The September 11th terror attack had a complex emotional, social, and economic impact on the Muslim American community, and especially upon the extensive immigrant Arab, South Asian, and African Muslim populations of New York City. Like our fellow Americans and like much of the world, we Muslims felt sorrow and anger to be attacked in this way—grief for family, friends, and neighbors lost in the towers and on the hijacked plans, as well as shame and consternation at seeing our religion hijacked for evil ends, distorted and degraded by the actions of Al-Qaeda.
We also felt increasing apprehension about the impending attack on Afghanistan and then Iraq, as well as insecurity about our own positions here at home—would we be targeted by hate crimes and detentions? Little did we realize how many of us would be affected over the subsequent years.
In fact many New Yorkers recall the spirit of unity that prevailed in New York City after the disaster, so different from the polarized and frequently hateful atmosphere in the nation today. Nonetheless, interfaith and intercultural cooperation has continued to flourish.
Beginning two or three days after 9/11, I worked at ICNA Relief USA to assist in disaster relief and recovery. With its long history of providing disaster relief and crisis mitigation services, ICNA was able to collect monies to assist victims, organize volunteers, and plan interfaith charitable projects. In the weeks and years following the 9/11 tragedy, I coordinated direct and indirect financial and legal assistance to hundreds of detainees in addition to assisting Muslim and non-Muslim families who had lost someone in the attack. During the five years I worked at ICNA Relief with my dear colleagues Br. Tariq Rahman and Br. Abdulsalaam Musa and others, I was grateful to receive at various times the civil liberties assistance of Nicole Woods and Malika Rushdan and (in our Red Cross Program) such hard working caseworkers as Br. Hasan Raza and Sister Rasheeda al-Hakeem, who departed this world two months ago, may God be pleased with her. Our ICNA Relief USA team could not always solve all problems, but we could certainly lighten the load in many cases, with the help of Allah.
Though the number of Muslim families directly affected by 9/11 is relatively small (no one knows the exact count, but it is under 50), ICNA assisted almost half of them to varying degrees. Much time has passed, and these families—African, Arab, Turkish, Greek, Indian, Bangladeshi, and Pakistani—have for the most part scattered across the nation and around the world. I recall many moments with them as we looked for disaster assistance and being touched in so many ways by their deep sorrow and, just as compelling, their profound patience and courage. May Allah make it easy for them all! Two of these families exemplify the suffering as well as the courage typical of these families and it is fitting that we take a moment to remember them, one known to the ICNA community and one to the world.
The suffering, patience, and courage
Tariq Amanullah went to work at the World Trade Center on 9/11 and simply never returned. He is often identified as an assistant vice president of Fiduciary Trust. However, few people know that Amanullah, a Muslim by faith, was also one of the founding members of 877-Why-Islam. He was also the treasurer of ICNA-NJ, organizer of Muslim Day at Six Flags and core member of ICNA.org website team.
ICNA team members remember Amanullah for his humility, his devoted nature, and his selfless work. “The mere mention of Br. Tariq Amanullah’s name evokes a range of feelings within me; from a sense of loss to profound admiration for his contribution to the cause of Islam,” expressed Musaddique Thange.
“Br. Tariq was a very humble man. He had a unique smile and was soft spoken in nature. He had a down-to-earth personality and was very meticulous in his work. He was a valuable team member and was loved by everyone,” reminisced Saeed Khan.
Most team members’ last memories of Amanullah are associated with the Great Muslim Adventure Day, which was held at Six Flags Great Adventure, New Jersey, two days before 9/11 and where they met him last. “How can I forget Br. Tariq Amanullah? I still remember my last talk with him at the Six Flag Park Arena after a tiring day. I still see his smiling face from that day,” recalled Mohiuddin Syed.
Ten years have passed since that tragic day. Speaking with his widow, Sr. Mehr, three weeks before the upcoming anniversary, she told me how grateful she was to all the well-wishers for their support over the last few years. Still, she is glad to have moved to the West Coast away from all the 9/11-related hype in the media that still exists in New York. Their son has now graduated college and seems to be following in his father’s footsteps as he pursues a career in Information Systems Management. Their daughter is in the third year of her university studies. “She was only nine years old when it happened, and as she realized her loss more fully over the next few years, she became very quiet. Thank God she is now moving on with her life.” Sr. Mehr says that it has been a challenge for the whole family, adding, “With all the attacks on Muslims in the USA, I also have felt at times that I was considered an enemy as well as a victim.” Sr. Mehr is active with the ICNA Sisters’ Wing in her area.
Mohammed Salman Hamdani, a 23-year old Pakistani-born paramedic rushed to the World Trade Centre to help victims after the first plane hit one of the towers. In After the Fall: New Yorkers Remember September 2001 by Catherine Ellis and Stephen Drury Smith, Mohammed’s mother Talat recalled how she first heard the news after she left a class she was teaching in a New York City public school just around the time the second tower collapsed. She and her husband, who were from Karachi but had lived in New York since 1978, could not reach him but were hopeful that this was because he was helping others and because of cell phone system overload. She volunteered to watch the students that day until the parents could manage to pick them up from school. But in the following days, with no word from their son, as they made the round of hospitals and visited the rescue workers at Ground Zero, they began to hope he had been detained with the hundreds of other Muslim men rounded up in New York in the first days after 9/11. Soon they were hearing his name and reputation smeared in the New York tabloids, with the NY Post headline “Missing or Hiding?” and other articles insinuating he was one of the terrorists. Such stories continued for a long time, even after his remains were found under Tower Two.
