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A Sunni Muslim is held in connection with the killings of Shia men in New Mexico


A conversation Muslims typically have privately in the U.S. is bursting into the public view because of the killings of Muslim men in New Mexico. There are concerns within Muslim communities that those men may have been murdered because of sectarian hate towards Shia Muslims. Sunni and Shia leaders have united to denounce the killings. And Khalid Latif, a professor at New York University and the leader of NYU's Islamic Center, has urged other Sunni Muslims to root out discrimination. On Twitter, he cautioned against the marginalization of Shias by the majority Muslim sect. It's why Imam Khalid Latif asked Shia scholar Sheikh Faiyaz Jaffer to join the center years ago because Shia students needed to feel welcomed and reflected in NYU's Muslim community.

FAIYAZ JAFFER: Most young Shia muslims in this country have experienced rhetoric, language, even a casual microaggression targeting or mocking their religious beliefs, unfortunately.

FADEL: Yeah.

JAFFER: And so it doesn't come much of a surprise that that has the potential to reverberate into the tragedy that we just saw. It was much more of anger and stress that this takes place here in this country.

FADEL: Yeah, and that's why I was intrigued, Imam Latif, when I saw your tweet thread. What made you feel compelled to put out these series of messages and ask people to reflect?

KHALID LATIF: There is an absence of recognition within the Sunni Muslim community on what is both the experiences of Shias day to day on a global level, as well as in the United States.

FADEL: Yeah.

LATIF: You know, even in my own social media posting, there were individuals who were empathetic, individuals who agreed about a need to be able to show support and solidarity. But there were so many who also jumped to offer very qualified condolences. You know, we stand in condolence with those who lost their lives, but we also have to remember that Shia Muslims, theologically, legalistically, are so different from Sunni Muslims. It's like this is not the time or place to have an academic discussion. People literally lost their lives. Family members are in a state of grief and pain. You have a huge demographic that makes up 10% of a global Muslim community that, with each of these attacks, has triggered to realities that they face every single day.

FADEL: Let's talk about the NYU Islamic Center specifically and what you've created. And, Imam Khalid, I'd love to start with you. Is there a specific moment where you realized, OK, we need to bring on a Shia sheikh into the Islamic Center?

LATIF: My understanding of leadership within my religious tradition is it's more of a servant-based model of leadership. We're here to meet the needs of those that we serve and not kind of have that be the opposite where the leader is served. And we have a huge Shia demographic. There's two lawyers in our community - a social worker and a lawyer, rather - sorry - that had called me down to the lobby of our facility because they had a client with them who is an asylum-seeker from Pakistan who identified as Shia. And he was just scared. He wouldn't go through the turnstiles to come into the building. And I spoke to him in Urdu, and he still was hesitant. And essentially, he was an asylum-seeker because of his Shia identity. He had seen so many members of his family get killed because they were Shia. He had to go into various mosques pretending to be Sunni out of fear for his life. Not just so he could find community or socialize or just a place to belong, but his concern was literally he could be killed if the people knew that he was Shia.

Now he's standing in the middle of Manhattan as an asylum-seeker, let alone everything else that he has to deal with in terms of an absence of social services and governmental support and how he's going to survive here in America. But he's petrified to come into the building. And so I called Sheikh Faiyaz down. I said, you know, can you speak to this young man and let him know that he doesn't have to be afraid here but not in a way that was dismissive of his fear? And there's no way that I could do for this man what Sheikh Faiyaz did for him. And that's something that's very important to understand.

FADEL: Sheikh Faiyaz Jaffer, are you the first Shia chaplain in the U.S.?

JAFFER: In an institution of higher education, yes. I started in August 2016, so about five or six years ago now.

FADEL: So that's very recent.

JAFFER: It is very recent, yeah.

FADEL: I want to pose the same question to you that I just posed to Imam Khalid Latif. What made you realize that this work needed to be done?

JAFFER: Because I experienced it as an undergrad. I wasn't able to pray in the Muslim prayer room in my college campus because students would mock me. And they told me that, you know, we don't want you around here. So for the first 2 1/2 years of my undergrad experience, I would go pray in a stairwell case in the library...

FADEL: Oh, my God.

JAFFER: ...Until I was able to muster up the courage and just feel confident in who I was and in my religious identity to go and pray in spite of what anyone would say to me. And so, you know, it was incredibly evident to me the need and the importance of it. And at the end of the day, we want to make sure that generation after generation and my children don't have to experience this.

FADEL: I don't know why it got me emotional thinking of you praying in a stairwell.

JAFFER: It's been decades' worth of poor language and, you know, rhetorical stances by many of those in privilege, even if they're sarcastic remarks...

FADEL: Right.

JAFFER: ...Over the last several years, microaggressions, so on and so forth, that have created what took place in Albuquerque, N.M. I personally do not know of one Shia Muslim who has never experienced isolation or marginalization for their belief - be it physical, be it verbal or even be it a sarcastic remark. I have never experienced that once. So what does that demonstrate to me? It demonstrates to me that, you know, undoubtedly that has the potential then to create and reverberate into something much larger and much more tragic. This all stems, again, from those small remarks, those small statements, that lack of care, that creating or erasure of a religious identity.

FADEL: Sheikh Faiyaz Jaffer, Imam Khalid Latif, thank you so much for your time.

LATIF: Thank you.

JAFFER: Thank you so much for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.