On Wednesday, March 21, a 32-year-old mother of five, Shaima Alawadi, was found beaten nearly to death with a tire iron inside her home in El Cajon, California. Days later she succumbed to the injuries and died from the vicious attack. Alawadi was an Iraqi-American Muslim woman, and next to her bloodied body was a handwritten note calling her a terrorist and telling her to go back to her country.
On the face of it, the murder of Shaima looks clearly like a hate crime. Inside the Muslim community, the conversation began first with prayers for the family and outrage at this religiously motivated attack, and then the disheartening realization that there was always a possibility it could have been a domestic assault staged to look like something else. Facebook feeds, blog posts, hushed exchanges began to quiet down as people decided to withhold judgment until more facts emerged.
Was this a case of Islamophobia or domestic violence? Horrifying either way, the reaction of the American Muslim community reveals much about our current psyche. If indeed this is the crime of a bigot who killed Shaima because she was a headscarf-wearing Muslim, it signals a new era of danger in being Muslim in America. Shaima would be the first Muslim woman to be murdered in the United States in a hate crime. However, if this turns out to be a domestic assault, then it would not be the first time a Muslim woman has been killed by her husband here in the U.S. The big question for Muslims is this: which, for our community, is worse?
The threat of Islamophobia is being felt in many ways by American Muslims: The introduction of anti-Sharia legislation in numerous states, bigoted law enforcement training, discrimination at work and school, media and political figures openly bashing Islam, and a cottage industry of pseudo experts spreading fear about Muslims are a few examples. Incidents like Lowe’s pulling ads from the TV show All American Muslim, politicians pulling out of speaking engagements at Muslim events, and the public burning of Qurans confirms the negativity in this country about Islam.
The great concern about such rhetoric is that it will influence people already predisposed to criminality and bigotry and eventually lead to violence against Muslims, which has happened numerous times since 9/11. The extremely violent murder of a Shaima in her own home takes hate crimes against Muslims to a new level, and the realization that this could happen a decade after 9/11 is sobering and frightening.
However, if it this terrible murder turns out to be a domestic assault, it raises other serious concerns: the issue itself of domestic violence in Muslim homes, and the perception that Muslim men are prone to violence and the mistreatment of women because it is religiously sanctioned. Although there are not comprehensive statistics on domestic violence specifically within Muslim households, most indicators reflect that the prevalence is in line with national domestic violence statistics. There is no data or evidence to suggest that American Muslim homes experience higher levels of DV than non-Muslim homes. But when a case of DV committed by a Muslim man comes before the public eye, it feeds directly into the false narrative that Muslims are more prone to violence or that Islam encourages violence against women. These types of stories, horrendous in their own right, then become a means to demonize and denigrate Islam and Muslims as a group.
So, again the question arises, which is worse? Is it worse for the Muslim community that Islamophobia has reached such levels that such an attack can take place or that this may be an incidence of DV that will feed into the ugly narratives of Islamophobes? Is it worse that we, American Muslims, may be in greater physical danger or that the perception of our faith may be in greater danger? The fact that we have to even decide which is worse, and what we hope for, is a clear reflection of a community that feels under siege.
The truth is that there is no answer to this ugly question. A young woman and mother of five is dead, and we pray for justice for her, regardless of who the committed the crime or why it was motivated. We need another prayer as well, for the stamina and resilience of American Muslims to keep above the fray, to push back against lies, to stay true to their country and their religion, and to work harder both inside and outside the Muslim community so that never again is another Shaima killed.