The Imam’s Widow

by Rahima Nasa Sept. 4, 2018, 12:35 p.m. EDT As the wife of a Muslim religious...

The Imam’s Widow

As the wife of a Muslim religious leader, she came to America with uncertainty and hope. A suspected hate crime snuffed out the hope.

Every night, Alauddin Akonjee set the alarm clock in the bedroom of his home in Ozone Park, Queens, fearful he wouldn’t wake in time for morning prayer. And each morning, he and his wife, Minara, would be awake before the buzzer sounded.

Alauddin, a Muslim immigrant from Bangladesh, was the imam at the nearby mosque and devoted to his religious obligations. Minara, his wife of nearly 30 years, was devoted to making sure the imam met those obligations. She would lay his clothes out on the bed, and, after he’d gone off to the mosque, she’d make sure a lunch was ready for him, typically a meal of rice and curried fish.

But Alauddin and Minara had built more than a life of modest, familiar routines in their unassuming corner of America, a Queens neighborhood that has served as home to a succession of immigrant groups over the last century. Their children had gone to local schools and found jobs or started families of their own. The mosque where Alauddin served as imam, Al Furqan Jame Masjid, had more than doubled in size in recent years. Born in the basement of a house on Glenmore Avenue, it had grown to draw 100 or more congregants for Friday prayer, the entire mosque overflowing.

“He taught me and my brothers how to read the Quran, but did it in a way that wasn’t overwhelming or intimidating,” Mizan Uddin, a 19-year-old member of the mosque, said of Alauddin. “He had a great sense of humor, one that you don’t see a lot with religious leaders.”

On Aug. 13, 2016, Alauddin did not show up for his rice and fish. Instead, it was the wife of one of the imam’s best friends who turned up just after 2 p.m. The world Minara had made for herself and her family was over.

A gunman had shot Alauddin dead in the streets of Queens. His friend, Thara Miah, had been slain as well. The gunman had fled, and his reason for killing the two men, the authorities said at the time, was a mystery: There had been no dispute; the men’s valuables had not been stolen.

Minara found her husband laid out on the sidewalk, his white robes stained with blood. He’d been shot in the back of the head, and his face was marked by multiple exit wounds. For Minara, there was no question about the gunman’s motive: Alauddin had been targeted because of his faith.

“Why else would anyone attack my husband?” she asked.

A local man, Oscar Morel, was soon arrested and eventually convicted of the double murder. But Morel never confessed, and prosecutors, armed with damning evidence — a videotape of the twin slayings, a gun hidden in Morel’s apartment — felt that establishing a motive was unnecessary at trial.

Two years later, Minara’s American life has been shrunk to a bare minimum. She rarely goes out of her home, eats and sleeps erratically, hardly talks at all on the phone. Her children say that the color has been drained from her skin, and that she’s lost weight. They’ve created a system so that, as much as possible, one of them is by her side. Before her interview with ProPublica, she had never spoken publicly.

“Other than my family,” she said recently, “there isn’t much for me to live for here.”

One thing that has stayed with her is the conviction that her husband’s killing was a crime of hate. Her seven children have little doubt as well.

The killing took place amid a national spike in hate crimes, from vandalism to the firebombing of mosques. Donald Trump had called for a “total and complete” block on Muslims entering the U.S., and he engaged in a public dispute with a Muslim family whose son, an Army captain, died in Iraq.

In New York, reported hate crimes grew from 307 in 2015 to 364 in 2016, according to the police. Reports of hate crimes against Muslims rose from 21 to 29 in that same period. ProPublica’s Documenting Hate project has received nearly 400 tips involving anti-Muslim hate incidents.

In April 2016, the New York Police Department investigated a possible hate crime after a man ran into a mosque in Jamaica, Queens, and started randomly punching people. Two months later, there were three more disturbing incidents: A man was arrested for threatening to kill all Muslims at a mosque on Staten Island,a Muslim man in the Parkchester section of the Bronx was beaten on his way to a mosque, and a teenager was arrested on hate crime charges for beating up a  Muslim man in Queens. Three weeks after Alauddin and Miah were gunned down, a Muslim woman was stabbed to death near her home in Jamaica, Queens.

The murder of Alauddin in Ozone Park rocked more than the imam’s household. Fear swept through the community. Debates were held about the wisdom of inviting more police protection — the scars from the New York Police Department’s decade of controversial surveillance of the city’s mosques after 9/11 still fresh. And a thriving congregation struggled to move forward without its leader.

“Imam Akonjee had a special talent for translating the chapters of the Quran and made it so that anyone could understand the lessons the book teaches,” said Badrul Khan, president of Al Furqan Jame Masjid.

His murder, then, hit hard, and distinctively.

“Look, people have gotten mugged here before, and we didn’t think those were hate crimes,” Khan said. “Not every crime against a Muslim is a hate crime, but this one felt different. Everyone in this community has had this reaction. No other reason seems to makes sense. Yet not knowing why for sure is what gives people here the most tension.”

