For Families of Muslim 9/11 Victims, a New Pain
NEW YORK — After that cruel day nine Septembers ago, Talat Hamdani felt twice victimized: first by fellow Muslims who killed her son, then by fellow Americans who doubted that a Muslim like her Salman died a hero at the World Trade Center.
Now, Hamdani says that with anti-Muslim feeling aroused by plans for an Islamic community center and mosque two blocks from the Ground Zero site, she again feels like a double victim.
“It’s worse now than it was then,” says Hamdani, a retired middle school English teacher who supports the project. Despite feeling an anti-Muslim backlash in the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, she says, “at least there was empathy then. I got tons of support. Now I’m getting hate mail.”
Hamdani is one of hundreds of American Muslims who lost loved ones on 9/11, yet found themselves tarred, because of their faith, by the attacks. As
9/11’s ninth anniversary approaches, some of these Muslims worry that the controversy over the mosque near Ground Zero is feeding a revival of the
Islamophobia of 2001.
FBI statistics show that hate crimes against Muslims remain relatively rare. But recent headlines reflect tension over Muslims’ place in America: A young
man is accused of stabbing a Muslim cab driver in New York City last month. A Florida preacher plans to mark Sept. 11 by publicly burning Qurans.
Across the nation, groups oppose plans to build mosques, including ones proposed by moderate congregations.
Yet 9/11 had more Muslim victims (about 60 of nearly 3,000 killed) than terrorist hijackers (19).
They included an assistant bank vice president and a cook, a commodities trader and a waiter, an insurance executive, a security guard and an IT guy.
They included immigrants from all over: Sarah Khan, a cafeteria manager from Guyana; Syed Abdul Fatha,a copy machine operator from India; Zuhtu Ibis, a computer technician from Turkey. There was Michael Baksh, a Pakistani immigrant on his first day of work at the insurance firm Marsh & McLennan, and Abdoul Karim Traore, who had risen at 3 a.m. that day to deliver USA TODAY before reporting to work as a cook at Windows on the World restaurant. Karamo Trerra, a computer tech, was ready to celebrate his fourth wedding anniversary on Sept. 12.
And there was Salman Hamdani, who apparently abandoned his commute to work that morning to offer his skills as an EMT and police cadet at the Trade Center.
That was where he eventually would be found, in 34 pieces.
“People of all faiths died that day,” including Muslims, says his mother, Talat. “It is not fair to hold us responsible.”
The Muslim 9/11 victims’ families are not a cohesive community. Few are in touch with one another. (Many relatives left the country, some because they
were not here legally.) They’ve experienced different levels of prejudice — some say they have faced none at all — and differ on issues such as the proposed Islamic community center.
Talat Hamdani says she supports the plan, because of its proponents’ constitutional rights; because it would promote religious tolerance, and because moderate American Muslims “have been scapegoated. We have had to carry this cross for nine years now.”
Neda Bolourchi, a legal mediator in Los Angeles, lost her mother, Touri, who was aboard the jet that crashed into the south tower. She opposes the mosque because she believes it would politicize the Ground Zero area and destroy it as a sacred place for reflection and remembrance.
“I have no grave site to visit,” she says. “All I have is Ground Zero.”
The families of Muslims killed on 9/11 are spread across the nation:
• Mehr Tariq’s husband Tariq Amanullah, an assistant vice president at Fiduciary Trust, died in the south tower. She is 49 and lives with her two
young adult children in California’s Silicon Valley, where they moved in 2005 to be near her brothers.
Her neighborhood is diverse — about one-third Muslim — and tolerant. She feels comfortable visiting a local mosque for Quran study. “I read about (anti-Muslim sentiment),” she says. “I don’t experience it here.”
In 2001, when she attended a counseling session in New York for 9/11 families, some non-Muslims in the group didn’t distinguish between extremist and moderate Muslims: “I felt so isolated, because the other people were so angry. They would blame just ‘Muslims.’ ” She stopped going.
The furor over the Islamic center in New York reminds her of 2001: “Nobody cares that Muslims were victims as well as non-Muslims.”
• Baraheen Ashrafi’s husband, Mohammed Chowdhury, died atop the north tower, where he was a waiter at Windows on the World. Ashrafi, 38, lives in Edmond, Okla., where she moved with her two children to be near her sister. A native of Bangladesh, she became a U.S. citizen in 2004.
Hers is the only Muslim family in the neighborhood. Despite some incidents over the years — remarks about her head scarf, soda cans thrown at her car,
an old woman in a wheelchair at Wal-Mart who refused her offer to help with something on the top shelf — she usually feels accepted.
