A 55-year old Bangladeshi-American Imam at a mosque in New York and his associate have been shot and killed from point blank range by an unidentified gunman in broad daylight amid growing concerns across the country over rising Islamophobic rhetoric.
Police said Imam Maulama Akonjee and Thara Uddin, 64, were walking home from afternoon prayers on Saturday when they were approached from behind by a male with medium complexion who was dressed in a dark polo shirt and shorts.
According to witnesses and video surveillance, immediately after the victims were shot, the same male was seen fleeing from the scene with a gun in his hand. Both victims were dressed in Islamic attire at the time of the shooting. The lone gunman still remains at large.
Responding to multiple emergency calls, police found Akonjee and Uddin with gunshot wounds to the head. They were both taken to a local hospital, where Akonjee died as a result of his injuries. Uddin was also in critical condition and later succumbed to his injuries.
Deputy Inspector Henry Sautner said that currently a motive has not been determined and “there’s nothing in the preliminary investigation to indicate that they were targeted because of their faith.”
He said the police is conducting an extensive “canvass of the area for video and additional witnesses”.
No arrests have been made so far and the investigation is ongoing, Sautner said.
The New York Chapter of Muslim civil liberties and advocacy organisation Council on American-Islamic Relations said it has reported an unprecedented spike in anti-Muslim incidents nationwide since Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump’s “bigoted call for a complete ban on Muslims entering the United States.”
The group called for the perpetrators of the killings to be immediately brought to justice.
“The perpetrator of these senseless killings must be swiftly apprehended and face the full force of the law,” said CAIR-NY Executive Director Afaf Nasher. “We ask anyone with information about this attack to contact appropriate law enforcement authorities.”
Akonjee, a father of three, was a respected religious leader who had arrived in Queens from Bangladesh less than two years ago.
Sarah Sayeed, a member of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s staff, was quoted by Fox News as saying that she understands the fear the community is facing “because I feel it myself. I understand the anger. But it’s very important to mount a thorough investigation.”
Shahin Chowdhury, a worshipper at the mosque, said members of the community had felt animosity lately and he had advised fellow community members to be careful walking around, especially when in traditional clothing.
Another individual Millat Uddin said Akonjee had led the mosque for about two years and was a very pious man.
“The community’s heart is totally broken. It’s a great misery. It’s a great loss to the community and it’s a great loss to the society,” he was quoted as saying.
Image: Members of the New York City Police Department establish a crime scene at the spot where Imam Maulama Akonjee was killed in the Queens borough of New York City. Photograph: Stephanie Keith/Reuters