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Religious Radicalization as a Response to Socio-Economic Dysfunction

April 28, 2013 10 comments

I was originally going to post this article a few days ago. However my desire to be reasonably sure about what I am about to say made me procrastinate till the general direction of information was more supportive of my hypothesis.

A lot of people are wondering if the Boston marathon bombers were driven by religious beliefs. While there is no doubt that their actions were influenced by a certain set and interpretation of religious beliefs, that angle does not explain how they became radicalized and extra-religious in the first place.

As we all know, both were Chechens who were born and partly grew up (especially the older brother) in an era when the outside world was especially unstable and hostile from their viewpoint. Having said that, they did not come from a family that was especially poor or religious nor had they lost any close relatives in the conflict. Their father and uncle appear to be reasonably well-educated and secular, if somewhat shady, people. If you look at older pictures of that family, they just don’t give off the ‘we are so religious’ aura.

So what happened? How does a guy who was into sports, clothes, cars, babes and making lots of money become a religious radical? Why does a guy who was looking forward to getting american citizenship and perhaps a spot on the american olympic boxing team as late as 2009 decide that bombing the Boston Marathon was his purpose in life? and what about his younger brother? How does a reasonably popular stoner who made extra cash by selling pot and involvement in car theft rackets decide that joining his older brother in waging “holy war” against the country he grew up in was a good idea?

The conventional explanations for this turn of events range from something about hot-blooded Chechens, some mysterious radicalizing preacher, the internet, a conspiracy to advance public acceptance for militarization of american police forces and a host of other explanations that you can find on the intertubes. But what if we are missing a far more obvious and straightforward explanation for their religious radicalization?

Is religious radicalization, especially of the Islamic variety, a consequence of systemic socio-economic dysfunction?

It is hard to ignore that the increasing religiosity and radicalization of the Tsarnaev brothers, and their mother, has a pretty strong correlation with their declining fortunes and hope for a better future in the USA. Tamerlan, the older of the two brothers, was not an especially religious Muslim or even a traditional Chechen in his late teens and early 20s. He moved out of his parents house, was chasing chicks in nightclubs, living with pretty attractive women, was perhaps involved in pot-grow operations and trained for MMA competitions. He did not exhibit any strong interest in spreading the word of Islam beyond trying to convert his pretty fit girlfriends.

The younger brother, Dzhokhar, was even less of a religious guy. The interviews of people who used to hang out with him suggest that he was pretty much your basic stoner who sold extra weed on the side. There is very little in his background or known tastes in lifestyle, music, media or women to suggest that he was a religiously observant person. If anything, he comes across as the small-time drug dealer/ entrepreneur type rather somebody who believed in 72 virgins.

I believe that the roots of their radicalization lie in the changing nature of american society. For many decades, but especially between the 1950s to mid-1990s, USA was the best place to immigrate- legally or “illegally”. There used to be lots of real opportunities for immigrants to make it big, or failing that- at least lead a pretty comfy and prosperous middle-class lifestyle. Even poor and ‘less-educated’ immigrants had a pretty decent chance of making it into the middle-class. However things started to change for the worse in the late 1990s. It became harder and harder for both “native-born” and immigrant americans to remain in the middle-class, let alone climb into it.

We can come up all sorts of explanations for what drove this change, but the net effect has been that a rapidly increasing number of americans (especially among younger age groups) do not believe that the system will treat them fairly. They routinely see connected ivy-league educated sociopaths make mistakes and still collect their millions and billions, while competent and loyal people like them get screwed over. While this double standard has always been a feature of american society, the system had kept it from becoming the dominating feature of american society for many decades. I believe that the collapse of the soviet union in the late 1980s-early 1990s unleashed the full greed of the ‘elites’ resulting in the openly and highly dysfunctional society we live in today.

While CONservative morons might not see anything wrong with this change, almost everyone with more than half a brain understands (at some level) that the current socio-economic system is highly dysfunctional. All stable and functional societies remain so only as long as most people living in them believe that the system is largely fair, reasonable and worth their while. People will either withdraw from or stop co-operating with systems that are seen as dishonest, abusive or non worth their while.

It is very likely that the Tsarnaev family immigrated to the USA in the early 2000s under the impression that they would be afforded the same opportunities as people like them used to as late as the early 1990s. But a lot changed between the early-1990s and the early-2000s. Many of the paths and opportunities that would have allowed them to move into the middle-class or beyond simply did not exist. The father was reduced from a stable legal job in a ministry to fixing cars as an unlicensed mechanic. The mother went from a homemaker to somebody hustling for small jobs. While these trials and tribulations might initially have been dismissed as temporary, they soon realized that was not the case.

It certainly did not help that Tamerlan’s promising boxing/MMA career started to unravel for reasons that were unfair and beyond his control. The younger brother, Dzhokhar, while clearly not stupid was just not an academic. He, like his older brother, preferred a life with booze, drugs and babes- and who can blame them. Which rational person would prefer to live like an under-sexed dweeb for the ‘chance’ of higher future earnings in a society with an obviously broken contract.

To make a long story short- the rather shitty experience of the Tsarnaev family in the USA, as individuals and as a group, was very likely what drove Tamerlan and Dzhokhar on a path of self-directed religious radicalization. In a way, they are far more like James Holmes (Aurora Theater Massacre)and Adam Lanza (Sandy Hook Shooter) than somebody who was indoctrinated from birth to fight some religious war. Also note that Holmes and Lanza came from highly secular backgrounds and therefore found secular justifications for their actions (mental illness, autism/nihilism). The Tsarnaev brothers justified their actions through religious beliefs mainly because they were more familiar with religion than fashionable psychiatric mumbo-jumbo.

What do you think? Comments?