of Muslim communities, and their evolving beliefs. Islam, like every religion, comprises not just a holy text but also a history, a culture and a set of institutions, not to mention a clergy and a body of believers. All these and more help define how the holy text is interpreted. ‘The key question’, the French sociologist Olivier Roy points out, ‘is not what the Qur’an actually says, but what Muslims say the Qur’an says.’ Muslims continually disagree on what the Qur’an says, he adds dryly, ‘while all stressing that the Qur’an is unambiguous and clear-cut.’

Equally unconvincing is the idea that terrorist rage has been driven by Western foreign policy.  Just as Muslims were in Britain long before they turned to radical Islam, so Western governments were attacking Muslim lands long before Osama bin Laden took to a cave in Afghanistan. From Winston Churchill ordering the use of mustard gas against Iraqi rebels in the 1920s, to the CIA engineering a coup against the democratically elected government of Mohammed Mossadeq in Iran in 1953, to the brutal attempt by the French o suppress the Algerian independence movement in late 1950s, to Western backing for Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran in the 1980s, to America’s economic and military support for Israel there is a long history of Western intervention. There has always been resistance to Western intervention, and often violent resistance, but Islamic opposition is relatively new, and nihilistic terrorism newer still. In any case, the actions of the terrorists belie their supposed political beliefs. In July 2007, Islamic terrorists parked two car bombs outside Tiger Tiger, a central London nightclub. The bombs failed to detonate. Had they done so, they could have created far greater devastation than the 7/7 attacks.  Just two minutes’ drive from Tiger Tiger were the Houses of Parliament and Britain’s Foreign Office. Yet the bombers chose to park their deadly load outside a building full of party goers – hardly the actions of political soldiers driven to fury by Britain’s foreign policy. [pp84-85]

Boston bombing manhunt

The trouble with much of the discussion of terrorism today is that it misses a fundamental point about contemporary terror: its disconnect from social movements and political goals. In the past, an organisation such as the IRA was defined by its political aims. Its members were carefully selected and their activities tightly controlled. However misguided we might think its actions, there was a close relationship between the aims of the organization and the actions of its members. None of this is true when it comes to contemporary terrorism. An act of terror is rarely controlled by an organisation or related to a political demand. That is why it is so difficult to discern the political or religious motivations of the Tsarnaev brothers. They neither claimed responsibility nor provided a reason for their actions. It was not necessary to do so.  The sole point was to kill indiscriminately and to spread fear and uncertainty. Far from being part of a political or religious movement, what defines terrorists like the Boston bombers is their very isolation from such movements.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev could be a photofit of the contemporary terrorist. He grew up in America, having arrived as a child.  He saw himself as isolated and felt rejected. ‘I don’t have a single American friend’, he told one interviewer, ‘I don’t understand them’. He dropped out of college, abandoned his dream of becoming an Olympic boxer, was arrested for assaulting his girlfriend, and so became ineligible for US citizenship. He had no social support network. His brother Dzhohar certainly seemed different, with a good social network and little indication of inner rage. But he also seemed to hero worship his older brother, and to follow him ‘like a puppy dog’ in the words of  Tamerlan’s boxing coach.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s sense of isolation and alienation drew him to Islam and to the Chechen struggle. Yet he felt as estranged from the Muslim community as he did from America. Indeed, he seemed to be attracted to jihadist websites partly because he despised the worshippers at his local mosque, raging against the imam for suggesting that a non-Muslim – Martin Luther King – might be a good role model.

Tsarnaev imagined himself also as a warrior for Chechen freedom. But Chechen rebels themselves disowned him. ‘The command of the Vilayat Dagestan mujahedeen… declares that the Caucasus fighters  are not waging any military activities against the United States of America’, declared one rebel website.  ‘We are only fighting Russia, which is not only responsible for the occupation of the Caucasus, but also for monstrous crimes against Muslims.’ In any case, how murdering runners and spectators at a sporting event could be an expression of anger against the involvement of a nation in a war in which it is not involved, and towards whom even the insurgents in the war feel no animosity, perhaps only Ken Livingstone knows.

