After Terrorist Attack, Afghans in U.S. Challenge Cultural Stereotype

National Geographic Today
September 25, 2001

The world is a now a smaller, sadder place as a result of the September 11 terrorist attack on the United States. The tragedy has drawn together, but also splintered, the global family.

Millions of people have suffered through natural disasters. But much of the world is united in shock at discovering that the horrifying events in New York and Washington, D.C., could be the product of an intentional human act.

Just as the landscape of two U.S. cities has been changed by the hijackings, the shape of sensibilities has changed as well. And more than ever before, there is a desperate urge for greater understanding of differences in cultures and religions.

Many Islamic scholars and other Muslims around the world who found the terrorist attack on the United States repugnant are eager to counter misperceptions about their religion. They want the world to understand that the holy Koran offers guidance in "right living," harmony, and peace—not an edict to make war and commit violence in the name of Allah, which Muslim extremists claim as their motivation.

And as Afghanistan comes under scrutiny for harboring Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in the terrorist attack, Afghans who fled their homeland for a new life in the United States are troubled to find themselves subject to suspicion and mistrust on the basis of their nationality and religion.

"We are good people, we are civilized," said Fouzia Afshari, who volunteers at the Mustafa Center, an Afghan cultural academy near Washington. "We are not really the kind of Afghans that people are thinking of right now."

Long-Time State of Chaos

For the past 20 years, Afghanistan has been war-torn and the lives of its people marked by chaos. With help from the United States, rebels first fought a harsh Soviet occupation. When the Soviets finally withdrew in 1989, the country was left riddled with weapons, religious zealots, and civil war.

Millions of Afghans sought refuge elsewhere, including thousands who made their way to the United States. While they hunger for their homeland, the prospect of returning seems dim.

Hamid Naweed, an Afghan-American artist and poet living in Washington, D.C., has captured that longing and resignation in many of his poems: "Sometimes the ocean is big and hopeful but most of the time it looks red. Red with the blood of people. It's so unfortunate that our destiny is in the hands of others."

Naweed said his inspiration for the poem came in a conversation with an Afghan elder living in a refugee camp in Pakistan in 1987. "I said, 'When are you going to go back,'" Naweed recounts, "and he said, 'We don't have any way to go back and we don't know any way to go forward, and that's the destiny of the Afghan people.'"

For many Afghans living in the Washington area, sadness is a glue that helps bind them together as a community.

Continued on Next Page >>


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