For Talat, her husband Saleem, and their two other sons, the personal had become public. And soon the public became personal as well, as Talat Hamdani fought to clear her son’s name and to reclaim their unsullied identity as a Muslim American family. She was gratified that her son, ultimately, was named as a hero in the U.S. Patriot Act, in a governmental gesture of inclusion, but was shocked to find out what human and civil rights restrictions were contained in these new laws. She opposed the Patriot Act and joined 9/11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows and has been active as a spokeswoman for this pro-peace group of 9/11 family survivors. Among many other activities, Talat Hamdani actively joined the demonstrations supporting Park 51, the campaign to include Muslim input in the 9/11 Commission Report, and the campaign against keeping Guantanamo open; she has travelled to Guantánamo to observe the 9/11 defendants’ military commissions proceedings there.
When the Peter King hearings on the radicalization of Muslims were announced in spring 2011, Talat and I met with the editorial board of Newsday, the daily newspaper serving Mr. King’s district. She also spoke out to other media at the “I am a Muslim Too” rally in Times Square. When Congressman Keith Ellison was allowed to “provide balance” at the King hearings, it was Salman Hamdani’s sacrifice that he spoke of in a memorable and politically effective speech.
Despite her husband’s death and some recent health challenges, Talat has also established a new award to honor her son by financially aiding a graduating college senior who has been accepted to medical school, preferably a student connected to Pakistani heritage and/or in need of financial assistance. In May, Anam Ahmed became the first recipient of the new Salman Hamdani Memorial Award, which is administered by the Queens College Foundation.
“Just as Salman Hamdani helped his fellow Americans selflessly on 9/11, not caring about their beliefs but just seeing human beings, I want to be able to do the same one day,” said the Queens College graduating senior. And as Talat said of her son, “This is his legacy. He gave his life. They tried to take away his dignity in death and they cannot do it.”
Community challenges and peace-building
There is no denying a marked increase in public anti-Muslim sentiment linked to the meteoric rise of the political Right in this country. And since spring 2010, “Ground Zero” has continued to be a highly politicized issue, manipulated especially by Islamophobic opponents of the Park 51 project, which they falsely term a “victory mosque,” due to its size and location several blocks from the World Trade Center site, where the “Liberty” tower now rises at long last.
These political attacks have led many Muslims to feel disenfranchised, since the implication is that we should keep out of pubic sight despite deeply sharing in the tragedy of 9/11. Like many others, Talat Hamdani has asked: “Why are we paying the price? Why are we being ostracized? Our loved ones died…. America was founded on the grounds of religious freedom.” She says that opposition to the cultural center “is un-American. It’s unethical. And it is wrong.”
Indeed, the distortions in some of the right wing media have been remarkable, since the Park 51 project is primarily a community center that offers recreational space and social services to the whole community, as an addition to the current, modest mosque that has quietly existed on that spot for several years. And despite support for the project by Mayor Bloomberg and many civic leaders and organizations, Park 51 is still a favorite political buzzword of fear-mongering for the Tea Party. In the last elections, the issue became a major theme of local elections around the country, even at this time of economic hardship, along with the supposed threat of Sharia law. And for the 9/11 anniversary, an organization called the Christian Action Network is promoting a hateful documentary film called, Sacrificed Survivors: The Untold Story of the Ground Zero Mosque, hosted by demagogue Congressman Allen West and promoted in parks throughout New York City.
Hatred and intolerance are spreading. In the Queens Congressional district of recently disgraced Anthony Weiner, not far from ICNA offices, a Tea Party politician has been endorsed by former New York City mayors Guiliani and Koch in the September 2011 primary race. Through the use of negative videos, he is using the issue of Park 51 to run against a Jewish mainstream candidate on an anti-mosque platform in order to capture the most extreme right flank of the local Jewish vote. Divisive identity politics certainly at play here!
Thankfully other community groups are working to build bridges of understanding and peace in this post 9/11 world. The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) is involved in coordinating the Shoulder to Shoulder interfaith program that promotes understanding and tolerance in the face of these attacks on religious freedom; New York Neighbors for American Values is another such coalition of over 150 civic organizations that is planning positive-minded 9/11 rallies; and Prepare NY is an interfaith group that is currently setting up over 500 “coffee hour discussions” to use the tenth anniversary as an opportunity to enhance mutual understanding. (More information available at www.prepareny.org)
Peaceful Tomorrows is another such organization, founded by family members of those killed on September 11th who have united to turn their grief into action for peace. They hope to break the cycles of violence engendered by war and terrorism and have implemented many projects in the U.S., Iraq, and Afghanistan. Colleen Kelly, a New York nurse whose brother, William Kelly Jr., was killed in the 9/11 attacks, said she wrestled with feelings of revenge, and felt relief when the American military recently killed Osama bin Laden. But Kelly, who was among activists who traveled to Iraq two months before the war, said she related to and sympathized with civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq who would be killed in any war. “There are now families on the other side of the world who feel like my family,” Kelly said.”
