The Hateful Killing of Shaima Alawadi

Whether or not she was killed by a racist, Alawadi's murder is a hate crime.

A memorial for Shaima Alawadi at her home in El Cajon, California. (Photo: Mike Blake Reuters)
Matt Fleischer is a TakePart contributor who was awarded a Fund for Investigative Journalism grant for his series “Dangerous Jails.”

On March 21, 2012, Shaima Alawadi, a 32-year-old Iraqi immigrant living in El Cajon, California, was found lying in a pool of her own blood in her living room, her head caved in by a tire-iron-like instrument. Next to her battered head was a note: “Go back to your country, you terrorist.”

The murder seemed an obvious hate crime, which might have sparked national outrage were it not overshadowed by the Trayvon Martin case. Alawadi’s killer remains unknown, as does his/her motivation. But recent evidence suggests Alawadi’s case is more complicated than originally thought. Month’s before Alawadi’s murder, her 17-year-old daughter, Fatima, jumped out of a moving vehicle after she was discovered in a car with a 21-year-old man. Paramedics responding to the scene say Fatima told them she jumped to avoid an arranged marriage to her cousin. The issue appears to have fractured Alawadi’s marriage. Police discovered unfiled divorce papers in her car after her murder.

...hate crimes are not just perpetrated against individuals. They are terrorist acts aimed at traumatizing a larger community.

These findings led to speculation that Alawadi’s murder may have been a so-called “honor killing,” which subsequently led to widespread dismissal in the media because her murder might not be a hate crime. Regardless of the twists and turns of Alawadi's case, her story couldn’t demonstrate more clearly why hate-crime laws are essential.

El Cajon, just outside of San Diego, has the second largest population of Iraqi immigrants in America. Despite the popular idea of sunny, carefree living, Southern California has the largest concentration of extremist hate groups in the United States, says Tina Malka, Associate Director of the Anti-Defamation League of San Diego. And El Cajon’s Iraqi community has seen its share of hate.

“Hate crimes are message crimes,” says Malka. “The impact of the initial crime can have greater consequences than the individual. The community is left victimized as well. They want answers, and they want to know that they are protected. And that’s why hate crime laws exist—to protect everyone.”

“There is a hate crime problem in El Cajon,” Basma Coda, an Iraqi-American who works at Chaldean-Middle Eastern Social Services in El Cajon, told Salon. “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.”

But even if Alawadi’s murder wasn’t the product of ethnic hatred, that doesn’t mean it’s not a hate crime.

“In the United States, Federal law prohibits individuals from committing crimes based on gender,” says Jack Levin, a hate crime expert at Northeastern University. “Honor killing could be conceived as a crime against women and therefore a gender-based hate crime.”

Or a religious-based hate crime.

“Anti-reproductive crimes perpetrated because of religious bias have a special status in California,” says UC Davis Professor of Sociology Ryken Grattet. “To my knowledge, there have been no crimes prosecuted in the state under this statute. But if you’ve got a creative prosecutor who can make a good case, any criminal action perpetrated by a religious motivation meets the spirit of religious-based hate crime statues.”

Like an honor killing.

The exact details of what happened to Shaima Alawadi remain unclear. What is clear is that hate crimes are not just perpetrated against individuals. They are terrorist acts aimed at traumatizing a larger community. Hate crime laws offer invaluable psychological and legal protections to these communities. Regardless of who killed Alawadi, the Iraqi community of El Cajon needs to know they will be protected from violent bigots. And the women of El Cajon need to know they will be protected from the illegal customs of the old world. Hate crime laws have the ability to provide that protection and psychological comfort. There shouldn’t be any argument about that.

Let the world know how you feel about hate crime laws in comments.

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