What Killed Shaima Alawadi?

This post was written by guest contributor Maheen Nusrat.

On March 24th, 2012, a 32-year-old Iraqi-American woman, Shaima Alawadi, passed away.  She been found three days earlier by her 17-year-old daughter, brutally beaten in her home with a note next to her that said, “Go back to your country, you terrorist.” The story made national headlines, and drew many parallels with the story of Trayvon Martin, a young black man from Florida who was also recently killed for reasons involving race.  Alawadi’s death reflects the large profiling of a particular faith group, and the unchecked issue of Islamophobia. The truth is that being Muslim in America means being under constant suspicion, and fear of being targeted and profiled may keep many Muslims in the US silent on the death of Alawadi. Muslims are portrayed as dangerous infiltrators in the media, and political rhetoric, which causes the general American populace to buy into that hype, even (especially?) when Muslims are portrayed as “normal” human beings, as was seen in some of the reactions to TLC’s All-American Muslim.

Women at a vigil to remember Shaima Alawadi

Women at a vigil to remember Shaima Alawadi. Via The Daily Beast.

In drawing parallels between the Trayvon Martin murder and Shaima Alawadi’s brutal death, Judy Chu, chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, said:

“The tragedy of what happened to Trayvon was a product of racial profiling. Last week, Shaima Alawadi, a 32-year-old Iraq American woman from California, was beaten to death with a tire iron because of racial profiling. One wore a hoodie, and the other wore a hijab, but both were killed due to ignorance.”

Profiling of Muslims is not a big secret. Recently, the NYPD came under scrutiny for its surveillance of Muslims across New York, from campuses, to cafés, to restaurants, to grocery stores and pastry shops. These investigations have often been conducted without leads or reason for suspicion. The investigations have simply been for the fact that these people happened to be Muslims and these neighbourhoods happened to be heavily populated by Muslims.

Less than two weeks prior to Alawadi’s death, on March 11th, 2012 a U.S. sergeant opened fire and killed 17 Afghans, nine of them were children who were asleep in their beds. The sergeant is now under investigation and has been charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder, six counts of attempted murder amongst other charges. Whereas Alawadi’s story has still picked up significant press, the incident in Afghanistan did not gather as much publicity. The silence from the media and the government is another example of side-stepping the issue of Islamophobia and hatred that would provoke a soldier to kill innocent civilians. (It is interesting to note that the U.S. Muslim community has also given much more attention to Alawadi’s story than to these 17 murders in Afghanistan.  The silence from the community may be due to the fact that it has less of an impact on our daily lives than a hate crime committed within the US, or maybe because it requires us to examine the larger arguments about US presence and the war in Afghanistan.)

There are many other incidents of people being targeted by authorities, simply because of a connection to Islam. In May 2010, Pascal Abidor was removed from an Amtrak train heading from Montreal to New York. He was interrogated by customs officers for hours all because he said he was studying Islamic Studies at McGill University. His academic area of study led the officers to think of him as a threat, which led to the confiscation of his laptop and a thorough search of its contents.

On the surface, all of these stories seem to have nothing in common. But on closer inspection, these incidents shed light on what is missing largely from the public discourse:  acknowledgement and denunciation of systemic discrimination and oppression, and of their impact on social lives and people’s identities. The surveillance of the NYPD, the killing of 17 Afghans by a US Sergeant, the removal of an American-French citizen off a train at the U.S.-Canadian border because he is studying Islamic studies, and Shaima Alawadi’s murder are all connected to one another because they stem from a place of mistrust, they feed further into the stereotypes about Muslims, and they contribute towards fueling the hatred against Muslims.

Skewed, unbalanced media representation of Muslims, targeted surveillance of Muslims all contribute towards a generalizing of a mass and diverse group of people. Overt defense of NYPD’s surveillance by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Ray Kelly, and statements by Peter King about the “threat to our civilization today” that some Muslims pose, only help to fuel hatred against Muslims.  It comes as no surprise that an overwhelming 82 percent of New Yorkers believe that the NYPD counter-terrorism efforts (such as racial profiling of Muslims) are effective and that only 29 percent seems to find the treatment of Muslims as being unfair.

