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.

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