The horrific murder of a Queens imam

Danny Katch and Mehran Mehrdad Ali report from New York City on the grief and anger in Ozone Park following the killing of the beloved leader of a local mosque.

Mourners gather for the funeral of Imam Maulama Akonjee (AboutIslam.net)Mourners gather for the funeral of Imam Maulama Akonjee (AboutIslam.net)

BANGLADESHI-AMERICANS in the Ozone Park neighborhood in Queens were shocked last weekend by a double murder of the leader of a local mosque and his friend--in broad daylight on a busy street.

On Saturday afternoon, Maulama Akonjee, imam of the Al Furqan Jame Mosque, was walking home after midday prayers with assistant Thara Uddin when the two men were shot execution-style in the back of the head by an unknown gunman.

"This caught everyone off guard," said Jahid, a high school student standing outside the mosque the day after the shooting. "It's a strong community. We care for each other, look out for each other. It's hard to process. I think everyone now is just fearful of wearing their usual gowns."

Police have refused to speculate about whether the crime was motivated by anti-Muslim prejudice--a stark contrast to the way authorities in New York City and around the country leap to conclusions about "terrorism" any time an assailant is suspected of being Muslim.

But hundreds of members of the Bangledeshi community who gathered to protest in the hours after the murders angrily disagreed. They demanded justice and led chants against Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, whose anti-Muslim rhetoric during the presidential campaign has led, they believe, to an increase in Islamophobic attacks.

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MANY RETURNED to Al Furquan Jame on Sunday for a post-prayer afternoon press conference featuring City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. Standing around the outskirts of the press conference, a number of local residents told Socialist Worker that they have felt a sharp increase in anti-Muslim hostility over the course of the past year.

Amit Alshaikh said there has been more hatred since Trump began spouting his Islamophobic and xenophobic rhetoric--more than even in the months following the September 11 attacks. Alshaikh said the increased hostility has affected everything from his sense of safety to his attempts to find a job.

Politicians like Trump, said another local resident named Anowar, "sit there with their high security level, and they say things, throwing words out there, and it's hurting innocent people. They're not realizing what they're doing to us, just because they have the money and they have the power."

Monir Chowdry, a neighbor of Akonjee and Uddin who regularly worshipped with them, told CBS News that he had moved to Ozone Park because of its strong Bangladeshi community, but that recently he has felt unsafe in his own neighborhood.

After a recent incident in which someone shouted "Osama" at him as he walked to the mosque with his 3-year-old son, he decided to start driving to Al Furqan Jame instead of walking.

Nayeem Islam said in an interview that he wasn't sure if the murder of Akonjee and Uddin was a hate crime, but he also talked about an incident just two weeks ago in which three young Muslims were attacked inside a nearby mosque.

That incident didn't make it into any news reports, but there have been a number of more high-profile attacks on Muslims in recent months. Mohamed Rasheed Khan was knocked off his bike and savagely beaten in June after leaving the Center for Islamic Studies in Jamaica, Queens, leaving the 59-year-old with a concussion, broken ribs, and broken bones in his face.

Last month, two teens were beaten outside their mosque in Brooklyn. Incredibly, police refused to classify the attack as a hate crime--despite the fact that the attacker called one of the victims a "fucking terrorist" and shouted, "You Muslims are the cause of all the problems in the world!" The cops insisted that the attacker was angry that the teens allegedly harassed his girlfriend.

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QUESTIONS WILL undoubtedly continue to be raised about the relationship between the NYPD and the Muslim residents they are supposed to serve and protect. Many of the Ozone Park residents gathered outside Maulama Akonjee's mosque on Sunday were adamant that they want their community to be better policed so that they can feel safer.

Some spoke about organizing to get more surveillance cameras put up in the neighborhood. Others wondered if the police didn't give them as much attention because they were immigrants, without enough political or economic influence.

But while calls for more police protection are understandable for a community that fears a rise in bias crimes, they don't address the disturbing question of how deeply Islamophobia runs within the NYPD itself.

Under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg--a prominent ally of Donald Trump's Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton--the city's police department worked with the CIA to create programs that spied on and sent informants and provocateurs into over 250 mosques around the city, as well as Muslim student clubs on college campuses.

Some of these secret programs were shut down because of a public outcry after they were exposed by the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporting of the Associated Press, but the New York Times has reported that the NYPD under Bloomberg's successor Bill de Blasio has continued to aggressively recruit--and possibly coerce--Muslim New Yorkers into becoming informants in their mosques and neighborhoods.

Perhaps just as disturbing is the fact that the NYPD--like many other police departments--has trained its anti-terrorism "intelligence" officers with nakedly Islamophobic materials like the film "The Third Jihad," which claims that "the true agenda of much of Islam in America" is "a strategy to infiltrate and dominate America...This is the war you don't know about."

In 2007, the NYPD's Intelligence Unit produced a report titled "Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat," a hysterical Trump-like rant that claims possible "indicators" of "radicalization" include "wearing traditional Islamic clothing [and] growing a beard," abstaining from alcohol, and "becoming involved in social activism."

This history of Islamophobia coming from the highest levels of the NYPD poses difficult questions for the Bangladeshi community in Ozone Park.

Asked about the police surveillance of mosques, Long Island University student Arieff Hussain said, "The NYPD is supposed to be the people who protect us--the people who are beyond suspicion. If we can't trust them, how are we going to a place of worship and discuss our business if we don't think it's trustworthy?"

For now, however, people's main focus is grieving the loss of a beloved community figure. Anowar described Akonjee as an honest and good person whose final sermon on the Friday before he was killed was about how people could live in peace in such a violent world.

Akonjee's son, Foyez Uddin, told the Associated Press that the imam and his wife were scheduled to visit Akonjee's ailing mother in Bangladesh at the end of the month.

On Monday, a thousand people came to Akonjee's funeral in Ozone Park. Many applauded Mayor de Blasio's promise to bring more police protection to the neighborhood--but there were also angry shouts for justice.