Afghan American groups across the United States this week strongly denounced the Orlando nightclub massacre, saying the attacker, the son of Afghan immigrants, did not represent their community or its beliefs. They also said that Afghan American views on homosexuality, which is seen as an abomination in their native culture, are becoming more tolerant, especially among members of the younger generation who have been raised in a Western democracy.
In a statement, 35 groups belonging to the District-based Alliance in Support of the Afghan People said they "unequivocally reject" the attack and the "dehumanization and hate" that caused it. Stressing the importance of both "our Afghan heritage and our American values," they expressed "our support for the city of Orlando and the LGBTQ community" and asked that "our patriotism not be questioned on the basis of one man's misguided actions."
Omar Mateen, 29, a troubled former security guard, was killed while carrying out the June 12 shootings that left 49 people dead and wounded 53 in the gay dance club called Pulse. He was born and raised in the United States after his parents emigrated from Afghanistan. He expressed his allegiance to the extremist Islamic State during the attack and appeared to plan it carefully in advance, making several attempts to purchase weaponry and body armor and visiting the club.
In interviews Thursday and Friday, Afghan American professionals and activists in California, New York and the Washington region said they were shocked and saddened by the shootings. Several said they felt a common bond with the victims because both groups are minorities in the United States. They also said that although homosexuality is still widely rejected and a taboo subject among older Afghan Americans, younger ones tend to be more accepting of it.
"It is not our job to judge how people should act or who they love. These people did not deserve to die that way," said Mezhgan Aziz, an Afghan immigrant in Northern Virginia who helps administer a nonprofit, The Children of War, that operates schools for girls in Afghanistan. "I have a lot of friends who are gay, and I treat them the way I treat all friends," she said.
Wali Kohgadai, 38, who runs a feeding program for the homeless in San Francisco, said it was wrong to blame all Muslims or Afghans for the act of someone he described as mentally ill. "I don't need to apologize for what happened because I am Afghan and he happens to be Afghan," Kohgadai said. "He doesn't speak for me or the rest of normal Afghans."
Like several others interviewed, Kohgadai said he has seen a gradual shift in his community's views on homosexuality and Western gay lifestyles. When he immigrated in 1981, "there was a huge stigma if someone was gay. But slowly we are seeing a shift. We are not living in an Islamic country. We are living in a melting pot under U.S. laws," he said. "Even the elders are becoming more tolerant."
Afghan culture is traditional and tribal, with arranged marriages and deeply conservative values. Virtually all Afghans are Muslim, and converting to another religion is a capital crime. In the United States, hundreds of thousands of Afghans have immigrated since the 1970s during a series of conflicts and repressive regimes at home. Most have clustered in ethnic communities based around mosques, but more and more are working and studying elsewhere, blending into American society.
"Our interwoven identities as Afghans and Americans are not paradoxical," the letter from the Alliance said. "We are a community of many different faiths and faith systems. A society only willing to see individuals as black or white, Muslim or non-Muslim, LGBTQ or straight, ignores the vast range of experience" in between.
Zohal Hamidi, 32, a pharmacist in Fairfax and a member of the Afghan Medical Professionals Association of America, said she felt especially drawn to reaching out to the Orlando victims because "we are a minority in this country, too. We have been very supportive of the LGBT community, and many people from their community have supported Afghan American Muslims. We all have to help each other," she said.
None of those interviewed said they had faced personal attacks or criticism since the shootings, and several said the incident had led to meaningful discussions with non-Muslim co-workers and acquaintances. Morwarid Hatef, who works in mental health services in the Afghan community within Fremont, Calif., said she had gotten a lot of "positive feedback" since the Orlando attack.
"I had co-workers who came up to me and said, 'We apologize for the backlash against Muslims and Afghans,' " said Hatef, 33, who was born in California to immigrant parents. "I felt so fortunate."