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Nabra Hassanen's murder may not be a hate crime. It's still a tragedy for Muslim Americans.

The killing of a 17-year-old Muslim girl may not officially be a “hate crime,” but it sure functions like one.

Nabra Hassanen
Nabra Hassanen
Credit Hassanen family/AP

This Ramadan month has been a particularly bitter one for Muslims. Among multiple reports of violence against Muslim people across the country and around the world, a murder of a teenage girl in Virginia has added more heartache to what’s supposed to be a month of worship and celebration.

In the early hours of Sunday morning, 17-year-old Virginia student Nabra Hassanen of Reston, Virginia — along with a few friends from her local mosque — was leaving a 24-hour diner (reported variously as a McDonald’s or a nearby IHOP) in the Sterling area. Like many Muslims, Hassanen was fasting for Ramadan, and eating with community members only in the hours between sunset and sunrise.

While walking back from breakfast to her mosque, the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS) of Sterling, Hassanen and her friends became involved in an altercation with a motorist, later identified as 22-year-old Darwin Martinez Torres, also of Sterling, who threatened and chased them with a metal baseball bat, striking Hassanen. The teenagers became frightened and ran back to ADAMS, then realized that Hassanen hadn’t made it back.

Police found Hassanen’s remains in a man-made pond in Sterling, near Torres’s apartment building, later that day. Detectives say that Torres struck Hassanen with a bat before returning with his car to assault her a second time and dispose of her remains.

As of Monday, the Fairfax County Police formally stated that there was no evidence Hassanen’s killing was a hate crime, and it is currently being investigated as a “road rage” incident. According to the Washington Post, Lt. Bryan Holland said, “There was no indication of any racial slurs or any back-and-forth other than a verbal argument.” A formal statement by the police clarified, "It appears the suspect became so enraged over the traffic dispute it escalated into deadly violence.” Still law enforcement said that if any “evidence later surfaces that would indicate this was hate-motivated, detectives would certainly ensure appropriate charges are filed.”

Hassanen’s parents, however, maintain that their daughter was the victim of an Islamophobic attack. Her father, Mohmoud Hassanen, pointed out that his daughter and her friends were all wearing Islamic hijabs, or headscarves, which would have made them immediately identifiable as Muslim. He told the Guardian’s David Reston he believed “100 percent” his daughter was the victim of an Islamophobic attack: "In the McDonald’s there’s a lot of kids, a lot of people; why did he run behind this girl especially? For what?"

Hassanen’s killing has provoked a much broader debate over Islamophobic violence in America and beyond

Many in both Hassanen’s immediate community and online say that the police response thus far has been inadequate, highlighting the difficulty in ascertaining what, exactly, can be deemed a hate crime. Hate crimes function both as a legal, prosecutable category and, no less importantly, as a symbolically potent indicator of a culture of violence and suspicion. This is particularly important when — for a large proportion of practicing Muslim women — the hijab makes religious affiliation something easily visibly ascertained by outsiders.

It’s a point made by Vox’s German Lopez, who spoke to several hate crime law experts earlier this year on the near impossibility of gauging criminals’ motivation — or proving them in a court of law. As Lopez pointed out, the number of crimes formally charged as hate crimes and the number of incidents perceived as hate crimes by members of victims’ communities vary wildly: The FBI reports between 6,000 and 10,000 hate crimes annually, while a survey-based approach by the US Bureau of Justice statistics focusing on victim perception suggests the number could be as high as 260,000.

This is particularly salient because, as University of Akron professor and hate crime researcher Toni Bisconti told Lopez, the particularly odious thing about hate crimes — and the rationale behind enhanced sentencing — is their impact on public consciousness and feeling of safety among victimized groups. “If someone assaults me because they want my money, it’s going to affect me, it’s going to affect my wife, it’s going to affect my family,” Bisconti told Lopez. “But if someone assaults me because they know I’m gay, then all of a sudden it’s going to affect people that don’t even know me. They have no idea who I am. I’m just the conduit to gay people [in that situation].”

By that logic, regardless of Torres’s motivation or language, Hassanen’s murder seems to function in our national discourse about Islamophobia as a hate crime: shining a light on the insecurity many American Muslims feel when operating in a public space that, after the past election cycle, seems increasingly hostile to their presence.

The Southern Poverty Law Center found that 2015 — the year Donald Trump launched his campaign — saw anti-Muslim hate groups triple to levels not seen since immediately post-9/11, and increase again in 2016. The SPLC attributes that rise directly to the effect of the Trump campaign. And hate speech has certainly been anything but uncommon this Ramadan: Mic reported that earlier this month, a group of five Muslim teenager girls leaving a restaurant in Hickory Hills, Illinois, were called a number of sexist and racist slurs.

That is, of course, not to say that Hassanen’s death should be prosecuted as a hate crime because of its effect on the Muslim community (the ethics of hate crime prosecution are already often murky since they’re contingent on a suspect’s state of mind). But regardless of motivation, Hassanen’s death, the anguished response of her family, and the impassioned response of the wider Muslim and ally world on social media, reflects a fever pitch of tensions between Muslim communities and those, like the Hickory Hills harasser, who see the visible presence of Muslims in public space as an affront to their idea of what it is to be American.

