Collateral Damage

The forgotten Muslim victims of 11 September 2001

David Usborne
Thursday 11 October 2001 00:00

The United States and Britain face the unavoidable risk, as they continue their bombardment of Afghanistan, that sometimes their missiles will crash into the wrong targets. Buildings with no military significance will be flattened, and, worse, perfectly innocent lives will be ended. We call it collateral damage.

When the terrorists, on the other hand, drove their hijacked jets into the twin towers, in New York, and the Pentagon, outside Washington, DC, the world was numbed by the efficacy of their daring. One aircraft went down in the fields of Pennsylvania; the other three scored bull's-eyes. Yet the collateral damage on 11 September was massive.

Here are a few names. Samad Afridi, Omar Namoos, Asad Samir, Yusuf Saad, Talat Hussain, Azam Ahsan, Qasim Ali Khan, Naseema Simjee, Ashraf Ahmad Babu, Mohammad Chaudhury, Jumma Haque. There are many more. All of them died in those attacks on America, and all were Muslims. Many were working in the World Trade Centre. Some were among the heroes who rushed to the scene to help the wounded, only to be crushed themselves. At least two were passengers on the aircraft.

Why have we not heard more about the Muslim victims of the horror in America? In Britain, we witnessed a brief and sometimes bitter debate over whether Muslim leaders had said enough to condemn the terrorists' actions. But perversely, it was cast once again in terms of Islam vs America, or Islam vs Christianity – the same terms used by al-Qa'ida in its latest call to all Muslims to join its war on Britain and America. Yet Islam is in Britain and America. Someone should have distributed that list of names.

Dr Mansoor Khan is a family doctor in Queens, New York, who opened a bereavement centre for Pakistani relatives of the victims of the twin towers tragedy. He theorises that the media are at fault because they have barely made mention of the Muslim victims who died on that terrible Tuesday. They have ducked that reality because it gets in the way of a central convenience: that it was a them-against-us crime, and is now a them-against-us war. "At the same time saying that Muslims are victims of the atrocity and that we are the perpetrators of it? I think that is hard for them to swallow," he offers.

Then there are the numbers. The media shy away from anything confusing. And there is, sadly, great confusion over how many Muslims were killed in the raids on America. The news network CNN, for example, will tell you that the number of Pakistanis who perished is 200. That is huge. Hasn't anyone told that to the demonstrators on the streets of Quetta and Islamabad? Yet here in New York, the list of those killed compiled by the Pakistani mission to the United Nations has nine names only. The Muslim Parliament in Britain has said that 1,500 Muslims of all nationalities died in the attacks. The Council on American Islamic Relations, in Washington, said 800. Make up your minds, guys.

Take an interest, perhaps, in Salman Hamdani, a laboratory technician, who left his family home in Queens on 11 September to go to work at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, at the Rockefeller Centre, in Manhattan. He took the No 7 elevated subway train, as usual, but on that day he didn't return. Just 23 years old, he was trained in emergency medical assistance. As far as anyone can guess, he took it on himself to climb aboard an ambulance headed for the World Trade Centre after the first of the planes hit. (He never even got to his office.) His training gave him reason to go close to the towers; perhaps he even went inside one of them. Their rubble became his tomb.

And so the terrorists killed Salman, too, a young Muslim man born in Karachi, Pakistan. He came to America with his family when he was just one year old and still lived in the traditional Pakistani and Muslim home of his parents and two younger brothers, in the Bayside section of Queens. Talat, his mother, teaches English to young teenagers; his father, Salim, owns a small shop. It is a home where Islam plays a large role. An English version of the Koran is always on the living-room table. A sacred Islamic text is stuck to the fridge. Salman – his family called him Sal – was private about his faith, but serious, too. He read the Koran and prayed five times a day.

How will the terrorists justify that death? Quite easily, perhaps, because Salman loved not only Islam but also the country they hated. As a teenager, he worshipped the Star Wars films, and he had never really grown out of the fascination. His navy-blue Honda Civic had personalised licence plates that said: "YungJedi". He was studying for a master's degree part-time at New York University, and his ambition was to be a doctor. He was planning also to move to Manhattan, an island of life and creativity that he could not resist. "He is an American," Talat Hamdani said of her son some days after the tragedy. "He likes reading science-fiction books and playing video games." Salman, a well-built young man, was also on his high school's American football team.

Or consider the grief of Zara Khan, who for more than a week after the Trade Centre attacks roamed the streets of Manhattan, giving out small sheets of paper to anyone who would take them. They showed a photograph of her 29-year-old brother, Taimour Khan, and a phone number. "Please call," the flyer said. Zara spoke to hundreds of people in those desperate days. She sought out journalists and held up the flyer for the television cameras. But, like almost 5,000 others in the Trade Centre, Taimour was gone.

