The Tsarnaev Excommunication

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Were the Boston bombers Muslims?

On the one hand, that appears to be an increasingly easy question to answer. Their family was Muslim. The Tsarnaev brothers were seen at mosques. Investigators are saying that they were "motivated by religion."

Case closed?

The other hand is being waved by Muslims.

From a CNN report:

"I don't care who or what these criminals claim to be, but I can never recognize these criminals as part of my city or my faith community," said Yusufi Vali, executive director for the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, the largest mosque in the Boston area.

From the Huffington Post:

"I would not be willing to do a funeral for him," said Imam Talal Eid of the Islamic Institute of Boston, a community services organization that frequently arranges funeral prayers and burials in the region. "This is a person who deliberately killed people. There is no room for him as a Muslim. He already left the fold of Islam by doing that."

To which Mark Silk suggests that Muslims should accept the bombers as part of their community, even as they condemn their terrible acts:

"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."

Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. And a guy I've quoted a few times over the years. But I disagree with him here.

If the bombers had "merely" been murderous thugs who happened to be Muslim, I think I'd likely side with him. Catholic Mafiosi are still considered Catholic. Very bad Catholics, but still. Similarly, mobsters Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Seigel were considered terrible Jews. But the Jewish community didn't declare them non-Jewish.

But this case is different. 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.

For the imams I quoted above, that's not simply wrong. It's heresy. And surely every religious community has the right -- even the obligation -- to expel heretics.

There are some differences in the ways that faiths exercise this option. Judaism is more tangled than some. To be Jewish is as much a matter of blood as it is belief. It's perfectly possible to discuss Jewish atheists without ignoring either Judaism or atheism. But even Judaism has a tradition of excommunication.

People who ascribe to the tenets of other religions -- "Messianic Jews," for instance -- have excluded themselves from even the most basic of Jewish beliefs and are considered beyond the pale.

Christianity, which is wholly dependent on beliefs to define membership, has a much richer tradition of excommunication, anathema, inquisition, and schism.

Islam is much more like Christianity. Despite the American stereotype that ties Muslims to a particular ethnicity, the billion or so Muslims in the world come from many nations with many indigenous forms of Islam. All are based on a profession of belief and tied together by traditions of Islamic law and understanding.

Of which there are several competing traditions. Islam is not a lot more unified than Christianity, actually. Should Christians accept members of the Christian Identity movement as part of their faith community? How about the vile members of Westboro Baptist Church? If a Christian leader wanted to declare that these folks are not Christian, I'd can't think of a valid objection.

So if these imams say the bombers acted utterly outside Muslim tradition in a way that defies any claim of belief, then I say the imams have every right and even an obligation to speak out.

Silk says that exposes them to counter proof-texting by Muslim haters, who will say that they have the same right to define what is and is not authentic Islam. I say that the haters are gonna hate and need no excuse or specious reason.

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.

Certainly no non-Muslim can make that happen.

Jeffrey Weiss is a Dallas-based religion writer. Follow him on Twitter @WeissFaithWrite.

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