New York 9/11 museum sparks anger over portrayal of Islam

Photo: National September 11 Memorial and Museum

A film that will be shown at the National September 11 Memorial Museum in New York unfairly links Islam with terrorism and could lead to prejudice and even violence against Muslims, clergy members have said.


Called “The Rise of al Qaeda”, the seven-minute documentary narrated by NBC news anchor Brian Williams seeks to explain to visitors the history of international terrorism in the years before the 2001 attack on the World Trade Centre.

Although it has not yet been made available to the public, the film was shown to several groups before the museum’s opening on May 21, including an interfaith advisory panel of clergy members.

Members of the panel took strong exception to the film, which they say could give the impression that all Muslims support terrorism and are in some way responsible for the September 11 attacks, the New York Times reported.

In particular, they objected to the use in the film of terms such as “Islamists” and “jihad", which they fear could lead people to associate Muslims in general with terrorism, said the newspaper.

The group sent a letter to museum officials this week asking that the film be re-edited.

“We continue to posit that the video may very well leave viewers with the impression that all Muslims bear some collective guilt or responsibility for the actions of al Qaeda, or even misinterpret its content to justify bigotry or even violence toward Muslims or those perceived to be Muslim (eg Sikhs),” the letter said.

They also objected to the voiceovers used in the video alongside Williams’s narration.

“All American sources, news quotations and narrative are recorded in ‘Media English’, whereas translations from Middle Eastern sources were recorded in English or broken English with a heavy Middle Eastern accent,” the letter said.

Museum standing by film

Among those who signed the letter were Peter B. Gudaitis, chief executive of New York Disaster Interfaith Services, and the Reverend Chloe Breyer, executive director of the Interfaith Centre of New York.

One member of the advisory panel, Sheikh Mostafa Elazabawy, has already resigned in protest over the film.

In a separate letter to the museum’s director seen by the New York Times, he said the screening of the film in its present state would “greatly offend” Muslims.

“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,” said Elazabawy, imam at the Masjid Manhattan mosque.

The museum, though, is standing by the film and has refused to make changes.

“Our number one standard is, Are we objectively telling the story of what happened? And we feel like we’ve satisfied that,” said the museum’s executive director, Joe Daniels. He added that museum officials “stand by the scholarship that underlies the creation of this video”.

The museum forms part of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, built at the former location of the World Trade Centre.

The museum will house a historical exhibition that will chart the events on the day of the September 11, 2001, as well as exploring the factors that led up to the terrorist attacks.

A separate part of the museum will be dedicated to a “memorial exhibition”, which will include a “Wall of Faces” featuring photographs of the nearly 3,000 people who died in the attacks.

Despite their criticism of the film, the clergy members in their letter said the rest of the museum’s exhibits were “superbly well-designed, generally inclusive of the faith-based short-term disaster response, and deeply moving”.

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