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Attendees leaves flowers for Nabra Hassanen, a teenage Muslim girl killed by a bat-wielding motorist near a Virginia mosque, during a vigil in New York City, U.S. June 20, 2017.


It was an American Ramadan moment, one the faithful at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society had repeated countless times over the years: A group of teens, after late-night prayers at the mosque, headed to McDonald's in a nearby strip plaza for a meal before resuming their fast at daybreak.

But as they walked back from the fast-food outlet early on Sunday along a wide arterial road in Sterling, a Virginia suburb of Washington, the 15 adolescents were attacked by a motorist who drove up on the curb, then chased after them with a baseball bat. He struck 17-year-old Nabra Hassanen and abducted her in his car. Her body was found later that day in a nearby pond. Darwin Martinez Torres, a 22-year-old construction worker and undocumented immigrant from El Salvador, is charged with murder.

Even as Ms. Hassanen's killing brought her community together in grief – with thousands packing her funeral at the mosque – and prompted vigils from New York to Los Angeles, it left many Muslims sad, angry and afraid at the holiest and most joyous time of year.

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And it raised tension over how to characterize it: Police insist the murder was a "road-rage incident," while many in the community say Ms. Hassanen was targeted because of her religion – she was wearing a hijab and an abaya. The crime came less than a day before a man drove his van into a group of congregants outside a London mosque, and mere weeks after a white supremacist in Portland was accused of stabbing to death two men who intervened as he harassed a woman in a hijab on a train.

"It's a hate crime," Abas Sherif, 39, a relative of Ms. Hassanen's by marriage, said on Wednesday morning as he sat outside her home, a brick walk-up apartment building. "This bunch of Muslim girls, wearing traditional Muslim clothes, are not the only people on the street. There are different people. So why was he targeting them?"

The oldest of four daughters, Ms. Hassanen was born in the United States to Nubian parents from Egypt. They settled in an affordable-housing complex on a residential street in Reston, a sprawling, largely white-collar suburb adjacent to Sterling. Interspersed with parks, lakes and swathes of greenery, it has a bucolic feel that masks its proximity to the nation's capital.

Friends and family described the high schooler as academically driven, always prepared to help her peers with schoolwork or life advice, and part of a large, multicultural social circle with Christian and Jewish friends.

Samar Ali, 24, said it was hard to square the horrific act with the character of the neighbourhood: "Here at Reston, everybody's educated; people are nice, sweet," she said. Some of the area's young people were too distraught to go to graduation this week at South Lakes High School, which Ms. Hassanen attended, she said.

"Everybody's now terrified, they're scared, they don't know who's next and they don't know why they're targeted," Ms. Ali said. "Do we think it had something to do with her being Muslim and the way she was dressed? We sure do."

Fairfax County Police Chief Edwin Roessler Jr. said police have no indication the killing was driven by race or religion. "Right now, that is a myth on social media," he told reporters on Wednesday. "I have no evidence of any hate words or any hate actions." But Chief Roessler added that if he receives such evidence, he will pursue it. He said investigators are also trying to determine whether Ms. Hassanen was sexually assaulted, and are waiting on the results of an autopsy and forensic tests.

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The Council on American-Islamic Relations said in a statement that it will represent Ms. Hassanen's family and vowed to monitor the investigation and "ensure a thorough examination of any possible bias aspects of the case." Earlier this year, CAIR reported that it had logged 2,213 incidents of anti-Muslim bias in 2016, a 57-per-cent jump from the previous year.

Many who came to mourn Ms. Hassanen had stories of such incidents.

Fatima Dhera, 50, said a woman tore off her niqab while she was shopping at Whole Foods last year, shouting "You cannot do that in this country," Ms. Dhera, a stay-at-home mother, said as she stood across the street from Ms. Hassanen's funeral.

Student Aisha Sheikh, 29, said she has seen people driving by unroll their windows and shout, "Go back to your country," and "You don't belong here."

Maryam Jarady, 39, a businesswoman, said the incidents became more frequent during last fall's presidential election, which Donald Trump won in part by pledging to bar Muslims from entering the country. "People were scared even to go to work," Ms. Jarady recalled.

Rizwan Jaka, chair of the ADAMS Centre's board, said his 19- and nine-year-old daughters – fourth-generation Americans – have been called "terrorists" and told to "go back to their country." But he said this does not reflect the broader community.

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"It represents a tiny fringe. Ninety-nine per cent of Northern Virginia, Washington, DC, Maryland are loving, peaceful," he said on the sidelines of a vigil for Ms. Hassanen on Wednesday. "Those few that have hate in their hearts … they exist in all cultures and backgrounds. Just like we stand against violent extremism and terrorism, we know the Christian and Jewish communities stand against any bigots that are out there."

Thousands attended Ms. Hassanen's funeral and vigil on Wednesday. The crowds at the ADAMS Centre, which sits on a spacious, tree-lined campus off a major road, filled the mosque and spilled out into the back parking lot. At the vigil, mourners filled a neighbourhood square next to a lake.

While the ADAMS Centre said it would let police determine whether Ms. Hassanen's death was a hate crime, the vigil heard from a man uniquely placed to understand that tension: Farris Barakat, brother of Deah Barakat, who was shot to death two years ago in Chapel Hill, N.C., with his wife, Yusor Abu-Salha, and her sister, Razan Abu-Salha. That case also stirred controversy after authorities said it was not a hate crime, attributing suspect Craig Hicks's act to a "parking dispute."

"Brothers and sisters, the fear is real. The fear in the Muslim women in their day-to-day lives is palpable," he said. "Muslim lives matter. Nabra's life mattered. Your lives matter."

Family members and friends took the stage to tell stories about Ms. Hassanen – helping a student in math class; singing along to hip-hop with the lyrics displayed on her phone; jokingly flipping her hijab and saying, "I don't have time for this."

One of her cousins made a request of the audience.

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"I wish to not only have you all say her name and tell her stories," she said. "But to say her name after saying she was a black, Nubian Muslim."

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