“He was ‘us’.”


January 12, 2015 by AK

I have recently posted notes on prof. Borenstein’s piece, helpful as far as Russia is concerned but not much relevant to the Tsarnaev case. Now, moving on to Masha Gessen writing in The New Yorker:

While Tsarnaev may look white, he grew up Muslim in Boston—his family immigrated to the U.S. in 2002. Before that, he lived in Kyrgyzstan and Russia, where he was considered “black.” (The N.Y.U. professor Eliot Borenstein explains the phenomenon of that perception very well.). None of Dzhokhar’s closest friends at college, at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, was white.

What the author seems to be trying to say is that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has always been viewed as, and perhaps felt like, a member of a racial, ethnic and/or religious minority. That much could be true but not exactly in the way Masha Gessen makes it out to be.

From what I’ve read about the Tsarnaev family, I’m not getting the impression that the brothers “grew up Muslim.” Dzhokhar arrived in the US in 2002, at seven or eight, but did not develop a serious interest in Islam until 2011-12, when he was already enrolled in the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. The family visited a mosque but “occasionally“; the father, Anzor, was described as non-religious but keen on keeping Chechen, or more generically North Caucasus, customs.

There were no signs that Dzhokhar was shunned or viewed as representative of the Other by his fellow students at high school and college.

Those who remember him at the school suggest he was well integrated in its diverse community. “[Dzhokhar] wasn’t ‘them’. He was ‘us’. He was Cambridge,” Andrea Kramer – whose son studied with Dzhokhar – told the Wall Street Journal.

I don’t know if it’s true that none of Dzhokhar’s close college friends were white or “white” in Gessen’s narrow sense. Even if true, nothing points at the young man being rejected by other students for whatever reason, including religion and ethnicity. He might have felt lonely and unanchored but the sources of that alienation are probably deeper and more complex than the media suggests.


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