When I woke in Malaysia to the news of the Boston Marathon bombings halfway around the world, I instantly worried about two things.
The first thought was, “I hope Nasser and Sam are safe” (they are friends of mine) and that the number of casualties, if any, was low.
The second was “Please don’t let the perpetrator be Muslim.”
Fortunately, Nasser was safe, and Sam, who was at the race, escaped injury. Three people died — which was heartbreaking, but it could have been far worse.
Unfortunately, my second wish didn’t come true. I wasn’t surprised.
Nor was I surprised that the older of the two brothers implicated in the attack, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was radicalized partly through militant jihadist content on the Internet.
After all, I was a fundamentalist once, influenced by a Salafi teacher during my childhood in my neighborhood mosque in Qatar in the mid-1990s. I am familiar with the power of divisive religious dogmatism to steal one’s mind and plant hatred in one’s heart toward “the Other.” As a veteran blogger and digital activist, I’m also familiar with the power of the Internet.
Although social media gives voice to many thoughtful crowds, it also provides a venue for a hateful few who are bent on stirring up trouble.
The Internet connects us with like-minded individuals. For someone discontented, disgruntled and alienated from the surrounding community, the Web becomes a refuge, providing a powerful sense of belonging.
That’s more or less what happened to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old Nigerian “underwear bomber” whose explosives luckily failed to detonate on board a U.S. plane in 2009.
This doesn’t just happen to Muslims. Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 77 in Norway in a bomb and shooting attack, was partly inspired, as his manifesto indicated, by the anti-Muslim blogs he frequented.
At one time, I might have been susceptible, too. But by the time I ventured online in 2006 and accidentally discovered the secular Egyptian blogosphere, I had already begun questioning my traditionalist upbringing as I wrestled with the fundamentalist beliefs my former Salafi teacher had taught me. I also wasn’t as discontented; my personal grievances were shifting and became directed at the rigid traditionalists and bearded authoritarians around me who wanted to confine me within narrow mental boundaries.
In my case, the Web liberated me. It helped free my mind from the dark, stinking and suffocating dungeons of religious dogmatism and intolerance.
Lucky for me, online and far away from those I resented, I found a growing tribe that was driven by the ideals of liberty: liberal Arab and Muslim bloggers, some of whom helped instigate, report on via Twitter and facilitate the youth-led Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia and in Egypt, demanding freedom and dignity.
Through my new online tribe, I discovered interpretations of Islam that were more rational, spiritual and humanistic. I later traveled around the world and met many of my online comrades. The result, after a lengthy and messy process of critical thinking, has been profound.
Had my original personal grievances and temperament been different when I arrived online, however, I might have directed my attention to harmful, destructive content.
And here is where we need to look closer at what could have driven the Tsarnaev brothers toward their heinous act.
The role of religious belief can’t be pinpointed as the sole motivating cause. We need to go deeper and explore the issue of the interpretation of religious texts, something that too many pundits ignore.
Yes, the Quran contains verses calling for violence against unbelievers, though these ought to be placed within the appropriate historical context. Nevertheless, it also includes passages that encourage peace and compassion toward fellow human beings.
One of those passages was read by my friend Nasser Weddady at an interfaith memorial in Boston after the bombings. It reads, in part: “Whoever kills a soul, it is as if he killed mankind entirely. And whoever saves a life, it is as if he has saved all of mankind.”
One could ask, why didn’t Tamerlan Tsarnaev abide by an interpretation of Islam that puts value on these verses rather than those related to war?
The answer is that interpretation is ultimately a choice. And when Tsarnaev ventured online, it looks as if he did so with established personal grievances.
I suspect that what psychologists call “confirmation bias” led him to consume militant interpretations of Islam that validated his feelings and confirmed his views, without seeking differing Muslim perspectives.
The Tsarnaev brothers bear responsibility for their criminal act. But let’s not forget the sick demagogues who lure them in and poison their minds.
Amir Ahmad Nasr, author of the forthcoming book “My Isl@m: How Fundamentalism Stole My Mind and Doubt Freed My Soul,” is a digital activist and entrepreneur.
– The Washington Post News Service with Bloomberg News