Sectarianism Raises Its Ugly Head After Blackburn Tragedy20 May 2020
Last Sunday, the Muslim community in Blackburn was struck with tragedy when the 19-year-old Aya Ismail Hachem was shot to death as she was doing her Ramadan shopping at a nearby supermarket. In the aftermath of Aya’s tragic death, in which she was determined to be an innocent bystander caught in a crossfire, rather than the intended target, Muslims in the UK and around the world came together to express condolences and support for the family. Among the many acts of charity and support initiated from within the Muslim community was an online fundraiser created for Aya’s family.
Had it ended there, Aya’s death would have been remembered as a senseless tragedy, as well as an example of how the community came together to support a bereaved family at a difficult time in a way that befits the spirit of the holy month of Ramadan. Unfortunately, the mood among some of the supporters soured when they found out that Aya and her family were of Shia Muslim background. What followed were attempts by some of the donors to withdraw their donations and sectarian comments aimed at Aya and her family on social media that have since trended on UK’s Twitter, bringing the ugly spat to the full view of the wider British pubic.
The debacle has since been criticised by numerous prominent British Muslim voices, including Sunni imams who criticised their fellows for their lack of compassion towards Aya and her family and for continuing to spread sectarianism at the back of a horrible tragedy. Responding to the controversy, two of the most prominent fundraisers who had tried to retract their donations have apologised, and expressed regret for the pain caused by their actions.
The public was galvanised by Aya’s death
From the start, Aya’s death has sent shockwaves through the UK’s Muslim community. In the immediate aftermath of her death, there were rumours that she was deliberately targeted in an Islamophobic attack. Some of these rumours continued even after Lancashire Police ruled that she was not the intended target and was merely caught in the crossfire of what appears to have been a gang-related drive-by shooting, arresting at least three suspects in connection.
However, most people turned their attention to comforting Aya’s family who were grieving at the loss of their “truly remarkable” daughter. Among the many acts of support were GoFundMe pages set by people who hoped to help the family with the costs of the funeral and even building a masjid (mosque) in her name. Many of these pages were set without the family’s consent or knowledge.
Shortly afterwards, one of the more prominent fundraisers, @humbleakh1, had a change of heart when he found out that Aya and her family were of Shia Muslim background. In tweets that were since deleted, the organiser said that he hadn’t known Aya was Shia and asked his followers to help him resolve the issue and retract the donations. Another fundraiser, Hannan Qazi, who organised a fundraiser for the building of a masjid in Aya’s name, was found to have “liked” a tweet where it was suggested that he should avoid giving funds directly to Aya’s family in case they build a Shia mosque, using a slur against Shia Muslims in the process.
In the hours that followed, numerous other users chimed in, not only looking to get their donations back but also inciting sectarian hatred against Aya, her family and the wider Shia Muslim community. The escalating arguments and exchanges over the fundraisers ended up trending on UK-twitter with hashtags such as #Shia #Sunni and #AyaHachem becoming visible to the wider British public as a result.
The escalation and publicising of the debacle not only served to disrespect Aya’s memory but also gave ammunition to prominent Islamophobes such as Katie Hopkins. In a tweet, Hopkins mocked Muslims for trying to get their funeral donations refunded because Aya was of a different sect, sarcastically wishing a “Happy Ramadan” and using the phrase “religion of peace” to tar all Muslims with the same brush. A number of other non-Muslim commenters expressed puzzlement at the apparent “Islamophobia” between Muslims.
Prominent British Muslims have come out in condemnation of sectarianism
Since the controversy around the fundraisers became public, a number of prominent British Muslims, including Sunnis, have come out in condemnation of the sectarianism, discrimination and hatred aimed at Aya, her family and Shia Muslims in general.
Among these voices was Dr Bilal Hassam. In a series of tweets, the prominent Sunni author has expressed disgust at the anti-Shiaism expressed by his fellows. Dr Hassam warned that those who think Sunni Islam stops one from expressing solidarity and support to Shia sisters and brothers have understood neither Sunnah, nor Islam.
Similarly, Qari Asim MBE, the Imam of Leeds Mosque and the chair of the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board has described the attempts by people to withdraw their donations as “despicable”. Asim said that Aya’s death as an innocent victim of a shooting is a pain that should be felt by all Muslims, especially in Ramadan. On many social media pages, Muslims, including Sunnis, have condemned expressed agreement with such sentiments.
For many twitter members, the sectarianism that was so openly expressed by their fellows and how Aya went from “innocent Muslim girl” to someone who deserved to be killed, was an especially distressing example of hypocrisy and discrimination. Many of these members criticised their fellows for their failure to look beyond differences in sects and recognise our common humanity, especially during the holy month of Ramadan and at a time the whole world is experiencing a global crisis.
These calls appear to have led to some soul-searching among the fundraisers embroiled in the controversy. Both @humbleakh1 and Hannan Qazi expressed regret for their part in the controversy. Apologising for what they have said and acknowledging wrongdoing, both fundraisers have emphasized that Aya was a Muslim above all.
@humbleakh1, in particular, has acknowledged that Aya’s family wants nothing to do with the money that was collected by him but said that he has confirmed they agreed that funds can be donated to a charity to help others.