'Our community lost its heart": Slain Queens imam remembered as peacemaker
NEW YORK >> Imam Alauddin Akonjee delivered his weekly sermon Friday in his quietly powerful manner, drawing, as usual, nearly 200 people to a two-story house-turned-mosque in Ozone Park, Queens. He spoke in Bengali, his native language.
His message to the mosque, Al-Furqan Jame Masjid: Islam should be a force of peace in the face of discrimination. In his melodic voice, he spoke of how the oppressed should gain strength from God and one another, according to worshippers.
The next day, Akonjee, 55, who immigrated to New York in 2011 from Bangladesh, was shot from behind as he was returning home from afternoon prayers with his assistant, Thara Miah, 64. Both men died.
As Akonjee's relatives in Queens grieved Sunday, it was clear that the imam had left a legacy as a scholarly peacemaker whose devotion to both Islam and his family rippled across two communities in two countries.
"I would say my father was the best father in the world," his oldest son, Fayez Uddin Akonjee, 28, said in an interview in Bengali from northeastern Bangladesh on Sunday night. "He was a very good person; he did not have any enemy. I will not get back my father anymore. I want justice. I want that my father's killers should get the death penalty."
Of the imam's seven children, Fayez was the only one not living in New York; he said he had been too old to qualify for a family visa several years ago. One of his sisters, Jannatun Naim Akonjee, had come to New York for a marriage her father had arranged.
A couple of years later, she sponsored her father to come to the United States. And a year after that, Akonjee brought his wife, four sons and one other daughter to Ozone Park.
Al-Furqan Jame Masjid was his second imam post in Queens, and he was quickly embraced there.
"He was our leader," Sayed Ahmed, 35, said outside the mosque Sunday. "He taught us how to worship, how to think, how to live. Our community lost its heart. The imam moved here for the same reasons we all did — he wanted a better future for his children. He wanted education, he wanted peace."
Akonjee's life in the district of Habiganj, Bangladesh, had been built around education. After he completed a graduate degree, he became the founding principal of an Islamic school built on land donated by local villagers.
After more than a decade, he did not want to leave that position, Fayez Uddin Akonjee said, but word had spread of his eminence. He was asked to be an imam to broker peace between the Sunni and Wahhabi members of a mosque within the local railway department. Not long after, his son said, "the conflict had gone."
He held two more imam positions in Bangladesh before moving to Queens. There, Akonjee drew people in because he listened to them, said Kobir Chowdhury, president of Masjid Al-Aman, the largest of five Bangladeshi mosques in the Ozone Park area. "He's not the guy who would draw thousands of crowds because he was an international speaker," Chowdhury, 40, said. "But you would go to him for his wisdom and the way he would speak."
Ahmed agreed. "He was very thoughtful, had this beautiful voice leading prayers," he said. "I'll miss that voice."
Akonjee spoke plainly and passionately. "He told us to treat everyone like family, to speak up actively about all of the positive aspects of Islam, to combat misperceptions," Mohammed Hassan, 31, said in Ozone Park.
Police were investigating a motive for the killings, which occurred in broad daylight. At first, community leaders including Chowdhury called it a hate crime, but the New York Police Department said the initial report did not indicate that the two men were targeted because of their faith.
Miah, 64, was also a fairly recent immigrant from Bangladesh. They lived across the street from each other and were best friends, one mosque member said.
Their families were so close that according to Fayez Akonjee, it was the wife of Miah who ran across the street to tell Akonjee's wife, Minara Akhter, that the two had been shot and were at Jamaica Hospital Medical Center. Akhter, who had lunch waiting for him that afternoon, had already grown worried when he was late returning from prayers. Public funerals for both men will be held Monday afternoon at the Grant Avenue Municipal Parking Field in East New York, Brooklyn.
On Sunday, one of Akonjee's sons stood in the doorway of the house, wearing a Bangladesh cricket jersey and a blank, weary expression. "It's a tragedy, and we miss him already," said the young man, who declined to give his name or provide other family details because he feared for their safety.
Back in Bangladesh, Fayez Akonjee said he had long ago applied for a visa to come to the United States. But now, he said, he would probably not accept it, scared by the potential for violence.
Fayez, a businessman, was building a new house for his family, who were due to visit for a month starting Sept. 1. His 4-year-old daughter spoke on the phone with the elder Akonjee on Friday, right before he headed to the mosque, eight blocks away.
He asked her, Fayez said, what kind of chocolate she wanted him to bring. Fayez was resting and did not come to the phone.
"I thought," he said, "I would talk with my father today."