This Ramadan has been a particularly violent one for Muslims in America — and abroad

After all, just during this holy month, Ramadan has been marred by several attacks against Muslims in the US and internationally. There were the Portland stabbings, in which a white supremacist killed two bystanders who intervened to defend a Muslim woman he was harassing on a train. There was the ISIS attack in Tehran, Iran, in which Sunni bombers and gunmen killed 12 and injured 42 more in the predominately Shia country. There was the devastating Grenfell Tower block fire in London that incinerated at least 58 in the subsidized-housing project, which was home to many Muslim immigrants.

Three days ago in London, there was the Finsbury mosque attack, in which a London man drove a van into a group of worshipers leaving a mosque. He was reportedly retaliating for recent Islamist attacks in Manchester and London’s Westminster, as well as a similar June 3 attack on London Bridge that killed one and injured 11, and shouted, “I want to kill all Muslims.” The Guardian’s Alan Travis has reported that hate crimes against Muslims have risen fivefold since the Manchester bombings.

And now, the death of a teenage girl.

This question of visibility is particularly relevant this Ramadan, as groups of Muslims congregate together in large numbers to break their fast, often. Ramadan is linked to the lunar, not solar, calendar, which means changes dates each year, so many festivities this year take place very late at night or very early in the morning, where the lack of people in public spaces make violence easier to carry out.

And it’s particularly relevant for young Muslim women, for whom the hijab can be a particularly easily identifiable marker of religious identity. It’s worth noting that women seem to disproportionately be the target of Islamophobic and perceived Islamophobic attacks. This was the case for the women targeted by the Portland stabber, as well as in the incidents in Hickory Hills and an additional beating — also deemed not to be a hate crime — in Columbus, Ohio.

It may well be true that in the case of Hassanen, no verbal slurs were exchanged, as per Lt. Holland’s statement. But it’s nonetheless equally true that Torres’s choice to harass a group of visibly Muslim teenagers cannot help but tie into a wider discourse about the roles and acceptance of Muslim Americans. It’s also true that, for many Muslim Americans, Hassanen’s death raises unsettling questions about their relationship to a society that has become more vocally fractious about the presence of those who do not fit a particular narrative of Americanness, especially following the election of Donald Trump.

We cannot, of course, ignore the role of media in that discourse, and in shaping the narrative of Islamic identity across political thought. As a young woman, beloved by her community, Hassanen has become another example of an innocent victim of Islamophobia: a girl who, according to classmates, had “no enemies." In interviews with news media, her parents have emphasized the profoundly welcoming nature of their family values. In the Washington Post article quoted above, Hassanen’s father describes how he taught his daughter to “‘love everybody’ in practical terms, taking his four daughters to pack food for the hungry each Thanksgiving to demonstrate the importance of caring for others ... [to befriend] everyone, Muslim and non-Muslim.”

It is necessary to acknowledge and celebrate Hassanen’s life and her profound impact on her community. But at the same time, it’s necessary to acknowledge the ease with which the media can all too easily divide its victims into angelic “good Muslims” and terrorist “bad Muslims,” using Hassanen’s age and innocence to highlight her tragedy without necessarily tying it into a wider discourse of racially and religiously motivated tension.

Across the Atlantic, after all, in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire, the British right-wing tabloid the Daily Express — a useful barometer of the nation’s id if not its better nature — at first made much of heartwarming stories about the contributions of the tower’s Muslim residents, who were up early for a pre-dawn Ramadan meal when the fire broke out, and able to save their neighbors. Soon after, though, the tabloid characterized them visually and verbally as an unruly mob of protesters “storming” the Town Hall once they, along with activists, protested the governmental policies of austerity that made their subsidized housing so vulnerable to flame. Muslims were, at least in the Daily Express’s narrative, only worthy of consideration as long as they behaved along strict lines of respectability.

Hassanen’s death is an atrocity: one that would be no less tragic, no less vile, if she had enemies, if her father had not encouraged her to give to the hungry, if her family’s values had not been of charitable forgiveness but of righteous anger against those who made them feel unwelcome in their own community.

As Ramadan comes to a close, Hassanen’s murder will doubtless linger in the consciousness of American Muslims. Whether or not further evidence comes out to tell us more details about Torres’s state of mind at the time of the murder — something we can never truly know — Hassanen’s death will have the same impact hate crimes are designed to do: to make a community feel less welcome, less safe.

As activist and MoveOn community organizer Iram Ali put it in a public Facebook post: "Remember that the murders [of three young Muslims] Deah [Barakat], Yusor [Abu-Salha] and Razan [Abu-Salha] ... in Chapel Hill were considered to be over a ‘parking dispute.’ Seems to me like this road called America is paved with Islamophobia — and it occasionally leads to the murder of vulnerable young Muslims."

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