Albuquerque Murders Raise Worries About Sectarian Violence

When police in Albuquerque announced that they were investigating whether the shooting deaths of four Muslim men in the city were connected—or even targeted—it set off panic from many in the Muslim community. Others remained at home and were afraid to leave their homes. Others left Albuquerque completely.

Then came the news that three of the victims were Shi’ite Muslims—members of one of the two major branches of Islam—and the suspect, arrested Tuesday, is Sunni—a member of the largest branch.

The killings, which were originally feared to be anti-Muslim or anti-Asian hate crimes—set off alarms for Shi’ite Muslims across the country—many of whom hoped they had left sectarian violence behind when their families came to the U.S. One of the victims, Naeem Hussain, who was killed Aug. 5, was a refugee from Sunni-majority Pakistan who came to America in 2016 to flee persecution for his Shi’ite beliefs.

“We never thought this hatred was going to follow us here to America because this is the place where you can speak freely,” says Mazin Khadim, president of Alzahra Islamic Center in Albuquerque, which caters to the city’s Shi’ite population. “We just never thought it was going to be the same here in America.”

The motive behind the murders remains unclear, according to Albuquerque’s police. The suspect, Muhammad Syed, 51—who moved to the U.S. from Afghanistan about five years ago—“knew the victims to some extent” and that “an interpersonal conflict” may have been to blame.

But that has not quelled concerns and discussion among many Shi’ite Muslims in Albuquerque—and elsewhere in the U.S.—that centuries-old sectarian divides are manifesting in new ways for American Muslims. They argue that while anti-Shi’ite sentiment in the U.S. has not typically culminated in such violent acts, it has very much been present in Sunni-dominated mosques, student associations, and other places American Muslims gather.

The facts we have so far regarding the Albuquerque killings

From top-left, clockwise: Naem Hussain; Mohammad Zaher Ahmadi; Muhammad Afzaal Hussain; Aftab Hussein

City of Albuquerque (3); City of Española/AP

Mohammad Zaher Ahmadi was shot to death outside a market and halal cafe that he owned with his brother. NBC News reported that Ahmadi had previously accused Syed of buying large amounts of rice and trying to sell them back to the store for a profit, according to Ahmadi’s brother, Sharief Hadi.

Aftab Hussein (41), was then shot to death on July 26th, six months later. Muhammad Afzaal Hussain died on Aug. 1. Naeem Hussain (25) was also killed. The authorities asked for the help of the public to locate a vehicle linked to the crimes. The suspect was uncovered by a tip received from the public.

Syed has been charged with murdering Aftab Hussein as well as Muhammad Afzaal Hussain. Police say that detectives were able to connect the two crimes using bullet casings from the scene. Police say that Syed also suspects in Ahmadi’s and Naeem Hussain’s shootings. Detectives and prosecutors are currently working together to possibly charge him.

Based on his hatred towards the sect, initial reports indicated that Syed might have murdered three Shiite Muslims. The New York Times quoted Ahmad Assed, the president of the Islamic Center of New Mexico, as saying authorities told him the suspect was a Sunni Muslim who may have targeted the victims because he was angry that his daughter married a Shi’ite.

But Assed tells TIME these details were based on a “rumor” that requires further investigation to confirm. Police said Tuesday that law enforcement was aware about the suspect’s daughter’s marriage to a Shi’ite but that it was unclear if that was “the actual motive, part of a motive or if there’s a bigger picture that (they’re) missing.”

In an interview with CNN on Wednesday, Syed’s daughter said her father was unhappy over her decision to marry a man in February 2018, but that he had started to accept their relationship more recently. “My father is not a person who can kill somebody. Peace has been a constant theme in my family’s lives. That’s why we are here in the United States. We came from Afghanistan, from fighting, from shooting,” she told CNN. In addition, she said that her husband had been friends with Naem Hussain (Aftab Hussein) and Naem Hussain.

We know a lot about victims and suspects

The Albuquerque Police Department released this photo Tuesday, August 9, 2022. It shows Muhammad Syed. Syed (51), was taken into custody on Monday, August 8, 2022 in connection to the murders of four Muslim men at Albuquerque in New Mexico over the past nine months. Syed is facing charges for two deaths, and could be charged with the other.

Albuquerque Police Department/AP

Kadhim of Alzahra Islamic Center is also an ex-case manager at Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services. He claims he was responsible for cases for the three victims and one suspect. “The attacker took some of the best people in our community,” Kadhim says.

