Muslims face prejudice, but Muslims from the Caucasus face a particular kind of prejudice - the kind born of ignorance so great it perversely imbues everything with significance. “There is never interpretation, understanding and knowledge when there is no interest,” Edward Said wrote in Covering Islam , and until this week, there was so little interest in and knowledge of the Caucasus that the ambassador of the Czech Republic felt compelled to issue a press release stating that the Czech Republic is not the same as Chechnya.
Knowing nothing of the Tsarnaevs’ motives, and little about Chechens, the American media tore into Wikipedia and came back with stereotypes. The Tsarnaevs were stripped of their 21st century American life and became symbols of a distant land, forever frozen in time. Journalist Eliza Shapiro proclaimed that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was “named after a brutal warlord”, despite the fact that Tamerlan, or Timur, is an ordinary first name in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Her claim is equivalent to saying a child named Nicholas must be named in honour of ruthless Russian tsar Nicholas I - an irony apparently lost on New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who made a similar denouncement on Twitter (to his credit, Kristof quickly retracted the comment).
Other journalists found literary allusions, or rather, illusions. “They were playing the nihilists Arkady and Bazarov in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons ,” explained scholar Juan Cole, citing an 1862 Russian novel to explain the motives of a criminal whose Twitter account was full of American rap lyrics. One does not recall such use of literary devices to ascertain the motives of less exotic perpetrators, but who knows? Perhaps some ambitious analyst is plumbing the works of Faulkner to shed light on that Mississippi Elvis impersonator who tried to send ricin to Obama.
Still others turned to social media as a gateway to the Chechen soul. Journalist Julia Ioffe - after explaining the Tsarnaevs through Tolstoy, Pushkin, and, of course, Stalin - cites the younger Tsarnaev’s use of the Russian website VKontakte as proof of his inability to assimilate, then ranks the significance of his personal photos.
"The most revealing image of Dzhokhar is not the one of him hugging an African-American friend at his high school graduation, but the one of him sitting at a kitchen table with his arm around a guy his age who appears to be of Central Asian descent," she writes . "In front of them is a dish plov , a Central Asian dish of rice and meat, and a bottle of Ranch dressing." Again, it is difficult to imagine a journalist writing with such breathtaking arrogance - why is the Central Asian friend more "revealing" than the African-American one? What, exactly, are they "revealing"? - about the inner life of someone from a more familiar place.
One way to test whether you are reading a reasonable analysis of the Tsarnaev case - and yes, they exist - is to replace the word “Chechen” with another ethnicity. “I could always spot the Chechens in Vienna,” writes journalist Oliver Bulloughs in the New York Times . “They were darker-haired than the Austrians; they dressed more snappily, like 1950s gangsters; they never had anything to do.” Now substitute the word “Jews” for “Chechens”. Minority-hunting in Vienna never ends well .