Prelude to Murder
In the 1990s, a rising 30-something Pakistani-American sat in the living room of a ranch house in the suburbs of Rochester, New York, where one of the aunties of the American-Muslim community lived, and he bellowed in rage about his 20-something Pakistani wife, Sadia: “She doesn’t look good. She doesn’t work. She is a good for nothing.”
The auntie, Azra Gillani, now 63, studied the man. She, like others in the Rochester Muslim community, had watched the husband’s first marriage to a white American convert, Janice, disintegrate amid allegations of abuse. She turned to the young bride, who sat beside her, stoic and dignified, and asked for her side of the story. “He abuses me,” the wife said, telling of how her husband locked her in a room in their home, pulled the plug on their telephone so she couldn’t use it, lashed out at her in verbal tirades, refused her spending money, shoved her out of his car, stranding her on the highway, and, once, threw a glass at her, but missed. The bride’s family sought out explanations for his turnaround from a cheerful groom to an abusive husband, and his mother told them that, alas, he wasn’t taking psychiatric medicines prescribed for mood swings, said members of the community involved in the conversations. Within the year, the wife left the marriage, according to family members.
The family of Hassan’s second wife sacrificed two goats in thanks that their daughter had escaped her marriage alive.
A third marriage and just over a decade later, that man, Muzzammil Hassan, 44 years old, stands accused of the shocking murder of his next wife, Aasiya Zubair Hassan—a woman who was buried, according to people who saw her in repose, with gashes on her face and body and her head delicately poised over her body, because of the brutal way in which she was murdered and then decapitated in the town of Orchard Park, just west of Rochester.
Last week, Orchard Park police said Hassan arrived at the station and told them that they could find the body of his wife, 37, at the offices of the Bridges Muslim TV network that he had founded. Hassan has been charged with second-degree murder, and is in jail. No bail has been set. On Wednesday, after his first official proceeding since he was arrested, his attorney, James Harrington, waived the presentation of evidence, setting the stage for a grand-jury proceeding soon. The attorney told reporters there, "If and when he's indicted, he'll plead not guilty,” adding, “It’s too early to know what approach we’ll take, but we’re exploring everything.”
In death, as details emerge of the troubled life she led with her husband, Aasiya Hassan has become a symbol for critics of Islamic law, or sharia, and spurring denunciation of so-called honor-killings. On February 6, six days before her murder, Aasiya Hassan had filed for divorce. Court filings by Aasiya’s estate since then allege a long history of domestic violence in the marriage, a history that many in the community say they were aware of but did nothing to help stop.
And in the Pakistani-American community, Muzzammil Hassan—who built a media empire in the American-Muslim community, crisscrossing the globe, courting investors and cable companies, while being celebrated by organizations like the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington, D.C.,-based civil-rights advocacy group—has gone from from “hero to zero.”
“Our community failed,” says Afshan Qureshi, the president of Saathi, an advocacy group in Rochester for domestic-violence victims and a leader in the local Muslim community, who helped Hassan’s second wife. “We punished the victims. People said the first marriage failed because the girl was American, the second marriage failed because the girl wasn’t patient enough and then, look, the third wife is happy. Everything is OK. The community is an accomplice in the story of Muzzammil Hassan.”
This story is made more complex by the secrecy with which traditional communities, such as the Muslim one, often deal with serious societal issues such as domestic violence, mental illness, and women’s rights. In the days since the murder, some in the closely guarded local Muslim community are quietly talking about Hassan’s long battle with mental illness—at one time, they say, diagnosed as bipolar disorder, according to people who have spoken to Hassan’s family about his medical treatment. They don’t want to talk openly for fear Hassan will use the illness as a legal defense, but people familiar with his second and third marriage said that his mother would lament that he would act erratically and violently when he wasn’t taking his psychiatric medicines. Hassan’s family didn’t return calls seeking comment.
Like many immigrants, Hassan lived with a dissonance. According to people in the community, Hassan referred to himself by different names, including "Steve Hassan," "Mo Hassan" and "Mo Steven Hassan." Born on Nov. 6, 1964, according to US records, Hassan was part of a wave of immigrants that came to America from South Asia, settling in college towns.
Hassan arrived in 1979, taking root in Rochester, graduating with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Rochester in 1985. During his undergraduate years, Hassan took a pause from his studies to call an “uncle” in the emerging American-Muslim community, Salahuddin Malik. He was a State University of New York history professor and is now chairman of the council of trustees at the Islamic Center of Rochester. The professor said Hassan told him that the two of them should lobby their local US congressman on issues related to Islam and Pakistan. “We need to meet him,” Hassan said, and soon enough they did.
Hassan was becoming a fixture on the local Muslim scene. The community saw him bring his first wife, Janice, to the mosque and then their son and daughter to Sunday school. His wife used the Muslim name “Amina.” They seemed to be a happy couple, say community members, but then word of domestic violence started circulating; mediation at the mosque failed and the couple divorced. Qureshi, the domestic-violence advocate, says she remembers Hassan picking up his children from mosque Sunday school, re-establishing his relationships with the “uncles” in the community post-divorce. “He made a big show of things,” she says. (On her answering machine at home, Hassan’s first wife left a “no comment” message for media inquiries.)
