By Sharon Otterman
April 23, 2014
A film at the soon-to-open National September 11 Memorial Museum on the roots of the attacks has been denounced by an advisory group made up of clergy from different faiths. Credit Damon Winter/The New York Times
Past the towering tridents that survived the World Trade Centre collapse, adjacent to a gallery with photographs of the 19 hijackers, a brief film at the soon-to-open National September 11 Memorial Museum will seek to explain to visitors the historical roots of the attacks.
The film, “The Rise of Al Qaeda,” refers to the terrorists as Islamists who viewed their mission as a jihad. The NBC News anchor Brian Williams, who narrates the film, speaks over images of terrorist training camps and Qaeda attacks spanning decades. Interspersed are explanations of the ideology of the terrorists, from video clips in foreign-accented English translations.
The documentary is not even seven minutes long, the exhibit just a small part of the museum. But it has over the last few weeks suddenly become a flash point in what has long been one of the most highly charged issues at the museum: how it should talk about Islam and Muslims.
With the museum opening on May 21, it has shown the film to several groups, including an interfaith advisory group of clergy members. Those on the panel overwhelmingly took strong exception to the film, believing some of the terminology in it casts aspersions on all Muslims, and requested changes. But the museum has declined. In March, the sole imam in the group resigned to make clear that he could not endorse its contents.
Among those who criticized the film were, from left, the Rev. Chloe Breyer, Peter B. Gudaitis and the Rev. Ruth Yoder Wenger. Credit Damon Winter/The New York Times
“The screening of this film in its present state would greatly offend our local Muslim believers as well as any foreign Muslim visitor to the museum,” Sheikh Mostafa Elazabawy, the imam of Masjid Manhattan, wrote in a letter to the museum’s director. “Unsophisticated visitors who do not understand the difference between Al Qaeda and Muslims may come away with a prejudiced view of Islam, leading to antagonism and even confrontation toward Muslim believers near the site.”
Museum officials are standing by the film, which they say was vetted by several scholars of Islam and of terrorism. A museum spokesman and panel members described the contents of the film, which was not made available to The New York Times for viewing.
“From the very beginning, we had a very heavy responsibility to be true to the facts, to be objective, and in no way smear an entire religion when we are talking about a terrorist group,” said Joseph C. Daniels, president and chief executive of the nonprofit foundation that oversees the memorial and museum.
But the disagreement has been ricocheting through scholarly circles in recent weeks. At issue is whether it is inflammatory for the museum to use terms like “Islamist” and “jihad” in conjunction with the Sept. 11 attack, without making clear that the vast majority of Muslims are peaceful. The panel has urged the use of more specific language, such as “Al Qaeda-inspired terrorism” and doing more to explain the meaning of jihad.
The terms “Islamist” and “jihadist” are often used to describe extremist Muslim ideologies. But the problem with using such language in a museum designed to instruct people for generations is that most visitors are “simply going to say Islamist means Muslims, jihadist means Muslims,” said Akbar Ahmed, the chairman of the Islamic studies department at American University in Washington.
“The terrorists need to be condemned and remembered for what they did,” Dr. Ahmed said. “But when you associate their religion with what they did, then you are automatically including, by association, one and a half billion people who had nothing to do with these actions and who ultimately the U.S. would not want to unnecessarily alienate.”
The question of how to represent Islam in the museum has long been fraught. It was among the first issues that came up when the museum began asking for advice in about 2005 from a panel of mostly Lower Manhattan clergy members who had been involved in recovery work after the attacks.
Peter B. Gudaitis, who brought the group together as the chief executive of New York Disaster Interfaith Services, said the museum had rejected certain Islam-related suggestions from the panel, such as telling the story of Mohammad Salman Hamdani, a Muslim cadet with the New York Police Department who died in the attack and was initially suspected as a perpetrator.
There was wide agreement, however, that the exhibit space should make clear that Muslims were not just perpetrators, but also among the attack’s victims, mourners and recovery workers — an integral part of the fabric of American life.
A year ago, concerns about how the film might be viewed by Muslims were raised at a screening by a select group of Sept. 11 family members, law enforcement officials and others. As a result, several months ago, museum officials invited the interfaith group to view the film and tour the still unfinished exhibits.
The panel was pleased to see photographs of mourning Muslims included in photo montages. The museum also includes stories of Muslim victims and the reflections of Representative Keith Ellison, Democrat of Minnesota, the first Muslim elected to Congress, on the effects of the attacks on America, the museum said.
Sheikh Mostafa Elazabawy, second from left, the only imam on the panel, resigned, saying the video was offensive to Muslims. Credit Damon Winter/The New York Times
But then the group members screened the Qaeda film and grew alarmed at what they felt was an inflammatory tone and use of the words “jihad” and “Islamist” without, they felt, sufficient explanation.
“As soon as it was over, everyone was just like, wow, you guys have got to be kidding me,” Mr. Gudaitis said.
He and another member of the panel, the Rev. Chloe Breyer, executive director of the Interfaith Centre of New York, began to organize a response. On Monday, they sent the museum’s directors a formal letter on behalf of the 11 members of the interfaith group who had seen the film, asking for edits. Their concern was heightened by the personal experience many on them have had with anti-Muslim sentiment, including the national uproar over the construction of a mosque and Muslim community centre a few blocks from ground zero.
The response from the museum was immediate, though accidental: Clifford Chanin, the education director, inadvertently sent the group an email intended solely for the museum’s senior directors, indicating he was not overly concerned.
“I don’t see this as difficult to respond to, if any response is even needed,” he wrote.
The museum did remove the term “Islamic terrorism” from its website earlier this month, after another activist, Todd Fine, collected about 100 signatures of academics and scholars supporting its deletion.
In interviews, several leading scholars of Islam said that the term “Islamic terrorist” was broadly rejected as unfairly conflating Islam and terrorism, but the terms Islamist and jihadist can be used, in the proper context, to refer to Al Qaeda, preferably with additional qualifiers, like “radical,” or “militant.”
But for Mr. Elazabawy, and many other Muslims, the words “Islamic” and “Islamist” are equally inappropriate to apply to Al Qaeda, and the word “jihad” refers to a positive struggle against evil, the opposite of how they view the terrorist attacks.
“Don’t tell me this is an Islamist or an Islamic group; that means they are part of us,” he said in an interview. “We are all of us against that.”
For his part, Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University, defended the film, whose script he vetted.
“The critics who are going to say, ‘Let’s not talk about it as an Islamic or Islamist movement,’ could end up not telling the story at all, or diluting it so much that you wonder where Al Qaeda comes from,” Dr. Haykel said.
Michael Frazier, a museum spokesman, said the film would be shown in a gallery that also had two large interpretive panels illustrating how Al Qaeda was portrayed as “a far fringe of Islam.” Museum officials emphasized that Mr. Chanin and the rest of the museum took the concerns very seriously.
“What helps me sleep at night is I believe that the average visitor who comes through this museum will in no way leave this museum with the belief that the religion of Islam is responsible for what happened on 9/11,” said Mr. Daniels, the president of the museum foundation. “We have gone out of the way to tell the truth.