Obscuring a Muslim Name, and an American’s Sacrifice
By SHARON OTTERMAN Published: January 1, 2012
He was buried after the Sept. 11 attacks with full honors from the New York Police Department, and proclaimed a hero by the city’s police commissioner. He is cited by name in the Patriot Act as an example of Muslim-American valor.
And Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota, one of two Muslim members of Congress, was brought to tears during a Congressional hearing in March while describing how the man, a Pakistani-American from Queens, had wrongly been suspected of involvement in the attacks, before he was lionized as a young police cadet who had died trying to save lives.
Despite this history, Mohammad Salman Hamdani is nowhere to be found in the long list of fallen first responders at the National September 11 Memorial in Lower Manhattan.
Nor can his name be found among those of victims whose bodies were found in the wreckage of the north tower, where his body was finally discovered in 34 parts.
Instead, his name appears on the memorial’s last panel for World Trade Center victims, next to a blank space along the south tower perimeter, with the names of others who did not fit into the rubrics the memorial created to give placements meaning. That section is for those who had only a loose connection, or none, to the World Trade Center.
The placement of Mr. Hamdani’s name has fueled the continuing concern and anger about how his legacy was treated soon after the Sept. 11 attacks, when, apparently because of his Pakistani roots, Muslim religion and background as a biochemistry major at Queens College, he fell under suspicion.
His name appeared on a flier faxed to police stations; newspaper headlines amplified his status as a person wanted for questioning.
“They do not want anyone with a Muslim name to be acknowledged at ground zero with such high honors,” his mother, Talat Hamdani, 60, said last week at her home in Lake Grove on Long Island, her voice filled with pain. “They don’t want someone with the name Mohammad to be up there.”
To Mrs. Hamdani, that her son would not be recognized at the memorial as an official first responder was the latest in a series of injustices that began with a knock on her door from two police officers in October 2001. She, her husband and two other sons had been searching morgues and hospitals for his body. But the officers wanted to ask questions, and they asked for a picture from the refrigerator that showed Mr. Hamdani, 23 when he died, at his Queens College graduation next to a friend who Mrs. Hamdani had told them was from Afghanistan.
It was around the same time that Mr. Hamdani’s official police cadet picture was circulating through police stations on a flier with the handwritten words “Hold and detain. Notify: major case squad,” The New York Times later reported. Investigators visited Mr. Hamdani’s dentist and confiscated his dental records, his mother learned.
It was not until March 2002, when the family was finally informed that Mr. Hamdani’s remains had been found in the wreckage more than five months earlier, that the public cloud over his name cleared.
It turned out his was a classic New York story. His family had immigrated from Pakistan when he was 13 months old, his father opening a candy store, his mother becoming a middle school teacher. Mr. Hamdani attended Catholic school in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, until the eighth grade, and then played football for Bayside High School in Queens.
He became a certified emergency medical technician and spent a year volunteering for MetroCare, a private ambulance company. He was a police cadet for three years and had taken the test to enter the academy, but was waiting to see if he was accepted to medical school.
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, his family and friends believed, Mr. Hamdani, traveling to work at a DNA analysis lab at Rockefeller University, must have seen the burning towers from the elevated subway tracks in Queens and gone down to help.
“We have an example of how one can make the world better,” Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said of Mr. Hamdani. The mayor was one of the dignitaries who appeared at Mr. Hamdani’s funeral, which was held with full police honors at a mosque off East 96th Street in April 2002.
“Salman stood up when most people would have gone in the other direction,” Mr. Bloomberg said.
For years, Mrs. Hamdani believed that the police had fully acknowledged her son’s sacrifice. She cherished the weighty brass police cadet badge that the police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, had given her, to dispel any doubts about who her son had been.
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