An American of Pakistani descent, Muhammad is among an estimated 200 to 300 Muslims in the 13,000-member Fire Department. While they grieve for the more than 300 firefighters lost Sept. 11, they are also dealing with the fallout of the attack made in the name of Islam. "It's a double whammy. As a human being I'm outraged. As a Muslim I feel the people who did this launched an attack on Islam," said Kevin James, a supervising fire marshal and president of the Islamic Society of Fire Department Personnel.
Muhammad, 26, was helping at the scene when the twin towers collapsed and was injured himself in the stampede away from the falling buildings. He has spent the three weeks since struggling with his feelings that morning. "Looking back, I wish I hadn't felt that way. This is not Islamic. Islam doesn't teach this. Islam is as American as apple pie, maybe more so," he said, adding that since Sept. 11 he has vowed to learn more about Islam to better defend his religion against those who say it condones violence.
He agreed with the sentiments James expressed in this week's issue of The Chief, a newsletter for Fire Department personnel. "I am proud to be Muslim, just as I am proud to be a member of that elite fraternity of firefighters, EMTs, fire marshals and police officers who risked and heroically gave their lives at the World Trade Center," James wrote.
After recounting the centuries-long history of Muslims in America, he declared: "We will not allow ourselves to be racially profiled or stigmatized in a way that threatens the dignity and freedoms of all Americans." Muhammad said he felt relieved when, amid the chaos and suffocating debris, he found himself face to face with a Muslim colleague. "It's hard to talk about my feelings, my religion, with most people," he said. "They just don't want to hear about Islam now."
The fellow EMT he ran into that day was Edris Bey, 42, a single father of five from Brooklyn. "I don't know how we ended up next to each other that day, but I remember he said, `If I'm going to die today, at least I'm going to die with a fellow Muslim,"' Bey said. "I was scared. I was just thinking I don't want to die. These attacks have set Islam back by years."
Bey, who said he was a militant Muslim when he was younger, had only praise for colleagues at his station. "That day it was unbelievable. When I came to the station there was nothing but love for me," said Bey, the only Muslim at his fire station. "My colleagues were hugging me and kissing me and crying. They thought I'd been killed because I was there when building two hit the ground."
James also stressed the cohesiveness of the department: "You always have knuckleheads, but this is a brotherhood." The Fire Department does not have a Muslim chaplain. The Police Department has one, as do all branches of the U.S. military. For more than six months, Imam Muhammad Abdulmalik has been acting as a spiritual adviser to the Islamic Society of Fire Department Personnel.
At least one Muslim, Salman Hamdani, a police cadet working on an emergency medical service team, is missing following the Sept. 11 attacks.