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Reflecting On My Afghan-American Community After Orlando

Mateen may have been one of us, but he made it clear that he was not who we are

By Joseph Azam

I didn’t know Omar Mateen, but it wouldn’t surprise me if we were somehow connected. I grew up in an Afghan-American family in Queens, New York, not far from where Mateen was born. I'm not sure when he moved away, but it's possible that we attended Eid services at the same mosque when we were kids, or that our families crossed paths at a wedding or a funeral. I have no idea, but I wonder. Regardless of how connected we may or may not have been, we shared roots and a community that is small today, and was even smaller when we were kids.

My family, like Mateen’s, immigrated to the United States from Afghanistan, where I was born. While I don’t know the details of how or why his family came here, I suspect it was for the same reasons that mine did: to escape a devastating war and build a better life. And it’s likely that as I learn more about his life, unremarkable as it may have been, there will be many more aspects of it that will seem jarringly familiar. That’s why the profound sadness and disgust I felt on Sunday morning when I heard of his heinous act have yet to leave me.

Over the last few days, I’ve been in constant dialogue with my friends and family in the Afghan-American community about the massacre Mateen orchestrated in Orlando. Every conversation at some point has touched on a question most of us probably keep asking ourselves: Why would he do this?

I don’t have that answer, and I don’t think it’s hiding anywhere in the hearts or minds of the people in my community with whom I’ve spoken. What I keep hearing in conversations, and what I think many Afghan-Americans believe, is this: Mateen was one of us, but on Sunday, he made it clear that he was not who we are.

While I take that as a sincere belief, somewhere deep inside of me is a worry that we are being overly generous to ourselves at the expense of badly needed self-reflection. The atrocity of this past weekend committed by one of our own raises a lot of very difficult questions that we need to address as a community and maybe even as a nation. If what we learn in the coming days bears out the reporting immediately following the shooting, Mateen had some issues that have existed in the Afghan-American community for a while but that we’ve had difficulty confronting.

Chief among those is his apparent homophobia. Mateen’s actions on Sunday were tragic, shocking, and seem to have been driven by a deep and unforgivable hatred for the LGBTQ community. Whether his hatred was rooted in his religious beliefs, his self-loathing, or his fear is beside the point. What’s relevant is that his attack targeted a particular group, at a particular time, in a very particular place. That, I think, tells us all we need to know about his intentions.

As far as we know right now, Mateen acted alone. It would be irresponsible and unfair of me to assign ownership of the hate he displayed in Orlando to anyone other than himself. It would be equally irresponsible of me as an ally, however, not to own up to the homophobia I've witnessed in my own community, which, while subtle, is harmful nonetheless.

It’s something we’ve needed to face but have avoided, instead finding hollow vindication for our views in the fact that they are shared by so much of the American public. Many in my family, as extraordinary as they have been in their kindness and generosity toward my gay and lesbian friends, are a prime example of this. Always polite, always espousing their open-mindedness, but ultimately withholding what may matter most: acceptance. It’s a conversation that my wife and I keep starting with my parents, particularly as we get ready to welcome our first child, but it’s one that has yet to finish. On this issue, I feel like our community has largely aligned itself with bigots instead of becoming allies to those who share in our experience of otherness and need our support. We’ve been passive, we’ve been disingenuous, and we’ve been selling ourselves the dangerous lie that LGBTQ Afghan-Americans don’t have a place among us.

Of course, there are other issues that have been alluded to in the early media coverage about Mateen’s past and background that I think may warrant further soul-searching by our community. Reports have emerged about Mateen’s alleged violence against his former wife, his potentially disturbed past, and his religious leanings. While none of those things, even if confirmed, could serve to adequately explain why he did what he did, they highlight additional areas — domestic abuse, mental and emotional health, and misguided faith — in which we’ve allowed closed doors to serve as fig leaves.

All of this has to change.

While Mateen was not who we are as Afghan-Americans, knowing and saying that without working against what he stood for and what he sought to convey through his actions just isn’t good enough. That’s an uncomfortable truth that it’s time we accept. In Mateen, the world saw the worst of what our community and our nation has to offer. He brought darkness, fear, and hate to a place of light, security, and love. He cast disrepute and suspicion on his family and a population already suffering from undue distrust. And, perhaps most damagingly, he struck at a time when demagogues, both here and abroad, are arguing that we’re all better off abandoning the notion that it’s possible to have places in this world that are at once peaceful, prosperous, and pluralistic. We cannot let that be where this tragedy leads us.

We are better than that. We can do better than that. We must.