boston bombing tributes

The French sociologist Olivier Roy, one of the most important contemporary researchers into Islam and jihadism, has said of today’s wannabe jihadists, that ‘They have no real life. Their social life is through the Internet’.  So it was with Tamerlan Tsarnaev. His was a virtual religion, a virtual politics, a virtual struggle. He appeared to blame America for his estrangement, sought out a fantasy of a global struggle against the USA, and in the twistedness of his mind may have thought that a bomb at the Boston Marathon was a blow against US power. Fundamentally, however, the Tsarnaevs were little different to other nihilistic mass murderers, such as Adam Lanza, the perpetrator of the Sandy Hook School massacre last December, or James Holmes, responsible for the Aurora theatre shootings in July 2012.

The search for rational explanations for an event such as the Boston bombing is both understandable and necessary. But in looking for rational explanations we should not make such horrors seem more rational than they are. The Boston bombing was brutal, mindless and immoral. Let us not endow it with greater credibility by reading into it deeper political or religious meaning.


  1. Adnan

    I agree with your conclusion but disagree with the spirit of your argument. Its not because the majority of terrorists have poor reasoning capacities and might demonstrate some cognitive dissonance between their actions and aims that imperialism is not a root cause to terrorists attacks against civilians in the US, England, Spain and France. The case of the Tsaernev brothers might be more complex (and I agree with the comparison to Aurora) but you don’t need a one-to-one correlation between aims and actions to conclude that imperialism is a driver. Moreover, the fact that it took several decades for international terrorists actions to take place is more a result of political and social issues. It took time for these terrorists group to organize and act. There is obviously a nihilistic component to it, but the attacks against civilians perceived as members of the oppressing imperialistic entity date all the way back to the Algerian war of independence. In natural sciences we would call such a problem a nonlinear multi-variable one, but I really don’t see any strong argument to take out imperialism out of the equation.

    • Daniel Margolis

      Attacks against civilians are not new, but the important point I got from this article/post was the disconnection of modern terrorists from any broader organization or set of aims. The marathon bombers and any number of jihadists recently before them seemed to simply act as free agents, disconnected from any actual movement. Even the actual and well-known organizations that have existed, like al-Qaeda, have been small networks not commanding the respect of large numbers of people; even their professed goals are not accepted by more than an infinitesimal fraction of the population of the societies in which they operate. I think that if the conclusion that imperialism was a root cause was correct, there would be greater support for all these actors. Perhaps they are motivated by some animosity toward the US/UK/Spain/etc. for some action, but anyone can be motivated by anything; this doesn’t make it a root cause for the action of a deranged person. For example, if John burns down Joe’s house because Joe insulted John’s friend’s friend, the root cause of the arson is not the insult, but John’s insanity.

      • Adnan

        Re: “I think that if the conclusion that imperialism was a root cause was correct, there would be greater support for all these actors.”

        If you follow Middle-Eastern politics, and I am sure you do, you will notice that several political entities, whether they are centered around Unions, political parties or armed groups, all have anti-imperialist narratives which results in a competition for legitimacy among all of them. It is therefore not really surprising that there is very little support among Middle-Eastern populations (aside perhaps from Palestinian for numerous reasons) towards terrorists attacks since they belong to a fringe that has shown very little success or changes for the people. This is especially true in countries like Algeria where terrorist attacks against civilians in the 90s has traumatized the population.

        Your point is essentially that these people are deranged and that if it were not of imperialism they would just find other excuses to commit a carnage, hence imperialism can not be a cause. I think this argument is rather well countered by the Palestinian and Algerian examples. Palestinian liberation movements, (similarly to Algerian independence movements in the 30s-40s lead by religious and perhaps more “secular” leaders such as Messali Hadj and Ferhat Abbas), have all started on a non-violent basis. It is the deterioration of a conflict that has lead a growing number to support nihilistic means such as suicide bombings. It would obviously be racist to claim the Palestinians are inherently deranged for supporting actions such as suicide bombings and not recognize the root causes due to colonization and imperialism.

