04/27/2013 12:14 am ET Updated Jun 26, 2013

The Curious Case of Katherine Russell


I can just see the Lifetime movie title now: "Married to a terrorist: The Katherine Russell Story."
With the constant barrage of information, and I use that word loosely, regarding the Boston Marathon bombings suspects--the inflammatory rhetoric of radicalization, jihadis and vengeful murder--Katherine Russell, the wife of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, has added another dimension to the evolving narrative of the Tsarnaev brothers: good Christian girl gone bad.

Though much remains to be discovered regarding what actually led to the devastating attack in Boston, plenty has already been surmised. The media's focus on the religious identity of the two suspects has the nation talking about Muslim terrorists yet again. The Tsarnaev brothers may have been mentally disturbed, disgruntled with American foreign policy as some have claimed, or radicalized via online recruitment, but regardless of the motive for their actions, this is about them.

This is not about me.

Yet whenever a crime occurs and a Muslim is the suspect, the crime becomes about me. When society's discourse focuses on a faith, an ideology, a system of belief with more than a billion adherents, and fails to probe the individual, any hope for healing, for understanding, for recovery is lost. It doesn't become about how I can help my country move forward, it becomes about how I am one step further from being considered "all-American."

The case of Katherine Russell, who may well be a victim herself, illustrates the media's voyeuristic fascination with the Muslim woman. She provides a spectacle for the public to shake their heads at because she is a tragic character, and her tragic flaw is her conversion to the Muslim faith.

I cannot remember the last time the spouse of a criminal became the subject of such blatant speculation and gossip. ran a video with the title: "Katherine Russell: Married to a suspected terrorist." An article on includes the headline: "Katherine Russell Tsarnaev: From All-American Girl to Bomber's Wife." Yahoo News speculates regarding Russell's role in an innocuous YouTube promo video for a mosque, stating, "Naturally, one of the major curiosities is how faith may have played a role in the terror attack -- which is why a YouTube clip that was brought to our attention sparks some intrigue."


Why are such "curiosities" natural? Why has Russell been made infamous not for her connection to the alleged bomber as his spouse or for a crime herself, but for her status as a convert? Why did Russell lose her "All-American girl" title once she became Muslim? This simply gives the message to American Muslim girls that they can never be all-American--only semi-American, at best.

The media's treatment of Russell as a deserter of her American identity because she embraced Islam only cements the position of the American Muslim on the fringes of society in our collective consciousness. How can Muslims, even those born in America like Russell or myself, function and feel like a part of the mainstream when they are viewed as foreigners? What hope do immigrants of other faiths have if even a white American has essentially been excommunicated from her identity as a "real" American for leaving the Christian faith?

Russell has no hope of being seen as "normal;" it is impossible that she chose Islam of her own free will. "She was just this all-American girl who was brainwashed by her super-religious husband," according to an anonymous source quoted in The Daily Mail. An article posted on says Russell's life took a turn for the worse after her conversion, "She converted to Islam, changed her name to Karima, dropped out of college, got married and was a mother by the time she was 21. On Saturday, the former all-American girl was spotted returning to the Cambridge apartment she had shared with her husband, wearing a brown-and-tan printed hijab as she climbed out of a car."

Ah yes, the hijab, the scarlet letter of doom; once she donned that piece of cloth, she was clearly on a path toward self-destruction.

"Before Katherine went to Suffolk she wore normal clothes like jeans, T-shirts and skirts," a neighbor, Paula Gillette, told The Daily Mail. "But when he came back she was wearing a white headscarf."

Note: wearing a headscarf does not preclude one from also wearing "normal clothes like jeans."

The portrayal of Russell as abnormal, an aberration exemplifying a fall from American grace, serves only to further the marginalization and alienation of Muslims in the U.S. Focusing on her with pitiable awe only deepens the rift in the Muslim/American identity when so many have struggled for decades to embody them as a single, compatible entity.