Family members and friends of a Culver City man of Afghan descent are protesting his apparent detention by officials in Egypt and calling for more vigorous U.S. action to find and free him.
Abdul Ghafoor Mahboob, a 26-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen who until last year worked for an Islamic relief organization, apparently was detained Friday at the Cairo airport as he prepared to return to California after having studied Arabic there since December. According to his brother, Mostafa, he managed to call a friend in Egypt to let him know he was being detained; the friend relayed the news to his family in Culver City.
An official with the U.S. Bureau of Consular Affairs confirmed that the office was investigating reports of Mahboob’s detention. Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice), whose congressional district includes Mahboob’s home, also was looking into the case. The Egyptian Embassy in Washington did not return calls for comment.
The Anaheim office of the Council on American-lslamic Relations planned to hold a news conference today to protest what it says is insufficient action by U.S. officials on the case. Executive Director Hussam Ayloush said U.S. officials have given the case only “lip service” and questioned whether Mahboob’s Islamic faith and Afghan descent marked him for discriminatory treatment.
Mahboob’s detention has mystified and outraged some local Muslims. Friends and family members said he was well-known and widely liked, describing him as a nonpolitical activist dedicated to humanitarian work, youth activities and religious learning. His mother, Shahbibi Mahboob, said her son was so devoted that he would kiss her feet, following Afghan custom, and promised he would cook for her when he returned from his studies.
“He would never harm anyone,” his mother said as she dabbed her reddened eyes with a handkerchief in the family’s tidy two-bedroom Culver City apartment. “Everyone who knows him knows he is a happy person who was always smiling.”
Before he left for Cairo in December, Mahboob worked as a fundraiser for Life for Relief and Development, a Michigan-based group formed in 1993 to aid the needy in Iraq after the Persian Gulf War. The organization says on its website that it has distributed more than $40 million to the needy in several countries.
Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Islamic relief organizations have come under scrutiny by U.S. officials for possible links to militant groups. But Mostafa Mahboob said his brother’s group had encountered no problems and last year received authorization from the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq to build clinics, distribute food and medical supplies and offer other humanitarian aid.
Last summer, Mahboob took a two-month trip with his mother to Afghanistan and Pakistan to see relatives. His brother said they encountered no problems reentering the United States -- just a routine check of their luggage.
Friends and family members said Mahboob was not involved in any militant organizations, nor was he an outspoken critic of U.S. policy or human-rights problems in Egypt. He decided to quit his job and study Arabic to be able to read the Koran in its original language -- the dream of many Muslims, said Ayloush of the American-Islamic council.
“He was very peaceful, very moderate and a devout Muslim who understood Islam as helping others,” Ayloush said.
Mahboob fled Afghanistan with his family in 1981 to escape the war with the Soviet Union. They lived in Pakistan for seven years until relatives in the United States sponsored their immigration here in 1988.
Mahboob, whose family pictures portray a stocky, bearded man with a smile on his face, was a straight-A student who earned an academic award from his middle school, which is displayed in the family’s living room wall. He was active in student government at Fairfax High School and Santa Monica College and graduated from UCLA with a degree in political science, his brother said.
“We’re aware of the extra scrutiny of [Muslims] since 9/11, but looking at my brother’s background, there is no reason to think that anything he has done could raise any suspicions,” Mostafa Mahboob said.