Recently, the Muslim community in Albuquerque, New Mexico was shaken by the murders of four Muslim men — three of whom were Shia Muslims. The victims, Mohammad Ahmadi, Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, Aftab Hussein, and Naeem Hussain were all killed in “ambush-style shootings.”
On August 9, 2022, police in Albuquerque arrested 51-year-old Afghan Immigrant Muhammad Syed. He has been charged with the killings of Aftab Hussein and Muhammad Afzal Hussain. The police are continuing their investigation into the other two murders. Police are still looking for a motive, but it was revealed that Syed may have known his victims and that Syed’s religious hostility towards the Shia Muslim community may have played a significant role in his actions.
The response from the Muslim community and other religious communities has been swift, with many condemning the murders. The deputy director of CAIR stated, “There is no significant history of violence at all in the U.S. between Shias and Sunnis.” While this may be true, that does not mean that sentiments or feelings of sectarianism do not exist within the Muslim community in the United States. The murders of three Shia Muslim men is evidence of that.
Intra-sectarianism is present and alive between many religions, Sunni and Shia Muslims included. It is this ideology centered around hate, marginalization, and even persecution of the other Muslim group.
This has happened for centuries now in many Muslim countries including Saudia Arabia, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan to name a few. Many Muslim countries use sectarianism against Shia Muslims and other minority Muslim sects. Whether it’s to secure a position in politics or find a scapegoat for hardship, the situations and reasons to discriminate against other Muslims are endless.
One thing we must make clear is sectarianism, while a part of Muslim history has no place in Islam. This ideology is rooted in cultural and religious biases. People have manipulated Islam (whatever sect they may be part of) to fit their idea of the “right” Muslim and the “right” way to practice Islam. This ideology has done nothing but turned us against our own Muslim brothers and sisters. It leads to violence, oppression, and intolerance. Ironically, everything a Muslim should not be.
As Muslims living in the United States in a post 9-11 world, we have faced violence and intolerance from people around us. To then turn around and hurt members of our own community is like adding salt to the wound. This tragedy shows us that ideologies like sectarianism can reach the Muslim community no matter the time or place.
There is a significant chance that sectarianism is still upheld by many Muslims across the United States even if they might not be vocal about it. To provide an analogy, during President Trumps’ era, we saw thousands of alt-right individuals become vocal about their racist views. They were no longer shy about what they believed in and let everyone know about it. The Trump era did not spawn this group of people; it gave them the confidence they needed to take their beliefs into the public sphere with the belief that their abhorrent views are now socially acceptable.
While I hope this tragedy does not spawn anything remotely close to what the Trump presidency did, I believe it is time for us to look inward at our community and the rhetoric we use. Words matter. The way we describe other Muslims and the Muslim community at large subconsciously affects our perception of them. Using hateful language with the intention of ostracizing a group of people — other Muslims at that — will affect our community.
It is going to take a lot more than thoughts and prayers to squash sectarianism within the Muslim community. We cannot wait for another violent incident against Muslims to start talking about this. Complacency is ineffective and lazy.
I have too much faith in the Muslim community for us to continue sitting idly by while we risk letting this division grow within us. We need to start by addressing the fact that this ideology is here and it’s going to stay unless we actively combat it. No sugar coating, no beating around the bush. Let’s have an honest conversation about sectarianism.
Let’s show our Shia Muslim community and other Muslim minorities that we are all one body. Let’s educate ourselves on Islam and learn how we should be treating our Muslim brothers and sisters.
This is going to be difficult. But the greatest reward comes out of the greatest struggle. De-stigmatizing and unlearning years and even centuries of sectarian conditioning will not be easy. We grow up with the sect of Islam that we know, and we rarely venture out of that. People often find it easier to point out the differences in others. It’s easier to live life with the narrative you create, but growth does not come from staying in the same place. So, let’s be curious and ask questions. Let’s get to know each other because we will come to realize we are not that different after all.
For the families of the victims, I pray you find healing and peace in time. Know that you are not alone and never will be alone in your grief. Inshallah, you will heal and find peace again.
“And We will surely test you with something of fear and hunger and a loss of wealth and lives and fruits, but give good tidings to the patient, Who, when disaster strikes them, say, ‘Indeed we belong to Allah, and indeed to Him we will return.’ Those are the ones upon whom there are blessings from their Lord, and mercy as well, and those are the ones who are on the right path.”