A new hate crime in Queens?

September 6, 2016

The murder of a Bangladeshi-American woman weeks after the shooting of an imam and his assistant, has left community members stunned, writes Mehrana Ali.

JUST WEEKS after New York's Bangladeshi community was shocked by the double murder of an imam and his assistant, another fatal attack on an older Bangladeshi-American on the streets of Queens is raising frightening questions about the consequences of increased Islamophobia and anti-immigrant hatred.

60-year-old Nazma Khanam was stabbed to death last Wednesday night as she was walking home with her husband Shamsul Alam Khan from their souvenir shop in Jamaica Hills. The 75-year-old Khan, who suffers from asthma, had stopped to catch his breath and let his wife walk ahead when he heard her screams.

A few days later, 22-year-old Yonatan Galvez-Marin was arrested and charged with Khanam's murder. According to the New York Daily News, Galvez-Marin gave two videotaped statements confessing to the crime as part of an attempted robbery, and "investigators do not believe Khanam's faith or ethnicity were factors in her killing."

That explanation is unlikely to satisfy many of the hundreds who had gathered on Friday at the Jamaica Muslim Center to mourn Khanam and call for justice.

The family of Nazma Khanam mourns her death
The family of Nazma Khanam mourns her death

For one thing, none of Khanam's personal possessions were taken during the attack. For another, Khanam's murder comes less than a month after two other Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants, Maulama Akonjee and Thara Uddin, were shot in the back of the head in broad daylight in nearby Ozone Park.

In that case, the NYPD also argued that the shootings were not a hate crime but a likely robbery attempt--despite the fact that Akonjee, the imam of a local mosque, was found carrying $1,000 in cash that the killer never tried to take.

SO FAR, there is much that we cannot be sure of regarding this case. When Imam Akonjee and Thara Uddin were murdered, police were also very reluctant to call that a hate crime and speculated that it was a robbery attempt, even though no money taken.

A 35-year old man, Oscar Morel, has been charged with the double murder, but police have admitted to reporters that they are unsure about his motives. Morel doesn't appear to have a history of violence, anti-Muslim sentiment or any personal connection with the Akonjee or Uddin. Last week, he pled not guilty to the charges.

There are just as many questions surrounding the murder of Nazma Khanam. "Our best guess is it was a psycho," a police spokesperson told the New York Daily News. "He ran at her. There was no conversation. This is a hard one to explain."

But it isn't hard to explain why many Bangladeshi New Yorkers are convinced that these recent murders are hate crimes. After the murders of Akonjee and Uddin, mourners told Socialist Worker that they have experienced rising levels of Islamophobic attacks, fueled by the racist campaign rhetoric of Donald Trump.

Another thing we can be sure of is that if the situation were reversed, and a different community or neighborhood were being terrorized by a series of public murders carried out by Muslims, police and the media would not hesitate to label the attacks as terrorism, and politicians would be lining up to call for more bombs in the Middle East and more restrictions against refugees, regardless of whether even if the attacker was born and raised in the U.S.

Whatever the cause of the murder of Nazma Khanam turns out to be, her death is yet another reminder that Muslims and immigrants are far less likely to be the perpetrators of violence than the victims of a system stokes racial and religious hatred and creates profoundly destructive alienation.

Danny Katch contributed to this article.

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