The Washington Post covered much of the Tsarnaev narrative under the headline "A Faded Portrait of an Immigrant's American Dream." The story is about what you'd expect from the headline but the "faded portrait" is fascinating — a photograph of the family before they came to America: young Mr. and Mrs. Tsarnaev with baby Tamerlan, and Uncle Muhamad with a Tom Selleck moustache and Soviet military uniform. If you only know Ma Tsarnaeva from her post-Boston press conferences as a head-scarfed harpie glorying in her sons' martyrdom and boasting that she'll be shrieking "Allahu akbar!" when the Great Satan takes her out too, the "faded portrait" is well worth your time: Back then, just before the U.S.S.R. fell apart, the jihadist crone looked like a mildly pastier version of an Eighties rock chick — a passable Dagestan doppelgänger for Joan Jett, with spiky black hair and kohl-ringed eyes. She loves rock 'n' roll, so put another ruble in the jukebox, baby!
Then she came to America and, after a decade in Cambridge, Mass., returned to her native land as a jihadist cliché — pro-sharia, pro-terrorist, pro-martyrdom, pro-slaughter. She arrived here as Joan Jett, and went back all black heart.
The Tsarnaevs were a mixed marriage. Pop was Chechen, Mom was Dagestani, from the Z-list stan on Chechnya's borders. But there's really no such thing as a "Dagestani." Dagestan is a wild mountain-man version of Cambridge, celebrating diversity until it hurts. Its population includes Azerbaijanis, whom you've heard of, because they're from the stan that thinks it's a jan. The rest of the guys are — stan well back — Avars, Dargins, Kumyks, Laks, Rutuls, Aghuls, Nogais, Tsakhurs, and Tabasarans. Oh, and Lezgians, a mountain tribe of fearsome female warriors high on fermented yak's milk. I'm making that last bit up, but for a moment you weren't sure, were you? Dagestan has everything except Dagestanis. They're all in Ingushetia, maybe.
For the last decade, I've been lectured by the nuancey-boys on how one can't generalize about Islam, and especially about Islam in the West: There are as many fascinating differences between Mirpuri Pakistanis in Yorkshire and Algerian Berbers in Clichy-sous-Bois as there are between Nogais and Lezgians in Dagestan. No doubt. But, whatever their particular inheritance, many young Muslims in the West come to embrace a pan-Islamic identity. The Tsarnaev boys, for example, fell under the influence of an "Australian sheikh." That's to say, a sheikh born in Sydney. While back in the Caucasus in 2012, Tamerlan is rumored to have met William Plotnikov, a Toronto jihadist whose Siberian parents are such assimilated Canadians they winter as Florida snowbirds. When they came back, they found a note from William saying he'd gone to France for Ramadan. And thence east, to his rendezvous with the virgins.
Like the photographs of Mrs. Tsarnaeva then and now, these are stories of dis-assimilation, of secularized Easterners who in the vacuum of Western multiculturalism search for identity and find a one-stop shop in Islamic imperialism.