        Now the case of the Tsaernev brother is, in my opinion, closer to the Columbine type, but it does not mean that we can just sweep off imperialism as a cause in other terrorist attacks such as 9/11, 7/7 or the attacks in Madrid because of this one particular scenario.

        • Daniel Margolis

          I disagree. For example, you say, “Your point is essentially that these people are deranged and that if it were not of imperialism they would just find other excuses to commit a carnage, hence imperialism can not be a cause. I think this argument is rather well countered by the Palestinian and Algerian examples.”

          Not just Boston, but the even worse violence in London and Madrid, not to mention New York in 2001, are not comparable to what has been taking place in Palestine. In the latter, there has been an ongoing fight to get out from under Israeli occupation and that has taken many, many forms. The rise of Hamas and suicide bombing came out of a variety of factors, including alienation with the corruption of many in the PLO, Israeli funding for Hamas early on, Hamas’s social programs, and a sense of desperation amongst a population living directly in the conflicted area. Deranged? No. Living in a state of extreme desperation and widespread depression, which shapes people’s ideas in an objectively bad way? Indeed. But none of this is comparable to the deranged people who plotted the violence in question. The Boston bombers? Madrid? London? Their lives were far different from those of the average Palestinian. You can say that attitudes in Palestine are rooted at least partly in imperialism, but it just doesn’t work for Boston, nor for any of these other groups, because there is no causal link.

    • Aloevera

      To Adnan–

      There is probably a melange of rationalizations which the disaffected tap into when turning to terrorist acts–and outrage at imperialist actions may be part of this melange of rationalizations.

      But–several points:

      Up until the second half of the 20th century, imperialist/colonialist-style expansion was “normal” for any polity that had the resources to do so. It was only in the 2nd half of the 20th century that the idea took on that what used to be “normal” was now “bad”–at least, when done by Westerners. And a very muscular anti-imperialist movement with concomitant anti-imperialist ideology has burgeoned among non-Western victims of Western imperialism, along with many sympathetic Westerners. Westerners are now enjoined–on pain of being deemed immoral–to reflect on their imperialist sins and give redress of some sort to their victims.

      Note that there is no comparable movement or ideology for such reflection and redress on the part of non-Westerners who also engaged in imperialism. For example–the Muslims conquests are still celebrated by many Muslims–with no acknowledgement by Muslims that, in the context of contemporary awareness and conditions, there are non-Muslim people living in what is now called the “Muslim World” who are indigenous inhabitants of that area and who feel themselves variously discriminated upon by Muslim hegemony. Likewise for the related Arab hegemony.

      There are Copts, Berbers, Kurds, Assyrians, Jews–and so on–who have not resorted to terrorism against what they view–in the context of contemporary awareness–as Muslim or Arab or Turkish imperialism upon them. So–it is possible to be frustrated by imperialism but not resort to terrorism.

      Perhaps, when there is universal acknowledgement of imperialist harm and discrimination, with universal attempts at redress–(universal, that is, by both Westerners and non-Westerners for their past imperial acts which may still be causing harm)–then there will be more of a sense of fairness internationally, and maybe a calming down of turns to terrorism. Hard work.

      (By the way–I do not mean to imply that any party–Western or non-Western–who may be viewed as imperialist–should “return” to where their ancestors came from. We have to learn how to live with each other, with reciprocal consideration, in our current globalized circumstances).

      • Aloevera

        Correction to my previous comment to Adnan–

        There have been Kurds or Armenians who have resorted to terrorism to what they view as Turkish imperialism–but still–there are many living as minorities in the non-Muslim/Arab/Turkish world–or as minorities elsewhere in the non-Western world–who have not resorted to terror against those (Muslims/Arabs/other non-Westerners) with whom they have a grievance. We might look to them.

  2. Daniel Margolis

    I couldn’t agree more with your argument here. For the past couple of weeks I’ve been reading about the Boston bombings, and had been hoping someone would make the point you just made, which I’ve been thinking all along. The marathon terrorists are more like the Columbine teens than anything else; Islam is simply the prism through which they interpreted their violent impulses. If they grew up in the American South, in similar conditions, they likely would have committed the same crime, but in the name of some anti-government conspiracy theory.

