El Cajon, California - Americans love a morality play, and in the vicious murder of Shaima Alawadi, they have a quintessential example. Was the 32-year-old Iraqi refugee who was beaten nearly to death in her own home on March 21 a victim of racist and cultural intolerance? Or did she die because of misogyny, a phenomenon that transcends different societies?
Evidence points both ways but also raises more questions than it answers. Meanwhile, police assisted by the FBI are tight-lipped. However the story unfolds, the most important parts of this play may not be the leading characters, but the setting and the bit players.
I journeyed to Alawadi's adopted hometown of El Cajon in Southern California to find a microcosm of Iraq, but an Iraq that no longer exists. More than 40,000 Iraqis are struggling to build a new life here in "a land of freedom," having fled persecution in their homeland. One local described to me a community where: "There's Chaldeans, Yazidis, Mandaeans. There's Shia, Sunni, Kurds. There's Assyrian and Armenian."
The first wave of refugees came in the late 1970s on the eve of the devastating Iraq-Iraq War. Others fled after the 1991 Persian Gulf War - mainly Shia who unsuccessfully tried to overthrow a wounded Saddam Hussein at the urging of the senior Bush administration. The third wave was courtesy of the junior Bush's 2003 invasion, which spawned Islamist militias that have decimated Iraq's Chaldean Christians, Mandaeans (followers of John the Baptist) and Yazidis (adherents of a 4,000-year-old syncretic religion). Out of millions of Iraqis who were made refugees by the most recent US war, 59,000 have landed on American soil.
Many have found their way to El Cajon. They tell of harrowing escapes from kidnappings, bombings and death squads, years in refugee camps, and life savings spent to hopscotch from country to country. Recent arrivals come bearing deep traumas and have landed in a depressed economy where they often sink into joblessness and depression. They have also discovered that not everyone is welcoming.
Basma Coda, who works at the Chaldean-Middle Eastern Social Services, says, "There is a hate crime problem in El Cajon." Coda told me: "We have documented six physical attacks since 2007 in which Iraqi refugees were beat up and had broken bones. All had to go the hospital. They were all over 50, and one was a 75-year-old man with Parkinson's disease." These were not back-alley ambushes, according to Coda, but attacks on the streets of El Cajon in broad daylight. Coda says police reports were filed in five cases, but she is unaware of any follow-up, meaning the perpetrators are probably still free. Coda added that one victim was finally contacted by police - a week after Alawadi's murder. Despite this seeming inaction, Coda is supportive of the police, saying, "The El Cajon Police Department works very hard for the community." (Calls to the El Cajon police were not returned.)
This is the context in which Alawadi lived and died. Here is what is known about the case.
On the morning of March 21, Alawadi's skull was shattered in her own home by an unknown assailant wielding a tire-iron-like weapon. In a heartwrenching appearance before television news cameras, her 17-year-old daughter Fatima Alhimidi said, "I found her on the floor, drowned in her own blood with a letter next to her head saying, 'Go back to your country, you terrorist.'" Speaking to the killer, Alhimidi said: "We're not the terrorists. You are." Days after being attacked, Alawadi was taken off life support. She died on March 24.
Two days after her death, I contacted California State University Professor Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism in San Bernardino. Here's a man who studies hate groups, which infest Southern California, so he will pin the murder on them, I thought. Surprisingly, he sounded skeptical.
Levin said: "Why are the police so quick to say it is an isolated incidence? That suggests to me they are looking at other motives. There is the possibility this could be some sort of personal attack or revenge attack."
Levin, who is a lawyer and an ex-cop, explained skepticism is the only justifiable position when there is no motive or suspect. Nonetheless, the narrative of a hate crime against Alawadi thrives because there is a suffocating swamp of Islamophobia and racial profiling in America. Levin says: "I'm disturbed that Islamophobia has become part of the political and social mainstream, especially in California.... There are a lot of anti-Islamic groups and know-nothings here."
Soon, the narrative of a hate crime began to unravel.
