Afghans abroad and in America are frustrated that the media — and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump — is fixated on the Afghan ancestry of Omar Mateen, the American-born shooter who slaughtered 49 people in Orlando, Florida, on Sunday.
Mateen had never set foot in Afghanistan before opening fire in the popular gay nightclub Pulse. Born in New York City, he had little connection to the war-torn country of his immigrant parents.
Trump claimed, falsely, that Mateen was “born an Afghan of Afghan parents” in a speech Monday afternoon. “The bottom line is that the only reason the killer was in America was because we allowed his family to come here,” Trump, who also renewed his call to ban Muslims from traveling to the United States, said.
Mateen’s U.S. citizenship was “essentially wiped away” once his Afghan roots and a last-minute pledge of allegiance he made to the so-called Islamic State were revealed, Kabul-born and California-raised journalist Ali Latifi wrote Sunday in an op-ed for Media Diversified.
“As much as the media may want to orientalize this story by focusing on a country Mateen had never been to and a religiosity that is debatable that he adhered to, the truth is, the Orlando shooting only comes down to two things: gun control and homophobia,” Latifi continued.
When news broke of the mass shooting, Rezwan Natiq, who heads a non-governmental social organization in Kabul, Afghanistan, was watching CNN at home.
He watched in horror as grim footage emerged of wailing family members and bloodied survivors. And as the death toll continued to rise, Natiq found himself praying that the attacker didn’t kill in the name of Islam.
When it emerged that the gunman was an American citizen whose parents had emigrated from Afghanistan, like so many others had after the 1979 Soviet invasion, Natiq’s heart sank.
“When I heard he was a Muslim with Afghan roots, I felt so annoyed,” Natiq told The WorldPost just after breaking his Ramadan fast at sundown. “I said to myself, ‘How could he do this?’”
Natiq knew what would come next.
As Orlando reels and the nation grieves what is being called the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history and the worst ever attack on the country’s gay community, great focus has been placed on Mateen’s family history and religion.
CNN’s Christiane Amanpour pressed Afghan President Ashraf Ghani Monday on the Afghan ancestry of the shooter, who has been described as angry, confused and violent by those who knew him. While Ghani slammed the attack as a “heinous [and] unforgivable crime,” he stressed that the shooter was raised in the United States, not Afghanistan.
“An individual cannot represent a culture or civilization,” Ghani said in response to news of Trump renewing his call for a U.S. travel ban on Muslims and people from countries with a history of terrorism.
Some Afghans are worried that Afghans and Afghan-Americans are being painted as could-be terrorists.
“There are thousands of other Afghans who have been serving America and American people without threatening U.S. security,” Shaheedulla Mubariz, an economics professor at a university in Kabul, told The WorldPost by phone.
Many Afghans who served as interpreters and support staff for U.S. forces in Afghanistan from 2001-2014 are still trying to seek asylum in the United States, in fear of their lives. The Taliban is known to murder those perceived as loyal to the United States.
Mubariz said he watched news of the mass shooting with a heavy heart alongside his colleagues, upset that so many had lost their lives and worried that it would only further taint U.S. views of Afghans and of Muslims.
“If you kill a person, it means you kill all humanity,” Mubariz said. “Islam is a religion of peace. Everyday we say, ‘Peace be upon you.’ People violate the Islamic rules, but that’s not Islamic.”
Although many Afghans abroad and in the U.S. have slammed the media and public for focusing on Mateen’s Afghan roots and diverting attention from issues like gun control, one Afghan-American writer, Fariba Nawa, said in an article for PRI’s The World that the shocking attack presents the community with an opportunity to address real concerns like homophobia.
“My social media feed is filled with soul-searching from Afghan-Americans, and apologies to LGBTQ people,” she wrote. “But it’s also filled with denial and deflection: ‘He was just a lone wolf, a mentally ill lunatic, and there’s no need for Afghans to even acknowledge his heritage. If a white man commits the crime, all white Americans don’t take responsibility. Why do we have to?’”
“One way we can prevent more members of our community from becoming gun-toting killers is to confront our demons of homophobia and religious intolerance,” she continued.
The gunman’s father, Seddique Mateen, has been criticized for a series of rambling political videos in which he occasionally praises the fiercely anti-U.S. Taliban. But he has also voiced pro-American sentiments and referred to the United States as his “home.”
And even he has been eager to downplay his son’s connections to Afghanistan. “Omar was an American and not an Afghan-American,” the elder Mateen told The Guardian. “He was born in the US and never went to Afghanistan. He attended school here, worked here and his whole life was here.”
Sophia Jones reported from New York. Naiemullah Sangen contributed reporting from Kabul.
Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.