The stifling August heat lay motionless in Ozone Park, a religiously and culturally diverse community in Queens, a New York City borough just 16 kilometers southeast of lower Manhattan.Every few minutes, a roaring A train passes overhead on Liberty Avenue, pausing any casual conversation. Then mostly silence again.Just two days prior, on the sidewalk beneath the subway tracks at Liberty and 79th streets, someone opened fire on two Muslim males — Imam Maulama Akonjee, 55, and his associate Thara Uddin, 64 — killing both of the Bangladesh immigrants before fleeing the scene.”Neighbors, friends, everybody is shocked,” explained Main Uddin, joint secretary of Al-Furqan Jame Mosque where Akonjee led prayer daily — and three blocks from where he was murdered.
“Everyone likes him, he doesn’t have any enemies,” Uddin said. “He prays five times a day here and then he goes home.”Two days after the shooting, Uddin continues to relive the moment in his head. He had just prayed with Akonjee at 1:30 p.m. They finished at 1:45, like every other day, and went their separate ways.”When I got home,” he said, “somebody called me, ‘The Imam is shot. Somebody shot the Imam.'”Fahim Opu, one of Akonjee’s neighbors and a regular at the mosque, said sadness doesn’t begin to describe his feelings for the Imam, a teacher he called “very gentle.””Sad, fear, everything. I am scared right now,” Opu said. “In the daytime, you are not secure in this neighborhood.”Opu lives in a three-story brick building just a block from the mosque, beside a “mini market” on 77th Street. As he spoke to VOA, a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf passed through with a shopping cart, past a young boy on a hoverboard. Another woman — white — peeked at the sidewalk atop her balcony.Ozone Park, Opu explains, is at times peaceful, with occasional robberies at night.But Norman, a Yemeni-native resident and mini-mart employee, says the fact that the killing took place in broad daylight is “what makes everybody crazy.””All the time you have to worry about something,” he said.Authorities on Monday charged 35-year-old Oscar Morel of New York with second-degree murder and criminal possession of a weapon. Police indicated that the shooting may have resulted from a dispute but have not ruled out the possibility of a hate crime.Still, Muslim residents worry about whether the killer was motivated by religious hatred, and they fear future incidents.”I don’t want to say we’re getting used to [hate crimes],” explained Asad Ba-Yunus, a representative of the Islamic Leadership Council of New York, “but the idea of people doing things to our houses of worship, whether it’s throwing feces or sometimes firing bullets … has become a much more frequent thing.”Ba-Yunus, who attended a Sunday afternoon prayer in Flushing, Queens, told VOA that the shooting has had a chilling effect on Muslims everywhere.”While we can’t necessarily say that this shooting in particular was a hate crime, or related to Islamophobia or anything like that, there’s a strong sense in the community that it probably was, just because of the climate,” Ba-Yunus said. “That’s our first concern overall.”As the city’s Muslims mourn the death of Akonjee and Uddin, organizations like the Islamic Leadership Council are urging Muslim residents to be more vigilant around the mosque and their surroundings.New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, addressing the funeral service Monday, called for justice for the killer of Akonjee and Uddin.Online, volunteers set up a GoFundMe page to assist the victims’ families, which reached nearly $30,000 in donations in one day. Additionally, non-Muslims nationwide joined in solidarity using the Twitter hashtag #IllWalkWithYou, vowing to walk alongside Muslims to and from their house of prayer and help ensure their safety.Meanwhile, at Al-Furqan, worshippers hope to fill a void left by an imam they describe as a man of peace, and a good teacher. Main Uddin says it is their responsibility to keep their doors open, while honoring the man who led them.”He says ‘Just pray, we are Muslims. We have to show the people how we are.’ So peacefully, we have to practice our Islam. That’s it,” Uddin said.Outside the building, a faded sign welcomes worshippers. Although it is difficult to make out the letters, they have not disappeared completely.”In the Name of Allah, the Most Merciful, The Most Beneficent” it reads, in both Arabic and English. Once emblazoned in bright red, white and blue, it still stands there today, for everyone to see.