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American Muslims have too many outside enemies to turn on one another

This was not the arrest New Mexico's Muslim community was expecting.
Image: A man praying over the grave of Muhammad Afzaal Hussain.
Prayer over the grave of Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, 27, at Fairview Memorial Park in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on Aug. 5.Albuquerque Journal via ZUMA Press Wire

The killings of four Muslim Americans in Albuquerque, New Mexico, three of them in the last two weeks, sent shockwaves through a closely knit Muslim community that had in recent years become a safe haven for immigrants. Muslims in the city expressed fears of going to the store, to work or to the mosque to pray out of concern that a serial killer was preying on them. The head of the local Islamic center told NBC News that his community’s “whole world has been flipped upside down," with people feeling "broken" and "devastated."

The head of the local Islamic center told NBC News that his community’s “whole world has been flipped upside down."

On Tuesday, Albuquerque police arrested a man suspected in at least two of the killings. But instead of relief, the arrest only raised more questions and concerns. The suspect, shockingly, is a Muslim man from the very community that was targeted. Muhammad Syed, 51, is accused of murder in the July 26 and Aug. 1 deaths of Aftab Hussein and Muhammad Afzaal Hussain. The police note Syed is also a suspect in the Aug. 5 killing of Naeem Hussain and the Nov. 7 slaying of Mohammad Ahmadi, but those investigations continue.

Syed is only suspected of committing these crimes. He hasn’t been convicted or even officially charged, but his arrest challenges the assumptions many had made. To be blunt, when Muslims heard of these killings many of us — myself included — believed the murderer was someone outside of our community who hated Muslims. After all, our community has seen a horrific spike in hate crimes in recent years. After Donald Trump made the demonization of Muslims a central part of his first presidential campaign, hate crimes against Muslim in 2015 and 2016 eclipsed the number of hate crimes our community suffered in the year after the 9/11 attack. Women wearing hijabs were assaulted and mosques in Iowa and New Jersey were defaced with the word “Trump” and with racist graffiti. Other mosques were burned to the ground.

But a fellow Muslim targeting Muslims is not something we ever expected. Nor did we expect to hear that authorities are looking into the possibility of sectarian violence, which adds another layer of grave concern.

Although the Albuquerque police said at at news conference Tuesday that Syed, who had emigrated from Afghanistan and lived in Albuquerque for approximately six years, allegedly targeted the people over an “interpersonal conflict,” Ahmad Assed, the president of the Islamic Center of New Mexico, told The New York Times that police were looking into whether Syed, a Sunni Muslim, may have been motivated by resentment over his daughter’s marriage to a Shiite Muslim.

To be very clear, it’s far too early to know what motivated these killings or if Syed is the killer. His daughter spoke to CNN the day before he was arrested, but after his house was searched by the police, and explained that while her father initially disapproved of her 2018 marriage, he came to accept it. Add to that, Assed noted that one of the slain victims was Sunni, like Syed.

But even the hint of a sectarian divide between Muslims in America is a cause for alarm. It’s why Muslim organizations and leaders were quick to urge unity. Upon hearing of a possible motive, Edward Ahmed Mitchell, deputy director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation’s largest Muslim American civil rights organization, told The New York Times, “Like Protestants and Catholics, the Sunni and Shia communities in this country live near each other, work with each other and marry each other in peace.” And Tuesday night, CAIR organized a news conference in Washington featuring community and organizational leaders from the Sunni and Shiite traditions to express “unity and solidarity.”

Others, such as Abed Ayoub, legal and policy director at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee; Imam Khalid Latif, the executive director of the Islamic Center at New York University; and Muslim American leader Debbie Almontaser echoed that sentiment on Twitter.

The theological differences between these two major sects of Islam go back 1,400 years. But there’s no dispute concerning the core tenets of the faith. We are sisters and brothers. In reality, the divide between Sunni and Shiite Muslims we see in other nations is often the byproduct of leaders there inflaming it to help them achieve their own political agenda, as we see when Iran and Saudi Arabia antagonize each other.

The theological differences between these two major sects of Islam go back 1400 years. But there’s no dispute concerning the core tenets of the faith.

That’s not what we’ve seen in the United States, nor do we ever want to see it. The Muslim American community is tiny — clocking in at 1 to 2 percent of the population. In recent years, and, in great deal, in response to Trump’s bigoted attacks, we have seen that community, which includes African Americans, South Asians and white Americans, grow closer together.

That’s why it’s both vitally important and inspiring to see Muslim leaders make it clear we don’t want the sectarian divide between Muslims in other nations to even have a chance of taking root here.

In response to the arrest of a Muslim suspect, Ayoub tweeted, “This is a very sad day for Muslim Americans,” but, he added, “one that will make us stronger.” Typically, I would respond, “Inshallah” (God willing) he’s correct. But prayers are not enough. As a community we must work to ensure strength through unity. We are still the target of hateful rhetoric by visible Republican officials such as Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia. And with the 2024 presidential race on the horizon and a potential run again by Trump and other Republicans like him, Sunnis and Shiites alike may find ourselves again targeted by bigots.