A Muslim imam and his associate were shot and killed in broad daylight as they walked away from a mosque in Queens on Saturday afternoon. The New York Daily News and New York Post report that a lone gunman approached the men from behind and shot them both in the head from close range, according to New York police and witnesses. The gunman, who has not been apprehended or identified, may have fired as many as five shots before running away. The attack occurred just before 2 p.m. on 79th Street in Ozone Park, about a block from the Al-Furqan Jame Masjid Mosque, where both men, who were dressed in Muslim garb, had just finished praying. Police initially treated the shooting as a robbery, and police sources told NBC 4 that a preliminary investigation suggested that the men were not targeted because of their religion. No motive has yet been established, however, and the NYPD is continuing to investigate whether or not it was, in fact, a hate crime. That motivation is certainly what many in Ozone Park’s Muslim community already fear.
The imam has been identified as 55-year-old Maulama Akonjee, a Bangladeshi immigrant who was the head of the mosque. The other victim was Akonjee’s associate, 64-year-old Thara Uddin, who was critically injured during the attack and later died while being treated at Jamaica Hospital Medical Center. Imam Akonjee was a well-respected religious leader in the community who was married with three children, according the Daily News.
Uddin, who was also considered a Muslim leader in the community, had moved to the U.S. from Bangladesh five years ago. His brother told the Associated Press that Uddin was devoted to his family and his religion.
Kobir Chowdhury, who is the president of another nearby mosque, told the Daily News that the community is “devastated,” and that Imam Akonjee was a “very sweet, soft-spoken, humble man” who was a “role model as an imam, as a father, [and] as a community member.” He also insisted that the imam “didn’t have any disputes with anybody,” and another community member told the Post that Akonjee was “like the pope for this neighborhood.”
Indeed, it is because of Akonjee’s pious and peaceful personality, in addition to when and where the shooting occurred, that those who knew the men are having trouble believing that the attack could have been motivated by anything other than Islamophobia. Remarked Chowdhury, “We need to get to the bottom of this. We need to know if they did this just because of our religion.”
Members of the mostly Bangladeshi Muslim community who gathered near the scene were quick to call the attack a hate crime, and according to reports, at least some people blamed the political climate in the country — and particularly Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s Islamophobic rhetoric — for the crime. (The Trump campaign later rejected the association as a “highly irresponsible and obviously politically motivated attempt to push an agenda.”)
Per the Post, one witness reported that Akonjee and Uddin seemed like they were singled out, noting that, “There was a carload of people across the street, and a girl across the street, and [the gunman] just targeted these two guys.”
Law-enforcement sources who spoke with the New York Times agreed, saying that the crime seemed planned, didn’t fit any existing pattern, and that, “There is no question that he was targeting them, but it’s hard to say why.” They also report that Akonjee was carrying $1,000 at the time of the shooting, but none of the money was taken.
One area resident who spoke with the Post felt that the shooting should be considered a hate crime, in the sense that “the police should be at the corners, near the mosque area immediately so that we could feel secure.” On average, there have been more than 12 suspected anti-Muslim hate crimes per month in the U.S. over the past few years, according to the FBI, and they spiked following the San Bernardino terrorist attack last year as well.
The suspected killer was originally described by police and witnesses as a tall Hispanic man carrying a large handgun and wearing a dark-blue polo shirt and shorts, and on Sunday the police released a police sketch of the man. No one heard the gunman say anything during the attack. Detectives have video footage of the suspect following the victims, then running away, but no video of the actual shooting itself — at least yet. Police are looking for more surveillance videos and additional witnesses. Meanwhile, New York City leaders, including the mayor’s office, say they are monitoring the situation, and promise that justice will be served.
This is a developing story and this post has been updated throughout.