Police in New York City insist there is no evidence to suggest the motive behind the shooting of a Muslim cleric and his associate in broad daylight in Queens. But community members quickly called on authorities to treat the murders as hate crimes at a time of growing intolerance against Muslims. “Read my lips: This is a hate crime,” Kobir Chowdhury, a leader at another local mosque said during a news conference near the crime scene where Imam Maulama Akonjee, 55, and 64-year-old Thara Uddin were murdered on Saturday afternoon. “There’s nothing in the preliminary investigation to indicate that they were targeted because of their faith,” said Henry Sautner of the New York Police Department.
The imam from the Al-Furqan Jame Masjid mosque had just delivered an afternoon service and was walking home with an associate when an unknown assailant approached from behind, shot them, and fled with the gun still in his hand. Akonjee was carrying more than $1,000 at the time of the shooting but the money was not taken.
Members of the Bangladeshi Muslim community served by the mosque say the murders took place at a time when they had been feeling increasing intolerance in the neighborhood that led some to be careful about when and where they put on traditional clothing. Their fears are hardly unique as the Council on American-Islamic Relations has repeatedly warned this year about a rising wave of Islamophobia across the country. In June, CAIR called on community leaders to consider increasing security around mosques.
A protest broke out near the crime scene and demonstrators called for justice. Some quickly pointed the finger at the Republican presidential candidate. “That’s not what America is about,” local resident Khairul Islam, 33, told the New York Daily News. “We blame Donald Trump for this … Trump and his drama has created Islamophobia.” Imam Johari Abdul-Malik widened the scope to other politicians beyond Trump: “For those in leadership like Mr. Trump and Mr. Giuliani and other members of institutions that project Islam and Muslims as the enemy this is the end result of their wickedness.”
No arrests have been made in connection to the shooting and New York City police released a sketch of the suspect early Sunday.
Update, Aug. 15, 2016, at 11:40 a.m.: The Trump campaign released a statement criticizing those who link the murders to the Republican presidential campaign:
To blame any political candidate for these murders is a highly irresponsible and obviously politically motivated attempt to push an agenda. Mr. Trump opposes crime and violence in any form and, as president, will work with law enforcement and community leaders to create an environment where tragedies like this never happen again.