Muslims Mourn On 9/11 Alongside Fellow Americans

Seated next to portraits of her son Mohammad Salman Hamdani, who was 23 when he died attempting to save lives at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, Talat Hamdani sits during an interview in New York.

New York City population, 8,008,278 – according to recent government estimates.

Out of the about 8 million, somewhere between 600,000 to 850,000 are Muslim.

It’s no surprise, then, that nine years ago on September 11, 2001, about 60 American Muslims were killed alongside their fellow Americans when two planes hijacked by terrorists hit the World Trade Center, killing about 3,000 people.

Despite the fact that 9/11 had more Muslim victims than terrorist hijackers, families of many Muslim American victims had to deal with both the loss of their loved ones, as well as suspicion or lack of sympathy from others.

Talat Hamdani is the mother of Salman Hamdani, a lab technician who was on his way to work at Rockefeller Center on Manhattan’s Upper Eastside. Hamdani was 23 in September of 2001 – he was born in Pakistan, but came to the U.S. with his parents when he was one year old.

A chemistry graduate of Queens College, Hamdani hoped to go to medical school. He trained as an EMT and drove part-time for an ambulance service, and was a part of the Police Department’s Cadet program.

On 9/11, while on his way to the city, Hamdani saw the twin towers burning and changed paths to head to the Twin Towers, where he wanted to help. He was killed, however, when the North Tower collapsed.

When Hamdani did not return home, his family set out searching for him, posting fliers, hoping even that he might be one of the many young Muslim men secretly detained for questioning.

Police investigated Hamdani’s background, his politics and his computer.  Rumors began to spread that Hamdani was wanted for questioning by the city-federal terrorism task force.

A New York Post story was published about Hamdani with the headline, "Missing — or Hiding?"

It wasn’t until March of 2002 that two policemen came to the Hamdani home to notify the family that their son’s remains had been identified, and his name was clear.

Hamdani's mother felt victimized by both the Muslims who killed her son, and again by the fellow Americans who doubted that Salman - a Muslim - died a hero at the World Trade Center.

While Salman Hamdani’s story was publicized, other victims’ families mourned quietly, and in their own ways.

Tariq Amanullah, an assistant vice president at Fiduciary Trust, died in the South Tower. His wife, Mehr Tariq, now lives with her two children in Northern California, where she moved to be near her brothers in 2005.

Following the attack, Tariq attended a counseling session in New York for 9/11 families, where she found that non-Muslims in the group did not distinguish between Muslims in the group didn't distinguish between extremist and moderate Muslims:

"I felt so isolated, because the other people were so angry," she said. "They would blame just 'Muslims.' "

Tariq stopped going to the sessions.

"Nobody cares that Muslims were victims as well as non-Muslims."

Mohammed Chowdhury, a waiter at Windows on the World, died in the North Tower on 9/11, leaving behind his wife and two children.

His wife, Bahareen Ashrafi, a native of Bangladesh who became a U.S. citizen in 2004, now lives in Edmond, Okla., where her family is the only Muslim one in the neighborhood.

Ashrafi has encountered a few incidents over the years regarding her faith - remarks about her headscarf, soda cans thrown at her car, and an old woman at Wal-Mart who refused her help with something on the top shelf. Despite these, she usually feels accepted, she said.

Ashrafi does not tell acquaintances about her connection to 9/11. Her son- Farquad, born two days after the attacks, does not know how his father died. Though she knows she must tell him, she dreads it.

After the August assault on the New York cab driver, Ashrafi felt concerned for the safety of American Muslims.

"Some people are looking good on the outside, but inside are full of hate," she said.

After Ysuff Salie's daughter Rahma and her husband, Michael, were killed aboard the jet that crashed into the North tower, several of the couple's Muslim relatives were banned from international flights, almost missing the memorial service.

Salie's wife, 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 victims, too."

Ysuff says he hasn't experienced prejudice, despite working in a very public place.

"If I see a disturbance, I keep away," he said. "If someone asked me (about the Islamic center), I'd say, 'No comment.' I'm not a person to judge."

Many Muslim relatives of 9/11 victims, along with Muslims across the nation, worry that the recent debate over the Park 51 project located a couple of blocks away from Ground Zero has sparked a fresh wave of Islamophobia.

While FBI statistics show hate crimes against Muslims to be relatively rare, headlines around the nation like the Quran burning planned by Florida pastor Terry Jones do little to assuage fears of anti-Muslim backlash.

Salman Hamdani’s mother, Talat Hamdani, says that the recent anti-Muslim sentiment sparked by the Park 51 project has her feeling like a double victim once again.

Talat Hamdani said that although she felt backlash against Muslims in the weeks after 9/11, it is worse now than it was then.

"At least there was empathy then. I got tons of support. Now I'm getting hate mail," she said.

At a community planning board meeting about the project, Talat Hamdani was the only Muslim 9/11 family member to step forward.

"My legs were shaking," she said. "But I had a mission: to honor the memory of my son, and to heal the wounds of 2001."

In an effort to battle the growing anti-Islamic sentiment, Muslims are preparing to commemorate 9/11 through a grassroots initiative to “mobilize every Muslim American to take part in the president's service initiative by engaging Muslim organizations and social networks,” according to the group’s site.

Muslim Serve - a response to President Obama's United We Serve Campaign -- aims to help rebuild communities throughout America hit by the recession and to combat the stereotype that Muslims are “self-isolating and indifferent to the needs of their fellow citizens.”

Though the Muslim Serve initiative has fulfilled more than three thousand days of service, the 9/11 project will commence for the first time this year.

The initiative involves 1,000 service projects nationally, such as volunteering at churches to serve hot meals to the homeless. Many of the projects in the initiative involve interfaith activities.

“There’s a lot of fear mongering going on about Muslims,” said Jason Van Boom, a member of the initiative who coordinates interfaith activities. “We think it’s important to show what mainstream Muslims are all about.

Though there is a chance that the Islamic holiday of Eid, the commemoration of the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, may fall on 9/11, Van Boom said the projects will take place regardless.

“I hope that it’ll help to demystify Islam and show people that Muslims are right there, we’re interested in helping out,” he said.

                                                                Sameea Kamal

Sameea is a journalist and editing professional specializing in development/construction, green building & education.