On Saturday afternoon, Imam Alauddin Akonjee, 55, and Thara Uddin, 64, of the Al-Furqan Jame Masjid were murdered in the middle of the street in Queens, New York. The mosque catered to a largely working-class, Bangladeshi immigrant community, and the Imam and his assistant had just been walking out of prayer towards Uddin’s home when they were gunned down. Police initially claimed that it was an armed robbery gone wrong; yet the $1,000 in cash Akonjee had in his pocket at the time of the shooting had been left untouched. Even with video that has emerged, police have as of yet refused to definitively entertain the possibility of their murders being a hate crime.
Coverage of the case can’t even get the names of the victims right - the majority of sources say Akonjee’s first name is “Maulama,” while Al-Jazeera refers to him as “Maulana” - a term used in South Asian cultures to describe an Islamic scholar. Only the New York Times clarified initial reports and confirmed that Akonjee’s given name is Alauddin Akonjee.
It’s times like this that I can’t help but imagine how different the situation would be if someone with an Arabic name had murdered two priests with non-“foreign” names walking down the street - the respect for our lives and our identities are unequal, even in death.
I can count the number of times that I myself have dragged my feet as my parents shepherded me and my two sisters to the car so we could go to Jummah at our makeshift mosque on Fridays as a family when we were little. Because the time for prayer and the customary khutba or lecture that accompanied it fell smack in the middle of the normal business day - Friday around 1 P.M. These family trips didn’t happen very often, just during the summer and on those rare “professional days” that we had off from school. My town was small and our Muslim population even smaller, so sometimes we’d venture out and drive half an hour across the Iowa border to our neighboring community, or even make the hour-long trek to Madison.
I never really enjoyed these trips when I was younger; to me, they were merely an obligation I had to put up with on my day off. It really wasn’t until I got to college that I realized how much I missed helping my mother bake cupcakes for the college students who would go to Jummah at home, hearing the melody of the surahs my dad chose to lead our small congregation with, and touching my head to the floor next to my sisters.
But never in my life, not before I recognized its true value - and not even after I was attacked myself in my middle school hallway, called a terrorist and shoved into the wall before I hit the ground with a head injury - was I ever scared to attend any prayers at a mosque, or to let my family go. And now I have to be.
I think of my mother, a hijabi - the most stubborn and strong-willed person I know. Having taught your typical college freshmen wannabe-engineers for 20 years now, she knows every classroom trick in the book, and she’s perfected her look of disapproval to the point that it could probably cut through steel. In short, nobody messes with my mother.
But Queens shakes my faith in her safety, and the safety of all my Muslim or Sikh friends - Sikh men fall victim to Islamophobia even more frequently than Muslim men do simply due to their beards and turbans. If such a horrific incident can occur in a predominantly Bangladeshi area in Queens, how can I possibly feel assured that own elderly parents will be safe in right-wing rural Wisconsin, where I can count the number of Muslim families in my city on one hand?
Movements like #IllWalkWithYou give me hope, but in this immediate aftermath, all I really feel is pain that it’s 2016 and even though Muslims were in America even before she roared onto the national stage in 1776, we are still outsiders who need to be walked for our own personal safety. I am angry. I am angry at the world for not taking our two brothers from us for no reason besides their faith - but also at our community for not having the same reaction as we did following the tragedy in Chapel Hill. I recall how quickly we forgot our brothers who were murdered in Indiana as well - the reminder of how deep racism and classism runs even in the Muslim community leaves me with a sickening sensation dragging at the pit of my stomach.
It shouldn’t matter - from Bangladesh to Burundi, Palestine to Pakistan, so many of our families came to America for a better life. When our parents settled here, we thought being American-born meant we left the womb with the cliché of all freedom our parents never had written into our DNA - political freedom, freedom from economic insecurity, freedom of religion, freedom to get an education - you name it.
But what is freedom without our freedom from fear?
Tell me, is freedom waking up in the morning, wondering if today will finally be the day you can make it through a news cycle without someone openly conflating your beliefs and the horrors of terrorism with no real basis and just calling it a day? Is freedom counting days between incidents documented in civil rights reports and wondering if the number will ever reach more than 10? Is freedom feeling like you’re drowning in your own inability to control the monsters who commit atrocities in the name of your faith and knowing that you had nothing to do with it, but that you’ll somehow be blamed anyway?
How free are we when we are gunned down in the streets for the color of our skin or how we find spiritual relief?
Freedom failed Imam Akonjee and Uddin. Freedom has failed me. Freedom has failed Muslim America.
Imam Akonjee and Uddin will forever be remembered as just two victims, the two imams who were gunned down in broad daylight. May they instead inshAllah be remembered by the lives they touched, rather than the way theirs ended.