Slaying of N.Y.C. Imam Was Hate Crime, Community Says; Police Not So Sure

While police continue searching for answers in the killing of the mosque leader and his associate, the Bangladeshi Muslim community worry the slayings could be rooted in intolerance fueled by Donald Trump.

People gather for a demonstration Saturday, Aug. 13, 2016, near a crime scene after the leader of a New York City mosque and an associate were fatally shot as they left afternoon prayers.
Craig Ruttle, AP

The daylight slaying of a mosque leader and his associate on Saturday set off fear and anguish among the Bangladeshi Muslim community in a New York City neighborhood, with some say the killings appear to be an anti-Muslim hate crime.

But a day into the investigation, police said on Sunday there is no evidence of such a motive.

Mashuk Uddin just couldn't believe it was true, shaking as he heard the news that his brother, Thara, a devout Muslim, had been gunned down alongside an imam just blocks from their New York City mosque as they left afternoon prayers.

Police continued searching for answers Sunday morning in the killing of Imam Maulama Akonjee, 55, and Uddin, 64, Saturday afternoon near the Al-Furqan Jame Masjid mosque in Queens.

And while investigators have not established a motive in the attack, a sentiment of fear has come over the neighborhood's Bangladeshi Muslim community, who worry the slayings could be rooted in intolerance.

On Saturday, Deputy Inspector Henry Sautner, of the New York Police Department, said there was "nothing in the preliminary investigation to indicate that they were targeted because of their faith." Both men were wearing traditional religious attire and Akonjee was carrying about $1,000 in cash. The money was not taken during the shooting.

But on Sunday, neighbors who gathered on the quiet residential street where the men lived in the Ozone Park neighborhood of Queens, said they just didn't believe that could be the case.

"This was a hate crime. One hundred percent, there's no doubt about it," said Monir Chowdhury, who worshiped daily with Akonjee and Uddin.

He said he had moved to the community because of its large Bangladeshi immigrant population, but in recent months has been harassed by people shouting anti-Muslim epithets. In one incident, a man called him "Osama" as he walked to the mosque with his 3-year-old son. As the culprit remained uncaptured Sunday, Chowdhury decided it would be best to drive to prayer services.

"I have no freedom," he said. "A lot of neighbors said, 'Hey, don't take your kid with you.' People, they just hate us."

Chowdhury said he has felt the mood in the neighborhood change drastically in the last few months and blamed U.S. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump for spreading what he believes is anti-Muslim rhetoric.

"This neighborhood is getting crazy because of this election and Trump. He hates Muslims," he said. The imam had $1,000 in his pocket "and they didn't take anything. I love this neighborhood and now I'm scared."

Trump's campaign said in a statement that it was "highly irresponsible" to blame a political candidate for the violent attacks.

Naima Akonjee, 28, one of the imam's seven children, said she rushed to her parents' home after the shooting. She said her father was a caring man who would call her just to check up on whether she had eaten properly.

Members of the Bangladeshi Muslim community served by the mosque said they want the shootings to be treated as a hate crime. More than 100 people attended a rally Saturday night and chanted "We want justice!"

Police said they were reviewing surveillance video showing the victims being approached from behind by a man in a dark polo shirt and shorts who shot them and then fled south on 79th Street with the gun still in his hand.

Police released a sketch early Sunday of a dark-haired, bearded man wearing glasses. Police said witnesses described the shooter as a man with a medium complexion. No arrests had been made by Sunday afternoon.