Salman Hamdani died on Sept. 11, 2001. The 23-year-old research assistant at Rockefeller University had a degree in biochemistry. He was also a trained emergency medical technician and a cadet with the New York Police Department. But he never made it to work that day. Hamdani, a Muslim-American, was among that day's first responders. He raced to Ground Zero to save others. His selfless act cost him his life.
Hamdani was later praised by President George W. Bush as a hero and mentioned by name in the USA Patriot Act. But that was not how he was portrayed in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. In October, his parents went to Mecca to pray for their son. While they were away, the New York Post and other media outlets portrayed Hamdani as a possible terrorist on the run. "MISSING-OR HIDING? MYSTERY OF THE NYPD CADET FROM PAKISTAN" screamed the Post headline. The sensational article noted that someone fitting Hamdani's description had been seen near the Midtown Tunnel a full month after 9/11. His family was interrogated. Hamdani's Internet use and politics were investigated.
His parents, Talat and Saleem Hamdani, had been frantically searching the hospitals, the lists of the dead and the injured. "There were patients who had lost their memory," his mother, Talat, said. "We hoped he would be one of them, we would be able to identify him."
The ominous reports on Hamdani were typical of the increasing, overt bigotry against Arab-Americans, Muslim-Americans and people of South Asian heritage. Talat, who worked as a teacher, told me how children in her extended family had to Anglicize their names to avoid discrimination:
"They were in second grade ... Armeen became Amy, and one became Mickey and the other one became Mikey and the fourth one became Adam. And we asked them, ‘Why did you change your names?' And they said ‘because we don't want to be called terrorists in the school.' "
On March 20, 2002, the Hamdanis received word that Salman's DNA had been found at Ground Zero, and thus he was officially a victim of the attacks. At his funeral, held at the Islamic Community Center at East 96th St. in Manhattan, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and Rep. Gary Ackerman all spoke.
Which brings us to the controversy around the proposed Islamic community center, slated to be built at 51 Park Place in lower Manhattan. The facility is not, for the record, a mosque. And it is not at Ground Zero (it's two blocks away). The Cordoba Initiative, the nonprofit group spearheading the project, describes it as a "community center, much like the YMCA or the Jewish Community Center ... where people from any faith are allowed to use the facilities. Beyond having a gym, the Cordoba House will house a pool, restaurant, 500-person auditorium, 9/11 memorial, multifaith chapel, office and conference space, and prayer space."
Opposition to the center started among fringe, right-wing blogs, and has since been swept into the mainstream. While the hole at Ground Zero has yet to be filled, as billionaire developers bicker over the plans, the news hole that August brings has been readily filled with the "Ground Zero Mosque" controversy.
There is another hole that needs to be filled, namely, the absence of people in the U.S. in leadership positions in every walk of life, of every political stripe, speaking out for freedom of religion and against racism. As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."
Does anyone seriously say that there shouldn't be a Christian church near the site of the Oklahoma City bombing, just because Timothy McVeigh was a Christian?
People who are against hate are not a fringe minority, not even a silent majority, but are a silenced majority. They are silenced by the chattering classes, who are driving this debate throughout the media.
Hate breeds violence. Marginalizing an entire population, an entire religion, is not good for our country. It endangers Muslims within America, and provokes animosity toward America around the world.
When I asked Daisy Khan, executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, which is a partner in the proposed community center, if she feared for herself, for her children or for Muslims in New York, she replied, "I'm afraid for my country."
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.