After shooting of imam, N.Y. Muslims confront climate of fear

Most members of the Bangladeshi community in Ozone Park insist the execution-style killings of an imam and his assistant just after prayers Saturday were hate crimes.

Craig Ruttle/AP
A young woman looks on from an elevated train station Saturday, Aug. 13, in the Queens borough of New York, near where the leader of a New York City mosque and an associate were fatally shot.

Over a decade ago, Sahabuddin Chowdhury opened his modest auto repair and body shop on Atlantic Avenue in Queens, right on the northernmost border of Ozone Park, when his teenage daughter and son were still very young.

He was part of a wave of immigrants from Bangladesh that over the past two decades has made this traditionally working class neighborhood another of New York’s mosaic of “littles.”

“We work hard here, we pray, we go to the mosque, we pray five times a day,” he says. “Our children grow up for the Muslim community, and we are proud to be the Muslims. We are making a peaceful life in this community.”

On Monday, however, Mr. Chowdhury closed his single-garage shop at noon and slowly made his way through the side streets to Ozone Park – where a number of single-owner yellow cabs sit parked in front of the rows of single-family houses, many with American flags out front. He was on his way to attend a Salat al-Janazah funeral prayer for a local imam and his assistant – an event attended by local officials, including New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.

The religious leaders, Imam Maulana Alauddin Akonjee and his assistant Thara Miah, were shot and killed execution style, in broad daylight and near the neighborhood’s elevated subway tracks, minutes after they walked from midday prayers at a mosque two blocks away.

“I’ve never seen this happen, I’ve never seen this in my life,” Chowdhury says, noting that the neighborhood is not without its problems. “The imam just finished the prayer, and now – we are very, very upset. My kids, we are very now – they are feeling very unsafe about what’s going on. My daughter, my son, they are crying, say[ing], 'Daddy, don’t go outside, it’s unsafe.' It’s not a good time for our people.”

It’s been a refrain of many American Muslims over the past year, as community advocates and even President Obama cite a growing climate of fear among Muslim residents. A growing list of threats and acts of violence and intimidation across the nation have set many communities on edge.

“See my beard, see my clothing – I am a Muslim, anybody can hit me, anybody can shoot me,” says Mia Parvez, a tourism and travel agent wearing a light panjabi long shirt and traditional tupi cap. He has started to become more politically active this year, he says, becoming an organizer for the local Bangladeshi community. “So this is the problem now, everybody scared now, not like before.”

Police arrested a Brooklyn man, Oscar Morel, later on Monday. He was charged with second-degree murder and criminal possession of a weapon, police said, but they caution that a motive has not yet been established. Imam Akonjee was carrying $1,000 cash, according to police, but security cameras captured the quick execution-style shootings and police believe robbery was not a motive.

Most members of the Bangladeshi community in the area insist that is was a hate crime – even though many said they had mostly felt safe in this Ozone Park enclave in the past few months.

Muhammad Asrab Khan, like Chowdhury, is wearing a dusty T-shirt and work boots as he makes his way to the Janazah service – even as the majority of the men gathering are attired in traditional garb like Mr. Parvez – familiar clothing now on the streets of this “Little Bangladesh” in Ozone Park.

Mr. Asrab Khan is an electrician, a small-business owner who installs security cameras, mostly as a subcontractor for the General Services Administration, the federal agency that oversees government buildings and maintenance.

He, too, was part of the influx of Bangladeshis who arrived in the past decade and have become legal residents – about 15,000 per year, according to the Department of Homeland Security, with New York being the top destination.  

“I am a contractor, and so many people here, they work for the government, work for the union, they try to build up our lives in Amrika,” Asrab Khan says, using the common pronunciation for America in the community. “A lot of Bengali people, they are doctors and engineers and teachers – they support our community, our government, and our police officers.”

Not too long ago, this area was knows as the “Little Italy of Queens.” Before that, German and Irish workers helped build the row houses along the neighborhood’s side streets. Even earlier, back in the 19th century, French factory workers here produced pots.

And now Chowdhury and others here know well the idea of what they sometimes refer to as the “Amrikan dream” – a chance to provide their children with a better home, a better education, and in certain ways a better life.

As a member of the Chittagong Association of North America, an advocacy group for Bangladeshis headquartered in Brooklyn, Asrab Khan says communities in New York have not necessarily experienced the same kind of overt acts of intimidation and violence that some other communities in the US have experienced.   

“But some political leaders are talking anti-Muslim, the sentiment is going up,” says Kazi Hussain, former president of the Chittagong Association. “This is a bad thing, this is dangerous thing – for democracy. So I’d like to say, Donald Trump, please stop your speech against the Muslims.”

During the service, angry cries of “We want justice!” often interrupted those speaking.

"I want you to know we are all mourning with you," Mayor de Blasio told the crowd of more than 1,000 Muslim men attending the funeral prayers. The two victims "were examples of goodness and righteousness," he said.

“In Islam, the loss of a person is regarded as not just a loss for their family, but for the entire community,” the mayor continued. “That’s something we as New Yorkers understand, again across all faiths, across all neighborhoods... We're not going to listen to those voices who try to divide us. We will stand up to them each and every time," he said. "We will make sure that whoever did this is brought to justice, I can guarantee you that."

For Nasir Uddin, an undocumented worker who peddles perfumes and such near Manhattan’s Chinatown on Canal Street, the “Amrikan dream” has changed the lives of his American born children.

“I come here for one thing, mainly: education for my children,” he says. “My sons now have a rising life, my daughter has a rising life, even if I am not rising so much. Amrika feeds me, gives me a better life.”

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