When Donald Trump and Ted Cruz talk about Muslims as a threat to the nation, remember a 23-year-old Pakistani-born NYPD cadet who was subjected to the same bigotry after he went missing at the World Trade Center on the day of the 9/11 attacks—presumed by many to have been a jihadi when he had died as a Jedi such as he idolized as a major Star Wars fan.
“YUNGJEDI,” his Honda’s license plates so rightly read.
Mohammad Salman Hamdani arrived in New York with his parents from Karachi when he was 13 months old. He grew up determined to be even more American than his two American-born younger brothers. He told people to call him Sal. He played as No. 79 on the Bayside High School football team. And he loved, loved, loved Star Wars.
At Queens College, Hamdani showed promise as a scientist, and he decided he would become either a doctor or an NYPD detective specializing in forensic investigation. He meanwhile worked as a part-time paramedic and as a researcher at Rockefeller University, where he was credited in a paper titled, “Synthesis and Structural Characterization of Trivalent Amino Acid Derived Chiral Phosphorus Compounds.”
He also became a police cadet. He responded as if he were already a full-fledged police officer as well as a paramedic when he learned of the attack on the World Trade Center on the sparkling morning of Sept. 11, 2001. He had been on his way from his home in Queens to his lab on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. He instead headed downtown with his medical bag to the burning towers.
When his parents did not hear from him, they reported him missing. His Pakistani birth immediately led some to suggest that this determinedly American young man may have played a part in the plot and then slipped away. The suspicions only ended when his remains were finally recovered in the wreckage of the North Tower, six months after the attack. His medical bag was found beside him.
A funeral with full police honors was held at the Islamic Cultural Center. The 500 mourners included then-Mayor Mike Bloomberg and then-Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly.
“We don’t know how many people he helped, how many lives he saved,” Kelly said in a eulogy. “But if you look at his life, you know he was determined to make a difference—and he did. He was indeed a hero.”
Bloomberg extolled Hamdani as “an example of how one can make the world better.”
The fallen cadet’s mother, Talat Hamdani, declared that in sacrificing himself in an effort to save others, her son had also been rescuing America from itself, from prejudice that made it less than the great country he had so passionately embraced. His selfless courage had shamed all those who presumed him to be a jihadi.
“My young Jedi, you gave your life for the children of ignorance,” said his mother. “He gave his life for America. Now America is honoring him.”
In 2014, he was further honored when a stretch of 204th Street in Queens was officially renamed “Salman Hamdani Way.” His mother spoke at the ceremony.
“It’s a joyous and victorious day,” Talat Hamdani said. “And it’s a turning point in America’s fight against prejudice and bigotry. It symbolizes that OK, American Muslims are also Americans, and we are an integral part of society.”
Two years later, the likes of Trump and Cruz are trying to rouse the same prejudice and bigotry against Muslims that Cadet Hamdani had stood against. These haters-in-chief insult all the nearly 1,000 Muslim members of the NYPD. Many of these Muslim cops are also in the military, putting themselves in harm’s way abroad as well as at home when Trump and Cruz have done so in neither.
“This is our homeland, we are here to live, and we are going to protect this nation and serve our fellow citizens,” NYPD Capt. Waheed Akhtar, 41-year-old executive officer of District 20 of the Transit Division and second vice president of the NYPD Muslim Officers Society, told The Daily Beast on Wednesday evening.
Akhtar added, “We are all one nation and we have to live together.”
Trump’s idea of facing danger is when he says he “risked it” by marching in the 2004 Israel Day Parade along with Dr. Ruth and 100,000 others. Compare that to Muslim officers who have served solo as long as five years undercover, seeking to prevent terror attacks at real, continual risk to themselves and at great personal cost, unable to tell even their families that they are one of the good guys. Many more Muslim officers stand ever ready to risk their lives for the sake of those of all faiths.
“I put on a uniform every day. I put on a vest and I go out and protect my fellow citizens,” Akhtar said.
He joined the NYPD 11 years ago, four years after Hamdani’s death. His late father was a Pakistani police officer, and his brother is currently one.
“He’s a cop over there and I’m a cop over here,” Akhtar said. “This is my second nature. I’m living the lifestyle of protect and serve.”
The NYPD’s first Pakistani captain, Akhtar safeguards his section of the subway system and joins the rest of the department in what he termed “the front line against terrorists.” He said he and the cops who share his faith constitute a message to Islamic extremists bent on violence.
“They will be confronted by Muslims in law enforcement,” Akhtar said. “We have taken an oath to defend this country, to defend this nation, and defend this great city.”
He added, “I’m very privileged and honored to serve this great country.”
To hear him speak was to be reminded that America has never stopped being great thanks to patriots such as him and his fellow Muslim officers. They would risk all even for the haters such as Trump when he is back home in the city and Cruz when he breezes through to raise money and spout insults.
That does not mean the Muslim officers are untroubled by bigotry such as what once made people see a Jedi as a jihadi. That same prejudice is now being stoked by two presidential candidates, one who has become the most likely Republican nominee while promising to “make America great again.”
“It is very disturbing,” Akhtar said. “Especially when it comes from political figures, it works as a poison. They are pretty much poisoning our values.”
Akhtar then returned to his duties, keeping the city safe.