For the most part, commentary on the Boston Marathon bombings has been saturated with the usual mixture of glib statements (“Whoever did this is not a Muslim.”), hyper defensiveness (“It’s all a conspiracy, don’t you know!”) or a disturbingly ignorant approach which chews up civil liberties and spits them out (“Ban the hijab!”). Eight-year-old Martin Richard, the youngest victim of the bombings, did more to build bridges than all of the above commentators combined, by being photographed holding a blue placard. It said, very simply: “No more hurting people. Peace.”
One may argue that engaging in continual speculation about the perpetrators’ identities is an inevitable part of human nature. However, it is important to urge caution here, for the sake of individuals like Sunil Tripathi (wrongly named as a suspect in the Boston bombings; police later found his body in the Providence River) and the dozens of people who have fallen prey to anti-Muslim and racist attacks in the aftermath, such as a Bangladeshi man who was assaulted in New York (his assailants shouted “F***ing Arab” as they beat him to the ground).
Throwaway insults on social media platforms demonize those who are willing to take responsibility for the bigger picture, i.e. the very real injustices that take place within Muslim communities, while engaging in some serious “whataboutery.” Others ruthlessly use such tragedies as a pretext for military occupation in Muslim-majority countries, or as an excuse to flout the rule of law when it comes to minority communities living in the West. Both approaches need to be vigorously challenged.
The fact of the matter is, we can debate religious and political minutiae until the cows come home. We can publicize the work of religious scholars — from Afifi Al-Akiti to Tahir ul-Qadri — who have published fatwas denouncing terrorism and suicide bombings in the strongest terms. We can speculate on whether the alleged perpetrators drank alcohol, which political groups they joined, and the precise moment when their backpacks came off. We are now getting into highly-specialized territory, and the analysis of terrorists’ psychological make-up is best left to the experts.
What we can do, each and every single one of us, is to overturn, or at least neutralize, the wider forces which seek to sow hate and discord in society. We can donate money to funds like the Boston Solidarity Fund, hold vigils for the victims, assist families of the victims with practical support and organize events which seek to promote unity between members of different communities, both religious and non-religious.
The focus of the debate needs to shift back to honoring the victims, and giving greater capacity and resources to grassroots activists who have been bringing communities together for years (some of whom started working before the Tsarnaev brothers were even born). It is an arduous task, and the hours are long, but the societal rewards are unimaginable; Interfaith Youth Core’s “Better Together” campaign is a prime example.
On the other side of the Atlantic, my own organization, British Muslims for Secular Democracy, has long been engaged in activities which seek to bring different communities together, while speaking out against injustices that are perpetrated against Muslims (and, crucially, those that take place within Muslim communities). We recently received a grant from the City of London corporation charity, “City Bridge Trust,” to help us carry out this important work, for which we are extremely grateful.
Last Sunday I helped to organize — alongside various interfaith practitioners — the launch of an alternative interfaith movement called “People Like Us” at Cambridge University. It enables different faith communities (as well as those of no faith) to learn from each other on the major issues in life that affect us all: work, family, education, life stages. It goes without saying that constructive efforts like these won’t create a harmonious society overnight, but they can help us come together in times of crisis, instead of viewing each other with suspicion.