On April 4, an affidavit for a search warrant related to the murder was "accidentally released," according to The New York Times. The San Diego Union-Tribune, which first received the document, claimed it shows a, "family in turmoil and cast doubt on the likelihood that her slaying was a hate crime." Alawadi was said to be planning on leaving her husband based on blank divorce papers found in her vehicle. Last November 3, police investigating reports of two people possibly having sex in a car found Fatima Alhimidi with a 21-year-old man. After her mother was called to pick her up, Alhimidi allegedly jumped out of the car, which was said to be traveling at 35 miles per hour, injuring herself. The affidavit states that, "Police were informed by paramedics and hospital staff that Fatima Alhimidi said she was being forced to marry her cousin and did not want to do so she jumped out of the vehicle." The man in the car is Rawnaq Yacub, who says he has no connection to the crime, but has been interviewed by police, who took some of his clothes.
Other relevant details include that, "a neighbor reported seeing a skinny dark-skinned male running west from the area of Alawadi's house" on the morning of the murder. According to the affidavit, as of March 27, the police had not confirmed the whereabouts of Kassim Alhimidi, Alawadi's husband, at the time of the murder. Curiously, "a handwritten note was located at the scene that the family denied seeing before." Police have also searched Alawadi's house for paper matching the threatening note, which was said to be a copy of the original.
Speculation is rife that either the daughter or father had a hand in the killing. Yet there is no suspect, motive or murder weapon. Further muddying the water, The New York Times talked to Alawadi's sister - who disputed information in the affidavit. Esmah Alawadi, "said that she had been her sister's closest confidante, and that she knew of no plans she had to divorce her husband. She also said that Fatima's engagement was of her own choosing, to a man she met last year while visiting Iraq." In the latest twist, her brother, Hass Alawadi, claims Shaima Alawadi did want a divorce, and her husband knew about her plans.
There are other reasons to question whether Alawadi's murder was a hate crime. Fatima Alhimidi and other family members claim a similar threatening note was left on the exterior of their house a week before the murder. Alawadi reportedly dismissed it as a kid's prank, and the note was not saved.
Mark Potok, senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups nationwide, says that when he first heard about the threatening notes: "I raised an eyebrow. It's too perfect. It's highly unusual to have notes that spell out the motive on paper." As for the crime itself, Potok says, "It is quite unusual to invade someone's home, especially a woman, and violently beat her to death in the dining room." When I asked him if men are nearly always the victim of hate crime murders, Potok said, "That is almost certainly right." To top it off, he adds, "The classic hate crime occurs on the streets," not in the home.
Some observers worry that the new information in the Alawadi case will be misused. Hanif Mohebi, director of the San Diego chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a civil rights and public advocacy group for Muslims, says: "From the beginning, we were very cautious about the murder because we are all human beings, and this could go any way. The Islamophobes will exploit this. If there is something that advances their agenda, they will most definitely use it."
Right on cue, publicity-craving Islamophobes Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer concluded that it is an "honor killing," with Geller crowing that before any facts were revealed, "I surmised that the murder of Shaima Alawadi appeared to be Islamic, rooted in Islamic teachings and culture."
Perhaps Alawadi was killed because of sexist cultural precepts, but given the grief displayed by her husband and daughter, their involvement seems questionable. Even if Alawadi was killed by a family member, such violence is disturbingly frequent in America. In 2007, 1,640 women were murdered by an intimate partner in the United States. In a horrific incident on April 13, a gun-wielding 51-year-old Kevin Allen murdered his wife and ten-year-old daughter at a Cracker Barrel restaurant in Ohio. A second daughter was critically wounded.
I didn't notice Geller and Spencer rushing to claim that Allen's rampage was rooted in Christian teachings and culture. Demagoguery like theirs has bolstered the spread of Islamophobia. The Southern Poverty Law Center has tracked a 200 percent increase in anti-Muslim hate groups nationwide, from ten such groups in 2010 to 30 in 2011. Potok attributes the spread to, "the so-called Ground Zero Mosque controversy in 2010 that was really ginned up by opportunistic activists and politicians.... This is a classic case of words having consequences."
On March 31, I drove to the Alawadi family's white stucco two-story rental house on a dead-end suburban street behind a middle school. Flower arrangements were bunched up and votive candles flickered out front. Inside, the ground floor was sparsely furnished: a television and videogame console, a dilapidated couch, a few rugs in the area where Alwadi was reportedly murdered, and a messy open kitchen.
