Interfaith panel denounces a 9/11 museum exhibit’s portrayal of Islam

Visitors outside the soon-to-open National September 11 Memorial Museum, which includes a documentary that discusses the subject of Islam and Muslims. Credit Damon Winter/The New York Times

Past the towering tridents that survived the World Trade Center 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 with his voice are explanations of the ideology of the terrorists, rendered 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 suddenly become over the last few weeks 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 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.

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Sitting in his mosque, Sheikh Mostafa Elazabawy, the imam of Masjid Manhattan, answered questions about why he found a film about Al Qaeda at the museum deeply offensive. 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 they vetted past several scholars.

“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.

Peter B. Gudaitis with the Rev. Chloe Breyer, left, of the Interfaith Center of New York, and the Rev. Ruth Yoder Wenger, of New York Disaster Interfaith Services. They are members of a panel that has raised objections to the film. Credit Damon Winter/The New York Times

But the disagreement has been ricocheting through scholarly circles in recent weeks. At issue is whether it is appropriate or inflammatory for the museum to use religious terminology like “Islamist” and “jihad” in conjunction with the Sept. 11 attacks, without also making clear that the vast majority of Muslims are peaceful.

The terms “Islamist” and “jihadist” are frequently used in public discourse 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.

“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 panel was pleased to see photographs of Muslims mourning included in photo montages. The museum also includes stories of Muslim victims and the reflections of Representative Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, on the impact of the attacks on America, the museum said.
[…]
But then the group screened the Qaeda film and grew alarmed at what they felt was its 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.
[…]
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 practicing 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.

“When you use the word ‘Islam,’ that means they are a part of us,” he said in an interview. “We reject 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.

The museum declined to make the film available for viewing by The New York Times.

“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.”

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