On Sunday morning, 17-year-old Nabra Hassanen was chased, beaten and murdered by a stranger after he encountered her outside of her mosque in Sterling, Virginia.
Hassanen was returning to the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS) after grabbing a fun pre-dawn meal with friends after prayers. It is reported that Hassanen and her friends were in a fairly large group, with some walking on the sidewalk and others biking alongside in the road, when a driver pulled up next to them. Darwin A. Martines Torres, 22, engaged in an argument with one of the friends biking before hopping the curb. The group ran, but he quickly caught up to them in a nearby parking lot and began chasing them with a baseball bat.
Hassanen was wearing a traditional cloak known as an abaya, and tripped on it while trying to escape. Torres struck her, rendering her unconscious, then transported her to a second location and assaulted her a second time—eventually leaving her dead body in a pond a few miles away from the parking lot where he initially assaulted her. Hassanen was reported missing by members of her mosque immediately after her friends realized that she had not been able to outrun Torres. Her body was found by authorities later in the afternoon.
Although the timing of Hassanen’s murder coincides with a recent spike in attacks on Muslims, police in Virginia’s Fairfax County are not investigating Hassanen’s murder case as a hate crime. Instead, the Fairfax County Police Department believes the motivating cause in Hassanen’s case to be road rage. Their decision has sparked outrage. Hassanen’s father, Mohmoud, has stated that he believes his daughter was attacked because of her religious dress. On Twitter, activists are using the hashtag #JusticeforNabra to call for investigators to pursue the case as a hate crime. Vigils honoring Hassanen’s life are being staged across the nation, and ADAMS has sponsored a donation page that has already raised over $290,000 for Hassanen’s family.
In a cruel twist of fate, Islamophobia has manifested even through peaceful actions meant to show support for Hassanen’s loved ones and call for a more thorough investigation into her death. A Washington, D.C. memorial in Hassanen’s honor was set on fire Wednesday morning. The culprit was quickly apprehended by police, who refused to cite the act as a hate crime and instead charged arsonist Jonathon Soloman with vandalism—explaining that he was setting several items from the park on fire and thus was not targeting Hassanen’s memorial.
Whether or not police consider Hassanen’s murder and the vandalism of her D.C. memorial hate crimes, it is undeniable that they have brought to light the harassment and fear practicing Muslims face in the U.S. The effects of political activity and media coverage that stereotypes and maligns Muslims are devastating. As we move forward after Hassanen’s murder, we must make a conscious choice to do so in direct opposition to the kind of discourse that demonizes and scapegoats Muslims—at a dangerous cost.