For Nabra

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Nabra Hassanen was walking from the typical Ramadan morning meal — what we call suhoor — to her local Virginia masjid when disaster struck.

Police seem keen to call it simple road rage. Allegedly attacked with a baseball bat, assaulted and then driven away from the scene, Nabra’s abused body was found by a pond a few miles away.

It has not yet been labeled a hate crime, but as another 17-year-old Muslim girl I couldn’t help but feel shaken when I heard the news. She went through the same thought process as I do almost every night on where to eat suhoor with her friends, and now her family’s lives will never be the same.

Her high school’s Muslim Student Association plans her vigil while mine continues to plan community dinners.

Sure, everything involves some level of risk. But when contemplating whether we should eat out each early morning, topics of debate involve mostly trivialities such as location and timing. It would certainly never cross our minds to consider whether someone’s road rage might escalate into kidnapping or murder.

But it happens. People are stabbed on trains for defending Muslim women. Sikhs are murdered for “looking too much like us.” And, scarily, the same mentality that drives hate crimes (regardless of whether this will be called a hate crime or just road rage in the media) is starting to creep in a little bit for me and other Muslim people I know. It’s easy, given the circumstances, to remove the benefit of the doubt and assume that every white person I pass by on the street probably hates me. I don’t even wear the hijab, but I have the irrational fear that they can sniff out the Muslim on me, that that would harm me in some way.

So the divide grows stronger. Because just as many Americans automatically think Muslims are unfriendly (to say the least), we can’t help but assume everybody believes that. The attempts at making ourselves seem approachable, reasonable or friendly (in order words, the opposite of someone planning a terrorist attack) are slowly translating into a new type of fear — a fear of being hated and a general acceptance that people might hate us by default. What used to be defiant strides of “I dare you to try and come after me” have shifted to “Please, please don’t attack me” for many Muslim people I know.

I wish I could say I was indifferent to perceptions of me and unapologetically Muslim in the face of fear and disdain. It takes a new sense of strength to come out of a tragedy like that of Nabra Hassanen and still walk the streets openly and proudly with a hijab or other religious garments, daring people to try and break you down.

I shred my hijab off as soon as I climb in the car after the mosque.

After almost every tragedy, people are haunted by thoughts of “It could’ve been me.” But there’s still a part of me behind all the fear and apprehension that can’t imagine it would ever happen here in Fremont. I live across the street from a masjid that overflows every night, and I’m within walking distance of several Halal restaurants where Muslim teens go to hang out right after prayer at the mosque.

But Nabra Hassanen’s situation wasn’t very different. She was walking from a masjid, probably a safe haven to her, to a restaurant with a group of her friends. What exactly did she do wrong?

Now, there’s a growing fear people are not willing to take their chances anymore. Americans watch inaccurate media representations of Muslims and sometimes go so far as to defend themselves against anything that looks like the murderers they see on TV.

But on the other hand, I find myself carefully scrutinizing anyone who looks very American in the street to see if I should avert my gaze or if they’re friendly enough for a brief half-smile. I don’t even know what “very American” means, but in my head, “very American” people are racist and Islamophobic, because that’s what Americans have proven to be time and time again.

This fight isn’t about me, but it’s not about Nabra Hassanen either. It’s a fight to come out of tragedies like this stronger and not divided (and I know you probably have never heard that before). It’s getting too easy to label the other an enemy or to label myself a victim – fear is clouding minds.

Nabra’s death was a tragedy, but not one I plan to take sitting down.

Subaita writes the Monday column on Muslim identity. Contact her at [email protected].