When I heard about Nabra Hassanen, how she was kidnapped and murdered after praying at her local mosque in Virginia, I instantly thought of another incident that took place a few weeks ago in my own neighborhood.
It was around the time of the Manchester Arena attack, and I was meeting a friend at the café at our local Barnes and Noble. Yet, mid-way through our conversation, a man started to yell. I looked to my left and witnessed a tall white man berating a Muslim woman wearing a hijab, who was about to sit down with her laptop. The man continued to harass her, claiming her faith was dangerous, and that he was “disgusted.” I told him to stop it, and he stared, but eventually turned away, and left.
This memory reappeared in my mind’s eye yesterday as news spread of Nabra’s murder. This morning, when I woke up, and instantly saw the image of the woman at the bookstore, at her table with her laptop, taking in deep breaths, rattled, and still, trying to type, trying to write and get work done, while everyone else around her, including other POC, had already moved on.
After some time thinking about why, I realized the memory came back to me because Nabra’s death and the Muslim woman’s harassment in my community, even though both were different, represent how all of us, especially non-Muslim Americans, are culpable in creating this toxic atmosphere, that serves to drain life and humanity from anyone who doesn’t “fit” the body of the “ideal” American.
That day at the bookstore, no one else said or did anything as the man yelled and cursed. I noticed people avert their eyes, or simply glance, instead. I could see in their faces they knew something wrong was happening, something indecent, and yet, they opted to keep reading their books and magazines and pretend that someday, they’ll have the guts to stand up for what they believe.
Similarly, many will express their rage and sadness over what happened with Nabra, and proceed to recede into their daily routine.
“We killed Nabra by thinking hate would dissipate on its own.”
We killed Nabra. By laughing at Trump early in his campaign, instead of taking his bullshit seriously. By thinking 9/11 was long ago and the hate would dissipate on its own.
In a poll from 2015, sizable chunks of Americans had a somewhat/very unfavorable view of Muslims. A majority of white Americans surveyed shared this view. But on closer inspection, one should also notice that about 43 percent of Democrats and 53 percent of Republicans echoed the sentiment.
By the end of 2016, according to The New York Times, “hate crimes against American Muslims have soared to their highest levels since the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, according to data compiled by researchers […].”
In fact, “the number of anti-Muslim groups in the United States tripled between 2015 and 2016 — a surge likely fueled by hate rhetoric used by Donald Trump during his presidential bid, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center,” USA Today reported earlier this year.
One of the most damning moments of our political climate, was during last year’s Democratic National Convention. Like many others, I watched, as Khizr and Ghazala Khan approached the stage and told the story of their son, Humayun, a soldier who served in Iraq, and who died defending his unit from a suicide bomber. When I first heard what Khizr had to say about his son, about how many Muslim Americans were proudly serving their country, like his son did, I was very moved.
Yet, as the excitement begun to fade, I couldn’t shake the bitterness and disappointment growing inside me.
As much as I understand that the main objective was to defeat Trump, I realized how we, even as liberals, were unwilling to truly challenge the discourse that the right-wing had built.
No one can deny that Humayun was brave. However, the orchestrated event whispered the painful truth, that Muslims are not allowed to be nuanced, and even among liberals, their identity is inherently tied to then proving their total allegiance to the country they were born and raised in.
I still wonder, if Humayun wasn’t a soldier in Iraq, and instead, spent his days watching movies with his friends, and working at a local Burger King, would he be less deserving of our love? Would he then also be a target after prayers at his mosque? Would someone feel emboldened and entitled to chase him down as they did Nabra, and be willing to brutally snatch them away from their friends and family, and all the memories they had made?
“Although we didn’t swing the bat or scream how Sharia is ruining America, we killed Nabra.”
Although we didn’t swing the bat or scream how Sharia is ruining America, we killed Nabra. By not questioning ourselves deeper, by not truly challenging the narrative constructed before us. Especially those of us who have the time and privilege to know what we know, and persist in praying for the victims while bodies line the streets.
Nabra is in a better place. Too many bad people get away with doing bad things and too many good people like Nabra suffer in this life for there not to be someplace where someone like her can finally smile wide, where she can laugh as loud as she wants, or dress the way she wants, and perhaps, look down from her cloud, and finally, see us, looking back up at her, weeping for what we have done.
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Sudip Bhattacharya is currently a Ph.D. student in political science at Rutgers University, where he focuses on race and social justice. He also has a master’s in journalism from Georgetown University, and has had his work published at CNN, The Washington City Paper, The Lancaster Newspapers, The Daily Gazette (Schenectady), The Jersey Journal, Media Diversified (Writers of Colour), Reappropriate, AsAm News, The New Engagement, and Gaali Gang.