Imam killing increases dread among NY Muslims

By Abigail Hauslohner

A member of the Al-Furqan Jame Masjid mosque stands near a police sketch of a suspect believed to have shot the mosque's imam. Photo / AP
A member of the Al-Furqan Jame Masjid mosque stands near a police sketch of a suspect believed to have shot the mosque's imam. Photo / AP

The men who gathered on the steps of the small, brown-painted Al-Furqan Jame mosque in New York today had a message for the authorities.

"We want justice," Badrul Khan, the mosque's founder, said as a dozen men crowded beside him repeated the chant before a line of TV cameras, reporters and police.

Tension is gripping this working-class corner of Queens, particularly its large Bengali immigrant community, a day after Al-Furqan Jame's imam and his assistant were shot at point-blank range in the head on a street just a few blocks from the mosque in the Ozone Park neighbourhood.

Maulama Akonjee, the 55-year-old imam, and Thara Uddin, 64, both immigrants from Bangladesh and fathers of three, were walking home from the midday prayer when they were killed. Their attacker, an unknown man who fled on foot seemingly as quickly as he had appeared behind them, remains at large. The New York Police Department has produced a sketch of the suspect and says its investigation of the motive is underway.

But in an election year marred by anti-Muslim vitriol, from the Twittersphere to Republican nominee Donald Trump's campaign stage, there is a feeling of certainty for many in this Queens community that what happened was a hate crime - a double murder perpetrated because the men were Muslim - and they want to hear the city say it out loud.

"As a community organiser, it is obvious," said Rokeya Akhter, 55, a Bangladeshi-American activist who drove to the Ozone Park mosque with two friends from the nearby neighbourhood of Jamaica to show their support. "They were targeted as Muslims."

According to mosque members and police, Akonjee and Uddin, clad in long traditional garb, walked out the gate of the chain-link fence that surrounds the mosque, marked by a faded sign, and into the sweltering heat.

They walked up the concrete pavement of Glenmore Avenue, as they usually did, past more chain-link fences and small brick houses, one with sunflowers blooming in the yard. They passed the homes of black Americans and Latinos and Bangladeshi immigrants like themselves, in a neighbourhood where many of the local businesses are marked by signs in two or three languages.

When they turned the corner from 79th Street onto Liberty Avenue, they were just a few minutes from their own modest brick homes, set less than a block apart. The imam's wife had cooked lunch, Khan said. "It was on the plate."

But as the two men turned onto Liberty, under a highway overpass where the thundering noise of cars overhead can drown out conversation and other sounds for minutes at a time, a man rushed up behind them.

In the grainy, black-and-white video that Uddin's 18-year-old nephew, Tamim Uddin, said came from the private security camera of a home across the street, two people - apparently Akonjee and Uddin - can be seen rounding the corner as a third person runs up and appears to shoot. The men crumple to the ground. The attacker retreats down 79th Street.

Police said on Sunday that they had no reason to believe the murders constituted a hate crime, telling reporters that it might have been a botched robbery. Akonjee was carrying US$1000 in cash, they said. The attacker stole none of it.

A New York Police spokesperson, Sergeant Jessica McRorie, said that the department's Hate Crimes Task Force is involved in the investigation, although the murders have not been labelled as one. "The motive is under investigation," McRorie said.

Mary Jobaida of New York, rests on a fence outside the Al-Furqan Jame Masjid mosque in Queens, New York. Photo / AP
Mary Jobaida of New York, rests on a fence outside the Al-Furqan Jame Masjid mosque in Queens, New York. Photo / AP

"The guy came from nowhere and started shooting at them," Tamim Uddin said, standing in his uncle's driveway.

"It was a hate crime," he added. "They don't like Muslims - that's it."

Uddin said the family had not experienced hostility before his uncle's murder. But like other community members who spoke today, he said he could feel the national rhetoric against Muslims creeping into his life.

When he posted the news of his uncle's death on Facebook, someone quickly responded. "You were warned not to mess with the West and now you must suffer thy consequences!" the stranger wrote in a diatribe against Islam that left Uddin bewildered. The message continued: "Tick tock . . . TRUMP2016!! Death to all who challenge Western Civilisation!!"

A rotation of city officials, including the New York City comptroller, a member of the City Council, a State Assembly member and the Queens borough president, visited the mosque today to show solidarity - and call for unity.

"Those individuals were assassinated in cold blood," City Comptroller Scott Stringer said, joining mosque leaders on the front steps before the cameras. "All of us, of all different faiths, must come together with the Muslim community and stand as one."

There are some who might feel "suspicious" towards the authorities right now, he added. "We must work with our city."

"If they do determine it is a hate crime, then we're going to do everything in our power to ensure that it's prosecuted as a hate crime," said Assemblyman David Weprin, of Queens.

The mosque members around him seized on his last words. "Yes, it is a hate crime!" they began to chant.

The murders were at least the fifth suspected hate crime against Muslims this year in Queens, which has more than two million residents, and at least the 10th in New York City overall, according to a Washington Post examination of local news and police reports.

The assaults included one in April in which a man believed to be high on synthetic drugs burst into the predominantly Bangladeshi Jamaica Muslim Centre and beat up several worshippers. There have been other beatings in which assailants have shouted slurs against Muslims and Isis (Islamic State).

I think it's directly related to the incitement levelled by Donald Trump
Ali Najmi

At least two cases have so far been charged as hate crimes. A New York police spokesperson was not immediately able to confirm those numbers.

"There has been an increase in hate crimes against the Muslim American community . . . and people are scared," said Ali Najmi, a lawyer who is representing an Bangladeshi immigrant who in May was badly beaten on a street by a man yelling "F*** Indians."

Najmi, who said hate-crime charges are difficult to secure because police must show a discriminatory intent, is struggling to get his client's case classified as a hate crime.

"I think it's directly related to the incitement levelled by Donald Trump," he said of the attacks, including Sunday's killings. "I believe there's a correlation there and a causation. The community is really on edge between everything he's doing and what we're seeing on the ground."

Today, mosque leaders held up the police sketch of the attacker, depicted as a bearded man with dark hair and glasses. They held the sketch in front of the TV cameras. Then they taped it to the mosque's door.

Now there are murmurs and debate, Uddin said, about what to do next. Should they protest? Should they wait? Should they trust the police to arrest the man who did this and charge him appropriately?

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, issued a statement.

"While we do not yet know the motivation for the murders of Maulama Akonjee and Thara Uddin, we do know that our Muslim communities are in the perpetual crosshairs of bigotry," de Blasio's news release said.

"It remains critical that we work to bridge the divides that threaten to undermine the greatness of our city and country. Rest assured that our NYPD will bring this killer to justice."

- Washington Post

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