There is a fine line between national security and the uncontrolled racial profiling of a particular group.  To promote security interests at the cost of civil rights hinders growth and freedom of society, especially of specific minority social groups. This has real effects on Muslim communities. Since the reports about NYPD have been revealed, many Muslims have afraid to openly practice their faith, to be active in Muslim Student Associations, or go to their mosques or local Muslim-owned businesses; many have been forced into isolation for fear of being profiled.

We need to question why a U.S. sergeant killed 17 innocent people in Afghanistan.  Why can’t an American-French Citizen take Islamic Studies without fear of being singled out by customs officers? Or why is it that someone could leave a hate-filled note after brutally attacking a Muslim mother of five with a tire iron? We can no longer view these as isolated incidents. They are all a result of a systemic bias that exists in America today. The attack on Alawadi brings to the forefront the very real fear of danger for ordinary, innocent Muslim citizens from possibly within their neighbourhoods.

The voices in support of Alawadi need to be louder. The criminal justice system needs to be examined carefully. Instead of marginalizing and keeping American Muslims out of the national security debate, an effort needs to be made to make them a part of this discourse.  Alawadi’s murder is a clear example of the far-reaching impact of systemic bias. We are constantly bombarded with images of Muslim women clad in black headscarves, burqas and niqabs. The niqab has been banned in Canada and France on the premise that it is a threat to the secular values of the countries and potentially poses a national security threat. Stories about veiling gather significant media coverage in the United States as well. When such media portrayal becomes mainstream, it creates fear amongst ordinary citizen and fuels Islamophobia and can lead to events like Alawadis’death.

Alawadi’s death is not the only example as a consequence of her religious identity. Several hate crimes have occurred in other parts of the world. From being fired to not being allowed to play soccer because of the headscarf or being removed from a flight because of wearing a hijab have been examples of this Islamophobia. Alawadi’s death if a consequence of hate crime is the severest and most brutal case; another such extreme example of this is of the pregnant woman in Germany who was stabbed 18 times by her neighbour. If the legislators and those responsible for serving and protecting their citizens will not take a critical look at their actions, as a Muslim hijabi woman, I will be concerned for my safety. If media outlets continue to dehumanize Muslim women and portray them as outsiders whose lives don’t matter, then I am afraid that tomorrow I could be another Shaima Alawadi simply because of my religious identity.

  • http://www.examiner.com/family-in-new-york/rahela-choudhury RCHOUDH

    Good post Mash’Allah I like how you tied in various individual incidents together. The more I read about incidents involving black Americans getting profiled, harassed and/or “accidentally” shot by law enforcement the more I notice the parallels to our experience as Muslims and our encounters with law enforcement/the military both here and abroad. Seeing these parallels helps to create empathy towards others and helps to see how the levers of power are being used against us for no other reason than to keep us oppressed and isolated from each other.

  • picles

    Good post–but I’m not comfortable with linking it to Shaima Alwadi just yet. Statistically, it’s far more likely that she was the victim of family violence than of a hate crime. Murderers don’t take time to write notes–nor are they likely to. They were new to the community as well–which lessens the likelihood that they had gotten on some hate-filled person’s radar. It might be a hate crime (and there are plenty of them targeting Muslims), but the far more probable explanation is that Shaima was killed by somebody she knows, most likely a family member.

    • Ayah

      I’m with you. The whole affair has something odd about it and I think we should reserve judgment until there’s more evidence. But when I say that in front of other Muslims….

  • el-halabi

    Disturbing article for sure. Something to keep in mind though. We as muslims enjoy quite a bit of freedom here in the US. Especially when u consider the media reports of muslim terror in europe, Israeli civilians being targetted,brotherhood in Egypt, terror in Indonesia and Philipines and arab muslims killing native Africans in Sudan by the 100s of thousands. I doubt an American, Britt or Jew would enjoy half the freedoms from my native Saudi Arabia.