She never tells acquaintances about her 9/11 connection; most people only know that she’s a widow. Nor has she told her son Farquad, born two days after 9/11, how his father died. She knows the day is coming when she must, and dreads it.
She worries about the safety of American Muslims, and was shaken by the August assault on the New York cabbie, whose accused attacker reportedly had expressed polite interest in Islam. It shows, she says, that “some people are looking good on the outside, but inside are full of hate.”
• Ysuff Salie’s daughter Rahma, who was seven months pregnant, and Rahma’s husband, Michael, were passengers aboard the jet that crashed into the north tower. Ysuff, 64, and his wife, Haleema, 58, live in Newton, Mass., and run two bakery-cafes.
After 9/11, several of their Muslim relatives were barred from international flights and almost missed the memorial service for Rahma and Micky. Haleema felt compelled to tell reporters: “We would like people to know that we are Muslims and my daughter and son-in-law were Muslims. They were
Today, Ysuff says he hasn’t felt much prejudice — “and I operate in a very public place” and avoids controversy. “If I see a disturbance, I keep away. If someone asked me (about the Islamic center), I’d say, ‘No comment.’ I’m not a person to judge.”
Reinforcing a mother’s faith
Talat Hamdani has two stories about 9/11. One is about who it took from her, the other about what it did to her.
Both begin the morning of the attacks, when Salman, 23, left their home in the Bayside section of Queens in New York City heading to his job as a lab tech at
Rockefeller University on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. He had a Quran in his backpack and a date after work in Jersey with a young woman he had met online.
He was born in Pakistan — his two U.S.-born younger brothers would tease him about it — and moved to America with his parents in 1980, when he was 1. His father, Saleem, owned a convenience store, and the boy helped with odd jobs such as sorting the Sunday papers. He became a citizen in 1990.
He had graduated in June 2001 from Queens College, where he majored in chemistry, and he hoped to eventually go to medical school. He trained as an EMT and drove part-time for an ambulance service. He joined the Police
Department’s cadet program, a sort of ROTC for cops.
This, his mother infers, is what happened on 9/11: While heading toward the city on the elevated subway train, Salman saw the twin towers burning and wanted to help. He used his EMT and police cadet credentials to get downtown, where he was killed when the north tower collapsed.
When he did not come home that night, the family searched frantically. They visited hospitals, checked the morgue, posted “missing” fliers. (Some were
ripped down.) In early October, they flew to Mecca to pray for his return.
They even nurtured a perverse hope: that perhaps Salman was one of the many young Arab and Muslim men secretly detained for questioning.
Meanwhile, police were asking the family about Salman’s politics and his computer. Rumors spread.
Someone distributed amateurish fliers with Salman’s picture, saying he was wanted for questioning by the city-federal terrorism task force.
A New York Post story about Salman was headlined “Missing — or Hiding?”
Talat has never gotten over what she regards as the slander of her son. She says it helps explain her advocacy of the Islamic center: “This is a cause for
me. If there’d never been a shadow of suspicion cast on Salman, then there would be no reason for me to do this. My anger comes from his own country
casting suspicion on him.”
With no word on their son, his parents left the front door unlocked and slept on the living room floor — waiting, against all reason, for him to walk back in.
That’s where they were late one night in March 2002, when two policemen appeared at the door. Salman’s remains had been identified; his name was
The following month, at his funeral, the police commissioner called him a hero. “Most people would have gone in the other direction” during the aftermath of the attacks, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said. “He went in to help people.”
Two years later, Saleem Hamdani died. The medical cause was cancer, but his wife deemed him as much a casualty of 9/11 as his son.
Her attempt to clear Salman’s name made Talat an activist. She joined Cindy Sheehan at Iraq war protests near President George W. Bush’s vacation home in Texas, and she attended hearings of terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. She realized that 9/11, which had taken away so much, also had given her something. “It reinforced my faith,” she says. “It gave me more confidence. I found myself standing up for a faith as I never had before.”
When the Islamic center became an issue, she was the only Muslim 9/11 family member to step forward. In June she spoke at a community planning
board hearing, as opponents jeered.
“My legs were shaking,” she says. “But I had a mission: to honor the memory of my son, and to heal the wounds of 2001.”
After appearing on television, she got hate mail at home on Long Island. One letter said, “Go back where you came from.” Another said, “Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims.”
Talat has her own conclusions. She says the true martyrs of 9/11 were not the men who piloted planes into buildings, but their victims: “They gave their lives doing what they believed in.”
The martyrs were Salman, and all the others born in faraway places with unusual names. “They died for one reason,” she says. “Not because they were
Muslims or from Pakistan or anywhere else. They died because they were Americans.”