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Afghans at Queens Mosque Are Divided Over bin Laden

September 19, 2001


Afghans at Queens Mosque Are Divided Over bin Laden


At New York City's largest Afghan mosque, supporters of the Taliban have chosen to pray in the basement or outside in the parking lot. They have not returned to the mosque for daily prayers since last Friday, when their imam denounced the attacks on the World Trade Center.

"When I speak against the Taliban and Osama, they harass me; so many times they harass me," Imam Mohammed Sherzad, the leader of Hazrat-I-Abubakr Sadiq mosque, said at his office in Flushing, Queens. "They say: ĀWhy do you speak against Osama bin Laden? He is a good Muslim.' "

The tensions at the mosque last Friday reflect in part the heightened anxieties and divided loyalties among the city's Afghans, who number roughly 20,000.

A week after the attacks, many find themselves torn between their adopted country and the fear that their devastated homeland will feel the brunt of a retaliatory strike from the United States.

As Washington appears to be preparing a military assault on Afghanistan, many Afghans in New York are pleading for their country to be spared even as they distance themselves from its leaders. While Afghans across the city have condemned last week's terrorism, a small number appear to be standing by the Taliban and the man accused of masterminding the attack.

At the Hazrat-I-Abubakr Sadiq mosque, tucked into a section of Flushing, the predominant sentiment is dread for friends and relatives back home. With their country shattered after a quarter-century of war, many in the 5,000-member congregation have been unable to speak to their relatives because there are virtually no phones in Afghanistan, and unable to write because there is no mail. As people entered and left the mosque for their daily prayers, many said they feared that their pitiable country would again be the target of bombs.

"I'm worried about my family there," said Sayed Rohani. "The people in Afghanistan have already suffered so much. The country is destroyed. The only people left there are those who are too poor to flee. It is wrong to kill innocent people."

The World Trade Center attacks have only intensified the schisms in Afghan mosques throughout the region since the Taliban began its rise to power in 1994. At Hazrat-I-Abubakr Sadiq, the imam says his congregation has been feuding with some members for months.

"They are connected to the Taliban," said the imam. "The Taliban wants to destroy the center."

Members of the pro-Taliban contingent that opted to pray in the basement declined to be interviewed. Experts who have studied Afghan exiles in the United States say that such schisms have broken out in mosques in Virginia and California, and that they often reflect the ethnic divisions that mirror the support and opposition to the Taliban. In Afghanistan, the Taliban forces are made up almost entirely of Pashtuns, the country's largest ethnic group. The anti-Taliban forces are made up largely of ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and other minorities.

"The Afghan community is extremely divided, largely along ethnic lines," said Barnett Rubin, studies director at New York University's Center on International Cooperation. "There are pro-Taliban factions and there are anti-Taliban factions."

At the Hazrat-I-Abubakr mosque, the imam and many who support him are ethnic Tajiks. Those in the breakaway faction, they said, are mostly ethnic Pashtuns. The feuding has spilled outside the mosque, with the police saying they have been called several times recently to separate the two groups.

Imam Sherzad, who is known in the community as fiercely anti-Taliban, described the competing faction as being pro-Taliban businessmen with interests in Afghanistan. He has adorned the windows of the mosque and the fence outside with American flags since the attacks last Tuesday. He says he has had telephone conversations with some of the pro-Taliban faction and that he is hoping he can reunite the two groups to pray together on Friday.

In the meantime, the Afghans nervously await Washington's response to the trade center attack.

Fatana Shirzad, 26, left Afghanistan eight years ago with her mother just as the Taliban swept to power. She left a ruined city behind.

"When we lived in Kabul, every night, every night the missiles," Ms. Shirzad said, her face wrapped in cloth, her eyes rimmed with tears. "You are sitting in your house and you hear them come in and you wonder, will they hit us this time?

"When I saw this attack, I prayed, please make it not be Muslims. Because I knew. And I watched and I prayed and I was very sorry."

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