Religion, like any ideology, can be used to promote good or evil, life or death. The meaning of the Koran, and other old scriptures, depends on interpretation. One verse in particular I interpret very simply: “Whoever kills a soul, it shall be as if he had killed all mankind; and he who saves a life, it shall be as if he had given life to all mankind.”
There are those, like the Orlando shooter Omar Mateen, who interpret the Koran violently. The next verse, for example, states that “the penalty for those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger and strive upon earth [to cause] corruption is none but that they be killed or crucified or that their hands and feet be cut off from opposite sides or that they be exiled from the land;” in isolation, this looks like it condones violence, and indeed it is selectively quoted by actors like the Taliban to justify their actions. But the peaceful interpretation—and the only way to reconcile these two verses—is that the second verse actually supports the first; if Mateen had read them both together, he couldn’t have killed all of those innocent people in Orlando. The Koran told him not to kill, and then spelled out the punishment for “waging war against God.” What Mateen did in Orlando was nothing less than waging war against God.*
As a Muslim I condemn the massacre in Orlando, just like all right-thinking people do. As an Afghan who has lived in a war zone much of my life and lost many family members, I understand the depth of the grief and pain of the families and friends of the victims. My heart goes out to them, and I offer them my prayers.
The presidential candidate Donald Trump was quick to point out that Mateen was a Muslim, whose parents where from Afghanistan. Trump decried Afghan immigration to the United States, despite the fact that the shooter himself was born in New York, and claimed that people from Afghanistan and elsewhere in the region hold “oppressive views and values” that shouldn’t be brought to America. Many of the Afghans living in the U.S. know these oppressive views and values all too well. They didn’t come to bring them here. They came to escape them.
Growing up in Kabul, I was taught from an early age that one of America’s core values is providing opportunities to make a good life, especially for those escaping oppression and extremism in their home countries. After all, the United States was founded by Europeans fleeing religious persecution; its purpose from the very beginning was to be a refuge. When I arrived as a graduate student in 2012, most of the Americans I met clearly lived by that welcoming creed. Many were eager to hear about my country and to know my story.
Until I was 10, I told them, my family at least had a good life, though Soviet troops were slaughtering thousands of people elsewhere in the country. Then the Soviets withdrew, and three years later, the government they had backed collapsed. In 1992, civil war erupted and changed everything. Our middle-class neighborhood of comfortable homes, tree-lined streets, and courtyards filled with gardens suddenly became the front line in a war between competing Afghan warlords.
For four and a half years, hundreds of rockets fell in our neighborhood every day. My family hid in our cellar. We had little to eat and hardly dared even to go to our garden to dig up carrots. Thugs sent by the warlords stole all our valuables. One day during a ceasefire, my father and I were captured by a faction and enslaved for two weeks. Our family thought we were dead. When we arrived home, we found them holding funerals for us.
The Taliban brought peace, but after a while they started making strange laws. They beat men for not dressing a certain way, or not having a beard. They forced women to wear burqas and forbade them from going to schools or working outside of their houses. One day they arrested me for not wearing a hat. I spent two weeks in a jail where they hung me from the ceiling in chains, and they beat me every day with a heavy electric cable. Many of the Afghans living in America can tell stories like mine.
After the Americans drove the Taliban out, I and other members of my generation, which has seen so much war, immediately began trying to dig the country out of its oppressive history. We traveled far distances to gain good educations and returned to rebuild our country. We had high hopes for a better future.
Over the past few years, however, the Taliban and other terrorist groups have undone so much of what we achieved, and the country is sliding back into the claws of chaos. Now it is too dangerous to return home. The centuries-old tradition of civility enshrined in the country’s pashtunwali code of honor is no match for suicide bombers financed by outsiders. Afghan values are falling victim to the violence, just like Afghans themselves are.
The Orlando shooter apparently embraced neither Afghan nor American values. He appears to have been a deeply conflicted individual. And he should be regarded as an individual, not as a representative of a religion or a nationality.
I wish Afghanistan were a peaceful country so I could invite Donald Trump to visit and experience for himself, as so many other Americans have, Afghans’ legendary hospitality. I could teach him the art of storytelling and challenge him to a poetry contest.
And I would share with him the words of Rumi, who was born in Afghanistan eight centuries ago, and who himself was forced to flee the violent invasion of Genghis Khan. Rumi is one of the most popular poets in the U.S., and to my mind he illustrates better than all the other Afghan writers and poets the values that Afghans and Americans share.
Rumi wrote: “Why struggle to open a door between us when the whole wall is an illusion? Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”
* The top of this article has been revised to clarify interpretive debate about this passage in the Koran.