‘Muslims Feel Under Siege’

Muslim Americans are mourning—and terrified—after two violent incidents left worshippers dead over the weekend during the holy month of Ramadan. In London, a 48-year-old man drove a van into a group of Muslims who had been attending evening prayers at a mosque. Ten people were wounded, and one person was killed.

In Sterling, Virginia, a 17-year-old Muslim woman named Nabra Hassanen was murdered near her local mosque, the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, known locally as the ADAMS Center. She was walking back to the mosque with a group of teens after grabbing food at IHOP following late-night prayers, according to The Washington Post. Fairfax police say the group got into a dispute with a man in a car, suspected to be 22-year-old Darwin A. Martinez Torres. The other girls ran away, but Hassanen was left behind. Authorities recovered what they believe to be her remains in a nearby pond less than a day later. According to the Post, police told Hassanen’s mother that the girl had been struck with a metal bat.

Within minutes of the London attack, police had declared it a terrorist incident. But the police in Fairfax County, Virginia, are not investigating Hassanen’s death as a hate crime, the department said on social media. In its statements, the ADAMS Center community has been careful not to blame the crime on discrimination or religious bias. But that doesn’t change how people are feeling: devastated and scared.

“When Muslims in the United States hear about this, it’s not just about the ADAMS community or the family members who just lost their daughter or their niece or their sister this weekend,” said Engy Abdelkader, a senior fellow at Georgetown University who lives in area. “The entire Muslim American community hears about it and experiences this kind of vicarious trauma.” While people in the Muslim community are trying to reserve judgment while law enforcement investigates, she added, “I think they feel under siege. This is part of a larger pattern.”

Within hours of the announcement of Hassanen’s death, news had spread widely on social media. Community members quickly started to mobilize in support of the family. Khadijah Abdullah, a Muslim woman who is part of the ADAMS Center, helped organize a LaunchGood campaign to raise money for Hassanen’s family. Within 24 hours, over $164,000 had been pledged. “She was a baby,” Abdullah said. “She could have been any of our children. It affects us deeply.”

Rana Abdelhamid, a 24-year-old Muslim woman who lives in New York, started organizing vigils in Washington, D.C., New York City, and Boston. She told me people from all over the country have been in touch about putting together similar events. Hundreds of people have said on Facebook that they’re planning to attend. Many, like Abdelhamid, seem to recognize themselves or their friends and relatives in Hassanen.

“It’s horrifying,” Abdelhamid said. Just two nights ago, she said, she was “doing the same exact thing that Nabra was doing: I was coming out from a prayer at 2 a.m., going to find a place to eat at 3 a.m.” During the holy month of Ramadan, many Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, attending late-night prayers and gathering for nightly meals to break the fast, called iftars. Sometimes they’ll go out for late-night meals after praying. “This is very much something that young people do all the time in Muslim America,” Abdelhamid said.

“Is it safe for me to go pray?”

An official with the Fairfax County Police Media Relations Bureau said “there’s no indication that the crime was motivated by hate or bias,” but “it’s not definitive.” The case is still in its early stages, he said, and “subject to change as information is gathered. I think the intent behind that tweet was to tamp down the fervor over it possibly being or possibly not being [a hate crime].” People were drawing conclusions about the incident, he added, “because of its proximity to the mosque.”

Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Ray Morrogh, the prosecutor in the case, told WTOP’s Neil Augenstein, “Let’s wait until we get all the information and I’ll make the judgment.”

Late on Monday afternoon, the Fairfax County Police Department released additional information about the incident, calling “the tragic case … the result of a road rage incident involving the suspect, who was driving and who is now charged with murder.” Officials reaffirmed that they do not believe it was motivated by bias: “Our investigation at this point in no way indicates the victim was targeted because of her race or religion,” they said.

Abdelkader framed the attacks as part of a string of violence during Ramadan. On the first day of the holiday, two men were killed and another was injured in a stabbing attack on a train in Portland when they tried to shield two girls from 35-year-old Jeremy Joseph Christian’s verbal attacks, including comments against Muslims. Abdelkader also cited an altercation in Ohio in which a Somali American woman, Rahma Warsame, was severely beaten after arguing with a white couple, which police also say was not a hate crime. It can be extremely difficult for officials to establish bias-related motives, or to disentangle the complicated mix of motives in individual cases, even when the victims are visibly identifiable as Muslim.

As Muslims enter the last 10 days of Ramadan—the most intense part of the holiday—Hassanen’s murder is another reminder of the potential for violence during worship. “Last night, I did not go to prayer,” Abdelhamid said. “I definitely feel like mosques are hot spots right now … It’s a really scary question to have to think about, to be honest—to even have to be in the state of mind where you have to ask the question, ‘Is it safe for me to go pray?’”