There is little question that Minara has borne the greatest burden. In talking to ProPublica, she has offered an uncommon entree into a life unfamiliar to much of the country — the supportive, in her case all but silent, role of a Muslim leader’s wife. A role now blown asunder by violence.

When she came to the U.S. in 2014, Minara said, she was deeply uncertain about what to expect, even scared. It was her husband who both persuaded and reassured her. And so while her faith was a help, Alauddin, as spouse and imam, was her rock.

“I had a lot of faith in my husband,” she said.

Now, at 51, she is as she was when she arrived in Queens: uncertain, afraid, but without her rock.

Minara Akhter grew up in Habiganj, an agricultural village outside of Sylhet, Bangladesh. Her father was an imam, and his 10 children benefited from his instruction. Minara said one of her childhood joys was mastering the guttural pronunciations of the Quran’s Arabic text.

In Alauddin, Minara found a man a lot like her father. He had earned a graduate degree and founded his own Islamic school. He was good with children. And so in 1989, after a few meetings arranged by their families, the two married in a small ceremony in their village. The next year, they had their first child, a daughter, and soon after six more children, another daughter and five boys.

In 2008, Minara’s first child, Naima, moved to the U.S. to live with her husband. Alauddin followed three years later. He did stints as imam at a mosque in the Bronx, and then at another in Elmhurst, Queens. In 2014, Alauddin landed at Al Furqan Jame Masjid in Ozone Park, and he was ready for his wife and other children to join him. He assured his wife that moving to the U.S. would not only allow her to be closer to their daughter and grandchildren, but also would provide them with more economic opportunities than Bangladesh. Ultimately, their ambitions were modest: serve Allah and provide a better life for their children, five of whom accompanied their mother to America.

In America, the role of imams has grown broader and beyond leading prayers at a mosque. They offer marital advice and counsel on what foods can be eaten. And they give guidance to parents struggling with how to raise devout Muslim children in a foreign culture.

Alauddin quickly and capably filled that expansive role in Ozone Park, becoming known for his calm and thoughtful sermons and his rambunctiousness when teaching Islam classes to the children of his congregants. He was seen as humble, but irreplaceable.

The role for wives of imams is hardly prescribed, and instead is shaped by individual cultures. Women can decide how much or how little involved they want to be with the broader community. But it can be, as it was for Minara, a fully behind-the-scenes role, one rooted in the home.

“My mother and father would always eat together,” Naima Akonjee said. “It was almost like one could not eat without the other one.”

Saif Akonjee, the oldest son, said: “Our father didn’t belong to just us, but to everyone in the Islamic community. It’s something he could do because he had support from my mother.”

A security camera caught it all on Glenmore Avenue in Ozone Park: A man identified by authorities as Morel walked up behind Alauddin and Miah. He pumped four bullets into Alauddin’s head and body. Miah was felled by a single shot to the head.

The footage showed no argument, no struggle. The $1,000 Alauddin had in his pocket went untouched. Morel, prosecutors said, simply made his way to his nearby Chevrolet Trailblazer and sped off.

“At the time, I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to hurt my peaceful, loving husband,” Minara said. “The only explanation that made sense to me was because of who he was.”

The arrest and prosecution of Morel shed little additional light on the question.

While no one had witnessed Morel carry out the murders, Morel hit a bicyclist with his Trailblazer shortly afterward and a good Samaritan took down his license plate number. The police later found and arrested Morel outside his home in Brooklyn, a little more than a mile away from where the killings took place. Police found a .38-caliber Taurus revolver that had been wiped clean but wrapped in a T-shirt with Morel’s DNA on it hidden in the wall of his kitchen.

Morel, 37, insisted he was innocent. He didn’t meet any classic definition of a hate crime suspect, if there is such a thing. He came from a family of Dominican immigrants and spent much of his life in Queens. He was a product of Catholic school and even had a white rosary hanging above the dashboard of his car.

Many of the Muslim residents of the neighborhood instantly suspected Alauddin’s faith was the reason. A rumor floated around that the killings had been a result of a rift between Muslims and Latinos living in the neighborhood. The New York Police Department could never confirm any such dispute.

Queens Assistant District Attorney Peter Lomp tried the case against Morel, and the only time he spent on the question of establishing motive was to tell the jury to ignore the matter. The physical evidence, he said, was overwhelming.

“Generally speaking, when it comes to hate crimes, the accused is stating his bias before or during the attack,” Lomp said in a recent interview. “In this case, he never states anything about hating Muslims. His brother had mentioned to us that after 9/11 [Morel] made a comment about hating Muslims. But that was a broad and sweeping notion he stated 15 years ago.”

“We don’t have to prove motive in court,” Lomp said, adding that this is a common misconception. “If you focus on why this happened, you will be distracted. I basically begged the jury to not focus on that.”

The jury returned a guilty verdict, one Morel is appealing. But it has allowed Lomp a little more freedom to talk motive.

“You just don’t fire a gun and empty bullets into a person’s head and body at close range and there’s not some degree of hate there — either you hate them or you hate their people broadly,” Lomp said.

