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Muslim Women and Islamophobia:                                                Nabra, Portland, and Bystander Intervention Training

Ayesha Shahnaz

A Different Age

We, as Muslim American women, live in different times today; these are not the blissful days of the eighties that my mother often mentions, in which she and my aunt attended a public high school in full hijab and jilbab without facing any prejudice or malice. These are not the days of my own care-free youth in the 90s, back before a magnifying glass was held to our communities to see if we really are the upstanding, dedicated citizens we claim to be.

We live in an age now, where politicians openly play hockey with our faith, defaming it to rise to power. We live in an age now, where Islam stands perpetually on trial in the media, as negative commentary infiltrates the hearts of average citizens. We live in an age now, where Muslims, and especially Muslim women, who are visibly representative of Islam, may face the brunt of bigotry and Islamophobia.

Yet there is hope, and there are those who stand with us and for us; we, as Muslim American women are immensely grateful for these souls for their love, support, and commitment to justice. As we work together towards a future of tolerance and peace in our country, we must simultaneously equip ourselves with the knowledge to keep ourselves and those around us safe, so that we too can stand for justice for the marginalized both within our own community and those outside of it. Recent events such as the passing of Sr. Hassaneen, the attack on three men in Portland who were defending two Muslim women, and others, have made it necessary for us to educate our ourselves on bystander intervention when witnessing a hate crime.

Nabra Hassaneen’s Tragic Passing

“Did you hear what happened in Virginia?” asked my sister in law as we sat at the ICNA donation table during Ramadan at our local masjid, which is a large bustling community center with nearly 6,000 attendees. “No?” I answered in confusion. As we conversed, the masjid board was making a special announcement before taraweeh would begin, urging parents and guardians to keep a close eye on their children, especially those that were milling around outside during salah time. It would have been any other announcement, but there was an urgent tone to the speaker’s voice, an earnest plea. “Something happened with some youth at a masjid in Virginia. I don’t know the full details myself,” my sister in law said, shaking her head slightly. I had often commented to my husband that I felt uneasy about the youth that were outside the masjid, playing basketball or walking in groups with friends, rather than praying inside. He reminded me that it was better that they were here, close to the prayer hall under security, rather than somewhere further away, involved in trouble.

The conversation with my sister in law and alarming masjid announcement slipped to the back of my mind, until later on at home, when a quick glance on social media bombarded me with a plethora of images and information. Pictures of Nabra Hassaneen flooded my newsfeed: a 17-year old Muslimah with a beautiful smile, hijab, and black rimmed hipster glasses. The details trickled in, and I soon found that Nabra had been brutally assaulted and killed after praying taraweeh at the ADAMS center masjid, while out with friends to grab a bite to eat for suhoor. She looked like she could be one of my friends, friends who I had taken IHOP suhoor trips with as well. She resembled the quirky sweet girls who were a part of my local youth group. She reminded me of a younger, exuberant version of me. I remember sitting paralyzed at the computer the following days, as accounts from her afflicted father, friends, and community members rolled in. Undeniably, the incident sent ripples of grief and shock reverberating throughout our collective Muslim American family. May Allah SWT shower her with His mercy, make her grave spacious and filled with light, and enter her into Jannatul Firdaus, ameen.

Perhaps one of the most touching tributes to Nabra that I watched, was one by Sheikh Omar Suleiman, and another by a woman who had been a mentor to the youth in the ADAMS center area. It was the mentor’s words of comfort for Nabra’s friends that struck a chord in particular; she reminded the youth who were with Nabra that dreadful night that what happened was not their fault and to not be drowned in remorse. The youth had run back to the masjid to inform the leaders there, and contact the police, but Nabra had been left behind to face the attacker. Ultimately, Allah SWT is the Most Great and greater than everything; His rahma is greater, His plan is greater, His knowledge is greater. The truth is, we do not know what any of us would have done in such a situation. It’s easy to sit miles away in distance and time and claim that if we were faced with a hate crime we would do this or that, but the reality is that the sheer terror of such a position can lead to circumstances we never thought possible. Nabra’s case reminded me of another recent tragedy, in which two young Muslim women were protected from their attacker, but with fatal consequences for those that intervened.

