How religion may have mattered in the murder of Nabra Hassanen

We’re still processing the sad and tragic murder of Nabra Hassanen. The police have said this was not a hate crime; the culprit did not attack Hassanen because of her Muslim identity. To some, this feels like it is overlooking an important aspect of this crime. Indeed, religion still may have mattered significantly in this crime, even if the culprit did not attack the teen “because of” religion. It is important for us to understand this broader impact of religion in violence in order to make sense of and prevent such tragedies.

Nabra Hassanen was returning home from Ramadan prayers in Virginia with friends when a man driving a van attacked the group, killing her. Police later caught the suspect, and said the attack stemmed from “road rage.” For many, this recalled another recent attack on Muslims. In 2015, a man killed three Muslim students at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill over an apparent parking dispute.

So were these crimes “about religion?” Not directly, no. While we need more details about the Hassanen murder, it does seem that the culprit did not attack her because she was Muslim. And the Chapel Hill slayings were part of a larger pattern of hostile behavior by the attacker over parking spots and other residential issues.

But this feels like we’re missing something. The Chapel Hill attacker was an atheist who made numerous comments critical of religion on social media. It’s likely he focused on the victims due to their visible religious identity (such as the women covering their heads). And with the increasing levels of anti-Muslim attitudes in this country it’s hard to completely discount some religious aspect of the Virginia attack.

Much of this confusion comes from a narrow view of “how religion matters.” People often think of religious violence as two groups who disagree over the proper interpretation of a religious tradition and fight about it. So examples of religious conflict would be the Thirty Years’ War — fought over whether Protestantism or Catholicism would dominate Europe — or the Crusades, Catholic European attempts to seize land from Muslims. Of course, these wars weren’t completely fought over religion (that’s too big a topic for this post). But even beyond that issue, there is a much broader way for religion to matter in violence than attacking someone because you don’t agree with their religious beliefs.

Religion serves a few functions in contemporary politics. It can be an identity: a way to differentiate one group from another. That is, one person identifies as a “Christian,” another as a “Muslim.” It can also a set of resources for political action: symbols and standards that people use to make sense of events and judge their behavior and others’ behavior. For example, North Carolina’s “Moral Mondays” movement used religious beliefs to explain opposition to the state’s Republican government policies. What this means for the study of violence is that religion can highlight differences between people or be part of tensions, even if it is not the only thing — or even the primary thing — two groups are fighting about.

We can see this with terrorism. Studies of terrorism have found that Islam — or religion more broadly — does not cause terrorism. Members of al-Qaeda are not necessarily devout Muslims. But this doesn’t mean religion is irrelevant. Religion can still affect the severity of terrorist attacks when militants use religious symbols by “framing” their struggle in a way that justifies extreme violence.

So how does this relate to this recent murder? The culprit didn’t kill her “because of” religion, but few acts of violence are “because of” religion. We will be hard pressed to find a case of someone attacking another purely because of religious differences or anger over religious beliefs. There are always a slew of other reasons — greed, interpersonal disputes, pure rage.

But religion can still matter in these acts of violence. The Chapel Hill killer may have been mad about parking, but why did he single out Muslim residents for his violence? Possibly because their religious identity marked them as different, and their public religious practices clashed with his militant atheism (which may have focused specifically on Muslims due to contemporary anti-Muslim animus). And we don’t know yet what the Virginia killer was thinking, but it’s very likely the religious identity difference of Hassanen and her friends led him to respond more violently than he would have if religion was not apparent.

So when we talk about tragic violence like the Hassanen murder, it may not be “because of” religion, but religion shouldn’t be ignored. This is especially the case in a moment when one religious group — American Muslims — is facing significant bias and hatred from some in this country.

Now, I am not a legal scholar, so I can’t comment on what this means for hate crime legislation. But it can inform how we approach and prevent these incidents. Even if the attackers didn’t target their victims only because they were Muslim, it is unlikely the victims “just happened to be” Muslim. Identifying the proximate cause — “road rage,” a parking dispute — is not the same as understanding why the tragedy occurred. And finding that an attack is isolated, and not “part of a targeted campaign against Muslims” (as police stated in the Chapel Hill case) does not mean this isn’t a cause of concern for the targeted community.

Protections for communities, and attempts to establish inter-religious dialogue, are still needed even when the crime is not “because of” religion. Until we understand the complex ways religion can inform violence we will struggle to properly respond to and prevent such tragedies.