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Wednesday, 26 September, 2001, 17:24 GMT 18:24 UK
Troubling times for Afghan-Americans
San Diego mosque
Islam was explained to visitors at a San Diego mosque
Americans have been told by their president not to vent their anger on their Muslim neighbours. But these are still troubling times for the nation's Afghan-Americans, writes BBC News Online's Ryan Dilley from Queens, New York.

Tidy front lawns and wrought-iron fences. The chirp of crickets as the evening light fades. This residential avenue in Flushing, Queens, seems far removed from the busy, cramped streets of Manhattan and even more so from the scene of devastation at "ground zero".

We are just like them... we are all Americans

Imam Sherzad
However, the Pentagon and World Trade Center attacks, and the "war on terrorism" declared in their aftermath, have focused intense scrutiny on one of 33rd Avenue's buildings. Nestled beside the smart homes, the Korean churches and a synagogue is an Afghan mosque.

Masjid Hazrat-I-Abubakr, a meeting place for 5,000 of the New York City's 25,000-strong Afghan-American community, reverberates with the sound of the call to evening prayer.

Imam Sherzad: Don't confuse Afghans with their rulers
The men gathering tonight have much to contemplate. Like all Americans they are still reeling from the events of 11 September. Some 450 Muslims may have lost their lives when the WTC collapsed, and though no members of this congregation are thought to be among the dead, many are mourning friends and neighbours. Others have suffered as their businesses, close to the WTC, have been shut down.

Anguishing prospect

This pain and disorientation have been heightened by the harassment they and many other Muslim-Americans have endured in the wake of that day's attack. But added to this is the anguishing prospect that their adopted country will launch its considerable military might against the land of their birth.

The Taleban has so far refused to hand over Osama bin Laden - the FBI's prime suspect in the terror attacks - a move which has made the regime controlling much of Afghanistan a possible target for US action.

With such an attack in prospect, Americans have become eager to learn more about this distant, war-torn land and its harsh rulers - and they don't like what they see.

Mohammed Farouk prays at Al-Farooq mosque in Brooklyn
Imam Mohammad Sherzad, a US resident for 16 years and a staunch critic of the Taleban, says Americans are understandably angry and emotional "having witnessed this very horrifying act of terrorism". But he worries that media coverage of what CNN has dubbed "America's New War" is failing to separate Afghanistan's rulers from its suffering people.

"The Taleban do not represent our people. They forced themselves on us and for seven years we have fought them. They have turned the nation upside-down."

Singled out

President Bush has stated he has "no anger with the people of Afghanistan" and has asked for their co-operation, but police guards still lounge against their patrol cars at the gates of this impressive, floodlit mosque.

Worshipper Ghulm Noorzad says he appreciates his president's words, but still Afghan-Americans have been singled out for harassment in this ethnically diverse neighbourhood. "People have hit our cars. There have been curses, harsh words and racial slurs. One boy at the elementary school was harassed, but the child who did it was quickly removed from the school."

Imam Sherzad says some anger was defused by the speed with which the mosque organised blood donations for WTC casualties, held a vigil for the missing and created a memorial to police officers lost trying to evacuate the stricken towers.

"People understand by this work that we are just like them, that we are all Americans," he says, a Stars and Stripes flag pinned beside the map of Afghanistan on his wall.

Afghans demonstrate against the Taleban in Queens, New York
However, long-running divisions in the mosque threaten to undermine the Imam's efforts. It has been reported in Pakistani newspapers that some of those who attend prayers here have contributed money to the Taleban, he says. On the Friday after the terror attacks, 15 or 20 men decided to pray in the basement, rather than joining the much larger gathering on the main floor.

"They don't speak out in favour of the Taleban, People would not tolerate that. I expect them to come back to pray with us. It is beyond my comprehension that any group could continue to support the Taleban or Osama."


Afghan speakers from the small immigrant enclaves across America have already volunteered their services to translate information of value to the US military, but if a war does erupt, will Afghan-Americans' loyalties be badly split?

"God forbid there is an attack, for that would have a devastating impact on many innocent people. It would be very upsetting for Afghan-Americans. We would have to express our concerns verbally. I don¿t think that would put us in danger, America is a democratic state where civil liberties are protected. The internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II was a dark era in history. It will not be done to Americans again."

Imam Sherzad says his adopted home has always been sympathetic and welcoming to those fleeing the decades of strife in Central Asia. "I strongly believe that if innocent lives are taken in an attack, Americans will share our grief and show their compassion."

But in times of war, compassion is often in short supply. One young Afghan-American says he and his wife are trying to block this fortnight's terrible events from their mind. "We have lost friends and all we see on TV is Afghanistan. My wife is very scared."

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