In the past few weeks, most Muslims I know, including me, have felt a growing sense of dread about the news of the killings of four Muslims since November — Aftab Hussein, 41; Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, 27; Mohammad Zahir Ahmadi, 62; and Naeem Hussain, 25 — in the Albuquerque area.
Their deaths didn’t feel random or unconnected. We learned that three of the four men were Shiite Muslims.
Last week, when authorities announced the arrest of a man in connection with two of the killings, we breathed a sigh of relief. But his name, Muhammad Syed, was a gut punch. We knew there was a possibility that the killings were motivated by anti-Muslim sentiment — but few of us expected that a Muslim would be arrested.
Though police are still working to determine a motive, The Times has reported that the killings might be linked to a sectarian dispute — that the accused, who is Sunni Muslim and originally from Afghanistan, may have been angry that his daughter married a Shiite man.
A member of Albuquerque’s Muslim community described Mr. Syed’s “explosive, violent” personality. He was previously charged with battery against his daughter’s husband, who told authorities Mr. Syed threatened to kill him. On a different occasion, Mr. Syed was accused of using slurs against Shiite business owners. More than once, police were called to the Syed household to investigate reports of domestic violence against Mr. Syed’s wife and children, The Times reported. Now Muhammad Syed’s son Shaheen Syed is in federal custody, and authorities believe he may have played a role in one of the killings.
Many Muslims across the country have expressed the hope that these killings were not sectarian acts. A representative for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil rights group, said, “Like Protestants and Catholics, the Sunni and Shiite communities in this country live near each other, work with each other and marry each other in peace” and added that “there is no significant history of violence at all in the U.S. between Shias and Sunnis.”
Indeed, intra-Muslim sectarian attacks are rare in the United States. It’s horrific to think that anti-Muslim hate from a fellow Muslim may have played a role — but religious leaders and communities across the country are contemplating that possibility.
Some are trying to reduce tensions. After the arrest, Imam Khalid Latif, a Sunni chaplain and the executive director of the Islamic Center at N.Y.U., wrote a powerful Twitter thread urging fellow Sunnis to proactively confront anti-Shiite hate and uplift Shiite voices. He concluded his message with a prayer for the Sunni community: “Help each of us to be the best of their supporters at this time and to do our part to obliterate hatred in all of its forms, including anti-Shia hatred, even if that means speaking out against those who are close to us.”
His words were strong, and I wish more Sunni religious leaders would speak out as forcefully. I’ve come to expect grim news from Pakistan, Afghanistan and other Muslim-majority countries about attacks on Shiites, who account for about 15 percent of Muslims worldwide. But I don’t expect it in America, where Muslims, regardless of our sect, have our minority status in common and are routinely stigmatized by bigots who don’t differentiate among Muslim sects. As a candidate for president in 2016, Donald Trump made no secret of his antipathy to the religion, saying, “I think Islam hates us.”
Historically, Shiite and Sunni Muslims have coexisted and thrived around the world, but recent years have seen a proliferation of sectarian violence. There are significant differences between the sects on certain religious and historical issues, particularly regarding the line of succession after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. But the core tenets and practices of Islam, as well as immense love for the prophet’s family, are common bonds devoutly held within both sects.
Sectarian hate is learned, exacerbated by geopolitical conflicts and fueled by extremist interpretations of Islam. And as a minority among Muslims, Shiites have been subjected to double standards, ignorant fearmongering, suspicion and sometimes violence. Hard-line religious leaders and scholars — in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, for instance — have seen marginalizing Shiites as integral to Sunni identity.
This is the Islamic month of Muharram, a time when Shiite mosques and communities around the world are often targets of Sunni Muslim extremists who denigrate Shiites with slurs such as “disbeliever” and “apostate.”
Like many Muslim Americans, I never encountered this kind of bigotry growing up in the suburban streets of Fremont, Calif. My best friend was Shiite, and we spent our summers making homemade action movies together. Our Pakistani American mothers fed us biryani, and we prayed in each other’s homes. During college, I took a course on Shiism to become more knowledgeable and aware, and Shiite friends regularly came over to my apartment, shared with a Sunni roommate, to drink chai and play video games.
Then and now, when I’ve heard anti-Shiite comments, they’ve often been rationalized as harmless jokes, political incorrectness or just expressing an opinion. Maybe, but those unchecked remarks also reflect an anti-Shiite bias that is, troublingly, not uncommon.
It pains me when Muslim Americans, even inadvertently, mimic the oppressive views or behaviors of xenophobes and nativists. We should know better. Particularly since Sept. 11, we’ve been on the receiving end of jokes and slights about terrorism, jihad and Shariah that become talking points for anti-Muslim zealots. Muslim Americans have been asked to prove our loyalty to our country, and our patriotism is routinely questioned.
This has (or should have) made us cherish and fight for the values of tolerance and religious pluralism that allowed our parents to build mosques, establish their communities and raise children who could one day be the heroes of the American story.
And yet we, too, can succumb to prejudice. Sometimes that prejudice presents as a monopoly on understanding and communicating the beliefs of Islam, a religion of around 1.8 billion people. It builds artificial walls between coreligionists — and fellow Americans.
There are those who would prefer that Muslim sectarianism not be widely discussed. “Some Muslims are saying, ‘Don’t air our dirty laundry,’ because it will impact Islamophobia,” Shaykh Faiyaz Jaffer, a Shiite chaplain and research scholar at the Islamic Center at N.Y.U., told me. He doesn’t subscribe to that view. “People are dying. Shia people are dying,” he said. “We’re used to it. It’s tragic. But we shouldn’t be used to it.” He asked my forgiveness, in case he sounded angry.
But one shouldbe angry about sectarian hate. That’s the appropriate response, not apathy. Like every community and family, instead of confronting the numerous problems that exist and plague us, we often bury them. Avoiding those discussions comes with a cost.
Naeem Hussain, a Shiite who was one of the four killed in Albuquerque, has been described by his brother-in-law Ehsan Shahalami as a “generous, kind and great soul” who avoided confrontation. When I spoke to Mr. Shahalami, he praised some Muslim American organizations for condemning the violence, but he said more must be done. “There has to be a conversation started to educate Sunnis about the reality of Shias and the negative connotation and lies tied to Shias and Shiism,” he said. “It has to be tackled at the grass-roots level.”
Hate in all its forms must be confronted and called out. The police are still investigating what motivated the stabbing of the author Salman Rushdie at a lecture in western New York on Friday. A New Jersey man, Hadi Matar, has been arrested. Sadly, the attack has already garnered applause from some religious extremists who see it as the fulfillment of a fatwa against the author issued in 1989 by Iran’s supreme leader at the time, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
And Muslims must talk about hate within our communities, in whatever form it takes — sectarian violence, attacks on those whose words offend religious authorities or domestic violence (which Mr. Muhammed has also been accused of). There are times when dirty laundry must be aired.
I want my children to grow up with friends of all different backgrounds and religions, as I did. I want them to think of their Shiite friends as fellow Muslims. Sunnis can’t fully reflect the pluralistic and generous spirit of Islam until we include Shiites as full members of our complex, evolving and diverse religious family.
To do that, we must be willing to call out the anti-Shiite tyrant within our mosques, our homes and maybe even ourselves. In doing so, we will be reflecting the best of both Islam and America.
Wajahat Ali (@WajahatAli) is a senior fellow at the Western States Center, a columnist for The Daily Beast and the author of “Go Back to Where You Came From: And Other Helpful Recommendations on How to Become American.” He co-hosts the “Democracy-ish” podcast.
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