Religious Radicalization as a Response to Socio-Economic Dysfunction

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?

  1. April 28, 2013 at 6:42 am

    Reblogged this on oogenhand and commented:
    It is very true that this society doesn’t reward hard work along the conventional path. However, discrimination and oppression isn’t accepted either in Saudi-Arabia and Iran as a valid reason to break the law, and these men, being Chechen Muslims, had a fair amount of Saudi Privilege. This social construct, a system of privilege, should be abolished.

  2. Jason
    April 28, 2013 at 6:52 am

    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. … The Tsarnaev brothers justified their actions through religious beliefs mainly because they were more familiar with religion than fashionable psychiatric mumbo-jumbo.

    You’re one of the few people who gets this. Everyone is turning it into one of those stupid nativism/diversity debates.

  3. webe
    April 28, 2013 at 2:02 pm

    Rather little has come into the open about the motivation behind the bombing: they certainly were not making a statement. What is in the public domain is rather sketchy and anecdotal, so everything is rather speculative.
    These two guys were very much second generation immigrants, a group who is known to have significantly more problems with identity, alienation, personal integration, and depression. In their case it may have been more acute with the parents going back. Culturally they found themselves in some sense marooned in a society where it is generally very hard to discover a meaning in life.
    I agree that the religion thing is not genuine motivation — I don’t believe the religious radicalization narrative. The radical Islamic “terrorist bomber” is a cultural stereotype that is “out there”, and therefore presents itself as a possibility, as does the possibility of becoming a suicidal mass-murderer. I agree that it says something about the disaffected loyalties of people in the present system, but their personal motivation remains somewhat impenetrable to me.

    I do agree strongly with the statement that the fall of the Berlin wall and the Soviet Union signalled the demise of any spirited discussion about social-economic choices and systems. From 1989 onwards the narrative has been about TINA, there is no alternative, capitalism and free markets a la neo-liberalism as something inherent in history and nature, simple elucidation of fixed economic principles, this is simply how things work.

  4. doclove
    April 28, 2013 at 3:34 pm

    Your article is well stated. you are very correct that the Tsarnevs were more like James Holmes, Adam Lanza and I say even George Sodini and U.S. Army Major Nidal Hassan. You would probably call me a CONservative type or more likely a LIEbertarian type. I will acknowledge that the ruling elite of both the two types mentioned have done stupid things. However, the LIEberal types have done more than the other two to make the USA an economic hellhole where it is hard to advance or stay where one is at economicly without sliding down financially. It would be better said that all three types are the eLIEte(elite) who are screwing everyone under them since the 1960s and it’s not getting any better or slowing down. It’s getting worse and accelerating.

  5. dwc
    April 28, 2013 at 10:08 pm

    Failure of American dream is a better explanation, since it accounts for more facts. However, media will spin it as an islamic radicalization, Islamic radicalization is a product of the failure of American dream.

    There are many immigrants who come here thinking that they can collect gold on the american paved roads. Once they land here, they see the reality: McJobs, along with high cost of living!! Then these McJob parents think that their kids can achieve the american dream even if they themselves can’t. And it is not happening either!!

  6. P Ray
    April 29, 2013 at 6:22 am

    I wonder what people affiliated to the IRA, have to say about religious radicalisation.
    I haven’t heard any of them say that Jesus asked them to kill their enemies.
    So maybe it’s just a convenient excuse to get a lenient sentence?

    Then these McJob parents think that their kids can achieve the american dream even if they themselves can’t. And it is not happening either!!
    “Work hard and you will succeed. After all, Bill Gates got somewhere without a university degree”
    leading to the rebuttal:
    6 Inspiring Rags to Riches Stories (That Are Bullshit)

  7. IamMarktoo
    April 29, 2013 at 1:09 pm

    They’re all young, men too. A group that has always been arrogant, over confident and prone to violence. If they don’t fall for being sports fans and other outlets they seem to end up badly.

    The irony of these legals going for Boston (Irish) is not lost on many. These types of bombs were common only a decade or so ago in many British cities. Nasty! Paid for by foreigners (USA).

    Now comparing Irish kids to Chechen kids. Ha. I see no difference. Religion, politics or just plain old animal lunacy seems to be splitting hairs. They’re all Young dumb and full of. .. and dead keen to rip some random humans apart.

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