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.

"We all left our homeland with nothing but maybe a few belongings, and I think we all have family members and friends we lost during the Soviet war," said a woman named Alina.

"Bittersweet" Life in U.S.

Like other groups of people around the world, Afghans are devoted to keeping their culture alive, and find their religion a source of comfort.

Yet for some of those who were interviewed by National Geographic Today, living the "American dream" is bittersweet.

"It's a relief to be here, but at the same time I think about family members and others back home who are suffering in Afghanistan and Pakistan," said Zia Makhdoom, imam of the Afghan Community Mosque in northern Virginia. "The majority are suffering, so it is sad to see the huge contrast between the living standards here and there."

He condemns the ruling Taliban in Afghanistan as a "cult" that has little regard for the human condition and a perverted view of Islam.

"They do nothing to help the poor," said Makhdoom. "Of course, what they are doing is basically to enforce their own version of Islam, which is alien to how Afghans perceive Islam and practice Islam."

The determination of Afghans to keep their culture alive is heightened by the Taliban's destruction of many of the country's cultural treasures and the austere way of life it imposes.

"No art, no radio, no television, painting, drawing—nothing is allowed," said Naweed. "Education for women is not allowed. Music is not allowed, they call music satanic. That's why we are strongly working to keep our culture alive here."

Members of the Afghan community in Washington say they are proud to be part of the rich American tapestry of cultures. "We too have added into that quilt, so called America. We are contributing to the society, we are becoming part of the society," said Zalmi Niayz.

But they remain conscious of their differences. And the September 11 tragedy has left many feeling alienated, and even fearful.

"I'm raising my kids here and I don't want to feel like I don't belong here. But that's what I feel here as an Afghan and a Muslim," said Alina, adding: "I don't want to lose another home."

Yet hope remains—that Afghanistan will one day be in the hands of responsible and peace-loving Afghans.

"God has told us that always during the worst time of your life you have to become hopeful because behind all the mess is a light," said the poet Naweed. "You have to find where that light is—it's within you. And when you find that light, you find hope."

This article was excerpted from a one-hour special, "The Geography of Crisis," aired by the TV news show National Geographic Today on September 25 at 8 p.m. EST.

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