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New Mexico's Muslims were relieved when a murder suspect was arrested. Then disbelief

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

For days, before police arrested a suspect in the killings of four Muslim men in Albuquerque, the city's Muslim community lived in fear. Ahmad Assed is the president of the Islamic Center of New Mexico, the mosque where Assed says the victims and the man now charged in two of the killings all attended prayer. Assed spoke with me before the arrest about the victims - Mohammad Ahmadi, Naeem Hussain, Muhammad Afzaal Hussain and Aftab Hussein.

AHMAD ASSED: These were, you know, very respected young men in the community - middle-aged men. Mr. Ahmadi has got a long-standing family here in Albuquerque and owners of a bakery - a Mediterranean bakery that serves the needs of the Afghani/Pakistani communities - and he was killed right behind the store back in November. The other three are basically young men that have diverse backgrounds in terms of their professions. Naeem was a truck driver and had no family living here. I mean, these are all really, you know, wonderful young men that enjoyed a very good reputation within their inner circles.

FADEL: Before the arrest of 51-year-old Muhammad Syed, Assed said many in the Muslim community of only a few thousand sheltered in their homes, afraid they might be targeted.

ASSED: We know that businesses have closed, and people have decided to close businesses or have decided to temporarily move out of the state. There are actual people that had moved out of the state while this investigation was pending. People have been very reluctant to attend prayer services. There's a sense of just great fear.

ASSED: Leena Aggad hid inside her house for four days before the suspect was arrested. I reached the 23-year-old vice president of the Muslim Student Association at the University of New Mexico just hours after the arrest, as she mourned with her community at a vigil at the Islamic Center.

LEENA AGGAD: So today, right now, I'm sitting at the mosque in Albuquerque, and this is the first time I have left my home since we started hearing about this. And me, personally - I wear a hijab, so I wear a scarf. And so at the time, before the suspect and more information came out, all what we knew was that Muslim men were being attacked, right? And so how did he get this information? No one knew. Was he following these people? So for me, walking outside with a scarf - I am a walking symbol of Islam. It's very obvious that I'm a Muslim. I was very scared to leave my house.

FADEL: And then the information came out that it does appear that it was motivated by hate, but it appears that the man was Muslim and killing Shia Muslims because he was angry - or at least reportedly angry - that his daughter was marrying a Shia Muslim. What was that like to hear?

AGGAD: You would expect that learning that a suspect is found and has been detained - it would feel like a breath of relief.

FADEL: Yeah.

AGGAD: But it kind of felt like another chain was placed on my heart because these people died for nothing. For tables to turn and for it to be hate in our own community, I felt so disappointed to hear that news.

FADEL: At the vigil right now, what are you all telling each other? How are you finding solace with your community today?

AGGAD: The one thing that I realized is that, regardless of who the perpetrator is, regardless of their motives - whatever it may be - an attack on one of us in this community is an attack on all of us. The fact that people are embracing each other and reminding each other that they are loved and they are welcome in the community - we are a community. We are not communities. We are a community. We are a singular group. We come together as one.

FADEL: Yeah.

AGGAD: That made me feel really welcome. I was born and raised here, but I feel like this is one of the first times where I've actually felt completely, 100% accepted in this community.

FADEL: In the city of Albuquerque and the larger community, you mean?

AGGAD: Yeah. So in a really weird way, there's almost this silver lining of comfort and peace that has come out of this. And I see this every time someone tries to destroy a community or someone tries to destroy something. It almost ends up backfiring on them because it shows that, no matter how hateful someone is, peace and love always overpowers that.

FADEL: You said you knew Muhammad - one of the men that was killed - because of your activities at university. If you could tell me a little bit about him and about losing him in the way that you and others who knew him and loved him did.

AGGAD: Muhammad was one of the most inspirational students at UNM - very, very smart individual. Whatever he planned and helped execute, it was always successful.

FADEL: Such a senseless loss.

AGGAD: Exactly. And so I've been talking to a lot of people, and one of the main things I keep reiterating is let's not let these acts of hate take away from the greatness of his life. What he started and the impact that he had on other people - we want to continue that. There's been thoughts about creating a scholarship in his name because he was very much about education.

FADEL: Yeah.

AGGAD: He was very much about bettering themselves.

FADEL: One of the victims - it was reported that, actually, he had fled sectarian violence. It's one of the reasons he came to the United States. And then to hear about what is sectarian hate in Albuquerque, N.M., in a community that is so diverse - right? - and this is a mosque where Shia Muslims and Sunni Muslims pray together. I just wonder what you're thinking.

AGGAD: It's atrocious, in my opinion. But at the end of the day, we can't let that be the underlying principle here. The underlying principle is that people are going to do bad things regardless of whatever motive. Of course, they're going to come up with something, but whoever wants to do something bad is going to do something bad, unfortunately. And we can't protect against that. No matter what we do, there will always be bad people out there.

FADEL: Does anybody know, in the community, the suspect? And, you know, how are they dealing with that?

AGGAD: He's very well known in the community. I mean, he comes to the same mosque that the victims went to, you know? It's crazy to just think that, for months, this guy was praying next to other members of the community as if everything was normal.

FADEL: Wow.

AGGAD: It shocks you - you know? - that someone that you could see every day - someone that you see in prayer, that you just assume is a fellow Muslim, could have such a gross mindset.

FADEL: That was Leena Aggad, vice president of the Muslim Student Association at the University of New Mexico.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.