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Afghan-Americans Worry About Backlash From Orlando Incident


FILE - Zalmay Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the United Nations, pictured in February 2011, says many Afghan-Americans contacted him "to express their deep outrage" about the Orlando killings.

FILE - Zalmay Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the United Nations, pictured in February 2011, says many Afghan-Americans contacted him "to express their deep outrage" about the Orlando killings.

Just hours after the deadliest mass slaying in American history, the owner of a Los Angeles-based satellite TV channel broadcasting to the Afghan diaspora took the unusual step of sitting in on a family show to talk about the tragedy.

Since authorities identified the gunman in the Orlando shooting as Afghan-American Omar Mateen, Omar Khatab’s phone had been ringing off the hook with calls from anxious Afghan-Americans.

“The show is about family issues, but I decided to join the host to address our community’s concerns,” said Khatab, owner of Payam-e-Afghan TV. “I wanted to appease the Afghan community because everyone was shocked and sad.”

Khatab and show host Temorshah Hassan fielded calls from Afghan-Americans who worried about how the biggest terror attack since 9/11 might affect their community. There were expressions of revulsion at what happened and sympathy expressed for the victims and their families. But one theme kept coming up: the fear that although Mateen was born and raised in the U.S., his Afghan heritage might inflame passions against the Afghan-American community.

“There was concern that somehow the tragic situation that happened by an Afghan would tarnish the name of Afghans, and the Afghan community would be affected,” Khatab said in an interview with VOA. “The whole media is focused on these issues and ask, ‘Why are these Afghans terrorists?’ ”

Sunday’s shooting marked the second time an Afghan-American has been implicated in a domestic act of terrorism or conspiracy to commit terror. Najibullah Zazi was arrested in 2009 for plotting to bomb the New York subway.

In this photo made from video, Seddique Mateen speaks in his Florida home to reporters about his son, Omar Mateen, the gunman in the attack on an Orlando, Fla., gay night spot. “I did not know that he had a grudge in his heart,” Mateen said of his son.

In this photo made from video, Seddique Mateen speaks in his Florida home to reporters about his son, Omar Mateen, the gunman in the attack on an Orlando, Fla., gay night spot. “I did not know that he had a grudge in his heart,” Mateen said of his son.

Shooter's father

Khatab's 24/7 channel airs an eclectic lineup of talk shows with a colorful roster of hosts. Among them was the Orlando shooter's father, Seddique Mateen, who from 2012 to 2015 hosted a talk show devoted to the century-old controversy over the Afghanistan-Pakistan border known as the Durand Line.

Although seen as an eccentric character, the elder Mateen was not known as pro-Taliban, several Afghan-Americans interviewed by VOA said.

“He never had pro-Taliban views,” Khatab said. “If anything, he was against the Taliban because he knew Pakistan is behind the Taliban and motivated the Taliban to commit crimes in Afghanistan.”

In a video statement on his Facebook page Monday, Seddique Mateen called his son “a very good and educated boy” and said he was “extremely saddened” by the shooting.

“I did not know that he had a grudge in his heart,” Mateen said of his son, 29, who was born and raised in New York City before moving to Florida, where he worked as a security guard. "Why he’d do such a thing during the holy month of Ramadan, I don’t know."

'Individual act'

While condemning the massacre, Afghan-American community leaders sought to distance themselves from the shooter.

“This was an individual act that does not represent Afghan culture and Islamic laws,” said Hamid Nawid, a prominent Afghan-American artist and poet in Virginia.

Nawid said some politicians and media will want to capitalize on the tragedy and "turn it into Afghano-phobia, but this kind of thing will fade away as they realize that 99 percent of Afghan-Americans are decent, honest, hardworking citizens and that one individual can never represent the whole community.”

Zalmay Khalilzad, a prominent Afghan-American and former U.S. envoy to Afghanistan, Iraq and the U.N., condemned the terror attack.

“Many Afghan-Americans have contacted me to express their deep outrage over this cowardly act,” he wrote on his Twitter page shortly after the shooting.

Still, there was concern about a public backlash.

“What happened can affect the Afghan-American community in Florida and throughout the United States, and can become a source of concern," Florida-based Afghan-American Nematullah Illahi told VOA's Afghan service.

Global reactions

Around the world, Afghans' reaction to the Orlando killings were mixed.

In an interview with VOA’s Ashna TV, former Afghan President Hamid Karzai emphatically said that “no Afghan, no Muslim” would condone the violence that shook Orlando on Sunday morning.

“This is utterly condemnable,” Karzai said.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, the CEO of Afghanistan’s national unity government, were among the first world leaders to issue statements condemning the attack.

Others, however, took a completely different path online and celebrated the shooter.

“I hope for a day when U.S. and Britain fall in the same level of blood and dust that Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon are [in],” wrote Feroz Sherzy on VOA Dari's Facebook page.

Another user, Mahmoodullah Hamid, who described himself as a health worker for the Agha Khan Foundation in northeastern Afghanistan, wrote in broken English, “verry brave mane. action is great.”

Of more than 500 comments users wrote under two entries on VOA Ashna TV's Facebook page, at least 60 percent were sympathetic to the attacker and his crime. Some incendiary comments even received multiple “likes.”

"Comments of these nature point to the probability of a distorted mentality and a psychology already impacted by violence,” said Mosadeq Nademee, an Afghan psychiatrist and social media activist based in the Czech Republic. “Afghans have been deeply exposed to violence for almost 40 years, and this has impacted the way some people look at violence elsewhere.”

Nademee added that Afghans in general have very negative views of homosexuality.

VOA's Akmal Dawi contributed to this report.

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