  • Chris LA

    Judy Chu’s knee-jerk linking of the Shaima Alwadi and Trayvon Martin killings reflects Ms. Chu’s own racial hang-ups. Investigations are still on-going in both of these incidents. Crime statistics in the United States indicate that hate crimes against women are quite rare, and the only three incidents recorded in the U.S. in recent times — the shooting at a Amish school in 2006, the shooting at a Bridgeport, PA, aerobics clas, and the shooting of a Long Island Muslim woman — bear no resemblance to the bludgeoning of Shaima Alwadi. Criminal profilers usually attribute beating deaths to intimate friends or family members. If you “google” the words “violence against women” you will find that women are five times more likely to be murdered by an intimate family member than men. Let’s not draw any conclusions in the Alwadi case until the police have completed their investigation.

  • http://kariansari.com Kari Ansari

    This article assumes that Shaima was the victim of a hate crime before such an assertion has been made by investigative authorities. The murder is still under investigation and even leaders at CAIR and MPAC have cautioned against jumping to conclusions regarding the motive for this brutal and senseless murder.

    In the last year, we’ve seen at least two crimes of this horrible nature that turned out to be something else. Muslims were up in arms crying “hate crime! She was killed or kidnapped because she was Muslim!”, until the facts were known to be otherwise.

    Examples:Think of the outcry for the young woman Aisha Khan who through a voicemail to her sister implied she was kidnapped from campus in Overland, KS earlier this year, only after many days, and tens of thousands of dollars spent searching for her did she call authorities to say she was safe in an unidentified location. Or, what about the horrible murder of the young Muslim mother Nazish Noorani who was shot down in front of her two young children by her husband’s girlfriend. The husband and the shooter plotted the killing and he used the hate crime ploy to try to get away with it. http://abclocal.go.com/kabc/story?section=news/national_world&id=8320900

    We do not yet know if Sr. Shaima’s hijab had anything at all to do with her murder, we just don’t know. Sometimes I wonder if we Muslims don’t secretly hope this is the case because it would be an easier way to prove that we suffer from insidious bigotry every day that no one sees or can prove.

  • Chris LA

    I am surprised that Muslimah Media Watch does not contain a single article about the apparent “honor murder” of Fatima Abdallah. This middle-aged Palestinian woman died under very suspicious circumstances in her Tampa, FL, home in August, 2009. Family members waited two and a half hours before calling 911. The first paramedic on the scene observed that “someone had beaten the crap out of her.” The family claimed that Fatima smashed her head on a coffee table after being overcome with fumes from a cleaning agent. She had multiple injuries to her face amd side of her head, and her lower ribs were broken. Her brother, Muhammad Abdallah Hmeid, was arrested for aggravated assault using a deadly weapon in 2010, but no one has been charged in the death of Fatima. Police admitted they were intimidated into going along with the family’s story that the death was an accident. The deaths of Fatima Abdallah and Shaima Alwadi have a lot of similarities. I just hope the El Cajon police are more conscientious and diligent than their Tampa counterparts.

  • http://fieryfury.wordpress.com Maheen

    @picles: That is a thought that is very scary—It is something that did not cross my mind until recently and it broke my heart…Islamophobia exists, whether Alawadi’s death is a hate crime or not, we can’t deny about Islamophobia—this is why i have linked other incidents of Islamophobia so we don’t see everything as an isolated incident anymore.

    @rcoudh: I had actually began my research with Trayvon in mind and the similarities of the struggles of Black Americans and now Muslim Americans are strikingly similar—it is precisely why we must not sit back and just accept this sort of discrimination

  • Nayla

    This is tragic, and I hope the murderer is caught and brought to justice. However, I agree with picles. While it’s very possible it was a hate crime, I believe it’s also equally possible she was killed by someone she knew and the note was left to throw police off. My main reason for thinking this is that the sliding glass door that was broken in order for the murderer to get into the house may have been broken outward. That means, the person who broke the glass door was standing INSIDE the house. That makes it seem definitely fishy to me, and I’ll wait to see what the police conclude before coming to a firm conclusion myself.


  • courtney letts

    prayer gos out to your family and i hope that you know that some of us do have ur back !

