Message from mosque in Queens

Viewpoint: "Tell Mullah Omar that the situation is very dangerous, and we don't like Osama bin Laden. Mullah Omar must tell Osama bin Laden to get out of Afghanistan," a spiritual leader of immigrants says.

October 07, 2001|By Dan Mihalopoulos | Dan Mihalopoulos,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NEW YORK - Sitting cross-legged in a mosque in Queens, the Taliban's man in New York listened while his fellow Afghan immigrants debated how their native land could avert new bloodshed.

Until the Taliban was forced to close its New York office in March, Abdul Hakeem Mujahid acted as the Islamic fundamentalist regime's envoy to the United Nations. And for the immigrant men who prayed on a recent Friday afternoon at the Afghan Immigrants Islamic Center, he represented their only conduit to the regime.

Speaking animatedly in his native Pashtu, Imam Mohamad Yusufi urged Mujahid to carry a message from Queens to the Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar.

"I told him to tell Mullah Omar that the situation is very dangerous, and we don't like Osama bin Laden," Yusufi said, referring to the chief suspect in the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the United States. "Mullah Omar must tell Osama bin Laden to get out of Afghanistan."

Mujahid said that he would leave for the Taliban's embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, before continuing to Afghanistan.

An identity crisis

For Yusufi and the estimated 30,000 Afghan-Americans in the New York area, the international crisis is forcing them to painfully confront an identity crisis familiar to arrivals from across the world.

The men at the mosque, many of whom came here as refugees after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, are pondering where they should stand as their adopted country prepares for possible war with their homeland.

"We are very sad, because if we go back to Afghanistan, we will be blamed for being Americans, but here in America, we are seen as Afghans," the imam said in his sermon, adding later that he and many members of the mosque are proud to be U.S. citizens.

Even as they condemned the Sept. 11 attacks, virtually all the immigrants agreed that the war-weary people of Afghanistan should not be punished for the crimes of terrorists who are not Afghan.

The immigrants repeatedly pointed out that Afghanistan is destitute after years of civil strife, Soviet occupation and drought.

Disagreement swirled around the issue of the Taliban.

Yusufi and several other worshipers said they once viewed the Taliban as a force for unity and peace. Mosque members welcomed Mujahid and other officials from the Taliban's New York office.

The mosque, a clapboard house on a quiet street in the Flushing section, offered a natural refuge for the Taliban here because most Taliban officials are ethnic Pashtuns, like the mosque members. The majority hail from Kandahar, a Taliban stronghold.


"The Taliban did not turn out to be what people expected,' said Abdul Rasoully, the owner of an Afghan restaurant in Queens. "I'm totally against them now. Their activities mostly are uncivilized."

But another man at the mosque said he continues to see value in the Taliban. Nour Abdullah, 22, said the Taliban is looking out for Afghans.

"The Taliban eats bread that is weeks old and sends the fresh bread to the poor," said Abdullah, who was brought to New York when he was 3 months old and now manages a fried-chicken restaurant in the Bronx.

Although deriding the terrorists as not being true Muslims - "if the Quran says terrorists are allowed to kill innocent people, I'm not a Muslim anymore" - Abdullah said the Taliban is right to demand proof before handing bin Laden to the United States.

After praying, several men, including the imam, embraced Mujahid, the Taliban's self-styled emissary to the United Nations. Yusufi and Mujahid spoke for about 15 minutes. Mujahid, 45, wore a brown sports coat over baggy, traditional garb.

The men listened to the discussion while munching on puffy Afghan flatbread spinkled with sesame seedsWhen the discussion ended, a man handed Mujahid a picture of the exiled king of Afghanistan, who some see as a potential replacement for the Taliban.

Status cloudy

Mujahid's status in the United States has been cloudy since the Taliban's office closed.

Since 1998, when he left his previous post as Kabul's ambassador to Pakistan, he headed the three-man office from a third-floor apartment above a medical office on Main Street in Flushing.

Workers in the medical office say the Taliban officials were friendly neighbors, but they said they refused to accept delivery of packages brought to them when the Taliban office was empty.

U.S. and U.N. officials had communicated with the Taliban through Mujahid, a State Department official said recently. That contact ended when U.N. sanctions against the Taliban demanded the office close, the official said.

Mujahid is living in the country legally, the official said.

In a telephone conversation from his home on Long Island, Mujahid said he had been living in the United States as a "an individual" since February, although the Taliban's deputy ambassador in Pakistan confirmed that Kabul continued to count Mujahid as its top official in the United States.

Mujahid refused to say what he has been doing here since closing the office.

One of his five children graduated this year from a public high school in Flushing, he said. His younger children were again attending classes after staying home for a few days after the Sept. 11 attacks.

He politely ended the phone conversation by mentioning that the time had come for him to pray.

Dan Mihalopoulos is a reporter for The Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing Co. newspaper

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