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NYC Bengali community mourns imam’s murder amid climate of fear

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Hundreds of New Yorkers gathered Monday in Queens to say goodbye to a Bengali American imam and his assistant, elderly men shot down by a gunman in broad daylight on Saturday, a killing many in the Ozone Park immigrant community fear was a hate crime.

Police late Monday charged a suspect in the killing, 35-year-old Oscar Morel of Brooklyn. The man’s brother told The New York Post that Morel felt “hatred” against Muslims after the September 11 attacks. Police say Morel shot two victims, Imam Maulama Akonjee, 55, and his assistant Thara Uddin, 64, in the back of their heads.

“The only time we ever felt anything was 9/11. We felt that same anger. We all had a hatred,” Alvin Morel told The Post, adding that whatever ill will Morel had for Muslims dissolved soon after. “We’re Catholic-school kids — we don’t do this. He’s a good guy.”

Authorities do not yet know what the motive was for the crime, but charged Morel with two counts of second degree murder. He is not yet facing any specific hate-crime charges.

The shoes of the victims lie on the sidewalk. (Photo: Wilson Dizard)

The shoes of the victims lie on the sidewalk. (Photo: Wilson Dizard)

The funeral and the neighborhood rallying with cries of “Justice!” for the lone perpetrator of the double murder happen in the midst of unprecedented racist and xenophobic election-year rhetoric. Republican Candidate Donald Trump on Monday called for immigrants to undergo an ideological test on American values. The Democrats have not been as hostile to Muslims, but Bill Clinton made a speech at the party’s Philadelphia convention that disappointed some Muslims by tying the worth of their citizenship to whether they  “love America and freedom and hate terror.”

Although 2016 has given Muslims reasons to be alienated from public life, the emergency of 2016 doesn’t provide the option to stay home. On Saturday, Bengali Americans came out on to the streets to make speeches and mourn together, but also to demand that the New York City Police Department do a better job of protecting their places of worship. The crime also brought out Muslim NYPD officers, including members of the Muslim Officers’ Society (MOS), who offered their support to the community. It was a sad day for them, too.

Two plain clothes New York City cops were in a bodega near the funeral, speaking Arabic with the cashier and joking about who was going to pay a dollar for a coffee. I asked one how this crime made him feel.

“It hurts,” he replied.

The Council on American Islamic Relations was there on Monday, too. The civil rights group is offering a $10,000 reward for information that leads to the arrest of the murderer. It’s not the first time CAIR has offered money to help solve a hate crime.

Although CAIR is a non-partisan organization, the group has not shied away from blaming Trump’s rhetoric against Muslims as a cause for an increase in hate crimes and harassment of Muslims.

“I think not only my view but the view of the majority of people is that Donald Trump is a reckless individual and America and the world would be in much much worse shape if he is elected,” said CAIR director Nihad Awad.

But Trumpism has helped bring about a sad new normal for Muslims, who face the risk of random attack for their religion more than ever, and it creates a climate of fear and mourning. One of the biggest sources of worry surrounds those in Bengali dress, typically older people.

“I got a lot of calls from family members in other states who are worried for our parents, because they wear traditional clothing. Every New Yorker is affected,” said Ash Hussein, 27.

Bengali Americans talk to an NYPD community affairs officer. (Photo: Wilson Dizard)

Bengali Americans talk to an NYPD community affairs officer. (Photo: Wilson Dizard)

As I arrived at the murder scene in Queens on Saturday, I saw two young women, both wearing colorful Bengali garb and hijab, crying into one another’s shoulders. Yellow tape and a police van guarded the active crime scene nearby.

Inaccurate rumors that the police had already decided it wasn’t a hate crime rumbled through the gathered Ozone Park residents on Saturday, almost all of them Bengali-Americans. Bengalis are some of the most recent immigrant groups to the city, and the killing of the imam and his assistant thrust the community into the national spotlight in a matter of hours.

Whatever the motive of the shooter turns out to be, the killings deeply shook the Bengali American community in New York City, the murders seeming like a physical manifestation of the Islamophobia coursing through the body politic around us. Already, Muslims have to deal with verbal slights or slurs.

“Everybody’s nervous, they’re scared to come out of the house, especially females. Many times there have been incidents like this,” said Khairul Islam Kukon, 33. “A typical form of harassment is ‘Go back to your country.’”

Women who wear hijab are often the target of slurs because they wear an indicator of their religion.

“They show their face and then a month later or two months later, the same thing happens again,” Kukon continued. “We are holding the NYPD accountable, they need to take more action. They need more patrolling on the streets, when our Muslim hijabi women come out of the house. Small things become big. We need more protection in the neighborhood. We want to see results.”

About Wilson Dizard

Wilson Dizard is a freelance reporter and photojournalist covering politics, civil rights, drug policy and everything else. He lives in Brooklyn with his bicycle, camera and drum set.

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