  • Farah

    Picles is right–someone in her family killed that woman. Even the local community knows it. A random hater doesn’t deliver that brutal a beat-down. A random hater doesn’t “write a note” to explain himself. I mean, come on. Stupid is as stupid does. The police already know what really happened–they’re just biding their time. When there is an arrest, it will be of someone related to that poor woman. I hope the newspapers will cover that arrest as much as they covered the speculation that there’s a monster prowling the streets in El Cajon.

    • bbrsandiego

      Actually the police “stressed” that they were looking into other possibilities and asked that all evidence be sealed. It was the media who jumped on the hate-crime angle because of the note. If the family thinks they are under suspicion, why would they come back?

  • http://fieryfury.wordpress.com Maheen

    I absolutely agree with everyone about the possibility of it being domestic violence—as I said in my above comment, i hadn’t really considered that potential, until last night—if it is a case of domestic Violence, i pray to God that the perp is brought to justice.

    @kari Ansari: the assumption i made is because of what we are hearing in the media—What I have tried to do is put alawadi and other incidents of hate crime into the larger context of islamophobia, which is a well-funded machine (check Fear. Inc)http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2011/08/islamophobia.html

    We all as Muslims do jump on the bandwagon calling it hate-crime because of the mistrust that has grown between Muslims and Non-Muslims residing in America—if we are to improve racial relations, this all has to stop (and I will start with myself on that rather than putting the blame on the outside)—-it is great to see that Muslims themselves are questioning the brutal murder and not seeing it as simply hate crime (it says there is still a level of faith in the system)

    @el-halabi—i will never deny the freedoms that i am afforded living in the US—it is precisely because of this freedom that I was able to write this article—but the reason I would never dare compare the US to KSA is that the US’s constituition prides itself for being equal for all—it is the land of the free and of dreams–and in that regard is BETTER than saudi for recognizing human rights and therefore should be held accountable than KSA because of the ideals that are intrinsic to the very fabric of this nation.

    • bbrsandiego

      It was the title and the quote by Judy Chu that set the tone of the article though. She basically stated without a doubt that it was a hate crime. I appreciate and understand your platform but I don’t think using Shaima’s murder, an on-going investigation, was in anyone’s best interest. What it will do, and rightfully so, is bring outrage about about honor killings. This is new to Americans, but not to other countries with larger populations of Arabs and/or Muslims.

  • Nayla

    Also, I have to admit, the interview with Shaima’s daughter I found odd too. She was wearing huge sunglasses, and dabbing her face with a tissue, but she seemed really insincere. I hate to say that, and I hope I’m wrong, but she just seemed odd to me. Of course, everyone reacts differently to tragedy and loss…

    Whomever the killer is, I pray that they be brought to justice.

  • SH

    In Canada, we are simply Canadian. regardless of race. Only requirement is we have to say ‘eh?’ only once, to understand your accent :)

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/mmw/ Krista

      (Although if anyone’s interested in actually learning about race/racism against Muslims in Canada, you can of course feel free to search through MMW’s archives, where you will find many examples…)

  • http://kariansari.com Kari Ansari
  • http://fieryfury.wordpress.com Maheen

    @kari Ansari

    I just saw it—i am really sad right now—unfortunately, whatever I have read, my suspicion goes to the daughter:(

  • sanwin

    You will need lots of Kleenex to wipe that egg of your face.

    Now it’s becoming more and more clear this was probably a honor killing rather than a hate crime.


  • Sarai

    1: What happened to Misses Shaima Alawadi could not have been a RACIALLY influenced crime because she is Muslim; however if it would be a racially influenced crime, it would be because someone knew she was Iraqi and had a personal issue with that. Being a Muslim doesn’t mean being part of a certain color or regional people. Believing in Islam is an intangible thing, it’s not of aesthetic value– it’s a personal thing. Neither phenotype nor genotype.

    2: Whether or not it’s a hate crime, it’s still wrong. Whether or not her family member, friend, foe, or stranger did it to her (and any other female/male whose demise took the title of “hate crime” and had yet to be properly identified) – it’s STILL wrong. That doesn’t change.

    3: If someone she knew did do this to her, whether or not that person is Muslim, it’s STILL wrong. Any Muslim should know — any educated Muslim — that honor killing is NOT the way one should do things. They face the wrath of Allah (God, the Creator) for taking that person’s life. And so does the person of any other faith that unjustly committed such a crime.

