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 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.
“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.
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.
A coalition of American Muslim and Arab-American organizations (see list below) today urged the National September 11 Memorial Museum to consider editing a planned film presentation, “The Rise of Al Qaeda,” because it may lead viewers to wrongly conclude that that the entire faith of Islam is responsible for the 2001 terror attacks.
In an open letter to museum President Joe Daniels and Director Alice Greenwald, the organizations wrote in part:
“We have learned that you have been aware, since at least June 2013, that viewers have found this video confusing and possibly inflammatory. The museum’s own interfaith religious advisory group has repeatedly asked that this video be edited, with their concerns being dismissed.
“According to their testimony, the video:
- Deploys haphazard and academically controversial terminology, in particular ‘Islamic’ and ‘Islamist’, to generalize, unnecessarily, about al-Qaeda’s acts of terrorism.
- Does not properly contextualize al-Qaeda as a small organization in comparison to the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims.
- Uses stereotypical, accented English for speakers of Arabic in translation.
- May give some viewers, especially those not familiar with the subtleties of the terminology being used, the impression that Islam, as a religion, is responsible for September 11.
Signatories to the letter include:
- Samer Khalaf, President, American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC)
- Lena Alhusseini, Executive Director, Arab-American Family Support Center (AAFSC)
- Maya Berry, Executive Director, Arab American Institute (AAI)
- Nihad Awad, National Executive Director, Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)
- Salam Al-Marayati, President, Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC)
- Nadia Tonova, Director, National Network for Arab American Communities (NNAAC)
- Sarab Al-Jijakli, President, Network of Arab-American Professionals (NAAP)