Organizers Call for Changes to Al Qaeda Film Shown in Newly Opened 9/11 Memorial Museum

Critics says the film indicts the entire religion of Islam, not just the violent extremists responsible for the attack.

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Civil rights groups are demanding changes to a short film playing at New York City's just-opened National September 11 Memorial Museum, saying it smears all Muslims.

Advocates say the six-minute film, titled, The Rise of Al Qaeda, leads viewers to believe that the religion of Islam, not violent terrorists, was the culprit behind the 9/11 attacks.

“There should be no conflating the religion with the evil acts of criminals,” said Zead Ramadan, a board member of the New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

Dangerous Film?

The film, Ramadan said, is narrated by NBC Nightly News editor Brian Williams and is interspersed with Al Qaeda’s documents and speeches throughout. This Al Qaeda propaganda uses the group’s politically motivated terminology, such as “Islamists,” to lure extremists to their cause. But the film, Ramadan said, isn’t contextualized so viewers can understand that this radical behavior is not in compliance with mainstream Islam. He added that the fact it is played near the end of the museum makes the film especially troublesome.

“The museum is really heart-wrenching in the fact that as you go through it, you’re basically reliving it,” Ramadan said. “There are lots of moving pictures and lots of minute-to-minute descriptions of what’s happening. And you could hear the voices of people who were interviewed who were actually in the buildings.… It’s really, really emotionally overwhelming. And then you get to the end of it, after you basically relive that day, which is a horrifying thing to do, and then you get to the point of who did this to us and then they show you this film.”

With more than 50 million people visiting New York City each year and more than 60 percent of Americans claiming they never met a Muslim, the fear is that the museum could potentially misinform the vast majority of its visitors. This could have dangerous consequences, as the conflation of Islam with the 9/11 attacks has spearheaded a national anti-Muslim backlash since 2001.

“I told the [museum] directors this morning, ‘You’re going to get someone who was emotionally charged after coming to the museum, and they were so angry that they hurt someone who they thought was Muslim,’” Ramadan said.

Critique Falls Upon Deaf Ears

While CAIR and other community leaders are still insisting the museum edit the film to provide context, their demands began a month ago in hopes that the film would be changed before the museum opened. A group of more than 400 scholars also sent a statement to the president and director of the museum requesting that the film undergo independent review. These concerns were drawn from media reports, as the museum limited the people who saw the film.

“They would not give us access at all until last Monday when the film was already being shown to all victims’ families,” Ramadan said. “They strategically and intentionally denied critics of the film to see it in advance, even scholars and academics, because I just don’t think they wanted to deal with it and they wanted the film to be public.”

One of the groups the museum did show the film to, however, was their own interfaith advisory group, which immediately expressed concerns. The only imam in the advisory group resigned in protest. After being ignored, they finally wrote a letter to the museum stating: “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.”

Advocates are troubled that their numerous critiques have fallen upon deaf ears. Joseph Daniels, president and chief executive of the foundation that oversees the museum told theNew York Times he doesn’t believe viewers will come away thinking Islam is accountable for 9/11.

“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,” Daniels said.

Ramadan said museum directors in support of the film have implied that they aren’t responsible for the fact that the Al Qaeda members in the film conflate Islam with their extremist actions.

“They came across and they actually used the words, ‘We’re not going to apologize for how they indicted themselves,’” Ramadan said. He added that it’s disingenuous not to acknowledge that people, such as Hitler, who cast an entire religion as the catalyst for their actions, are mentally unstable, and thus incapable of this sort of indictment.

Another factor that concerns advocates, Ramadan said, is a conservative influence in the museum’s decision-making process. Some have specifically pointed to Deborah Burlingame, whose brother was a pilot on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11. An outspoken critic of Islam, she has made numerous anti-Islamic statements in public.

The Struggle Continues

While CAIR and other advocates continue to push for changes to the film amid the museum’s opening, supporters have taken it upon themselves to inform visitors of the video’s dangerous narrative. The Jews Against Islamophobia Coalition and its allies held a silent vigil and passed out informational leaflets in front of the museum on Wednesday. 

The Coalition stated in its press release:

We call upon the Museum to take seriously the concerns expressed by its multi-faith advisory council, scholars world-wide, leading Muslim American and Arab American organizations, and community leaders … The communities being directly impacted by the distortions in this video—Muslims, Arab Americans, Sikhs, and other South Asians—are not asking for special treatment, but rather fairness and clarity in order to ensure that the acts of a small group are not conflated with or attached to an entire world religion.

In the meantime, Ramadan is pushing for the museum to reconsider, before more people visit the archive of what is arguably the most defining event of the past century.

“The longer it takes these corrections, the more it will adversely impact our community and society in America,” he said. “And it will be offensive to visitors from around the world who know better, who know that the tyrants and terrorists who attacked us on 9/11 do not represent the religion. In fact, they act in opposition to the tenets of Islam. And it will show that the museum made no effort to create an accurate depiction of who is at fault here and who attacked us that day.”

Alyssa Figueroa is an associate editor at AlterNet.