November 8, 2017

By Rhonda Itaoui 
2017 Summer Fellow

Just months after the brutal murder of American Muslim Nabra Hassanen, who was assaulted and killed in June 2017 in Virginia, it has become more urgent than ever to interrogate the exclusion of Muslims in our urban spaces.

Hassanen, just 17 years old at the time of her death, was attacked by 22-year-old Darwin Martinez Torres during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan as she walked to her mosque before dawn prayers. Torres followed Hassanen and her friends to a parking lot where he beat Hassanen with a baseball bat before killing her and dumping her body into a nearby pond.

Police said the attack was motivated by road rage, not racial or religious hatred, but this claim has attracted criticism from her family and local activists who insist that the assault should be treated as a hate crime. Violent crimes are increasingly shaping the reality of Muslims across too many Western nations. 

As Tara Isabella Burton wrote for Vox: “Regardless of Torres’s motivation...Hassanen’s murder seems to function in our national discourse about Islamophobia as a hate crime: shining a light on the insecurity many American Muslims feel when operating in a public space that...seems increasingly hostile to their presence”.

The documented increase in anti-Muslim sentiment and hate crimes demand that we question and challenge the extent to which Muslims are excluded from accessing various urban spaces safely and equally. Ongoing debates continue to be held in opposition to where Muslim buildings and organizations belong, and are accompanied by an equally strong desire to regulate, monitor, and control the way Muslim bodies access public spaces. Since 9/11, personal attacks, hate crimes, racial slurs, and discrimination in the public sphere have made it increasingly difficult for Muslims to access or even locate safe spaces, particularly for ‘visible Muslims,' such as women like Nabra Hassanen who wore a hijab in public.

Discussions on the Muslim experience too rarely acknowledge how these spatialized experiences of Islamophobia may shape how Muslims access, or avoid, various city spaces—what is called the "right to the city." As a researcher in human geography, my interest in the spatial mobility of Muslims in the West explores how Muslims internalize and imagine their sense of belonging. I am even more deeply concerned with how negative perceptions impact the way Muslims engage in the public sphere in response to threats. My interests have been influenced by key scholarly analyses on how the geography of power is both shaped by and reproduces racism in urban spaces.

Most compelling is how this geography of power leads to our awareness of being “in/out of place” according to where we do or do not belong. In 2014, I conducted a case study of young Muslims living in Sydney, Australia which captured how threats, perceptions, and experiences of Islamophobia limited their rights in neighborhoods and other sites. According to those youth who I surveyed, Islamophobia “teaches” them how to perceive their sense of belonging, and affects how they engage in public arenas based on the way they imagine Islamophobia to affect the spaces. 

This “geography of Islamophobia” among Muslim youth in Sydney is significantly shaped by the absence or presence of Muslim populations in certain neighborhoods. Sydney’s western suburbs, home to Sydney’s largest Muslim population, were most associated with being accepting of Muslim identities, while regions like the elite north and eastern suburbs with an overwhelming white population, were associated with being unwelcoming of Muslims. This anticipation of racism across Sydney had a direct impact on the way these young Australian Muslims consciously or subconsciously navigated public spaces. Ranging from strategies of avoidance, identity concealment, or travelling in groups, the anticipation of Islamophobia most often resulted in disengagement from public spaces and regions of the city.

The most compelling example of this is reflected in the way Sydney Muslim youth actively avoid Cronulla beach, a decade following the 2005 Cronulla Riots. This “race-riot” was organized by locals, who encouraged ‘Aussies’ via instant messages to “bring your mates and "let’s show them that this is our beach, and that they are never welcome.” 

In response, a mob of over 5,000 gathered to “reclaim the beach” from non-white, Arab, and Muslim Australians. On the day, a handful of youth of ‘Middle Eastern appearance’ were violently assaulted by the riotous mob draped in Australian flags, racist slogans such as “we grew here, you flew here” and Islamophobic hate slurs.

In response to the riot, Sumaya, a 25-year-old Muslim interviewee, indicated that she refused to visit the beach based on the events of that day. “I’ve never been there, just based on what was seen in the media and what was the aftermath of the Cronulla riots,” Sumaya said. 

Sumaya’s apprehension to visit Cronulla was echoed by all interviewees in my Sydney case-study, highlighting the problematic way that the racist instructions of the rioters were internalized, and translated into their disengagement from this region, even 10 years later.

Attacks against Muslim communities have similarly produced fears around belonging, marginality, and safety in the public sphere in many other countries. In the United States, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) Annual Census of Hate Groups and Extremist Organizations reported a 67 percent increase in Islamophobic hate crimes in 2015, and the number of anti-Muslim hate groups has tripled since Trump’s election. The Council for American Islamic Relations reported a 57 percent increase in anti-Muslim incidents in 2016, as well as a 44 percent increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes during the same period.

The tangible impact of this hostile political climate is perhaps best captured in the arson that destroyed the Islamic Center of Victoria, Texas, only hours after the Trump administration announced the first executive order suspending travel from seven Muslim-majority countries. Similarly, SPLC has documented 300 bias-related incidents that targeted immigrants or Muslims in the first 10 days after the election.

Submerged in an anti-Muslim political climate, the threat to safety at Muslim sites of worship, and of people like Nabra Hassanen in Virginia or Sumaya in Sydney, are at an unprecedented level. Despite these pressing concerns around Islamophobia, personal safety, and access to urban space, discussions on racial geographies in the US too often fail to critically engage with the Muslim urban experience.

Discussions of racial geographies in the US have only just begun exploring particularly vital questions related to the impacts of everyday racism on how racialized groups—like American Muslims—access and navigate spaces in the US. Examining and addressing questions such as this not only drives the groundwork required to protect Muslim sites and people from rising anti-Muslim discrimination, but also interrogates the deeper geographies of power that reproduce racism in urban spaces for all “othered" groups.

The compromised safety of Muslim communities within Muslim-minority contexts has not only emphasized the evolving nature of racism and racialized groups in the US, but also urges us to reconsider how we deal with tensions between race, place, and power in urban areas.

In the aftermath of a white nationalist “Unite the Right” march in Charlottesville, Virginia that left one counter protester dead and 34 wounded, we must intentionally and continously consider how to address struggles for power in public spaces. The geography of Islamophobia is a clarion call for those interested in advancing racial justice to interrogate the geography of power and the power of geography in shaping the urban experience and equal access to the public sphere. 

Editor's note: The ideas expressed in this blog post are not necessarily those of the Haas Institute or UC Berkeley, but belong to the author.