J.J. Goldberg with the Jewish Daily Forward writes about the identity crisis embodied by the Tsarvaev brothers:
The fact that the brothersare ethnic Chechens is critical. It’s probably important, too, that they spent most of their lives growing up outside the boundaries of Chechnya. It seems pretty clear that the brothers were raised to value their Chechen identity as central to their sense of self. And yet they were strangers to Chechnya. Even before they came to America in 2003, they lived mostly in nearby Dagestan and Kyrgyzstan, both of them Muslim-majority ex-Soviet republics, where the Tsarnaevs were part of an outsider ethnic-Chechen minority. So while the brothers reportedly felt like outsiders in America—claimed they didn’t have American friends, didn’t “understand Americans,” even after living here a full decade—they were also outsiders to Chechnya. They belonged to both, and yet neither.
Now look at the map. Chechnya is a rough Muslim region in the Caucasus Mountains, wedged between Christian Georgia to its south and Christian Russia to its north, with fellow-Muslim regions of Ingushetia to the west and Dagestan to the east. It’s been at war with its Russian overlords on and off for close to two centuries, but the wars of the last two decades, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, have been particularly bloody. The core of the conflict is independence. It had little to do with religion, other than the fact that religion — mostly the moderate Sufi version of Islam — is a big part of what defines Chechen ethnicity. Radical Salafi preachers with a loose connection to Al Qaeda started showing up only in the last decade or so, accompanying foreign Muslim volunteers who came to join the fight.
What’s particularly striking right now is that the Chechens are just one of many Muslim nations that are in hot conflict with their non-Muslim neighbors. In fact, if you follow the map around the edges of the vast oval that is the Muslim world, you move from one hot conflict to the next: Uighurs vs. Han Chinese in China’s Xinjiang province; Moro Muslims vs. Christian Filipinos on Mindanao in the south Philippines; Muslim Indonesia vs. Catholic East Timor; Muslims vs. Buddhists in Burma; Hindus vs. Muslims in India, Pakistan and Kashmir; Muslims vs. Jews in Israel-Palestine; Muslims vs. Coptic Christians in Egypt; Muslims vs. Christians and animists in South Sudan; Muslim Yoruba vs. Christian Ibo in Nigeria; the Muslim insurgency in Mali. Double back and we come to Muslim Bosniaks and Kosovars vs. Orthodox Christian Serbs in the Balkans; Turks vs. Armenians, Muslim Kurds and Arabs vs. Assyrian Christians in Iraq and — well, now we’re back in Chechnya.
Some folks would tell you that all these conflicts arise from an Islamic jihadist urge to conquer and dominate, or from a harsh, fundamentalist version of Islam seeking to impose itself on other Muslims and their neighbors. There’s some of that going on, to be sure, but it’s nowhere near the whole story. Many of these conflicts, including those of the Uighurs of Xinjiang, the Moros of the Philippines, the Muslims of Burma, Bosnia and Kosovo and Chechnya itself, it’s the other way around: Muslim communities defending themselves from encroachment by Christian or Buddhist neighbors. In others, especially between India and Pakistan, there’s plenty of blame to go around on all sides.