I just returned from a week in my hometown of Boston. It was never supposed to be a week, but on Monday afternoon, my beautiful city by the Charles was devastated by two amateur terrorists or, in the words of their Uncle Raslan, “losers.” Later that week, in the car on the way to the airport, my boyfriend asked me, “Why do you think people are responding positively to the Uncle? He’s kind of a celebrity now.”
We love Uncle Raslan because in the hours after suspects Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarneav were identified by authorities, he took a calculated risk and made himself available to the media and, more importantly, the American public. He immediately condemned his nephews and asserted, angrily and succinctly, that this is not Islam. Americans, ever-incredulous about such condemnations, accepted Uncle Raslan. We applauded. We re-posted the video on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. We were enthralled by Uncle Raslan.
The Tsaneav’s uncle, a Duke University-educated attorney in Maryland, did what previous American Islamic organizations and agencies have thus far failed to accomplish and that is to successfully reach out to the American people and simultaneously become enormously popular in the process. Americans, so used to looped footage of angry, disenfranchised Muslim men chanting, “Death to America” and rambling tirades about the evils of the West were confronted with an angry Muslim man yelling in favor of America. All over, Americans absorbed and replayed Uncle Raslan’s message: the boys, he said, were “losers” and “anything else to do with religion is a fraud. It’s a fake. We’re Muslims.” Americans stopped and they listened.
Press releases with condemnations issued from major Muslim organizations like ISNA and CAIR have thus far failed to really resonate with Americans. The written statements are just that: words, while the leadership lacks the charisma and passion of an Uncle Raslan. This man is angry, but he is righteously angry. That’s the kind of anger that appeals to Americans’ sense of justice, a Puritanical wrath that echoes Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners at the Hands of an Angry God.” Americans love righteousness and Uncle Raslan is very righteous. We love Uncle Raslan.
We love Uncle Raslan because he said, bluntly, a characteristic that Americans also love, that his nephews were “losers.” Not jihadis or psychopaths or militants: losers. His choice of words was stunning in its simplicity, its succinctness and its accuracy. Suddenly the two brothers, the subject of a massive and violent manhunt were just losers, criminals, and hacks. They were still terrorists, but Uncle Raslan made us look at them in a different way, a way that was somewhat comforting, that gave us all a sense of being smarter, better, more successful, more American. Uncle Raslan told us, in his brief press conference, that his nephews failed to become Americans, they failed to be, as all Americans believe they themselves to be: exceptional. Uncle Raslan is good for public morale.
We love Uncle Raslan, too, because he went further, too, using the “f-word”: forgiveness. He called out to the younger of the brothers, Dzhokhar, telling him that he should “ask for forgiveness.” He said it first. He put the idea of forgiveness on the table. It was stunning and it was necessary for us to hear that word, to feel some sense of empowerment, to feel some sense of our own humanity as we watched, waited, and grieved as a city.
Finally, his condemnation of their acts as having anything to do with Islam was revolutionary, not because it was never before said, but the way Uncle Raslan said it, with anger that not only had the boys brought shame to their family, to their ethnicity, but also to Islam. We love Uncle Raslan for that, for his righteous indignation. The American Muslim community needs more of Uncle Raslan: more justified, more articulate, more righteous rage about the radicalization of a religion and its youth. Non-Muslim Americans will respond, not with vigilantism, but in support of programs, people, and means of protecting all Americans and ensuring that the future of all Americans is secure. Americans are remarkably resilient and generous. Now is the moment to re-strategize Islamic advocacy in the United States, beginning with Uncle Raslan’s candor.