Heroes of 9/11: Clearing Salman’s name

Salman meant no harm

Tabloid cynics say that although not all Muslims are terrorists, most terrorists are Muslims. But what does this prove? After all, the overwhelming majority of terror victims are also Muslims. The cynics also ask why Muslims across the world won’t march through the streets condemning terror. Maybe it’s because they are too busy burying their own victims.

Each week, Iraq and other Muslim states are battered by terrorist attacks that kill the same number of people as died in the July 7 London bombings of 2005. But if, God forbid, a terrorist incident hit another Western target tomorrow, who would be blamed? And how would anyone deemed to belong to the assassin’s group be treated?

In the week of the sixth anniversary of the World Trade Centre attack, perhaps we should look to the lessons of New York. In particular, let’s focus on the nightmare experienced by the mother of one victim.

Mrs Talat Hamdani was a typical all-American mom. Like my family, she is from the Indian subcontinent. Her son, Mohammad Salman, was born in Karachi, Pakistan. He moved to America when he was hardly 13 months old. At age 23, Salman had a busy life — working as a New York Police Department (NYPD) cadet, as a researcher and as a part-time ambulance driver. He had gained admission to study medicine at university. He was a Star Wars fan, and his license plate number read ‘Young Jedi.’ He played American football for his high school team. Salman was also a devout Muslim. He regularly performed his ritual prayers five times a day. As he grew older, Salman became increasingly proud of his Pakistani and Muslim heritage — although he never found time to learn to read and write in his native language, Urdu.

On the morning of 11 September, 2001, Salman left home and headed to his usual place of work as a researcher at the Rockefeller University. After catching the train, he disappeared. Within hours, his family were being questioned by the FBI; and within days, political leaders and media commentators were accusing the young Hamdani of being a terrorist.

Around the same time, American Sikhs were also being accused. The front page of Sydney’s Daily Telegraph newspaper showed the first terror suspect being taken into custody. He had his head bowed and sported a beard and a blue turban. He was, in fact, a Sikh. Soon after, another American Sikh, Balbir Singh Sodhi, was gunned down while planting flowers at his family-owned petrol station in Arizona. His killer later admitted he shot the young man thinking he was a Muslim.

Muslim Americans were rounded up across the country. In the hysteria that followed, September 11 Muslim terror victims and their families were either ignored or demonised as terrorists.

Salman’s mother was accused of fostering terrorism at a time when she was more worried about her missing son. Some seven months later, FBI officials telephoned to advise her that Salman’s remains had been found. Far from being a terrorist, it turned out that, after he had learned of the attack on the Twin Towers, Salman had rushed to the scene and volunteered his services. When the towers collapsed, the debris also fell on Salman.

Eventually, the young man was laid to rest in April 2002. Among those who attended the funeral service at a New York mosque were New York’s Police Commissioner, NY Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and the NYPD’s first Muslim police chaplain, Imam Pasha, together with over 1000 police cadets.

Finally, after suffering the double grief of a missing son and accusations he was a terrorist, the Hamdani family were able to reach some closure. Mrs Hamdani reminded mourners of some important lessons from her son’s death:

This tragedy really united and re-united the diversity in America … Those who died on September 11 were all in a very precarious situation, but what mattered to them was that they are all human beings … We have to make the world realise that they were all human. They are just human like you are.

This devout Muslim woman joined Christian and Jewish parents on the steering committee of Peaceful Tomorrows, an organisation founded by family members of those killed on 11 September, 2001. Their mission statement says they ‘have united to turn our grief into action for peace. By developing and advocating non-violent options and actions in the pursuit of justice, we hope to break the cycles of violence engendered by war and terrorism.’

Here’s what Mrs Hamdani told a symposium in 2005:

Salman gave the ultimate sacrifice to save his fellow Americans, and ironically, he was investigated as a terrorist. The speculations were floated by the New York media, especially, Fox 5 and its sister company that runs the New York Post. He was investigated only because of his faith. Six months later, on March 20, 2002, we were officially notified that his remains were indeed found by the North Tower. My life took a drastic turn and I found myself in a very complex situation: I found myself not only defending my faith as a Muslim, but also defending my country, America.

Eventually, America honoured her citizen Mohammad Salman Hamdani, by acknowledging his courage and sacrifice in the Patriot Act. However, the Patriot Act is an egregious act, curtailing civil liberties and suspending due process, violating the United Nations treaty on human rights and the American Constitution. The loss of my first born child and the pain of him being investigated as a terrorist generated a lot of anger. Then my husband and I discovered September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows in the summer of 2002. And hence started my journey as an activist, as a Muslim American fighting for my rights which were never challenged before 9/11.

Could someone please identify the un-American values in the above sentences? Instead of searching for congregations to blame and scapegoat, we should be working together to fight the terror scourge.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who wishes that putative leaders would stop using rhetoric which alienates people who are just as likely to be victims as anyone else. I’m not aware of any terrorist who’s been able to manufacture a bomb that discriminates on the basis of race or religion.

So, even the terrorists don’t discriminate. Why on earth our politicians do, beats me.

Irfan Yusuf is an associate editor of altmuslim and a Sydney-based lawyer whose work has appeared in some 15 mainstream newspapers in Australia, New Zealand and South-East Asia. A version of this article previously appeared in NewMatilda.com.


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