Morel, asked at his sentencing why he had killed the men, said he felt badly for the slain men’s families, but he maintained he’d never owned a gun much less used one to kill people.

The judge, in sentencing Morel to life in prison without parole, had no use for Morel’s claims.

“This was not a robbery or a robbery attempt. You immediately started shooting as you came up to those two men who were just walking up the street,” Judge Gregory L. Lasak said to Morel. “It was a cold-blooded assassination, and it wasn’t a random assassination.”

Khan, the president of Al Furqan Jame Masjid, said the fear that swept the neighborhood after the murders made asking for additional police protection logical. But it wasn’t a request made without worry.

For years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the New York Police Department ran a sweeping surveillance program aimed at Muslim communities in and around the city. When it was uncovered, the American Civil Liberties Union sued and compiled what it regarded as a damning set of accusations. The program, it said, amounted to profiling — singling out community leaders, mosques, student associations and businesses — and extended to Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New Jersey and elsewhere.

New York Police Department officers, stationed in cars outside of mosques, have taken pictures and video of those leaving and entering places of worship, and recorded the license plate numbers of worshippers attending services. Remotely controlled Police Department cameras have also been placed on light poles, aimed at mosques. The department has recruited so-called “mosque crawlers” to act as inside observers. They report on sermons, provide names of attendees and take pictures. Employing a method called “create and capture,” the department has instructed informants to “create” conversations about jihad or terrorism and “capture” and report the responses to the police. Informants are often selected from a pool of arrestees, prisoners or suspects who are pressured into becoming informants.

The ACLU’s suit was eventually settled, as were two other similar lawsuits. The suits produced a mix of promised reforms and some monetary payouts, but the New York Police Department never admitted to wrongdoing.

Given that history, encouraging the police to install security cameras or provide a greater presence felt to some like a fraught exercise.

“How do we navigate this situation by inviting law enforcement to monitor or assist or sort of keep a watch on the area without raising concerns among the community about what that looks like?” asked Madihha Ahussain, a lawyer for Muslim Advocates, one of the organizations that sued the Police Department. “I mean that’s surveillance. You’re almost becoming vulnerable in that situation, making yourself vulnerable to all aspects of law enforcement.”

Ozone Park is a working-class neighborhood that actually straddles Queens and Brooklyn, and today its population is largely a mix of South Asian, Indo-Caribbean and Latino immigrants. It’s a neighborhood of taxi drivers, restaurant and construction workers, halal butcher shops and catering halls for Muslim weddings. Many of the gardens in front of people’s homes boast vegetables commonly used in South Asian dishes: bitter melon, green chilies, squash. Elderly men sit out on their porches and chew paan (betel leaves), a common way to pass time for people in Bangladesh.

Al Furqan Jame Masjid was founded in 2000, when the Muslim population was still growing, but today it is one of five mosques serving Ozone Park’s many immigrants.

Khan said the neighborhood, if wary, ultimately opted to welcome the added police attention. If anything, they are disappointed the police did not install a security camera in front of the mosque.

Requests for comment from the local 106th Precinct were not returned.

“Everybody here wants more police, especially early in the morning and late at night,” Khan said. “We don’t have the money to hire our own security, and they were our best option.”

Minara stands just under 5 feet tall, typically draped in her cotton sari. When she leaves the house, she is covered by a long, flowing niqab, her dark brown eyes the only part of her that is visible. But she does not move in public often.

“My mother is not like before. She lives with a lot of tension because she used to depend on my father for everything,” Naima Akonjee said. “He would do everything for her, and she wouldn’t leave the house without him.”

Even her anger, she has kept under wraps.

Of Morel’s conviction, and his continued claims of innocence, Minara said: “There’s another judgment day for when he will have to answer for his crimes.”

For now, Minara lives with four of her sons — the fifth is back in Bangladesh. Her youngest, Ilom, is still in high school. Her daughters are married and living elsewhere in Queens. She has given thought to returning to Bangladesh, but so far has not. Saif, the oldest son, said he’d thought of leaving, too.

“My family came here for the same reason a lot of other Bangladeshis come here — to improve their situations and to have more opportunities to live,” he said. “I never expected something like this to happen to us.”

After Alauddin’s death, people from the mosque asked that Minara share with them some of her husband’s items. It would be a way for the congregants to feel connected to him still.

And so Minara went through the imam’s clothes. It didn’t make sense to keep them, since her sons didn’t have use for long prayer robes, she said. His wardrobe went to the mosque.

But Minara has hung onto to some things of her husband’s. Days before his murder, Alauddin recorded a video of himself reciting the passage from the Quran known as An-Naba. Its 40 verses capture the wonders of the earthly world, but they also describe how all of Allah’s creations will be accountable for their transgressions in life after their death.

One day recently Minara played the video on her phone.

“Verily, we have warned you of a penalty near,” Alauddin prays.

Listening, Minara said nothing, her hand on the phone tightening fiercely.

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