Shaima Alawadi, a 32 year old mother of five, died yesterday as a result of a vicious beating she received earlier in the week in her in El Cajon, California home. Beaten on the head with a tire iron, she was found in a pool of her own blood by her 17 year old daughter, next to a note that a friend has reported read “go back to your own country. You’re a terrorist.” Alawadi was an Iraqi immigrant but had lived in the US for nearly twenty years, and had only recently moved to the San Diego area from Michigan. As far as I can tell, the children (aged 8-17) are all American-born citizens. The family reports that a similar note was left on their house earlier in the month, but that Alawadi dismissed the note as a prank. Family friend Sura Alzaidy described Alawadi as “a sweetheart… a respectful modest muhajiba,” meaning that she wore hijab, Muslim head covering, as a matter of course in her daily life.
Unlike in the case of Trayvon Martin, there are (as far as I know) no suspects in the case, there’s no phone record, there are no publicly available facts other than the above. There is a possibility, of course, that the killer actually knew Alawadi and the note was left as a diversionary tactic, and of course, one never knows what the investigation may reveal — El Cajon police Lt. Mark Coit very rightly told the San Diego Union-Tribune: “Although we are exploring all aspects of this investigation, evidence thus far leads us to believe this is an isolated incident. A hate crime is one of the possibilities and we will be looking at that. We don’t want to focus on one issue and miss something else.” This is what I want to hear from law enforcement: A willingness to go where the evidence leads, and nowhere else.
Yet having said that, and leaving room for the possibility of new information — I’m not the El Cajon police, and I can go ahead and make the leap of judgement. Shaima Alawadi was almost certainly killed for the color of her skin, the accent in her voice, and most importantly, the scarf on her head. The way in which she worshiped her Maker. And it just makes me ill.
In a country in which entire police departments feel justified in spying on Muslim Americans across state lines; in a country in which entire communities, across the country, are whipped up into a froth over plans to build houses of worship; in a country in which elected officials feel free to call Muslim faith-based philanthropic events “pure, unadulterated evil” — should we, in fact, be surprised that many believe “Muslim” to be synonymous with “terrorist”? Should we be surprised that some act on the rhetoric?
There is a clear, shining thread between the murder of Trayvon Martin and the murder of Shaima Alawadi: Both victims represented, in their very bodies and in their very being, something, an otherness, that the majority Americans are taught to fear. I do not believe that most people who say reprehensible things or write off the faith of more than a billion followers as “evil” will bash in a young mother’s head — but I do believe that those who are willing to do so are guided by the scripts we provide.
When we normalize vicious hate, when we normalize violent rhetoric, when we normalize dehumanization – the deranged take their cues. It may well be that you have to be deranged to chase someone down in order to kill them “in self-defense” or to take a tire iron to a stranger in their own home — but the bigotry that guides such acts is normative. It is all around us.
And we have seen this all-too-American hate, this all-too-American dehumanization, before. We saw it in 1943 when Lt. Gen. John DeWitt delared that “we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map”; we saw it in 1960, when white Americans stood on sidewalks howling “Nigger!” at six year old Ruby Bridges; we saw it in 1979, when Sikhs and Mexicans were savagely assaulted for looking like Iranians; and we’ve been seeing it ever since September 11, 2001, when a group of criminals who hijacked a faith as surely as they hijacked those planes murdered 3,000 Americans — Muslim Americans included.
I do not believe that this hate, this dehumanization, is more prevalent among Americans than it is among other humans — but as I wrote the other day, Americans are the humans among whom I live. Americans are the humans among whom I am raising my children.
And we Americans are all too willing to blame the clothing, behavior, or supposed co-religionists of victims for their own deaths. We are all too willing to dismiss our own responsibility for creating, nurturing, and perpetuating a climate that supports those who would commit brutal crimes.
This is on us. If we want 17 year old black boys and 32 year old Muslim women to be safe from humanity’s most horrific side, we have to step up. We have to talk, to tell the truth, to write letters, to educate ourselves, to reach out, and above all, to find allies and build community.
As Dalia Mogahed, co-author of Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think wrote yesterday: “We rightly accept that anti-Jewish rhetoric can lead to violence. When will we make the same connection for anti-Muslim rhetoric?”
Some more resources:
Muslim responses to terrorism.
Muslim American heroes.