“We stand in violation of our own human rights”

September 11, 2011
“We stand in violation of our own human rights”
The Hindu
Talat Hamdani, mother of Salman Hamdani, 9/11 victim who rushed into the towers to help others. Photo: Narayan Lakshman

Salman Hamdani was a young Pakistani Muslim who was killed in the twin towers when they were struck by two airplanes ten years ago. He had rushed in to save the lives of his fellow Americans. Far from being celebrated for the hero that he was, however, his family suffered doubly when the police circulated flyers suggesting he had was part of the terrorist plot.

While the discovery of his remains at the site cleared his name beyond a shadow of doubt and he was officially later recognised as a hero, the episode only added to the distress of his family and the sense of discrimination faced by the wider American Muslim community.

His mother, Talat Hamdani, spoke to Narayan Lakshman about how those events affected her and shaped her view of where the U.S. now stands with American Muslims.

What did your son, Salman, do on the day of the 9/11 attacks?

He did not come home that day. We all knew that he would go down to the Twin Towers to help, because that was in him, he was a certified paramedic and a New York Police Department Cadet. But apart from that he was a very genuine, kind, compassionate human being. We knew he would go down there.

But the fact that he would not come home and perish – that took a very long time for the family to accept that. We did search for him for 10-12 days at Ground Zero, with his picture and a flyer, to no avail.

Then we went to different hospitals in search of him. Maybe he had lost his memory, maybe he had lost his eyesight. Maybe he could not talk or hear. But no such luck there either.

Then we went to Mecca to pray. The day we were leaving all the reporters came to our house asking questions and I asked them – “What brings you back here a month later, October 11?”

They told us there was a flyer circulating in the NYPD with [Salman’s] picture and asking people who knew him to step up [and provide information]. Someone had told us about this incident in the store that my husband had in Greenpoint.

The story hit the media the next day when I was not even here to defend myself. The New York post lived up to its reputation and made a misstatement that he was missing or hiding. There were insinuations that he went out with a Koran that day, that he was seen at the mid-town tunnel at 11 am and that his neighbours were wondering what kind of a person lived next door to them. It was everything negative that you could possibly think about.

As yet, many people ask me if they apologised, but nobody apologised. To be honest ten years later I am wondering what has happened to this country. We have let it go for a very long time – and when I say “we” I mean the American masses.

So how did the matter get cleared up after the flyer went out and what happened next?

The reason they had to clear him [of any wrong-doing] was that his remains were found on the site, in the third week of October [2001] and they verified it. They tried, as much as they could, to investigate it thoroughly, so they did not confirm it until March 20, 2002, six months later.

That was hard, again because there was hope that he had been detained and there was no question that people had been detained. Some Indians were detained, some Jews came back from these camps saying that they had been let go because they were not Muslims. A couple of Indian doctors came back and they even testified before the United States Senate.

They came back from which camps?

From federal [government] detainment. People were immediately detained after the fact [of the 9/11 attacks].

But it was a reputation redeemed. There was a journalist from the New York Times, Joyce Purnick, who was very persistent in following through with what happened to my son. She even called up the NYPD and asked them who put out that flyer and the NYPD denied it.

But just look at all the information that is coming out about the NYPD ten years later – that speaks volumes for itself.

So it is not a good time right now to be a Muslim, honestly. There are many people I know who have taken on American names. But you cannot deny your roots or your ethnicity or your faith.

I was speaking to Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf of the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” yesterday and he was reflecting on a similar theme about the need to explain to the broader American public the viewpoint of American Muslims. Do you feel there is still a long way to go or do you feel things have improved under this government?

No, things have not improved at all under this current administration. I know President Obama tried very hard to change the image [of America], especially the injustices done in the name of 9/11. We stand in violation of our own human rights, our own Constitution, the Geneva Convention, and the United Nations’ convention on human rights.

His hands are tied. This administration has not alleviated our situation at all. Guantanamo was not shut down. All the inmates are Muslims. On the domestic front the civil liberties of citizens [have not been respected]. The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board has not even met for ten years now! At least under [former President George W.] Bush five members were nominated, but right now there are only two members. Why is it taking so long?

There were so many initiatives in the name of national security. I do accept that we need national security, but not at the cost of stigmatising and demonising the Muslims and the Arabs. That is not the way to go, because that is going to divide the nation and we will never reunite again.

That is un-American. We stand in violation of our Constitution. To build a mosque and pray is our constitutional right.

President Obama defended this and I thanked him for that. He is a wonderful man, God bless him.

On the tenth anniversary of the attacks, as a mother and as someone affected directly by the attacks and as someone who has spoken a lot about this since that time, what do you make of this anniversary and what is your message on this day?

The tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks to me is the end of a tragic era of the tragedy, the sadness of what happened.

We cannot dwell on the past because it does not do us any good. Because of 9/11 many things have changed. America has changed. We need to return to our original core values.

So the tenth anniversary to me is a culmination of the past tragedy and it is a big celebration of not only the resilience of the victims’ families but of the nation as a whole.

It is also about moving forward, fighting, for the second time around, the civil liberties fight – this time for American Muslims for the next decade.

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