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N.M. community is stunned after Muslim man is suspected of killing Muslim men

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

In New Mexico, a man is under arrest in connection with the shootings of four Muslim men.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Muhammad Syed has been charged with killing two of them and is being investigated in connection with the other two. The alleged killer and the victims were all part of the community of the Islamic Center of New Mexico in Albuquerque, which held an interfaith prayer event last night.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Protect all of us. Make all of us united. Make all of us loving one another. Ameen.

FADEL: Alice Fordham of member station KUNM was there and joins us now. Good morning, Alice.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So Alice, this is a tough one, the victims and the suspected killer likely praying alongside each other at the same mosque. I know you've been speaking to people at the Islamic Center of New Mexico and in the larger community. What are they saying?

FORDHAM: They're really stunned, Leila. So for the last few days, we've been hearing from people in the Muslim community in New Mexico who've been really scared that this series of attacks - three in the last two weeks or so; one back in November - were a targeted Islamophobic campaign, hate crimes by someone who hates Muslims. So then to learn that someone was arrested who was from within their community, who actually attended this masjid, this holy place at the Islamic center of New Mexico, it was astonishing.

FADEL: Yeah.

FORDHAM: The man arrested, Muhammad Syed, he was originally from Afghanistan. And the head of the Afghan Society of New Mexico, Salim Ansari, spoke at the event. He said he was so sad and shocked that this man was a member of the society, that he'd known him personally. He said twice he couldn't believe it. And he thanked people for being there to share this grief with him.

FADEL: Have police said anything about the motive?

FORDHAM: Definitely nothing concrete at this point. Police are testing firearms they found to try to establish a connection to the two other killings. The police department said yesterday it wasn't yet appropriate to call these killings either hate crimes or serial murders. They did say that an interpersonal conflict may have been a factor. Now, there have been rumors that there may have been a sectarian dimension to the killings.

FADEL: Right.

FORDHAM: And this is very much unconfirmed. But I will say that the president of the Islamic Center, Ahmad Assed, told me yesterday there had been a rumor in the community that the suspect, who's from the Sunni branch of Islam, was upset that his daughter had married someone from the Shia branch. And Assed said that the police were aware of this rumor. But he doesn't know if it was a factor in the arrest at all. And just for context, the Islamic center serves a smallish community of a few thousand Muslims. Many kinds of Islam mix there. And Mr. Assed told me that three of the men killed were from the Shia branch of Islam. One was Sunni.

And one more thing, Mr. Assed also said there had been an incident about two years ago, when the suspect was excluded from the center for a period of time after he was accused of slashing the tires of a car belonging to a family of another one of the victims, Mohammad Ahmadi, at the Islamic Center.

FADEL: And what have you heard from the community about where they go from here?

FORDHAM: So among the people I spoke with yesterday, they did speak about a fear. Other people from Muslim communities have expressed to me before that when one among them commits a crime, the whole community or even the whole faith might be seen as violent or extreme. I spoke with Samia Assed, who was leading the event.

SAMIA ASSED: It took me back to September 11. I mean, this is a time where I just wanted to hide under a rock. And I had the same feeling when I heard the perpetrator was of the Muslim faith. And it's just so unexpected, so unexpected.

FORDHAM: And so coming out of that, a number of people expressed this really strong desire to heal, to unify, to know each other better. Samia Assed said, even if this suspect is convicted, this turns out to come from within this community, she's determined to keep this Islamic center as a sanctuary for believers.

FADEL: KUNM's Alice Fordham in Albuquerque, N.M. Thank you for your reporting.

FORDHAM: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAX RICHTER'S "SHE REMEMBERS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.