|FREMONT — In the days following last week's hit-and-run rampage, law enforcement officials brushed off suggestions that it was an act of terrorism.
Yet some remain skeptical that Omeed Aziz Popal, a
29-year-old Afghan Muslim man who is accused of killing a
54-year-old pedestrian in Fremont and mowing down 18 others in San Francisco on Tuesday, suffered from mental illness and just snapped as his family members and one-time attorney have suggested.
Alameda County Assistant District Attorney Colton Carmine added fuel to the fire Thursday when he said he did not think the Fremont resident suffered from psychiatric issues and that the crime appeared to be deliberate.
While Popal undergoes psychological evaluations, online blogs and bulletin boards have been inundated with accusations that law enforcement and government authorities are engaging in "dubious denials" by dismissing the notion that the incident was an act of terrorism. They also accuse the media of downplaying and covering up the suspect's religion in their reports.
"What really makes me mad is that America is afraid to address religion," stated one comment posted at 10:14 p.m. Tuesday by a user, "ThereIsOnlyOneSatan," on http://www.jihadwatch.org. "The war on terrorism is a religious war, not because we've made it to a religious war, but because they have."
On Craigslist's Rants and Raves page, many comments bounced around the term "Sudden Jihad Syndrome," a phrase coined by syndicated columnist Daniel Pipes for what he describes as incidents when "seemingly well-adjusted" Muslims unpredictably become violent.
Pipes said he coined the term after a 22-year-old Iranian-American drove his sport utility vehicle into a crowded pedestrian zone at the University of North Carolina in March.
Some also are linking the Bay Area incident to the recent shootings at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle by aMuslim man whose lawyers are considering using a mental defense in his upcoming murder trial.
In linking the two incidents, some noted the proximity of one of the dozen hit-and-run locations to the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco.
Several writers expressing anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant sentiments did not return
e-mails or phone calls for comment.
Hint of tension
Despite statements from the police that Popal did not specifically target any group, local leaders say that skepticism highlights the distrust some residents still have about their Afghan and Muslim neighbors.
In recent days, the Afghan community along Fremont Boulevard has again watched the media descend on their neighborhood — as they did after the Sept. 11 terror attacks and subsequent bombing of Afghanistan.
And now, like then, there is fear of a backlash among Afghans, especially after someone posted the Popal family's address online and posted his picture next to images of the Twin Towers and Osama bin Laden.
Rona Murtaza Popal, president of the Afghan Women's Association, who is not related to Omeeda Popal, said the increased scrutiny has led members of the Afghan Coalition, an umbrella organization of local Afghan groups, to plan a news conference to discuss some of the issues facing the local Afghan community.
But Popal wants to know the motive before making a public statement about the case. And like members of the media, she has had little success in contacting the victim's parents.
"Afghans are extremely afraid," Popal said. "After 9/11, people didn't want to leave their homes. We don't want these incidents to happen. We came here because we wanted to be safe."
Still, Popal said, she understands the fears about domestic terrorism.
"I don't blame them. I understand how they feel," she said when asked to respond to the online comments. "In Afghanistan, we lived in fear of terrorism. That's why we left."
When asked to comment on the statement that Omeed Popal's parents kept him from interacting with peers and
"People want to put all the blame on the parents," Rona Popal said. "But part of the problem is cultural. Afghans have entered a completely free culture, which is what we wanted, but it's a culture that's so different from our own, and there's a lot of fear.
"The question," she added, "is how can we help Afghan immigrants adapt? It's very challenging."
Farid Younos, an Afghan-American researcher of Islamic studies and founder of the Afghan Domestic Violence Prevention project, said he's skeptical about the contention that Popal suffers from a mental illness.
"If we assume he's mentally ill or been hospitalized, why would he go to Afghanistan to enter into an arranged marriage?" Younos asked.
But Younos said those who want to blame Islam for the rampage are missing the point, calling the accusations "ridiculous."
"Americans get gunned down every day, but because he's Afghan, it's an excuse to generalize anti-Muslim and anti-foreigner sentiments," Younos said. "What should we say when white Americans or black or Filipino Americans commit vicious crimes?"
Younos, who counsels Afghans in Fremont, believes along with Rona Popal that the incident does raise questions about how some Afghan immigrants are adjusting to American culture.
He wondered why Popal had to travel to Afghanistan for an arranged marriage when there are plenty of Afghan Muslims living in the United States.
"If we assume this incident had something to do with his upbringing, then we need to ask whether his parents were being too protective," Younos said. "They're living in a new society that may seem chaotic. But we have to let our children make decisions for themselves. We need to have the right kind of guidance."
If non-Afghans are concerned about the rampage, Abdullah Nawabi, a Fremont electrical engineer and a producer of local Afghan cable access show, said they need to consider what it's like to be an Afghan American.
Despite the history of the Taliban and al-Qaida's presence in his native country, Nawabi, like others here, noted that Afghans seldom have been involved in terrorism. Afghans are fighters, he said, but they seldom resorted to terrorist tactics in their struggle against the former Soviet Union.
He insisted it was the foreign Arabs who brought terrorism to Afghanistan, not Afghans.
"When we heard it was an Afghan from our community, we knew it was bad news," Nawabi said. "Because we want to be viewed as a peaceful people. We're not happy when anybody is killing any innocent people. We're angry, too."
Fremont resident Ghulam Roshan, a retired doctor who teaches at the Fremont Adult School, called the incident an act of "sheer madness," and said he is concerned about a backlash against Afghans and Muslims.
"There is a concern that there are some people (who) do not go in depth into issues and (instead) just jump to conclusions," Roshan said. "It should be the wish of every American that when someone commits a crime, we wait for the details and get more information before making up our minds."
Staff writers Jeremy Herb and Ben Aguirre contributed to this report. Staff writer Jonathan Jones cover ethnic, religious and cultural issues. He can be reached at (510) 353-7005 or [email protected].