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Muslim leaders denounce violence as focus turns to bombers' faith

A sign outlining "obligatory prayers" hangs on the sanctuary at the Islamic Society of Boston mosque in Cambridge, Mass., on Friday, April 19, 2013. A mosque official confirmed that the two suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings, who lived a short dista
A sign outlining "obligatory prayers" hangs on the sanctuary at the Islamic Society of Boston mosque in Cambridge, Mass., on Friday, April 19, 2013. A mosque official confirmed that the two suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings, who lived a short distance away, worshipped there occasionally. Tamerlan Tsarnaev ranted at a neighbor about Islam and the United States. His younger brother, Dzhokhar, relished debating people on religion, "then crushing their beliefs with facts."
Allen Breed, Associated Press

As news reports explore the Islamic faith of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and its possible connections to the Boston Marathon bombings, commentators and religious leaders are divided on how the Islamic community should respond.

Muslims leaders have been distancing their faith from the bombings that occurred last week, killing three people and injuring almost 200 others who gathered at the finish line of the race. Tamerlan, 26, was killed in a shoot-out with police Friday. His younger brother Dzhokhar, 19, was charged in the bombings Monday and has told investigators from his hospital bed that he was inspired by an anti-American, radical version of Islam.

But, Islamic community leaders have continued to issue statements denouncing the attacks and distancing the faith from individuals they say do not represent the true tenets of Islam.

"We know that people who commit such acts of violence, they are not part of us," said Iman Muhammed Mehtar, Islamic Society of Greater Salt Lake. "In fact, there are no less than 1.5 billion Muslims. That's approximately 20 percent of the population. And if we look, the majority of Muslims are not violent."

Wajahat Ali wrote in Slate that forcing Muslims to defend themselves every time a bomb goes off smacks of racism. He doesn't see equal treatment of white loners accused of terrorist acts.

"The critical difference, however, is the powerful privilege of whiteness: when a white individual is accused of committing an act of terror he alone bears the brunt of responsibility for his crime, and the collective burden is not assigned on those who share his features."

But probing persists for connections between the Tsarnaev brothers and their Muslim heritage, seemingly unavoidable as journalists talk to relatives and friends of the young men in an effort to find a motive for the bombings.

One of the most detailed accounts came in the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday.

"A close examination of the Tsarnaev family shows that, over the past five years or so, the personal lives of the family members slipped into turmoil, according to interviews with the parents, relatives and friends," the paper reported. "The upheaval in the household was driven, at least in part, by a growing interest in religion by both Tamerlan and his mother."

The story quotes family and friends who noticed Tamerlan's suddenly strict adherence to Islam. Several news accounts noted a confrontation he had with members of a Boston-area mosque after an Imam called Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. a great person.

An account of the incident in Religion News Service quoted a terrorism expert saying such outbursts are tell-tale signs of followers being radicalized and that clerics should notify authorities of such behavior.

Islamic leaders need to acknowledge and address the radical element within Islam in order to win the understanding of a skeptical public, wrote Asra Nomani in the Washington Post.

She said a good example of how Muslim leaders should confront the question of extremists within the faith is the suspect's uncle, Ruslan Tsarni. He met with the press on Friday and answered questions directly, saying he was Muslim, that his nephews had likely been radicalized by an ideology of Islam that promotes extremism and violence and by so doing had shamed their family, their ethnicity and their faith.

"Rather than worrying about being politically correct, we have to be comfortable asking these difficult questions. And the collectivist-minded Muslim community needs to learn an important lesson from Tsarni: It’s time to acknowledge the dishonor of terrorism within our communities, not to deny it because of shame," Nomani wrote.

She cited examples of how Tsnarni's direct approach resonated with the public, who now refer to him in online posts as Uncle Ruslan.

"His effectiveness reveals that the best crisis management doesn’t require intellectual gymnastic but just plain, honest talk: We have a problem. We know it. And we want to do right," Nomani wrote.

Mark Silk, a professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College, blogged that he is sympathetic toward Muslims wanting to distance themselves from the Tsarnaev brothers. But the strategy of dismissing violent Muslims as heretics who are not true to the faith plays into the hands of Islamaphobes, who point out passages in the Koran that depict a "uniformly negative religion that is simply the mirror image of what the apologists portray.

"Better, I think, to acknowledge that faith traditions with centuries of history, complex scriptures, diverse and mutually antagonistic sub-groups, and millions of followers encompass examples of the worst as well as the best that humanity has to offer. To own the worst as well as the best is to put your enemies in a position of having to recognize the best as well as the worst."

But Jeffrey Weiss writing for Real Clear Religion argues that the Boston bombing is not a simple case of bad guys who happen to be Muslim.

"These men, if the investigators are right, committed their atrocities in the name of Islam. They were making a specific theological claim about their faith and what is acceptable within it," Weiss stated. "For the imams ... that's not simply wrong. It's heresy. And surely every religious community has the right — even the obligation — to expel heretics."

Like Nomani, Weiss says the problem must be addressed within the Muslim community.

"Think of it as quality control. The people on the inside are the only ones who can do that effectively. And maybe, just maybe, some other angry young man considering violence in the name of Islam will pause for just a moment and consider what it would be like to be rejected by his own."