Undercover “Muslim”: My Hidden Islamic Heritage

Share this story:


Nabra Hassanen, 17, was killed after exiting a mosque in June, 2017.

When I first read the reports of the death of Nabra Hassanen, the teen girl who was beaten to death while leaving a mosque, I cried. Seventeen years old, bright and alive, she’d been chased, hit over the head with a metal bat, dragged into a car, and then thrown into a pond. Her violent death replayed in my mind’s eye. I didn’t sleep well.  I kept thinking to myself, “That girl could have easily been one of my friends.”

Nabra Hassanen was my same age. We were both raised Muslim. And given a different path, her fate could have been mine.

I may not look like it, but I am half-Turkish. When I was younger, I attended a private Muslim school which doubled as a mosque for the local Muslim population. We wore hijab during prayer time, and had lessons in Arabic. Over the years, I became more and more disconnected to not only Islam but all organized religion. Today, I have only a cultural connection to Islam. I do not currently identify as Muslim or wear hijab. But because of my past, I keep company with the Muslims who attend my school. A large portion of my friends and family members follow Islam. And several of them look just like Nabra.

When people see me today — a light-skinned white teen with no hijab — they assume that I am Christian. I often find myself in a position of feeling as if I am a spy, privy to hearing the racist and Islamophobic things other people say. For instance, there was a moment this past year where a boy in my class made a “joke” in front of me about Muslims being “dirty, dumb terrorists.” He spoke with such a tone of camaraderie, as if that’s how all of us think about Muslims.

When I confronted him — revealing an side of my family is Muslim, that many of my friends are Muslim, and that I still follow aspects of Islam — he panicked. He stuttered out phrases like, “You’re not that kind of Muslim!” and, “I wasn’t talking about you!”

The truth is, when the ignorant are faced with those they speak ill of, they have no valid way of justifying the hurtful things they say. When these people don’t get corrected in their inaccurate understandings of Muslims, it keeps the door open for violence to occur.

Even though Nabra’s death is not officially being called a hate crime (and some are even attributing it to road rage), I still suspect that the man arrested for Nabra Hassanen’s murder, Darwin A. Martinez Torres, was much like the boy in my class: misguided and willing to be swayed by the huge amount of anti-Islamic rhetoric that exists in the media today.

The way I handle people, like the boy in my class, is simple. I do my best to argue in a way that is more informative than angry. But I also juggle my own emotional response to that sort of speech by implementing humor.

My friends and I who hold connection to Islam try to make the blow of our current political climate into self-effacing jokes. My Palestinian friend and I call each other “terrorist” in the hallways, but we also pay attention to every shift in the political net of America. We cry out Allah Hu Ekber as we send in essays we’ve been working on for hours, but we also donate time and energy into helping Syrian Refugees. We joke about “dirty Arabs,” but we also discuss things like Chapel Hill, the pig heads left on the steps of mosques, and the people like Nabra.

The way we joke among ourselves does not give non-Muslims permission to take Islamophobia lightly. It’s a way for people who face stigma and fear to try to take control of our lives. We laugh so that we do not cry.

It’s hard to be so completely defined by society based on one aspect of who we are. In Nabra’s case, it’s like no one wants to think how she was more than a Muslim body. She was a person. She had thoughts and plans. At 17, she would have been thinking about college. As the eldest daughter, her parents were likely beginning to realize that they would have to let her go, not to death, but to adulthood.

Nabra was a representative of so many people in the U.S., not just young Muslims. And yet, even in death, she is seen only as the scarf she wore and not for what lay beneath it: a brain and a life and most of all a future. If you want to remember this, say her name. And not only her name but Deah Barakat’s, Razan Muhammad Abu-Salha’s, and Yusor Muhammad Abu-Salha’s. Say Waqar Hassan’s name and Vasudev Patel’s. Abdisamad Sheikh-Hussein’s and Nazma Khanem’s, and the countless others we brush under the rug to keep the blame off the shoulder of this country.

And though I cry at Nabra’s death, I am not doing so because her loss is a shock. As terrible as it is to say, this loss is just further proof that young Muslim-Americans are not safe in this country. No one wants to to talk about how Nabra’s story is reflected in the experiences of many young Muslim women in America. We need to acknowledge that young Muslim men and women — people in our lives and schools and communities — have been put in a position of always needing to watch their back. And that is simply not okay.

Listen Now