He recalls the times Aftab would help his blind friend with chores like cooking. “Without Aftab, he has no eyes,” Kadhim says. Naeem Hussain was described as outgoing and religious, who was focused solely on his trucking business. Naeem Hussain was commemorating the holy day of Ashura with his Shi’ite community and at a cemetery burying his friend, Aftab, hours before he was killed.

Muhammad Afzaal Hussain was a “brilliant public servant,” according to a statement from the major of Española, N.M., where he was the director of planning and land use. “Muhammad’s interest was in improving conditions and inclusivity for disadvantaged minorities,” John Ramon Vigil said in a statement. “Muhammad was soft spoken and kind, and quick to laugh.”

Mohammad Zaher Ahmadi was from Afghanistan; he was fatally shot outside Ariana Halal Market & Cafe, which he ran with his brother, KOAT-TV in Albuquerque reported.

Kadhim’s encounters with the suspect, Muhammad Syed, were less pleasant. According to him, Syed had physically abused his wife and he made contact with police. “He was angry and asked why I interfered with his family. I said, ‘I cannot let you just beat them,’” Kadhim says.

According to Albuquerque police, Syed has a history misdemeanor arrests related to domestic violence over the past several years. CNN reports that all three charges of domestic violence against him were dismissed. Syed’s previous run-ins with law enforcement in the U.S. included charges that he threatened to kill his daughter’s boyfriend, that he physically abused his wife in a state-owned building, and an allegations that he kicked a Walmart employee, The Daily Beast reported.

Sunni and Shiite: The Muslim World is divided

Despite uncertainty around the motive, the killings have sparked dialogue among Muslims in Albuquerque and across the country about discrimination toward Shi’ite communities. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, in particular, Shi’ite Muslims are often the targets of violence by Sunni terrorist groups.

Just last week, ISIS, a Sunni Muslim militant group, bombed a busy street in Kabul where Shi’ite Muslims often meet—killing eight people and injuring 22 others. The attack came just before the holy day of Ashura, in which Shi’ites pay tribute to the martyrdom of Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. In March, an ISIS attack on a Shi’ite mosque in Pakistan led to at least 61 deaths and 196 injuries. Although violent sectarian acts are uncommon in America, they do happen. FBI in March reported that two teens and a Mainean man had attempted to attack a Shiite Muslim Mosque near Chicago using ISIS inspiration. However, officials stopped the plot.

Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims both follow the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, and believe in the same holy book, the Quran. However, around the seventh century, a schism in the faith developed—with Sunnis following Abu Bakr, a friend of the Prophet, while Shi’ites venerate Ali, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law. Up to 90% of the estimated 1.6 billion Muslims around the world are Sunni. Shi’ites make up majorities in Iran and Iraq, but are minorities in the Muslim communities of most countries. They make up approximately 10-15% of America’s roughly 3.5 Million Muslims.

Anti-Shi’ite discrimination in the U.S.

Though it’s not yet clear whether the Albuquerque killings are motivated by sectarian hatred, many Shi’ite Muslims in the U.S. have reacted with concern that it’s only a matter of time before violence against Shi’ites spreads to America. “It is not particularly new to our community. The only thing new is where it took place, here in the United States,” says New York University professor Faiyaz Jaffer, a Shi’ite Muslim.

He accuses some Sunni Muslim leaders, even in the U.S., of using anti-Shi’ite rhetoric. He also pointed out that Sunni Islam has become the dominant understanding of Islam within the U.S. In most American textbooks that address Islam, students learn about the religion through the lens of “Five Pillars”—a Sunni concept that is not part of the Shia faith. “Everything is read through the lens of what a Sunni Muslim believes. And Shia Muslims are just living in that world,” Jaffer says. “This Sunni dominated privilege reverberates in the isolation of Shia Muslims on college campuses, in mosques, in workplaces.” It would therefore be misguided to suggest that anti-Shi’ite discrimination in the U.S. is only imported from other countries, he says.

Many Shi’ite immigrants in the U.S. say they are acutely aware of threats faced by their communities. “We’ve all heard these stories from our parents, our grandparents, that this regularly happens back home or they grew up with it. This was the norm for them but for us it’s not,” says Sakina Syedda, co-founder of national organization Shia Racial Justice Coalition, which aims to center marginalized Muslim perspectives, and a Shi’ite Muslim. “In so many countries, Shias are targeted in holy times and not in holy times.”

Syedda says she and her peers in the U.S. may see anti-Shi’ite discrimination unfold in other ways, such as being told by some Sunni Muslims that they are kafirs (non believers), or not being accommodated for in Sunni spaces, but not outright violence.

Sunni Muslims sometimes have erroneous and harmful understandings of their Shi’ite counterparts, Jaffer says: “It’s the messaging they are receiving from their families and communities.”

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