New York's Uzbeks unnerved by bearded attack suspect

A makeshift memorial stands on a bike path in lower Manhattan, where eight people were killed and 12 injured when suspect 29-year-old Sayfullo Saipov intentionally drove a truck onto the path.
A makeshift memorial stands on a bike path in lower Manhattan, where eight people were killed and 12 injured when suspect 29-year-old Sayfullo Saipov intentionally drove a truck onto the path.PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (REUTERS) - Uzbeks in New York's "Little Uzbekistan" neighborhood were dismayed when they heard one of their countrymen was accused of carrying out Tuesday's deadly truck attack in the city. But when they saw photos of the suspect, 29-year-old Sayfullo Saipov, they were baffled.

It was the wild beard that threw them. No Uzbek, especially a young man, would grow such a thick, untamed beard, they said. People passed around his picture on smartphones, guessing at what seemed to them more likely origins: Pakistan, perhaps, or Afghanistan, or maybe Tajikistan?

Something must have changed this young Uzbek man, they reasoned, in the seven years since he immigrated to the United States.

"In Uzbekistan, with a beard, you cannot walk around looking like that," Ashraf Zakirov said at his office in Brooklyn's Kensington area, where he shuffles between overlapping jobs as a notary, a real estate agent, a paralegal for Uzbeks navigating immigration laws and a community organizer.

Pushed by a lack of work and strict control of behavior and dissent, millions of Uzbeks have emigrated in recent years.

Thousands found their way to New York, which is home to one of the largest Uzbek communities in the United States. Many settled in Brooklyn's Kensington and Midwood neighborhoods, creating their own Little Uzbekistan.

"Here, there is too much freedom," Zakirov said of what he saw as tolerance in the United States for even the more extreme interpretations of Islam. In Uzbekistan, Islam is the dominant religion but its worship is tightly controlled by a government wary of radicalism.

Like many of his Muslim Uzbek neighbours, Zakirov was appalled Saipov could kill eight people with a pickup truck and convinced he became radicalised after moving to the United States.

"When he came here I guarantee you 150 per cent he never had the beard," Zakirov said. Some Muslim men grow beards as a mark of devotion to Mohammad, Islam's chief prophet. The Islamist militant group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has made the practice compulsory in areas it controls.

Saipov was charged in federal court on Wednesday with acting on behalf of ISIS.

Bakhtiyor Akramov runs a men's clothing store in Kensington filled with Hugo Boss and Pierre Cardin. Like many Uzbek men here, including Saipov, he has driven for the Uber ride service.

He said he was not particularly religious but tried to go to the mosque at least on Fridays, and a lack of Uzbek mosques meant he had to go to an Arabic-language one instead. Perhaps, Akramov thought, Saipov, who lived in Paterson, New Jersey, came under bad influences after wandering into the wrong mosque.

"In an Uzbek mosque you don't have a beard like that," he said.

Across the street at the Emir Palace banquet hall, a Central Asian whirl of clarinet and drums greeted a midday Uzbek wedding party of women in glittering clothes and curled hair and men in suits with fresh shaves.

Firdavs Gergiev, the owner, said he had never seen anyone like Saipov at Emir Palace. He pointed to his bar as an explanation, stocked heavily with the vodka and cognac his clients preferred.

"I have alcohol, it's 'haram,'" he said with a casual laugh, meaning banned under Islamic law, a ruling he estimated maybe eight out of ten Uzbeks disregarded.

Gergiev said when he saw images of Saipov he thought he looked like a member of Afghanistan's radical Sunni Muslim Taliban movement.

One of the wedding guests, Nodira Sidikova, rued Saipov's actions for distorting the image of her homeland and her faith, which she thought made things harder for her two children.

"We're proud of our nationality, we're proud of our people, and we're upset right now," she said.