A recent string of murders in Albuquerque, New Mexico, was unusual. None of the four victims were robbed, and all had been caught off guard, seemingly ambushed and executed. Authorities said the victims had only one thing in common: They were all members of the small Muslim community there.
The murders were merciless. According to the account of a victim’s brother, his plan to return the body to Pakistan was abandoned because his brother had been shot so many times with an AR-15-style rifle that he was “unrecognizable.” At least one of the victims was killed just hours after attending the funeral for two of the other victims. For a community this small—numbering only around 1,500—one murder was tragic. Four was unthinkable.
Major outlets picked up the story. They interviewed the families of the victims, and their Muslim neighbors who were afraid to go outside. One told a reporter they didn’t want to become “bait.” Ahmad Assed, president of the Islamic Center of New Mexico, told CNN he too had become paranoid. “When I get in the car, I’m watching every which way possible. I’m watching my side mirror. I’m looking in the back. I’m looking for any sign out of the ordinary,” he said. Leaders in the community asked Muslims to use a buddy system to stay safe.
There wasn’t much information about the murders at first. The killer was still at large. With no indication of a motive, police refrained from labeling the deaths as hate crimes. Instead, they told the press they believed the four murders were linked, and that the victims could have been targeted for their faith. But many did make assumptions. An ABC affiliate in Texas ran the headline, “Islamophobic Killer Targets 4 Men Killed in Albuquerque.” Reporters interviewed Muslim leaders across the country; one blamed “radicals with hatred.” A number of pundits with large followings also pinned the deaths on Islamophobia. One said the killer was “most likely a white supremacist.” A widely shared New York Times report noted that authorities were reluctant to label the crimes prematurely but raised the specter of recent hate crimes against Muslims.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, a Muslim civil rights group, issued a press release condemning the killings, and offered a $10,000 cash reward for any information that may lead to an arrest and conviction. But Edward Ahmed Mitchell, a deputy director at CAIR, was careful when a CNN reporter asked him if he believed the attacks were motivated by Islamophobia. “We could be surprised by what is going on here,” he said. “When we catch this person, we can find out why they did it.”
Last week, law enforcement announced they had arrested a suspect, 51-year-old Muhammad Syed, who is Muslim. Syed was pulled over in a traffic stop 100 miles away from his home. He told investigators he was fleeing to Texas, citing fears of himself becoming the next victim in New Mexico. They found a gun, along with bullet casings that appeared to match the weapon used in the murders. He’s suspected in two of the four killings but may be connected to all four. His son was also held on gun charges. (Syed denies all of the allegations.)
Authorities believe Syed, a Sunni Muslim, may have been motivated by sectarian hate after his daughter agreed to marry a Shia man. Others pushed back on that characterization this week, pointing to personal feuds between Syed and the victims. Whatever the motive, a community that had girded itself with the possibility an outsider was killing them now has to confront an even harder-to-contemplate outcome. So do national leaders who watched speculation get ahead of the investigation.
I asked Mitchell, of CAIR, if many had been too quick to blame the attacks on Islamophobia. “We always said that we don’t know who’s doing it or why they’re doing it,” he told me, explaining his group’s caution. “Looking back in hindsight, I really wouldn’t change anything about what anyone did. I think everyone reacted appropriately based on what we knew.”
He said while some may have made assumptions, the coverage of these events was indicative of a culture shift in how Muslims are reported on and how they’re policed. “There was a time when Muslims victims of crime were completely ignored, and Muslim perpetrators of crime were the top of the evening news. Now we’re moving to a situation where there’s a little more balance. Muslim victims of crimes get the attention they deserve, and when there are Muslim perpetrators of crime, their behavior is not imputed to the entire community. And it’s not some automatic assumption that Islam must to be to blame for the behavior of one unhinged individual,” he said.
Mitchell doesn’t blame Muslims around the country who instinctually felt these were Islamophobic attacks. “I think it made sense for everyone to recognize there’s a pattern here,” he said. CAIR tracks complaints to its office, and its latest report found more than 6,500 between 2019 and 2020, the highest it’s ever seen. “Of course everyone had to take this very seriously. And regardless of the suspect’s identity, it was right to take this very seriously.”
The uneasiness around the apparent outcome in the case also stems from some American Muslims’ fears of looking inside their own communities. Zainab Chaudry, a spokesperson for CAIR and director of its Maryland office, said that though CAIR’s mission is largely to combat Islamophobia, combatting internal Muslim hate is a priority as well. “Islamophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry is a very real issue. But it’s not just interfaith. It’s intrafaith, too,” she said. “Anti-Shia hate is also a form of hatred and bigotry. It’s something that deserves to be condemned. It doesn’t overshadow our struggle with Islamophobia,” she said.
She says CAIR’s position in this case was informed by past experiences where it might have assumed too much. “We’ve had cases happen in the past, where you think it’s one thing and it turns out to be something completely different and then it backfires and then the issue loses credibility and then people feel like, ‘You’re exaggerating the problem of Islamophobia in our country,’ ” she said. (Even so, that response proliferated online in response to news of the Albuquerque suspect.)
Chaudry added that the case was far from over: “From CAIR’s standpoint, we wouldn’t have done anything different had it been a white supremacist versus a Muslim, but we do want to caution that it’s still very early in the investigation. There is a suspect in custody. There’s still two other murders that haven’t been accounted for. And we just don’t have all the details,” she told me. “There’s still a lot of questions, but we hope that at least this arrest brings some peace of mind to the community.”
Mitchell noted that CAIR tracked the anti-Muslim chatter online relating to the murders, and found that some celebrated that Muslims were being murdered—then celebrated that the perp might be Muslim too. “It’s predictable that there are people who are gonna jump on this and say, ‘Well, what about Muslim-on-Muslim hate? Or Muslim-on-Muslim violence?’ ” he said. “Our priorities are making sure the victims get justice, the families and the community is protected and safe, and they have the resources and support that they need to navigate that. And whoever’s behind this, they’re brought to justice.”