    This distinction is important because it informs what we should be doing to prevent (or lessen or mitigate) these forms of violence. Instead of intervening to change whatever social or psychological conditions have been leading American youth to violence, many are “rethinking” their attitudes toward American immigration reform. While we should be wondering how two very unstable people got their hands on the guns they used to kill the MIT officer and shoot at others, the Senate killed a very mild form of gun control.

  3. Aloevera

    Mr. Malik–

    I (sort-of) agree with your point–or rather–with part of it–which is that what we see as terrorism now is a very contemporary phenomenon. Contemporary terrorism is typically committed by de-territorialized and de-traditional-culturalized people (especially youth)–a point made by Olivier Roy in many of his recent writings, as you referenced.

    I would rephrase Olivier’s point somewhat by noting that a major stimulus to contemporary terrorism is the breakdown of traditional social order. It is not that the terrorists don’t belong to anything–but rather, that there is now little for them to belong to, as they see it–and they are seeking to re-establish a “lost” social arrangement to which they can then belong–but get rather stuck in the romance of the “quest” (=the terror) itself.

    So, I wouldn’t say these people are without ideological attachments, however. I suggest they have a loosely worked-out idea of achieving dignity or a presumably lost integrity for Islamism (when they are Muslims) or for some sort of Christianism or Americanism or Westernism (when they are like Timothy McVeigh or Anders Brevik). All this constitutes a kind of quest for meaning or purity in a fast-changing and confusing new globalized world. Old traditions and boundaries have broken down and there are some–those who for some reason are given to ideological thinking or are the Perpetually Angry–who feel a need to re-position themselves for achieving a supposed lost social ideal by way of terror. (This reaction is probably a “cousin” to the rise of rapes and harassment of women–in varying degrees, world-wide–as women increasingly leave traditional positions and create challenges to men’s ideas of themselves). And like all ideologues, the terrorists avoid conceiving of what should happen in the mundane circumstances of the “day after” the grand romantic moment at the barricades or of the terror act. Thus, they appear to not be attached to any ideas. But they are attached to ideas–as extreme romantics.

    The question of interest–a social psychological question–is why do some people interpret the contemporary confusions and changes in social order with a need for terror–while others who are equally disturbed by such change, do not?

  4. philip Gage

    The point of all this should surely be that any kind of faith driven belief system can be perverted and used in a nihilistic way to justify unjust actions. Innocents become enemies when children are killed because their parents believe something because of their own indoctrinated belief system. West and East should not come into the argument especially where the USA and Islam is concerned. America has political thinking dominated by one superstitious belief and other parts of the non-western world by another. Take a child orphaned in an Islamic family and let it grow in another community. Is it Muslim? Jewish? Christian? Of course not! it is informed by the views of the adults who nurture it’s thoughts! The same would be true of the child of Christian, Jewish, Zoroastrian, Buddhist, Animist, Pantheist parents! People who take terrorist action on the basis of religious belief are the victims of indoctrination into belief systems and when belief is concerned it can be distorted by interpretation. Facts can not! I will not live forever and i am not prescient. However, i doubt that any such thing as an Atheist terror movement will ever exist!

    • “People who take terrorist action on the basis of religious belief are the victims of indoctrination into belief systems and when belief is concerned it can be distorted by interpretation. Facts can not!”

      And yet religion is not alone in having the power to indoctrinate. Sociocultural and political beliefs are very capable of distorting ‘facts.’

      “However, i doubt that any such thing as an Atheist terror movement will ever exist!”

      Maybe not in the name of ‘atheism,’ but history has also shown us that atheists are quite capable of terrorist acts (e.g. 20th century Russian terrorism), which should caution us from focusing on religion as the only cause. It seems more appropriate to say that absolute ideological positions of any kind are far more dangerous – where utopian ends are believed to justify the means.

  5. Having moved through the blogs back to this, I now understand the ‘nihilism’ comment that made no sense to me in the Woolwich blog

  6. D Hall

    Thank you for a thought-provoking essay. But where does this radical nihilism come from? And why does it seem so particularly virulent now? Is there something uniquely alienating in modern society that might drive people to act against it this viciously?

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