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Tamerlan Tsarnaev: Was He Named After Islamic Ruler Tamerlane?

The latest news on the Boston Marathon bombing is that two suspects have been identified: brothers Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26. Tamerlan has since died after a confrontation with police in Watertown, Mass., while Dzhokhar is still on the run.

Details are sketchy, but the general picture seems to be that the Tsarnaev family is from Chechnya, a republic in southern Russia (i.e., the Russian Caucasus). Since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, Chechnya has had a bloody history involving attempts to gain independence from Russia, with subsequent Russian crackdowns and attacks by Chechen terrorists. The conflict has a religious edge to it, as Chechens are Muslim, making them a religious minority in Russia.

Assuming the Tsarnaev brothers are the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombing, was their act of terror motivated by Islam, as with the September 11 attacks? Were they, like al-Qaeda, aiming to revive an Islamic Caliphate to rule the world? You can almost hear the argument already: "One of them was named after a Muslim ruler: Tamerlane. The Tsarnaevs are terrorists, and Muslims, so they're seeking to establish Islam across the globe." (A caller in the second hour of the Rush Limbaugh show Friday noted the Tamerlane connection.)

But we should be careful about attributing motives for the bombing. At the same time, we should never let a crisis go to waste, if only because they're good opportunities to learn history. So, first, who was Tamerlane?

The name "Tamerlane" is based on a derisive epithet used by Persians, which translates to "Timur the Lame." Despite being hobbled by injuries sustained early in his life, Timur (1336-1405) rose quickly from what is now Uzbekistan to rule a huge empire stretching from Baghdad in the west to Delhi in the east. Timur fancied himself as being both an inheritor of the throne of the Mongolian conqueror Genghis Khan (c. 1162-1227) and a good candidate for Islamic Caliph. But Timur never had the credentials to officially hold either title, so he contented himself with being de facto ruler.

Timur is remembered as a brilliant military thinker who was ruthlessly brutal to his opponents. His conquests of Baghdad and Delhi were particularly bloody. He was also a patron of the arts (funny how often the two go together), and turned his capital city of Samarkand into a place of architectural innovation. European leaders were gleeful at Timur's successes against the Ottoman Empire, even as they feared that he would turn his armies on them, too. They needn't have worried, because Timur died as he was gathering together a campaign to invade China, which was in the early stages of the Ming Dynasty. His empire gradually fell apart after his death.

Many Hindus and Christians have a dim view of Timur, given his atrocities, but the same can be said about many Muslims. Timur's victims were often Muslims living in what is now Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and elsewhere. But the name "Tamerlane" (or variation of it) is nonetheless popular, particularly in Russia, Uzbekistan, and other parts of Central Asia. (Perhaps it became a favorite among people who didn't like the Ottoman Turks.)

Tamerlan Tsarnaev may share a name with Timur, but that could be all they share. Timur certainly wanted to craft a large empire with Islam as its religion. But Chechen rebels and terrorists, though they are frequently Muslims, typically don't have the same designs. They're separatists who want the Russian government out of Chechnya, not creators of a new Islamic world order.

That being said, it's still not clear what the motive of the Tsarnaev brothers was. Maybe they were Al-Qaeda-style jihadis. After all, it's not clear how bombing Boston helps the Chechen separatist movement (though it's not clear how the 2002 Moscow theater or 2004 Beslan school hostage incidents helped, either). And, certainly, some Chechen rebels likely are in agreement with Al-Qaeda, or at the very least work with them.

But there's also the possibility that the Tsarnaev brothers are terrorists with a simple separatist agenda. Or maybe they're just antisocial sociopaths looking for a reason to kill, using Russian bullying as a justification the same way Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold used school bullying as a reason to shoot up Columbine High School.

That would still make them terrorists and terrible people. But it wouldn't make them part of a larger plot to impose a religion on anyone. They would be terrorists who are Muslims, not Islamic terrorists.

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