I pin my scarf around my hair until it feels secure. The night is still as the call for prayer (athan) sings through my phone — I close my eyes and take a deep breath of the warm June air. I exhale to the cadence of the athan, renewing a sense of calm and strength in my body after a long day of fasting. As I walked down the road to my mosque, I reflect on the feeling of security underneath the crescent moon of a Ramadan night.
I’m sure Nabra Hassanen felt the same.
The headlights of a car zipping around the corner interrupt my daze and I pick up my pace in a small panic, remembering the heartbreak that occurred almost a year ago.
Earlier that day, I came across a video of Nabra Hassanen’s father responding to questions about the brutal murder of his daughter. My heart ached for him and I could see my own father in his cries. Last Ramadan, she was killed by Darwin Torres while walking to her mosque after an early morning suhoor (breakfast) with her friends at McDonald’s, a spot my friends have frequented at the brink of dawn during our Ramadan nights. That could’ve been any of my friends leaving the McDonald’s parking lot to not return again. This cut felt deep. It was personal.
It has been almost one year since Nabra Hassanen’s father called for justice in the name of his daughter, believing there is no doubt that she was targeted because she wears hijab.
Instead, the news was quick to call it “road rage.” Torres grabbed a bat from his car and furiously beat her face unrecognizable and the news said it was “it wasn’t about her.”
He ripped her hijab off, carried her limp body deep into the woods to assault her, and the police were quick to state it was “not a hate crime.”
Sure, it could have been road rage — but it also could have been the same rage that prompted an individual to set her memorial ablaze.
This incident is far from isolated. It reminded me of years ago when bullets ripped through the home of three Muslims in North Carolina: Deah, Yusor, and Razan. Their execution-style deaths were attributed to a parking dispute. When you witness and experience discrimination firsthand, these terms of prosecution begin to seem naive.
This insidious hatred doesn’t only target Muslim communities, but those marginalized across the nation.
In order for a crime to be classified as a hate crime, it must show that the crime clearly targets an individual due to their characteristics. However, to be a minority in America is to know that discrimination does not need to be overt or blatantly stated to be felt. To be a minority in America is to watch as the brutal murders of people who look like us are lessened to “coincidences” and are abandoned in the rule of law.
We know damn well it’s no coincidence.
We feel ourselves, our families, and our friends in each name that quickly passes through the ticker at the bottom of the news screen. How many lives will our communities lose to ignorance and hatred that will be labeled as else? Does America sweep the targeting of individuals on the basis of religion, race, and sexual identity under the rug so we don’t have to address the greater issue of toxic biases in America? Why do we bury hate under legal euphemisms instead of calling it out as it is?
In a call of remembrance for Nabra and justice for the many minorities that are targeted on a daily basis in America, I make a case for the hate crime. There are a number of reasons why America is uncomfortable labeling these offenses as driven by hate. This discomfort in itself is a sign that we need to debate and explore the semantics of them more.
Legally, it is complicated. Once it carries the label of a hate crime, it elevates a normal crime to a more serious offense, requiring greater attention from law enforcement. Police often aren’t trained on these matters and there is no uniform method to track and handle these crimes.
Socially, it is a symbol. Hate crimes say to criminals that bigotry will not be permitted in this community, state or nation. To communities targeted, it says that they are heard, respected and protected by the rule of law.
This begs the question — is there a reason why we don’t take the extra steps to make minority communities feel more safe and welcome?
One wrong interaction, one wrong person to cross paths with — this is all it takes. When stories of hate crimes air on the news, they’re often followed by my parent’s “This is why we tell you to be careful.” But, we both understand that no matter how careful I am, I can’t control those around me. I can’t control someone who wants to meet my beliefs with a bullet, who sees my brother’s skin color as a bulls-eye or who wishes my friend’s hijab were a noose. I’m afraid, our communities are afraid and it’s about time our laws step up to protect us.