He, too, came from a Pakistani and Muslim household. Unlike Salman, Taimour was born in the US and considered himself American above all. He not only played football in his school, in a comfortable Long Island suburb where the Khans were the only Pakistani family; he was the captain of the team. His upbringing was secular Muslim, and as a young man, Taimour was barely observant of Islam. He had already made the move to Manhattan, where, by all accounts, his charm and good looks made him a popular man and a regular of the nightclub scene. According to his relatives, however, Taimour always identified himself not just as an American but also as a Muslim. And he never forgot the emphasis that Islam gives to the family. "Nearly every week, he would come by to see his mother," noted an uncle, Arshad Khan. "He would never let her cook. He would always take her to the best restaurants."

Taimour Khan was one of the first to know the terrorists' evil. He was a commodities trader for a firm called Carr Futures, and he was already hard at work when the first of the planes smashed into One World Trade Centre at 8.45am. Carr Futures was on the 92nd floor of the tower. Taimour never had a chance.

Rahma Salie knew even sooner. An observant Muslim of Sri Lankan nationality, who had lived in America for just 10 years, she was a passenger on American Airlines flight 11 that day, bound for Los Angeles from Boston. Hers was the plane that hit the north tower, the one that Taimour Khan was in. The terrorists, of course, never made a mercy announcement before take-off: "All Muslims may now disembark, because this is not about you." So Rahma, who was 28 years old and seven months pregnant with her first child, was doomed to die from the moment she stepped on board, accompanied by her husband, Michael Theodoridis, 32. They were on their way to the wedding of one her best high-school friends, in California. Michael, in theory, should have been spared, too. A Greek-American, he had converted to Islam before marrying the sweetheart he had met in college.

Later, a cruel insult was piled on the grief of Rahma Salie's family. A week after the terrorist attacks, the FBI put her name on a "watch list" of people with possible connections to the perpetrators. They did it because she was on one of the flights commandeered by the hijackers, because her travel pattern – she was a consultant for a Boston IT firm – matched that of the terrorists and – oh, yes – because she had a name that sounded vaguely Muslim. She was eventually removed from the list, but not before several of her relatives found themselves barred from taking flights as they tried to travel to Boston for her memorial service. One uncle was already on a US-bound flight from Tokyo when it was called back to the gate and he was taken off by police.

The FBI thus committed the crudest kind of discrimination and racial profiling. Fear of discrimination or, worse, of physical harm gives one explanation for the muddle over how many Muslims died on 11 September and who they were exactly. Families may not be coming forward to report that someone is missing because they are afraid of drawing attention to themselves. It is what Dr Khan, from Queens, calls the "double jeopardy" of the relatives of the Muslim victims. They have lost someone they love. But because they are Muslims, like the terrorists, they also feel they are at risk of reprisals by angry Americans. The Council on American Islamic Relations has recorded 1,500 hate crimes against Muslims in the US since the attacks.

There is another problem. According to Muhammad Tariqur Rahman, of the Islamist Circle of North America, Muslim families are holding back from making missing-persons reports, depriving themselves of financial benefits, because of immigration concerns: "There were a lot of illegal aliens working in restaurants or subway news-stands, and these people are not coming forward with information about those who died, for fear that they may be deported." Even if the victim may have been in the US legally, with a green card, families are still nervous. Mr Rahman has his own list of 40 Pakistanis missing since the tragedy. His best guess for the total number of Muslims killed is around 150. His organisation has been investing in advertisements in ethnic newspapers in New York and even spots on Urdu-language television, urging people to step forward. But the response has been minimal.

The Muslim victims of the terror of 11 September are the forgotten victims. They are easily forgotten, because so many don't even have names. And it has been convenient for both sides to forget them. We need now to hold up the stories of Salman, Taimour and Rahma. And we should recite out loud the list of Muslim names that we do have. Because in days as dangerous as these, they tell us many things. This is not a clash of civilisations and certainly not a clash of religions. Some Muslims feel it is their duty to join the cause of al-Qa'ida and its leader, Osama bin Laden, or at least to express sympathy for it. But Muslims have been victims of al-Qa'ida, too. And if it strikes again, in London or New York, Muslims will be victims again. Al-Qa'ida holds America as the enemy and the infidel. But America is a country with seven million Muslims. The largest group of whom, by the way, is made up of African-Americans.

"Everyone is affected, no matter what religion you are," Haleema Salie, the mother of Rahma Salie, said of the attacks on New York. Simply put. Very important. The Taliban tell us this is a holy war. They are wrong, because there are Muslims on both sides.

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