As I was about to leave, Enas Alekabi pulled up in an SUV. She had come to El Cajon from Nebraska, where she lives, and said, "Shaima was my best friend, but she was more than that." Clad from head to toe in black, Alekabi kept tugging at a jacket to cover her T-shirt, which bore a silk-screened photo of Alawadi. As she relit candles, she told me she met Shaima in the Saudi Arabian refugee camp their families had fled to after the Shia uprising was crushed. Alekabi claimed her father was the leader of the uprising in Basra, the largest city in the Shia-dominated South.
There was a note stuck in the door of Alawadi's home. It looked like copier paper with handwriting on it. Alekabi pulled it out and unfolded it. It appeared to include a computer-printed image of a photo negative. It apparently showed someone in the backyard of a house carrying something under an arm. Alekabi seemed confident that it was a security camera image of the killer and said she was going to give the document to the police.
The previous night, while attending an outdoor prayer service and candlelight vigil for Alawadi, I met one of her neighbors from Iraq. Abbas Almeali, 42, clad in traditional clothing, said he knew Shaima and her family from Samawah, the Southern Iraq city closest to the Saudi Arabian border. He fled in March 1991, after the revolt failed, but, "was proud to be part of the uprising." He said Alawadi's father was tortured by Hussein's regime and her uncle was hung during the uprising. "She was a nice girl; she had no problems with anyone," Almeali said. He remembered her as "a little girl" when they were last in Samawah. About two years later, that little girl would be married in the Saudi refugee camp, and by perhaps age 14, Shaima Alawadi was pregnant with Fatima.
Kamyar Hedayat, a medical doctor of Iranian heritage, spoke at the vigil. Hedayat said that, as he has practiced critical care for children, "I've watched children die, and I know how death affects families." When I mentioned Alawadi's arduous journey from Iraq, Hedayat said, "It is ironic that a woman who escaped the murderous regime of Saddam Hussein and the bombs of George Bush Sr. lost her life in San Diego seeking safety and civility."
Alawadi's murder is a study in irony and intrigue. The letters may have been a ruse. Levin points out the threatening notes sent with deadly anthrax spores in 2001 were intended to throw investigators off track.
But for Iraqi refugees in El Cajon, the notes have hurtled them back to wartime horrors they seem unable to escape. After the United States occupied Iraq, a favored tactic of extremist militias was to deliver a note to intended victims warning them to leave or be killed. Families would receive letters because a child or husband was collaborating with US forces, or perhaps they were of the wrong ethnicity or religion in the wrong part of town. Religious minorities were sometimes given the "option" of converting to Islam. Iraqi refugees in El Cajon confirm this was a common tactic. One man from Mosul in Northern Iraq said that many times, there would be no note. The only warning would be the killing or kidnapping of family members or the bombing of homes and businesses.
Coda says, "We have threatening notes in our office that people brought from Iraq." The notes say things like: "You are an infidel. You are a sinner. You deserve to die. If you don't leave by a certain time, you and children will die." Often they would be given a specific day or time to leave. Coda says: "The Iraqi refugees in El Cajon, every day, they live their fear. They live their trauma. The future is unknown for these refugees." She says her social service organization is trying to help them, "but one incident like Alawadi's murder takes them back to the trauma they experienced."
While I was standing in the driveway of Alawadi's house, Enas Alekabi showed me puddles of died wax. With tears in her eyes she pointed to one that had formed, "the perfect shape of an angel wing." It's just the shape wax makes when it flows downhill, I thought. But I knew what she was getting at. She wants to give Alawadi's life and death meaning.
Everyone wants the murder of Shaima Alawadi to validate their moral position. The Islamophobes see it as proof of the inherent evilness of Islam, which is amusing because Islam has nothing on the bloodthirsty God of the Old Testament. To be honest, I did squirm when I realized Alawadi was married around age 13, though I reminded myself this was hardly unusual in many parts of Europe and America a century ago. For many other Americans, Alawadi was the Muslim Trayvon Martin, killed for what she was wearing on her head.
Perhaps it was an act of random hatred; perhaps it was a family dispute. What is certain is that Shaima Alawadi came to the United States for the freedom to be who she was. But instead, she apparently died because of her identity, whether it was being Muslim or Iraqi or a woman. In that regard, she joins either the thousands of other Iraqis who were killed without ever having a chance to escape homegrown dictators and US bombs, or the thousands of American women who never had a chance to escape violent partners.
Michelle Fawcett contributed to this report.