    4: Finally, no matter what group or community of people this happens to, it IS OUR RESPONSIBILITY as fellow Americans – and internationals alike – to V-O-I-C-E how wrong these crimes are for the sake of Ms. Alawadi, Mr. Martin, Ms. Khan, Ms. Abdallah, victims at the Amish school/church, victims at the Muslim school/mosque, victims at the Christian school/church, victims of racial hate crimes, or whatever else I didn’t mention, and for our own safety and freedoms, we NEED to voice it. And we NEED not jump to conclusions before all evidence has been revealed; fine if we have our own ideas, but don’t spread rumors, cos IF they aren’t true, you and anyone else would regret it and fall silent to truth. Let’s just hope the truth is revealed and we can stop the foolishness and severity of such crimes.

  • Chris

    With regard to phenotype, stereotypization and discrimination: Being Muslim despite being an attribute or characteristic of choice in contrast to racial or ethnic heritage can be “indexed” in one predominenat case, namely with the hijab. Women who wear it make themselves visibly identified as Muslim, and while, granted it has nothing to do with race or ethnicity, associations closer to visible characteristics like race are triggered rather than invisible characteristics’ associations like worldview, spiritual belief, religion or sexual orientation.

    I think this is what we should bear in mind – through the hijab, people are just as identifiable as Muslim as people are by clear ethnic or racial features.

    I would not have considered the option this case is something else than it seems, and I feel a little bit stupid now, to be honest. It does appear fishy as a case (although, let’s not forget: criminals can be astonishingly stupid; it is not impossible hate criminals did put such a phony note next to their unfortunate victim). I think it is best not to jump to premature conclusions.

    I have one more thing to say concerning the issue on whether Muslims experience the same as African Americans: Let’s honour the fact that African Americans have unfortunately experienced levels of violence in their home country, as citizens, that Muslims not in the USA, not in Europe have yet had to live through. Yes, there is arbitrary (mis)treatment, there is lawlessness, there is abuse of rights, there is unconstitutional behavior, racial profiling, etc., etc. But to be singled out for persecution by landowners, unentitled neighbourhood patrols etc. for being Muslim, and then being gunned down preemptively for being Muslim, this has not happened on the shocking, sad, shameful and unfortunately endemic level it has happened for the reason of skin colour in the US.

  • Nayla

    I REALLY don’t think the media should have reported this new information. The police meant for all this new info to be sealed, but a court clerk made a mistake and released it.

    None of this should have been released until the investigation was complete, because:

    1. The husband, daughter, and son are in Iraq right now. They are probably reading about all this…and who knows if they will even come back to the US now, especially if any of them are the guilty party

    2. If the family is innocent, it’s TERRIBLE that their names are being dragged through the mud now. I mean, if the daughter, Fatima, is innocent…look what has happened to her! Now, everyone knows that she was caught by police having sex with a man in a car. If she’s innocent, she doesn’t deserve to have her “dirty laundry” aired to the world like that, especially considering what a big sin sex before marriage is. Now everyone knows she’s not chaste. :(

    These details should have remained sealed until the investigation concluded.

  • Lara A

    Salaam Alaikum,

    Just to point out that whether or not Shaimaa Alawadi was killed by a family member or a stranger, the NYPD surveillance or Muslims is a fact, the murder of 17 Afghan civillians and the shoddy Western media reporting of this is a fact, Pascal Aibidor’s removal from a train is a fact (and there have been many other cases of Muslims facing problems for travelling while Muslim), not to mention that mosques have been attacked and there is a general problem with hate crimes being underreported.

    Islamophobia is real and too often it gets waved away as Muslims being “too sensitive” or ” not allowing others to criticise Islam”, when it is a real prejudice with a great cost to Muslims and that includes to our personal safety.

    While yes, Muslims in the West do enjoy a greater deal of freedom then they might do elsewhere, I imagine that if there was a poll asking if Western Muslims had ever felt unsafe, had physical or verbal threats for being Muslim, a high number would say yes.