In 1996, Hassan graduated from the Simon Graduate School of Business at the University of Rochester with an MBA. He married his second wife in Pakistan in a marriage arranged by a relative of the bride in Rochester. A person familiar with the marriage said the relatives were impressed with his calm persona and good manners at the mosque, spotting him during prayers and Sunday school with his children. The marriage soon deteriorated with Hassan often times angry and paranoid, say family members of the second wife The mosque imam mediated to no avail, says the domestic-violence advocate Qureshi, who made arrangements for the wife to get legal immigration status in the US even as a divorcee and she left the marriage.
Soon after, word spread in the community that Hassan had remarried, this time to a bright young architect from Karachi, Aasiya Zubair. They settled in Orchard Park, on the outskirts of Buffalo, not far from the Rochester community that knew Hassan’s troubled history well. It’s a mostly middle-class, predominately white community of about 30,000 residents.
The daughter of an engineer, Aasiya Hassan was personable, says Hassan Shibly, a University of Buffalo law-school student and local Muslim-American who started working for the couple as a high-school teen. “Aasiya was a very sweet lady,” says Shibly. Operating a 7-Eleven franchise, Aasiya Hassan brought Slurpees, Pringles and lollipops to employees working in the basement of the Hassan home on a business the couple began post-9/11: creating a new Muslim-American TV channel called Bridges Network Inc. Aasiya Hassan juggled her roles as an entrepreneur and a mother to the couple’s two children, Danyal, now six, and Rania, now four. (The estate of Aasiya Hassan won an order this past Friday by a Buffalo judge to temporarily freeze $2.5 million worth of assets and property held by Hassan and his TV business.)
All the while, according to court documents filed by an attorney for her estate claim, she was living in a domestic hell: “the subject of numerous complaints to various police agencies for violence” toward Aasiya Hassan and [his] children from a prior marriage.
Many in the community now lament not intervening in the problems that Orchard Park police reports chronicle as dating back six years. Shibly, the law student, says he landed at the Bridges TV channel through an “uncle” in the Buffalo Muslim community, Faizan Haq, a University of Buffalo professor, an early investor in Bridges TV, and a friend of Malik, the Rochester professor who Hassan had taken to a meeting with a congressman. In Rochester, Malik said he believed in Hassan’s vision and didn’t think history of domestic violence should preclude him from making it happen. On top of that, Malik says, “You don’t want to get involved in personal matters.”
While preserving privacy, Malik’s wife, Sarwat Malik, a physician who also knew about Muzzammil Hassan’s history of domestic violence, says that this dynamic comes with a high socio-psychological cost: “Everyone is suffering in silos. This should change. Women are battered in all cultures, and the common factor is the social sanction of violence against women. As a community, we must bear a collective responsibility of keeping everyone safe. It cannot be done by a few organizations. It must be done by all, working together. We need to make it a whole community affair. Everyone must speak out that violence will not be tolerated.”
On Nov. 30, 2004, just after Muzzammil Hassan’s 40th birthday, Bridges TV aired for the first time. Hassan told reporters at the time that the company received financing from more than 50 private investors and Ropart Asset Management, a private-equity fund. In addition, he told the media, more than 10,000 American Muslims provided $10 a month in the year before to show a demand for the station. At the grand opening: many of the uncles who supported the Bridges TV vision, including Haq and Malik.
While many there knew of the domestic-violence problems, the say they felt hamstrung about getting involved, thinking, too, that Hassan’s new wife was happy in her marriage. This past weekend, Haq, the Buffalo Muslim leader, told the Buffalo News, “I think of Aasiya as a martyr,” later adding, “If only Aasiya would have made some noise.”
In the days after the murder, Shahed Amanullah, the editor of a popular Muslim e-zine, altmuslim.com, and other young American Muslims, inclusding Wajahat Ali, a playwright and lawyer from Fremont, California, and Zeba Iqbal, a manager at Ernst &Young in New York, started a Facebook campaign to galvanize imams to devote their Friday sermons to combating domestic violence in the community. Ali says: “This marks a turning point where ordinary Muslims are acting.” Zerqa Abid, a first cousin of Hassan’s second wife, penned an essay on her blog, asking “Did we ever bother to know Muzzammil?” And Mohamed Hagmagid Ali, a vice president of the national organization, ISNA, and a mosque leader in Sterling, Virginia, wrote a widely circulated treatise against the complicity of community members in domestic violence: “A man’s position in the community should not affect the imam’s decision to help a woman in need. Many disasters that take place in our community could have been prevented if those being abused were heard.”
Back in Buffalo, the Muslim community had a meeting on domestic violence Saturday, just days after they had buried Aasiya Hassan. Most of the uncles and aunties of the community were there, as was Qureshi, the Muslim domestic-violence advocate from Rochester who had helped Hassan’s second wife. Over the weekend, she reflected, “Aasiya was a brave woman who stood up against violence. She didn’t need to be alone.”
Meanwhile from Pakistan, Qureshi heard a story, confirmed by family members: The family of Hassan's second wife had sacrificed two goats in thanks that their daughter had escaped her marriage alive.
Asra Q. Nomani is the author of Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam. She can be reached at [email protected].