Editor's note: The more we learn about Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the more it appears religious radicalization partly explains his apparent descent into terrorism. The Wall Street Journal reported this weekend that, over the past two years, Tamerlan had become increasingly militant in his religious outlook, particularly on questions of assimilation. He would tangle with speakers at the mosque he sometimes attended, as when one suggested that Muslims should celebrate American holidays like the Fourth of July. And he once hectored the proprietor of a Middle Eastern grocery story in Cambridge for advertising Thanksgiving Turkeys ("Brother, why did you put up this sign?" he asked the man, "This is kuffar [non-Muslim]. That's not right!"). What follows is a look at one of the Muslim preachers Tamerlan admired, and who appears to have influenced his views.
Now that the search for the Tsarnaevs themselves is over, the search is on for where they picked up the grotesque idea of bombing civilians. The earliest indications are that Tamerlan, the brother who died early Friday morning, practiced a radical form of Islam that made him sympathetic to terrorism. Many of these hints come from a YouTube account that appears to have belonged to him (although this has yet to be confirmed). For example, the account includes a video touting the prophecy of the “Black Banners of Khurasan,” a central Asian region from which jihadists believe they will rise up and lay waste to their enemies, as this Mother Jones post explains. Al Qaeda has long associated itself with this prophecy.
Intriguingly, the owner of the YouTube account also posted two videos of sermons by a militant Australian Muslim named Feiz Mohammad—a former boxer turned preacher who fled the country just before a counterterrorism operation snared several of his friends and associates in 2007.
Sheikh Feiz, as he is known, turns out to be a prolific producer of videos. He is perhaps most famous for a 16-DVD set known as the Death Series, in which he urges parents to offer their children “as soldiers defending Islam.” “Teach them this,” he says in the recording. “There is nothing more beloved to me than wanting to die as a mujahid. Put in their soft, tender hearts the zeal of jihad and a love of martyrdom.” The Death Series won Feiz a kind of international notoriety after a team of British filmmakers purchased it from a group of children in the parking lot of a Birmingham mosque and featured it in their documentary, Undercover Mosque.
It’s easy to see why Feiz has developed a following. He has the chiseled look of a former athlete, evident despite his baggy clerical garb and abundant beard. He speaks fluent, Australian-accented English but moves easily in and out of Arabic. He has impeccable dramatic timing—sneering one minute, joking the next—and his language is unfailingly evocative. There is a constant suggestion of physical menace.
Much of the content sounds like standard-issue Islamism: the de riguer contempt for Jews (“pigs that will be killed at the end of the world,” with a snort to underscore the metaphor), the retrograde posture toward women. A rape victim has “[n]o one to blame but herself,” he said in a 2005 lecture, “nothing but satanic skirts … tight jeans: all this to tease man and appeal to his carnal nature." Naturally, jihad is to be waged against non-believers (“kaffirs”). “The peak, the pinnacle … the summit of Islam is jihad," Feiz says. "Kaffir is the worst word ever written, a sign of infidelity, disbelief, filth, a sign of dirt."
When pressed, Feiz protests that journalists have misinterpreted his comments. “The jihad I speak of is not one of violence,” he told the Australian in 2007. “It is one of personal struggle against things like mischievousness, temptation and personal harm. … I have never called for people to be harmed.” This may or may not have been true at the time. But three years later, he held up the anti-Muslim Dutch politician Geert Wilders as a candidate for beheading.
Still, perhaps the most alarming feature of the sheikh’s sermonizing isn’t his penchant for verbal assaults but his malignant worldview. You don’t have to venture too deeply into Feiz’s video library to pick up strong whiffs of a radical takfiri philosophy—the belief that Muslims may excommunicate fellow Muslims simply because they’ve lapsed in their religious obligations. “If you want to be called a Muslim … you must adopt all of Islam. All of it,” Feiz says at the outset of one lecture. “You do not adopt one part [and say] ‘I do not like the other part, I’m going to chuck it out the window.’” “No,” he continues, “Your status as a Muslim … it dies, slowly and slowly, until there is no Muslim in your life.” Feiz explains that the failure to pray, fast, and abstain from alcohol outside of Ramadan are all grounds for losing one’s Muslimhood.
According to Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, the practice of takfir dates back almost to Islam’s founding, when a sect known as the Kharijites split with Ali, the nephew of the prophet Mohammad. From the beginning, takfir was usually a cover for political violence. Islam strictly forbids the killing of fellow Muslims—it is punishable by eternity in hell. But if someone has turned their back on the faith, the strict prohibition disappears. In this case, the Khajirites were upset that Ali had brokered a compromise with an enemy rather than fight a brutal war. So they declared Ali a non-Muslim and eventually assassinated him.
In modern times, Egyptian Islamists practiced takfir in the 1970s and adopted it as their justification for assassinating Anwar Sadat in 1981. (Sadat, by failing to impose sharia on Egypt, had ipso facto outed himself as a non-believer.) These militants were mentors to Ayman al-Zawahiri, who later injected takfir into Al Qaeda’s DNA when he joined forces with Osama bin Laden. At first, according to Wright, takfir was too radical even for bin Laden himself, but he eventually warmed to the idea.
The upshot of an expansive deployment of takfir, of the sort the Al Qaeda eventually adopted, is simple: to enable terrorism on a grand scale. In any mass attack, after all, there is a huge risk of harming fellow believers, the worst sin a Muslim can commit. But if the terrorist can preemptively expel the victims from Islam, he has a kind of license to kill. Wright describes a conversation between an FBI investigator and one of the Al Qaeda perpetrators of the US embassy attacks in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. Weren’t many of the victims Muslims, the investigator asked. The bombings were on a Friday, came the response, when real Muslims should have been at the mosque.
Feiz appears to have sympathy for this logic, too. According to this British publication, he has said that “anyone who tries to play with the sacred code of Shariah is kaffir [non-believer]… the only law for him is beheadness (sic), execution.” That’s a fairly stark distillation of the takfiri view.
Did such musings have any influence over Tamerlan Tsarnaev? I’m in no position to say. But if I had his younger brother in custody, it would be the first question I asked.