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Hate crime or not, why the killing of Shaima Alawadi carries special weight

Shaima Alawadi
Shaima Alawadi
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Police have yet to determine if the murder of Shaima Alwadi, a 32-year-old Iraqi American mother of five who was beaten to death last week, is indeed a hate crime. Alawadi died last Saturday of head injuries after enduring a brutal beating a few days earlier in her El Cajon, Calif. home, which appeared broken into; a note that family members found next to her read something along the lines of "go back to your country, you terrorist," as her daughter told media.

Her family said it was the second note of this kind they had found in a week. Alawadi's death is being investigated as a possible hate crime, but police haven't drawn any conclusions. Meanwhile, El Cajon's large Iraqi immigrant community is shaken, and the murder has resonated internationally.

Coming a month after the death of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old unarmed black boy shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida, Alawadi's murder has drawn comparisons to that killing. There has been other violence against Muslims in the U.S. over the last decade, even against people perceived to be Muslim, like Indian Sikhs. But for a number of reasons, Alawadi's murder carries special weight for Muslims and Arab Americans. In this Q&A, Salam Al-Marayti of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles provides his take on why.

M-A: Shaima Alawadi's murder seems to be resonating in a way that other violence against Muslims (and some non-Muslims, like Sikhs) has not. What can you tell us about the public reaction, and the weight this particular act of violence carries?

Al-Marayati: Number one, the brutality of the incident, in terms of murdering a young woman who is a refugee from somewhere else, from persecution in a place where violence was seen every day. She left Iraq in 1993, so she probably witnessed attacks by Sadaam’s forces. I can recount the stories of people trying to make sense of something so senseless, as was happening in Iraq. And now the same senselessness has happened here. People cannot make sense of the brutal murder of a young woman who is leaving behind five children.

And because of what has been happening politically in terms of the attitudes against Islam and Muslims, this incident was really a spark that has triggered so many concerns. Leaving the note that the culprit left definitely reeked of a hate crime, and that is the perception at this point, though we don’t know what transpired in that living room and we have to await the final report from law enforcement.

M-A: This happened against a backdrop of growing concern from Muslims, as anti-Muslim hate crimes have ticked up in recent years; last fall, the FBI reported an increase in anti-Muslim bias incidents between 2009 and 2010, from 107 to 160. And while these make up only a fraction of overall hate crimes, there's a sense of unease. What kind of incidents are typically being seen?

Al-Marayati: Generally what we’re seeing is, number one, vandalism against mosques, places where Muslims would be congregating. And harassment against someone that is perceived to be Muslim, though they may not be Muslim themselves, like a Sikh or a Latino or African American.

There is definitely this rise in bullying against young kids, elementary school kids, and that has definitely spiked in the last couple of years. I can’t pinpoint what incidents took place to trigger that, but it is happening. Many parents, mothers and fathers, are very concerned about the identity formation of their children now. Teachers, superintendents of schools and parent-teacher associations need to be made aware of this.

M-A: Where does political discourse fit into the current climate? There have been the Muslim hearings held by Rep. Peter King, for example, among other things. And why is this happening now?

Al-Marayati: Animosity against Muslims in the United States is increasing, and you can see it in two ways. Number one, when someone questions the allegiance of Muslims in a candidates' debate (as Herman Cain did last year), they use Muslims as a punching bag. Several presidential candidates have said they would not appoint a Muslim to their cabinet, and there has been silence to that. The silence in and of itself is very troubling. (When someone referred to President Obama as a Muslim in front of Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich), Gingrich didn’t say anything.

Then in 2008 John McCain said that he's not, he's a good guy. The whole national discourse on Islam has been reduced to such ridiculous levels.

The Center for American Progress issued a report called Fear, Inc. that analyses the anti-Muslim industry and its financial backing. The message is that 9/11 is only the beginning, and that Islam is the enemy, not extremists. And it’s become part of the political discourse among right wing candidates to see who can punch the Islamic punching bag more often.

In my opinion, I think that’s what it is. It’s ignorance on one hand, and number two, pure bigotry.

M-A: There has been deadly violence against Muslims and people perceived to be Muslims in the U.S. over the past decade, especially in the recent aftermath of 9/11, when immigrants like Waqar Hasan and Babir Singh Sohdi, an Indian Sikh, were murdered. Just last year, two elderly Sikhs were gunned down in Sacramento. But as you mentioned, there is something especially brutal about the Alawadi murder. If police were to deem it a hate crime, would that surprise you?

Al-Marayati: If it were a hate crime, it would surprise me that someone would go to that level of brutality against a young woman like her, who was not involved politics or in any kind of campaign, but was just being a very typical American mom living in a very typical American neighborhood.

It would surprise me if it were a hate crime. It would be a shocking level of brutality that we have never seen before. In that sense, if law enforcement does come out and say this is a hate crime and these are the facts, we all really have to come up with a serious campaign, not related just to Muslim Americans, but all Americans to deal with this hate industry.

People like Peter King who say we haven’t seen any murderous lynchings – we don’t need to wait for the bodies to pile up to say there is a problem with Islamophobia. It is an alienation problem, a stigmatization problem, and as with the NYPD spying case a creation of a police state problem. That’s why we say it’s a problem for all Americans that a segment of the American population is being drawn up as a cancerous cell in the human body that must be excised. That is the bigger issue now, in spite of whatever transpired in the home of Shaima.

M-A: You just returned from El Cajon, where you attended the memorial service for Shaima Alawadi before her body was sent to Iraq for burial. The city is the nation’s second-biggest destination for refugees from Iraq, outside of Dearborn, Michigan, where she lived at first after arriving from Iraq years ago. What did you encounter in El Cajon?

Al-Marayati: I think the community is in shock right now. They cannot believe this could have happened in their community, and they can’t make sense of it right now. There is a level of confusion. They’re not getting any answers, and there’s a state of depression even at this point, because most of them fled the violence in Iraq, and now they have to witness the violent death of one of their beloved members.

M-A: One thing I haven’t seen mentioned much is that even among El Cajon’s Iraqi immigrants, Muslims are a minority. The city has been a more popular destination for Chaldeans, Iraqi Christians. Does this make Muslims stand out more, in spite of being surrounded by fellow Iraqis?

Al-Marayati: I think that has something to do with it, yes. My cousin has been in El Cajon for years, but it is a small community. They only have one mosque, and in terms of the Iraqi Shia community, it is still a very small group of people, even since last year, after the government allowed more Iraqi refugees to come to the U.S.

M-A: Because Shaima Alawadi wore hijab, the traditional head covering, she has been compared to Trayvon Martin, who wore a hoodie at the time of his death. Both garments are associated with profiling, and many believe that both – if Alawadi's killing was in fact motivated by religious bias – were profiled. What do you make of the connection, and protests like the “hoodies and hijab” rally in North Carolina this week?

Al-Marayati: It really shows the spirit of Americans in terms of trying to be in solidarity with both groups that have been victims. It shows the resilience of Americans to overcome extremism of all kinds, whether it is extremists from the Middle East or extremists right here in the U.S. That’s an untold story of the greatness of America.