In fact many New Yorkers recall the spirit of unity that prevailed in New York City after the disaster, so different from the polarized and frequently hateful atmosphere in the nation today. Nonetheless, interfaith and intercultural cooperation has continued to flourish. For example, the Unmet Needs Roundtable was established by a consortium of faith groups that served on the board of New York Disaster Interfaith Services (NYDIS). ICNA Relief was one of the founding members, and remains a Board member of this fine organization which has managed to provide over 5 million dollars in assistance to families who had fallen through the cracks of available assistance from 9/11 funding.
Memories of those who witnessed 9/11
The following quotes are from an article in the New York Times about post-traumatic-stress-disorder resulting from 9/11.
“I worked in tower 2 and was two blocks away when the plane hit it. I still remember the pile of women’s shoes, the shaking of the ground, the glass shattering around me and the brave police officer who motioned with his arms for everyone to go. I really don’t think I have PTSD. I do believe it’s real, though. I still can smell the smell that lingered in the city for months.”
“My son was a derivatives trader at Barclays Bank on 911 and saw the events as they unfolded on that day. He apparently was unable to come to terms with the horrors of that day or with losing six of his friends who worked in the towers. After years of emotional turmoil he finally took his life in December, 2006. There are probably many similar stories, that have also gone unnoticed. I wish there was a way to also remember those who did not survive the emotions triggered by this tragedy.”
“I was standing just south of Tower 2 when it collapsed, sending a giant black cloud racing towards me and my co-worker. We ran south and east towards the FDR but were overcome by the cloud within seconds. I still remember seeing a piece of paper with a spreadsheet on it, floating above my head as dust turned day into night. ….I was lucky enough not to have seen anyone dead or jumping to their deaths that day — perhaps that would have had a more lasting impact on me. But the one thing I will never forget is the sight of dozens of people like me emerging from the dust, running away from the towers in fear of their lives, and seeing dozens of emergency responders running in the opposite direction.”
“The saddest part for me is that many who ask me about it, and wonder why I have these little fears now, actually don’t want to hear it or care about it… It is something we have to live with inside, will never go away despite all the help probably, and something we will never forget.”
“I have worked on John Street in lower Manhattan for many years. I still remember the sights, sounds and smells of Sept 11 vividly. I recall the sounds of each tower collapsing, the gray clouds of dust that rolled down John Street, the gray ash that covered everything and everyone, the gray clouds that passed by my office window, the strong horrible odors, the sounds of throngs of people screaming as they tried to out-run the gray clouds of dust and debris that were unleashed by the collapse. I never talk about this with anyone. I just recall it privately and alone, and tears well up in my eyes.”
Extending Helping Hand to those affected
In 2010 Congress finally passed the James Zadroga Act to provide treatment for 9/11 responders and downtown residents, necessary because of the significant increase in respiratory distress among people exposed to the toxic plume. Some individuals will also qualify for treatment of their psychological trauma.
It is impossible to say how many people have 9/11-related PTSD, panic disorders, depression and anxiety. Based on a registry of people exposed to the attack, New York City’s health department has estimated that 61,000 of the 409,000 in the disaster area experienced “probable” PTSD after 9/11. Experts differ as to whether some people have suffered the disorder from watching repeated television coverage of the September 11 attacks, though this has been said to be at least an aggravating factor. It is a sad case that there are some number of Muslims who worked at ground zero as chaplains and rescue workers who would qualify for free treatment and health monitoring, but who have denied that they need help at all, or think they can handle the trauma without professional assistance. (Those who need help can contact WTC_HP_care@csc.com; or visit NOADH site at www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/wtc or call 202-616- 7900. For Medical monitoring, call 888-702-0630 or see www.wtcexams.org)
Post traumatic stress disorder can be treated with a combination of cognitive therapy (the goal is to help the client understand how certain thoughts about the trauma cause him or her stress and make the symptoms worse) medication, exposure therapy (to lessen fears about the memories of the trauma), and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR, to help change how one reacts to memories of the trauma.) I myself suffered from PTSD, anxiety, and depression, sought relief through talk therapy and EMDR, and did experience notable improvement.
Those who suffered the direct trauma of 9/11 have struggled to regain a semblance of normalcy and functionality in their daily lives. And they are a small number of the countless individuals who are suffering all over the world. May Allah be merciful to us all. And may we, in turn, be merciful and caring toward all our fellow human beings. And may the Muslim narrative of suffering, patience, and courage after the tragedy of 9/11 interweave with the narratives of all affected Americans so as to create a durable and exquisite fabric of resolve — to unify our efforts in creating a tolerant, cooperative, and peaceful world.