The first thing I read on the morning after the capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was a well-written, well-constructed, and very informative piece about Chechnya, Chechens, and the Tsarnaev brothers written by David Remnick (a hell of a writer) in The New Yorker (a hell of a publication).
Yet in the midst of all this quality, Remnick fell into a particularly pedestrian, non-quality trap: He used simplistic conventional wisdom as shorthand, and in so doing, conflated (whether intentionally or not) two very different things that simply are not conflatable.
Throughout the piece, wherever there is reference to the Tsarnaevs’ religion, there is an unspoken assumption that the more religious a Muslim is, the more likely that Muslim is to engage in extremist behavior. For instance:
The Caucasus region is multicultural in the extreme, but the predominant religion in the north is Islam…. In 1991, nationalist rebels fought two horrific wars with the Russian Army for Chechen independence. In the end, the rebel groups were either decimated or came over to the Russian side. But rebellion persists, in Chechnya and in the surrounding regions—Dagestan and Ingushetia—and it is now fundamentalist in character. The slogan is “global jihad.” The tactics are kidnappings, assassinations, bombings.
…Members of the [Tsarnaev] family occasionally attended a mosque on Prospect Street in Cambridge, but there seemed nothing fundamentalist about their outlook.
…[Tamerlan, the older brother,] described himself as “very religious”; he didn’t smoke or drink…. Three years ago, he was arrested for domestic assault and battery.
“He was a cool guy,” Ashraful Rahman said [of the younger brother, Dzhokhar]. “I never got any bad vibes from him…. Dzhokhar went to the mosque more than I did, but he wasn’t completely devoted.”
The problem here is how much is left unsaid, and it’s very hard to quantify or sketch an absence. Nowhere does Remnick (who is, as I say, a hell of a writer, and I believe an unusually honest and careful one) say anything even remotely like “the more religious a Muslim is, the more likely that Muslim is to engage in extremist behavior.”
But when you’re writing in a society which everywhere makes just that assumption; a society in which the faith, Scripture, habits, and even clothing choices of Muslims are frequently treated as signs of a violent pathology, you must be particularly careful not to further a conventional wisdom that is not only wildly inaccurate, but physically dangerous to Muslims. Remnick doesn’t need to write “the more religious a Muslim is, the more likely that Muslim is to engage in extremist behavior” — far too many of his readers will make the leap on their own.
There is one sentence in the piece in which Islam is mentioned in a context that does not, somehow, end up in violence. Dzhokhar’s friend Essah Chisholm says this:
“Tamerlan maybe felt like he didn’t belong, and he might have brainwashed Dzhokhar into some radical view that twisted things in the Koran.”
“Some radical view that twisted things in the Koran” – nine short words that open a door to the possibility that in order to descend into pathological violence, a Muslim must, in fact, twist the Qur’an, twist his or her faith, leave actual Islam behind and create something awful and new onto which he or she slaps the word “Islam” — just as the KKK, and Westboro, and Scott Roeder call themselves Christians; just as Yigal Amir, and Baruch Goldstein, and the West Bank’s Od Yosef Hai Yeshiva call themselves Jews.
But that door is small, so small as to be missed entirely. In the very next paragraph we read:
Tamerlan’s YouTube channel features a series of videos in support of fundamentalism and violent jihad… [one] provides a dramatization of the Armageddon prophecy of the Black Banners of Khurasan, an all-powerful Islamic military force that will rise up from Central Asia and defeat the infidels; it is a martial-religious prophecy favored by Al Qaeda.
Writers use shorthand all the time, often in order to create space to tell a complicated and complex story. In 21st century America, “he started to pray more frequently” is often shorthand for “this was a Muslim about to descend into pathological violence” — but when we use that shorthand, we are, in fact, denying the complexity of the very story we’re telling.
We can no longer write this way. If our goal is to tell the truth, we can’t let dangerous inaccuracies fill the spaces between our words. We have to seek out sources who can help us clarify to readers that what terrorists call “Islam” is not accepted as such by the vast majority of the faithful; that increased devotion is almost never a sign of hatred but rather a sign of love of God; that 99.999% of Muslims who pray five times a day would no sooner launch a terrorist attack than would 99.999% of faithful Christians or Jews. That terrorists who happen to be Muslim represent not Muslims, but pathology.
Remnick serves as my example here, but as anyone who has spent any time reading about the events at the Boston Marathon can attest, he is far, far from the only writer who has fallen into this trap.
The story of terrorism, and fear, and those who would harm innocent people, and the innocent people they harm is far too important a story for us to get wrong by means of shortcuts. We need to write better.