Portland: Remembering Taliesin Namkai-Meche & Ricky Best

“Tell everybody on this train that I love them,” whispered Taliesin Namkai before he died, after defending two Muslim girls from attacker and right wing extremist, Jeremy Joseph Christian. Amidst all the anti-Islam rhetoric and bigotry against Muslims these days, there are still those who manage to search for the truth, practice what they preach, and stand for justice. This is how I view Taliesin Namkai, a 23-year old college graduate, and Ricky Best, father of four, who died this summer on the MAX train in Portland, Oregon after being stabbed by Jeremy Christian.
News reports indicate that Christian was spewing hate speech at the Muslim women (one who was wearing a hijab) on the train; his demeanor was menacing as he threatened the girls. Namkai-Meche, Best, and Micah Fletcher (who was also stabbed but recovered from his injuries), all heroically tried to direct the attacker away from the frightened women. This sort of intervention was astoundingly brave and selfless, and we are all left humbled by their sacrifice, keeping in mind ayah 32 in Surah Al-Ma’idah that states, “
And whoever saves one – it is as if he had saved mankind entirely.”

I have often found myself reflecting about this tragic incident and Sr. Hasaneen’s passing, my thoughts a mixture of remorse and trepidation. What is the best way to respond if (May Allah protect us all) we happen to find ourselves in a similar situation, witnessing a hate crime unfold? Is it better to run to contact authorities first, as Nabra’s friends had done, or should we step in ourselves, as Namkai-Meche and Ricy Best did? What if, when witnessing a hate crime, we don’t do enough and regret it later, or perhaps take action, but endanger ourselves and our loved ones as well?

Bystander Intervention Training for Hate Crimes

Neither I or Noor Magazine are experts or professionals when it comes the best course of action to take when witnessing a hate crime or being attacked oneself. This is why I highly encourage you to reach out to your local masjid, community center, CAIR branch, etc, to offer professional defense classes and non-violent bystander-intervention training for both sisters and brothers. My masjid recently held a “Bystander Intervention Training” workshop, along with CAIR, the Council of American Islamic Relations, on what to do when witnessing a hate crime. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend, but there is another “De-Escalation and Self-Defense Training workshop” coming up soon that I would love to sign up for. Although we hope to never be placed in such a dreadful situation, the stark reality is that Muslims, and visibly Muslim sisters in particular, in today’s climate, must err on the side of caution.

In regards to practical tips that one may use when it comes to such situations, please find some points below; sadly, many of these instructions were compiled by various sources with the spike in hate crimes after the most recent U.S. presidential election and approval of Brexit.

From the “Huffington Post”

The picture to my left, an illustration by a 22-year old artist named Marie Yener, depicts four simple ways to create a ‘safe space’ for someone being harassed:

  1. Engage in Conversation with the Victim
  2. Pick a Random Subject & Start Discussing It
  3. Keep Building the Safe Space (Don’t Acknowledge the Attacker)
  4. Continue the Conversation until the Attacker Leaves (Escort the individual to a safe space if necessary)

From UC Berkley
One of the nation’s top college systems, the University of California’s Berkley campus, has issued useful tips to students:

  1. Make Sure You are Safe
  2. Get Medical Attention if necessary
  3. Preserve Evidence
  4. Take Care of Yourself
  5. Report the Incident
  6. Consider Contacting a Counselor
  7. Do Not Blame Yourself

From “The Guardian”

‘The Guardian,’ another prominent news agency, recently published some practical guidelines on what do when witnessing a racial attack as well:

1. Take it seriously
2. Say something
3. Be safe
4. Report the abuse to the police
5. Film it

I pray that no one who reads this article is placed in or has to witness such a horrendous hate crime, but the need for us to equip ourselves with the knowledge and tools on how to act in such a situation can save lives. Together we can make a difference. We can sign up for self-defense and non-violent intervention training classes, raise awareness, and be a beacon of support for fellow Muslim sisters, as well as other marginalized groups, such as refugees or immigrants. We can work towards a more tolerant, peaceful, and loving world, where hatred and bigotry have no room to take root. We are compelled to do so by the radiant smile of Nabra Hassaneen, and the honorable sacrifices of Taliesin Namkai and Ricky Best

Huffington Post. Web Article. Artist Illustrates What To Do If You Witness Hate Speech Or Harassment.

UC Berkley. Web Article. What if I become the target of, or witness, a hate crime or hate-motivated act?

The Guardian. Web Article. How do I respond when I see racial abuse in public? 
ere to edit.

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