Dear University of Michigan and Muslim Community,
We must address an issue that has been plaguing Muslims across the world and has received little attention: anti-Shi‘a violence. This year, three Shi‘a Muslim men, Aftab Hussein, Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, and Naeem Hussain were murdered in Albuquerque, New Mexico between July 26th and August 5th. Their deaths are believed to be connected to another killing of a Shi‘a Muslim, Mohammad Ahmadi, which took place in November of 2021. Authorities are considering the possibility that the killer targeted these individuals due to their identity as Shi‘a Muslims.
Although the shock of the attacks struck the hearts of Muslims worldwide, it did not come as a surprise that the motive could be sectarian hatred on the part of the perpetrator. Unfortunately, sectarian violence is not a new phenomenon, and it has been maintained by groups of individuals that promote disunity among Sunnis and Shi‘as. These sentiments have carried on to the present-day United States and beyond where we see attacks against the Shi‘a ranging from discrimination to murder. Those carrying out these attacks do not represent Sunni Islam, but rather subscribe to an ideology that promotes deep-rooted misconceptions about the beliefs and practices taught in Shi‘ism.
The mischaracterization of Shi‘a Muslims as heretics, or rawafid, has been used to justify attacks on the Shi‘a across the globe. Earlier this year, ISIS members killed 62 Shi‘a Muslims and injured 194 in a suicide bombing while attending Friday prayers in Peshawar, Pakistan. According to a 2019 report by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, Pakistan has seen 2,700 Shi‘a Muslims killed and 4,800 injured in a total of 471 attacks since 2001 (USCIRF, 2019). A similar problem is prevalent in Afghanistan where the Hazara Shi‘a Muslims experience violence at the hands of ISIS and the Taliban. Just last month, as the Hazara Shi‘a were commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, they experienced several attacks that killed and injured over 120 people. There was also a bomb attack against a Hazara school in 2021 that left 90 people dead and 240 wounded, most of whom were girls between the ages of 11 and 15 years old.
While some may argue that these are stand-alone acts of terrorism, this ignores the discrimination experienced by Shi‘a Muslims at the state level. This discrimination often culminates in violent punishment as seen in Saudi Arabia where Shi’a Muslims are executed without fair trials. Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa, describes the trials in Saudi Arabia as “grossly and blatantly unfair” (Amnesty International, 2022). In March of this year, 81 individuals, 41 of whom were Shi‘a, were beheaded in a mass execution carried out by the Saudi government. Similar executions occurred in 2016 and 2019 where the victims of the death penalty were alleged to have participated in “anti-government activities,” “terrorism,” and other related crimes.
The Bahraini government also suppresses its Shi‘a-majority population through wrongful convictions and executions. According to the Bahrain 2021 International Religious Freedom Report, Shi’a Muslim activists experience employment discrimination and low upward socioeconomic mobility. Those that speak out against the government are arrested on allegations of “blasphemy” (Office of International Religious Freedom, 2022). In 2019, authorities executed two individuals after torturing them due to “terrorism crimes,” despite calls from Amnesty International to halt the executions (Amnesty International, 2019).
The instances mentioned capture just a small extent of the violence that Shi‘a Muslims experience internationally as a result of their religious identity. It must be reiterated, however, that this is not a Sunni-Shi‘a conflict as it is often portrayed. Rather it is an international issue that Sunnis and Shi‘as must counter collectively. Discrimination and violence must be condemned, and the spread of misconceptions surrounding Shi‘a Muslims must be stopped from the pulpit. Wahhabi interpretations of Islam, which inaccurately represent the Shi‘a as deviants that worship other than Allah, read a different Qur’an, and reject Prophet Muhammad, must be addressed. These false teachings have normalized hatred of the Shi‘a, and have been used to justify discrimination against this group of Muslims. Thus, inter-sectarian unity is a necessity to combat this issue and clear up misunderstandings about Shi‘a Islam and the beliefs of its adherents.
Knowing that sectarian violence has been carried out in the United States, universities have a responsibility as educational institutions to address this problem and do their part in dispelling anti-Shi‘a myths. One of the most significant issues in some Islamic studies programs and centers has been mentioned by Chaplain Khalid Latif at NYU. Islamic studies courses often neglect the study of Shi‘ism and other sects. By doing this, we risk suggesting that other Islamic schools of thought are less important, or that they fall outside the realm of Islam. This problem is mirrored in some Muslim Student Associations that, wittingly or not, create spaces that exclude Shi‘a Muslims.
The horrific tragedies mentioned serve as reminders that we must do our part in promoting inter-sectarian unity, condemning sectarian violence, and halting the spread of misconceptions at their source. Our hearts and condolences are with the victims of the Albuquerque murders, their families, and all other Shi‘a Muslims who have suffered from sectarian violence and discrimination. May Allah have mercy on the four souls that were taken, and may their loved ones find justice.
Amnesty International. “Bahrain: Halt Imminent Execution of Two Men Tortured and Convicted in Unfair Trial,” July 26, 2019. https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/press-release/2019/07/bahrain-halt-imminent-execution-of-two-men-tortured-and-convicted-in-unfair-trial/.
Office of International Religious Freedom. “Bahrain 2021 International Religious Freedom Report.” U.S. Department of State, June 2022. https://www.state.gov/reports/2021-report-on-international-religious-freedom/bahrain/.
Amnesty International. “Saudi Arabia: Mass Execution of 81 Men Shows Urgent Need to Abolish the Death Penalty,” March 15, 2022. https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2022/03/saudi-arabia-mass-execution-of-81-men-shows-urgent-need-to-abolish-the-death-penalty/.
United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. “2019 Annual Report,” April 2019. https://www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/Tier1_PAKISTAN_2019.pdf.
Islam Jaffal is a student in the Masters in International and Regional Studies Program at the University of Michigan, specializing in Islamic Studies. She is studying Lebanese Shi’i Muslim history and focuses on Islamic scholarship and its role in anti-colonial and anti-imperial resistance in the Levant in the first half of the twentieth century. She is also interested in inter-sectarian attitudes and relations in Lebanon.