The killing of one Bangladeshi Imam and his assistant in Ozone Park in broad daylight has shocked many people. The shock, disbelieve and pain were even much greater for the Bangladeshi community living in New York City. The Imam, Maulana Akonjee, was 55 years old, father of three children and a quite, humble and soft spoken religious person according to many who knew him. 64 years old assistant, Thara Uddin, was Imam’s relative and his regular companion at home and at mosque – now, even in death!
Bangladeshi community, as well as other communities, described the murder as a hate crime as the political climate in the USA is hot now with Republican Party candidate Donald Trump’s constant drumbeat of anti-Muslim propaganda. However, the New York City authorities were not willing to portray it as a hate crime unless they are absolutely sure. Whatever the reason behind this cold-blooded murder, it is a very sad incident.
I got the news of the incident within half an hour from Amin, someone who I know lives close to the mosque where the killing happened. The event was still developing but he was sure that the Imam was dead. I could hear his voice was sad, shattered and touchy. Next day, I knew more about the murder from the media and from him. He prayed behind the Imam many times in the mosque, talked to him occasionally and listened to his Jumuah sermons. (Jumuah is the special Friday prayer for Muslims). After few phone conversations with Amin, I was able to pay him a visit a few days later.
My intention was to talk to him about his personal feeling about the incident. I thought that might help him to unfurl his emotions and perhaps help me more to understand the psychological roller coaster of the community through his personal pain and portrayal of the event.
Amin not only knew Maulana Akonjee, he thinks, Imam was one of the best among all the four mosques he generally attends in his neighborhood. Imam’s soft melodious voice during prayer, his mild demeanor, his sermons made an impression on Amin. Imam used to preach Islamic teaching, to follow the path of Allah, lead a simple good life that is right and peaceful. He reminded his congregation importance of eating halal, becoming independent before getting married, marrying within the community, etc.
Imam came from close to Amin’s hometown in Bangladesh (Bangladeshi community in Ozone Park came mostly from the north-east part of Bangladesh). He was shocked by the fact that someone died whom he knew so up close and personal. The killing of an Imam was a big blow too. ‘How come someone could kill an Imam?’, he asked me. He told me with teary eyes that he was not able to sleep for few days after the incident. He has been praying for their departed soul all the time.
We talked about personal pain, community relations, interactions, security, the perception of police, community’s participation, etc.
What is the reaction among Bangladeshi community?
In Ozone Park, both Bangladeshi and non-Bangladeshi were stunned by the incident because of the daring and cruelty of the event. Imam and his companion were killed not at night, not over money, not in fist or fight. They were killed in broad daylight from behind without any warning. Everyone is very sad.
Why do people think it is a hate crime?
Imam was killed without any reasons – no fight, no money, no robbery. The killing was the result of some people’s hate of Muslims. Amin also thinks it is not only hate crime, it was also planned. Perhaps Imam was followed for days before he was killed. Or someone may have tipped the killer about his usual path. From Imam’s dress and bearded it was easy to identify him. (Amin thinks Imam was the target, but the killer did not want any witness, so his companion was also killed).
What is the reason for this hate in Ozone Park?
Amin is not sure what is the reason but he guesses Islam is a peaceful religion and it is spreading in the neighborhood. Many people may not like that. Recently, two non-Muslims converted to Islam in the neighborhood. Some may afraid of spread of Islam. Then, as part of its expansion, Al-Furqan Jame Masjid added loudspeaker for the call to prayer last year. That may have created some tension in the neighborhood with Spanish and Hindu residents of the area. The mosque committee, however, lowered the volume of sound during the call for prayer. However, Amin loves the idea of louder call for prayer.
Is Bangladeshi community living in fear?
Bangladesh community is uneasy and apprehensive that this kind of incident can happen again! It is a fearful situation because Bangladesh Muslims in the area are easily identifiable. Police presence and increased security needed in the area. Bangladeshi community’s peaceful living depends on police and president. If police can provide security and a good president is elected then that is reassuring.
What is the reaction of other communities?
It is hard to know the real reaction of other communities but they are also shocked. Some of them said it could have been happening to us. They are also afraid of their security. Amin noticed some converted American Muslims came to show their support and sympathy and he felt good about it.
How is Bangladeshi community’s interaction with other communities?
Bangladeshi community’s interaction with their neighboring communities is minimal. Communities mix only because of work and must-do situations. Know-your-neighbor is not practiced or kept at a minimal level. Although they play soccer, cricket, basketball together sometimes but that’s the only playtime interaction – nothing after that. Community goes on their ways after play together. Rules of game govern the interaction, not the social excitement. The game itself is the focus, not the interaction and relationship building. Outside of the field, the interaction is just limited to ‘hi-hello’.
Community relationship neither very good nor very bad. There is apparently peaceful coexistence. On the other hand, a few years ago a Bangladeshi journalist was killed. Amin’s own uncle was attacked by a group of youngster
What is the reason for not mixing with other communities?
Amin thinks it is because of cultural differences. Not languages, not dress, not music – it is the halal and haram issue. There are restrictions what a Muslim can do and do not do. He gave me an example, Muslims do not like dogs, but non-Muslims like dogs. According to Islam, even one hair of dog can break a Muslim’s wudu/wuzu (ritual purification), he told me.
Food-related restrictions are the biggest barrier. Most of the Bangladeshi Muslims eat halal meat; they cannot trust the food of non-Muslim restaurants – not even vegetable, dairy dishes. There is a suspicion that same tools, utensils, etc. perhaps used for all kind of dishes. Amin has an extended family live in Ozone Park. He does not know anyone from his family or among friends that they went to eat food in other community restaurants. The concept of halal dominates the Bangladeshi community’s Muslim life in very big way.
Does Bangladeshi community need social support to help them overcome the grief and pain?
Bangladesh community needs support but many people are working or busy, therefore, they cannot always come. Amin thinks if all communities also come forward to stop this kind of crime by protesting, by demanding justice side by side with Bangladeshi community that may help to heal the pain. Bangladesh community needs more communal than personal intervention.
Why will other communities come to support when Bangladeshi community does not have interaction with them?
He does not know what is the answer but he emphasized on more conversation, more friendship should be helpful.
Do you think Donald Trump’s rhetoric has anything to do this crime?
He is not sure but it could be a reason. Trump wants to ‘locked down’ mosques. Trump’s portrayal of Muslims as terrorists sounds stupid because, he wondered, the Imam’s killer is not a Muslim!
How are you coping with your grief or sadness?
Amin feels really bad when he goes to the mosque to pray, the absence of Imam make him sad. Or even when he sees someone with Islamic dress, he sadly remembers the Imam. He is going to the mosque and praying with others more.
Bangladeshi community in Ozone Park and surrounding areas have a strong regional bond with Bangladesh. Most of the people came to USA from the north-eastern part of Bangladesh – Beanibazar, Barlekha, Juri, Kulaura, Fenchuganj, Golapganj, Balaganj, Jagannathpur, etc. They are deeply religious. Strict religious regulations, tight social grip, and traditional family value dominate their life. Imam of a mosque is considered a very precious and pious person of the community. When such a person is killed in daylight without any apparent cause in a country like the USA, then the community’s deep sadness is perhaps understandable. I hope, Amin will get strength and consolation through interaction with Bangladeshi community including other communities.