Muhammad Imtiaz Hussain said things were looking up for his family in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His brother, Afzaal, who arrived from Pakistan to the U.S. in 2017 to study, raised the family’s fortunes when he became a city official in Española, a 90-minute drive from their Albuquerque home.
“He was born to lead,” 41-year-old Imtiaz told VICE World News about his 27-year-old brother. “His city department had offered him a 100-acre ranch to live in Española and he was supposed to move there this year. He was even ready to get married soon.” Back in Pakistan, Shia processions in the Islamic month of Muharram, which are often marred by violence, were going peacefully too.
On Aug. 1, Afzaal returned home from work as usual, and at around 9PM, stepped out of his apartment to take a phone call. He never returned. Hours later, police found him dead. “There were two gunshots right on his face,” Imtiaz said. “He was shot with two different guns. The killer clearly wanted my brother dead.”
Afzaal was one of three Muslim men killed within a span of 10 days, and a total of four murders, if counting another that happened in November. Last week, Albuquerque police officials said three out of four murders might be connected, raising speculation that they were anti-Muslim hate crimes. On Tuesday, police arrested their first suspect, a 51-year-old Afghan immigrant. Police cited “interpersonal conflict” as a possible motive. Some news reports pointed to his Sunni Muslim sect.
There is a history of Shia Muslims facing violence and persecution in many Sunni-dominated Muslim countries including Afghanistan, where Syed is from. Syed is rumoured to have been upset that his daughter married a Shia Muslim. Three of the four victims, including Afzaal, were Shia.
Imtiaz didn’t see this coming. “We always felt welcomed in our community. I even met this man a couple of times. We go to the same mosque,” he said, referring to Syed. “The arrest shocked me. Why would he kill my brother?”
The cops neither confirmed nor denied these rumours, but said the investigation has yet to confirm the real motive.
But Shias around the world took to social media that anti-Shia hate as a motive is entirely plausible, and in fact, a daily reality. “This tragedy in Albuquerque is upsetting, but at the same time, not surprising due to the anti-Shia sentiments, violence and rhetoric that has been impacting the world for over 50 years,” Faiyaz Jaffer, a chaplain and research scholar at the Islamic Center at New York University, told VICE World News.
“Members of the Shia community so often hear about tragedies like this. The only difference this time is it's impacted them here, in the U.S. It’s unexpected.”
The sectarian conflict between Shias and Sunnis goes back centuries and is attributed to their differences in their interpretation of Islam. UN reports show that Shia Muslims are among the most persecuted religious minorities in the world. They also face systemic disenfranchisement and violence in many Sunni-dominated Muslim countries. Out of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims, Sunnis make up around 80 percent, while around 20 percent are Shia.
In Afghanistan, Shia Muslims have been historically persecuted, made worse by Taliban rule. Pakistan, the country of origin of three of the four slain men in Albuquerque, also reports anti-Shia persecution every year. Many Shia Muslims leave their homelands to lead safer lives in other countries. The recent killings also took place in the Islamic month of Muharram, which is a time of sacred, sombre commemoration in the Shia community. Shia Muslims often face violence across the world around this time.
Ahmad Assed, the president of the Islamic Center of New Mexico, told VICE World News that the suspect’s arrest was a huge relief to the community that had been upset by the killings. All four victims and the suspect used to pray at the mosque at the centre.
“If he is [found] guilty, our community will have some semblance of closure and we will continue to mourn the victims,” he said. The Islamic Centre is one of the handful of intrafaith mosques in the U.S., with both Shia and Sunni attendants. Assed said their centre is very diverse, in which Shia and Sunni Muslims do everything together.
“We bury our dead next to each other, pray next to each other, and break bread on the same table,” he said. “And we pride ourselves for that.”
He warns against the “rumours” and “misrepresentations” in the media, saying it would be best to wait for the law enforcement agencies to clarify the motive after the investigation is complete. “Frankly, we don’t know much about Syed’s motive and it prompts more investigation,” he said.
Assed said Syed, a frequent visitor at the Islamic Center, has a wife and six children. He said that the rumours around Syed’s daughter marrying a Shia man are true, but that they have been living close to Syed’s house for a while now.
News reports say that Syed has a record of criminal misdemeanours including domestic violence. From their search at his house, cops said Syed knew the victims “to some extent.” They allege that Syed ambushed his victims.
On social media, some Shia Muslims called on authorities not to ignore the sectarian undertones as a possible motive. “They were Shia, targeted for being Shia,” said one on Twitter. “I have a family in Albuquerque who have been terrorised and are traumatised by this,” said one user. Another tweeted, “No excuses or rationalizations to justify the murder of 4 Muslim Men in #Albuquerque allegedly by a Sunni man from their community. Also, allowing casual anti-Shia rhetoric and bigotry creates such conditions where an unhinged individual feels empowered to kill innocents.”
The American Muslim Bar Association released a statement early this week, recommending that Shia mosques and centers around the country increase their security during the ongoing Muharram period.
Jaffer, the chaplain, who is also a professor at the New York University, said that the crime is a reflection of everyday realities faced by Shia Muslims in the U.S., who are not just impacted by violence but also marginalised and isolated by the Sunni-majority Muslim population in the country.
“One of the biggest contributors to such crimes, and the silence around it, is the way it’s articulated, like in this case, ‘interpersonal conflict,’” he said, referring to the way investigators termed the suspected motive. “Interpersonal issues means specific people are impacted, not random strangers who identify with a particular belief system.”
For Imtiaz, the arrest has provided some relief, but opened up more questions. “Why would a married man, who is in his 50s, with kids, want to kill my brother? How are they connected?” he said. “I hope to get answers to my questions soon.”
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