Buffalo's Muslims Battle Stereotype After Murder When Muzzamil "Mo" Hassan killed his wife two years ago, journalists and others jumped to the conclusion that the death might be an honor killing. But it wasn't — and the Muslim community wanted to make sure others knew the truth.
NPR logo

Buffalo's Muslims Battle Stereotype After Murder

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/133882697/133941681" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Buffalo's Muslims Battle Stereotype After Murder


Buffalo's Muslims Battle Stereotype After Murder

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/133882697/133941681" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

A jury in Buffalo ended a high-profile murder case earlier this month with a guilty verdict. Muzzamil Hassan, who goes by Mo, made national headlines two years ago when he beheaded his wife. Both killer and victim were Muslim, and at the time, the media seized on the murder as an honor killing. That's a killing allowed in some Muslim societies when shame has been brought on a family.

But NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports from Buffalo, the Hassan case is really about domestic violence and it forced an entire community to reckon with stereotypes.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: A decade ago, you'd be hard pressed to find a more high-profile Muslim couple in western New York than Mo and Aasiya Hassan. They lived in Orchard Park, a wealthy suburb just outside of Buffalo. And everyone knew them because they owned the local 7-Eleven. Then in 2004, the Hassans started Bridges TV.

(Soundbite of TV station ID)

Unidentified Man: One America, many faces. Call it a melting pot, a mosaic or a tapestry...

TEMPLE-RASTON: That gives you an idea about Bridges TV programming. The Hassans called it a Muslim lifestyle network. It was meant to help Muslims and non-Muslims understand each other and develop an appreciation for their different cultures.

So when Mo Hassan, the man who was supposed to be Buffalo's friendly face of Islam, murdered his wife, it stunned a community.

Dr. KHALID QAZI: It's not only that he killed his wife, the way he killed her is despicable.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's one of the leaders of the Muslim community in Buffalo, Dr. Khalid Qazi. He looks like Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird."

Dr. QAZI: Nobody in the community can get their arms around that notion that he would not only kill her, he would stab her 40, 50 and perhaps 60 times and then decapitate her. There's absolutely no stomach for that.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Because she was Muslim, because of the way she was killed, and because Aasiya Hassan had filed for divorce just days before the murder, the media assumed that the killing was sanctioned by Islam.

(Soundbite of news clip)

Unidentified Woman: A brutal crime in Buffalo, New York. A Pakistani-born man is accused of beheading his wife, and there's speculation it may be a so-called honor killing.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Glenn Beck Program ")

Mr. GLENN BECK (Host, "The Glenn Beck Program"): All right. This guy started a Muslim-American cable TV network to challenge stereotypes about his faith. You know, apparently, we're just too stupid. We just all think that all Muslims are bad.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That was Glenn Beck talking about the case.

In fact, the Muslim community was being stereotyped. Dr. Qazi said news of the murder was everywhere.

Dr. QAZI: So there is this constant reminder of this monster who we all tried to project and help to establish a lifestyle television channel to show who we are and what we stand for and then we get this.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Buffalo's Muslim community had already had its share of these kinds of stories. There were suspicions after the 911 attacks. And then, to make matters worse, a year after 911, six young Muslims from the Lackawanna community, just outside of Buffalo, were arrested and pleaded guilty to training at an al-Qaeda camp. Against that backdrop, stereotyping was easy. This had to be an honor killing, except it wasn't.

Professor REMLA PARTHASARATHY (Social Justice Clinic, University at Buffalo Law School): This is not an honor killing from my understanding.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Remla Parthasarathy is an instructor at the Social Justice Clinic at the University of Buffalo Law School.

Prof. PARTHASARATHY: Honor killings are something that is sanctioned and approved by extended family. That wasn't the case here. Religious leaders in the Muslim community came out and denounced it. And they said it wasn't an honor killing, and I respect that.

TEMPLE-RASTON: In fact, when Aasiya's horrified family returned from Pakistan for her burial two years ago, it became very clear that this was a domestic violence case. Mo and Aasiya Hassan were not particularly religious. In fact, no one could recall ever seeing Mo Hassan at the mosque. As time went on, community leaders were presented with a stark choice: either allow others to stereotype the community or move aggressively to redefine the killing.

They came up with a novel approach: embark on a domestic violence education campaign. That allowed them to battle the honor killing stereotype, and it also provided new protection for battered women in the community.

Domestic abuse had been an issue in the community all along. But according to Kathy Jamil, she's the principal of a local Islamic school, no one wanted to admit it.

Ms. KATHY JAMIL (Principal, Universal School): When this happened, everyone wanted to respond because it became very real for them, even though domestic violence happens. And I think a lot of that was really because now, Islam was under attack.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Islam was under attack, she said. And that's what finally focused minds on the issue.

Suzanne Tomkins is a professor at University at Buffalo.

Professor SUZANNE TOMKINS (University at Buffalo Law School): The local Muslim community has really engaged in hosting a number of events: trainings for imams, trainings for the community, bringing in national and other speakers to talk about this issue. And I think we're starting to see a great deal more collaboration.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Two years after the murder, imams are still holding local meetings, asking for advice on how to spot domestic abuse and how best to report it. It's a 180-degree turn.

Tomkins says it's part of Aasiya Hassan's legacy.

Prof. TOMPKINS: I don't see that ending. I see this as sort of a beginning.

TEMPLE-RASTON: I heard that Aasiya's grave was marked by just a note and a stick. By tradition, many Muslims prefer to have their graves marked that way. So I went out to Lakeside Cemetery to see if I could find where she was buried.

Kathy Jamil, she's the school principal, said she wanted to come along. So we went crunching through deep snow in the Muslim section of the cemetery.

(Soundbite of crunching snow)

TEMPLE-RASTON: So there are little tips of tombstones that we can just see here peeking out of the snow.

Ms. JAMIL: Yeah.

TEMPLE-RASTON: A man who worked at the cemetery got a shovel and a map and helped us find the gravesite.

TEMPLE-RASTON: So no marker, no stick, no nothing.

(Soundbite of a shovel)

TEMPLE-RASTON: So apparently, the victim of the most infamous murder in Buffalo in recent memory rests in an unmarked grave. A family spokesman said now, some two years after the murder, the family plans to give her a headstone. They expect to do so in the spring after the thaw.

By then, Mo Hassan, the founder of Bridges TV, will likely have been sentenced for the murder of his wife.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.