The Albuquerque murders are a wake-up call for American Muslims about our own communities

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“Is he Sunni or Shia?” It’s one of the questions often asked to us Pakistani, Muslim women when we inform our elders of our boyfriends – or potential husbands-to-be. If he doesn’t belong to the same sect that we do, it can be a dealbreaker for our families (though thankfully my own is more open-minded). Sometimes it’s just the prospect of marriage that’s killed off – but in extreme cases, actual, fellow Muslims are killed due to the extremity of these sectarian sentiments.

Such may have been the case with 51-year-old Albuquerque resident Muhammad Syed, who was arrested and charged with the murders of two Muslim men (and is suspected to have killed two others) last week in New Mexico. Bullet casings from the crime scenes of two of the murders were linked to a gun found at Syed’s home, and police stated that “interpersonal conflict” may have been a motive behind the murders, though unofficial reports claim that he may have been driven by anti-Shia sentiments after his daughter married a Shia Muslim. (Syed’s daughter admitted that he wasn’t happy when she married her husband in 2018, but claims her father is innocent.)

As always, it’s important to discuss Syed’s case as an individual one, lest we risk painting all Muslims with a single stroke of extremism. Syed has denied involvement in the four killings, yet has a history of violence according to court records. In 2013, a boyfriend of one of his daughters claimed Syed, a Sunni, attacked him because he belonged to the Shia sect of Islam. He also allegedly beat his wife and son. None of these arrests led to charges being held against Syed: twice, the people involved declined to press charges, and the third time, Syed attended an intervention program.

While we await confirmation regarding the motives and police investigation, the curtain has nonetheless opened to reveal the undeniable disharmony that divides Muslims – not only in the Middle East and Asia, but also here on western soil.

Muslims are Muslims, you might think, naively. But as Egyptian-American scholar Leila Ahmed writes in Women and Gender in Islam, different interpretations of Islamic sources can yield “fundamentally different Islams”. So much so that, as a Muslim journalist, I find the phrase “Muslim community” in the singular to be inaccurate and simplistic. Today, there is no sole, uniform community – or ummah – as much as Muslims would like to lay claim to one.

Muslim feminist scholar Amina Wadud elucidates this fact in her newly released book, Once in a Lifetime: “When people say the ‘Muslim ummah’ today, it is just romantic. We are far too diverse and divided for it to mean what it used to as a unified collective with a single interpretation of things; things are now far too complex for such uniformity.”

No essay or news story can fully unwrap the history or complexities of the Sunni-Shia schism in Islam, but Islamic sects essentially developed after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, over disputes about his successors, or caliphs. There were no “Sunnis” or “Shias” during the lifetime of the Prophet, and later rulers’ obsessions with locking in specific, standardized, government-sanctioned interpretations of Islam contrasted vastly with the pluralism and diversity of thought that defined the faith’s early history.

Today, there are numerous sects and further groups and schools of thought within each of these sects. Sunnis remain the overwhelming majority, with an estimated 10 to 13 percent of the world’s Muslims identifying as Shia, according to the Pew Research Center. I too was raised knowing that my family was categorized as Sunni – though I personally no longer identify with this label, finding our tendencies to associate with sectarian factions to be unnecessarily divisive and sometimes overly dogmatic.

I also can’t help but feel like centuries-long feuds between Muslim sects are thoroughly counterproductive to proving that at its core, Islam is a religion of peace – a pursuit that drives many modern-day American Muslims like myself.

When Albuquerque, New Mexico first started making headlines for its string of Muslim murder victims, the initial assumption was that these were anti-Muslim hate crimes influenced by Islamophobia. Why else would anyone kill Muslims in America, a country to which many Muslims fled after experiencing religious persecution within their own countries? Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia – attacks, arrests and general mistreatment of minority sects take place unchecked in many of these Muslim-majority countries. But the US isn’t a place we’d expect to see such intra-faith violence.

Oftentimes we view Islamophobia to be the main concern of Muslims in the west — but if you ask me, these sectarian animosities are more divisive, dangerous and destabilizing to our communities. Especially post-9/11, Muslims tend to collectively sweep the faults, issues and injustices within our communities under the rug, fed up with the scrutiny and surveillance we already face because of our hijabs, our beards, our dark skin and our countries of origin. Sharing and spreading news of a Muslim man’s arrest for murders of fellow Muslims is the last thing we want to do when still in “damage control” mode from a terrorist attack that occurred more than two decades ago.

Yet, I’m thankful that Muslim social media accounts are highlighting the fact that the Albuquerque murders may have been instigated by anti-Shia motives. Accounts like @Muslim and @MuslimGirl are not shying away from publicizing this news, but are instead posting it online and encouraging dialogue among Muslims.

Yesterday was Pakistan’s 75th Independence Day, and while I wore green with the rest of my family, I can’t help but feel that there isn’t much to celebrate about my country of origin, which is replete with religious extremism and targeted violence against religious minorities, particularly against Shia Hazara and Ahmadi communities. Every few days, local news stories detail attacks on these groups at the hands of fundamentalist factions. But we tend to become desensitized when violence occurs far away, “back home” in remote villages and districts with which we no longer have personal ties.

To celebrate Pakistan’s Independence day, Pakistani blogger Naveen designed a T-shirt in collaboration with Seed Out, a charity that’s raising funds for its interfaith campaign. The design features “Pakistan” written vertically as an Acrostic poem, with eight of its religions – Muslim sects like Shia, Sunni and Ismaili, along with Hindu, Christian, Sikh and Parsi, listed horizontally. In the same spirit of this T-shirt, it’s up to my generation of Muslims to abandon age-old prejudices regarding sects, practice tolerance and embrace religious pluralism – including pluralistic interpretations of a single faith.

At the very least, the Albuquerque murders – the fact that the suspected perpetrator is Muslim, and that he may have been motivated by sectarian sentiments – should serve as a wakeup call for fellow Muslims, in America and beyond. It’s time to urgently abandon the harmful prejudices, the classism and the chauvinistic attitudes that we might inherit from our families, even while living in the supposedly liberal “land of the free.”

For while we may not achieve what Associate Professor of Religion at Dartmouth College Zahra Ayubi termed the “fictional cohesive ummah” on Twitter last week, our priorities must shift. Concentrating only on “cleaning up” after religious extremists to improve our reputations in the west means little if we don’t also work within our communities to change mindsets and implement the peace and tolerance initially preached by our Prophet.

Hafsa Lodi is a freelance journalist and the author of ‘Modesty: A Fashion Paradox’