Visitors Fault Sept. 11 Museum’s Portrayal of Islam

June 1, 2014

After the vivid audio recordings, diagrams and personal artifacts that take visitors minute by minute through the Sept. 11 attacks, and before the images of recovery workers combing through rubble, a small section of the National September 11 Memorial Museum is devoted to explaining Al Qaeda and terrorism.

A seven-minute video installation narrates a summarized history of Al Qaeda, opposite a series of brief explanatory panels about the group’s ideology and its attacks. On a recent weekday, some visitors stopped to watch the film in its entirety, but others only paused briefly. Some read the text panels, one of which explains that Al Qaeda represents a tiny fraction of the world’s Muslims; many people did not.

In April, the video, “The Rise of Al Qaeda,” became the center of a controversy over how the museum should talk about Islam in reference to the attacks. An interfaith group of New York clergy members argued the film failed to sufficiently differentiate between terrorism and Islam, and asked for changes. Now that the public has access to the museum, some visitors say they agree.

Last Thursday, among 20 people who had just gone through the museum, there was consensus that the museum did not come across as anti-Muslim. It provided them with basic information about Islam and Al Qaeda. But many said there was not enough explanation to enrich their perspective or teach them more than they already knew. Most worrisome, some said they thought a Muslim might feel uncomfortable visiting.

“I think they should have talked about Islam more, just so people understand that there is a difference between Islam and people who do terrorist attacks but who also happen to be Islamic,” said Adrian Cabreros, 22, visiting with his mother from San Francisco. “They just sort of said that the people from Al Qaeda wanted to have a more Islamic state, but it was hard to distinguish, to separate Islam itself. It kind of gives Islam a bad vibe.”

At the museum itself, the controversy over the treatment of Islam has centered on the terminology used to describe Al Qaeda. The interfaith panel contended that using religion-related terms like Islamist and jihadist to describe the terrorists could lead people to believe that the group’s violent, radical beliefs were indicative of the wider religion.