The information that's currently available to the public suggests that Islam is somehow implicated in the Tsarnaev brothers' deadly plot against the spectators and the runners of the Boston Marathon. For two Muslim brothers with ethnic ties to war-torn Chechnya, the connections seem to write themselves. Recent reports even suggest that the younger brother, Dzhokhar, has indicated that the attack was in fact motivated by their Islamic beliefs. But stopping here and simply accepting that Islam was the root cause of these attacks would be wrong. Doing so would provide a false sense of understanding that would only inflame American relations with Muslims domestically and abroad, while also obscuring the more important questions that could help us prevent this sort of violence in the future.
The biggest question about the Tsarnaev brothers is not how the two justify their attacks against the Boston Marathon. Islam, and religion in general, can be used to justify innumerable and even contradictory actions. Just consider Osama bin Laden who used a violent strain of Islamist ideology to justify his attacks against the West but when captured, items found paint a picture of a man who could hardly be characterized as a devout follower of Mohammed. Or consider how some religious opponents of gay marriage use the bible as a means to justify their views, but ignore other passages that proclaim the evils of combining different textiles or of losing one's virginity before marriage.
The most important questions about the Tsarnaev brothers are what made them turn from peaceful Sunni Muslims to followers of a militant ideology and why they ultimately felt that violence was the only option.
Recent interviews paint a picture of Tamerlan Tsarnaev meeting a man named Misha who played a role in his religious transformation. Up until this point, Tamerlan was like anyone else. He went to school, he played sports, and he happened to be Muslim. But what needs to be answered is why he ultimately changed his beliefs so drastically. Did this mystery radical capitalize on his feelings of loneliness or unbelonging? Comments from the boys' Uncle Ruslan's suggest that Tamerlan was, in his words, "a loser," so was he approached while particularly vulnerable from a lack of prospects, success, or opportunity? But the point is that one person's religion or ethnic upbringing cannot alone explain why he or she is susceptible to a complete ideological shift in the way Tamerlan Tsarnaev was.
And consider the younger brother, Dzhokhar, whose acquaintances almost always point out that he never seemed like a particularly religious individual. Anecdotes paint a picture of a seemingly ordinary teenager who liked to hang out, go to the gym, and party with his friends. So how could a student like this become a religious fanatic? The religion itself cannot answer this question. One possible answer has to do with his relationship with Tamerlan; interviews with friends and relatives raise the possibility that Dzhokhar was heavily influenced by his older brother, but even this raises more questions than it answers. How could any 19-year-old be convinced to perform such hateful acts in the name of religion when in nearly all observable ways, he was far from religious himself?
In the coming days, weeks, and months, theories of why these two men perpetrated terrible violence against the people of Boston will be thrown around. Religion will be chief among these explanations. But we have to remember that Islam alone cannot explain why these men turned from peaceful Sunnis to radical followers of a militant Islamic sect. Only when we understand their personal transformations will we be able to see how two previously ordinary young men could become terrorists. This information will be critical to what we know about homegrown terrorism because it is our understanding of their radicalization -- and not simply their religion -- that will help prevent similar atrocities in the future.