Here is yet another attempt to rewrite history and pretend that the 9/11 hijackers were not Islamic jihadists who were inspired by Islamic texts and teachings. “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,” wrote Sheikh Mostafa Elazabawy. “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.” The sinister “moderate” professor Akbar Ahmed adds: “The terrorists need to be condemned and remembered for what they did. 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.” But this is a sleight-of-hand. It is not the 9/11 Museum that is associating their religion with what they did. It was the 9/11 hijackers themselves who associated their religion with what they did. Elazabawy and Ahmed want the Museum to ignore and whitewash that fact, and no doubt it will comply: it has already begun to do so by removing mention of “Islamic terrorism” from its website.
Sharon Otterman of the New York Times actually interviewed me for this piece, which greatly surprised me, since the Times is so ardently on the side of Islamic supremacists and their Leftist allies. I am much less surprised to see that not a word of what I said, or the point of view I articulated, made it into the piece as published. Here is my exchange with Otterman:
1. Otterman to Spencer:
Dear Robert Spencer,
I’m working on a story about the way Islam should be represented at the 9/11 Memorial Museum, including questions about the terminology that should be used to speak about the Al Qaeda terrorists in reference to Islam. I was wondering if you might have a few minutes today to speak.
2. Spencer to Otterman:
I can tell you right here. Very simply: the exact words of the 9/11 hijackers, and of the 911/ plot masterminds, should be used to expose the motives and goals of the attack:
“Many thanks to God, for his kind gesture, and choosing us to perform the act of Jihad for his cause and to defend Islam and Muslims. Therefore, killing you and fighting you, destroying you and terrorizing you, responding back to your attacks, are all considered to be great legitimate duty in our religion….We ask to be near to God, we fight you and destroy you and terrorize you. The Jihad in god’s [sic] cause is a great duty in our religion.” — The “9/11 Shura Council” (that’s what they called themselves; they are the masterminds of the 9/11 plot: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Ramzi bin As-Shibh, Walid bin ‘Attash, Mustafa Ahmed AI-Hawsawi, and ‘Ali ‘abd Al-’Aziz ‘Ali) http://www.jihadwatch.org/2009/03/911-defendants-we-ask-to-be-near-to-god-we-fight-you-and-destroy-you-and-terrorize-you-the-jihad-in
“The first thing that we are calling you to is Islam.” — Osama bin Laden’s letter to the American people, November 24, 2002. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2002/nov/24/theobserver
“When the confrontation begins, strike like champions who do not want to go back to this world. Shout, ‘Allahu Akbar,’ because this strikes fear in the hearts of the non-believers. God said: ‘Strike above the neck, and strike at all of their extremities.’ Know that the gardens of paradise are waiting for you in all their beauty, and the women of paradise are waiting, calling out, ‘Come hither, friend of God.’ They have dressed in their most beautiful clothing.” — Mohammed Atta. The “Strike above the neck, and strike at all of their extremities” quote is from the Qur’an, 47:4. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2001/sep/30/terrorism.september113
In every instance, their own words should be used, including their own characterizations of themselves as Islamic jihadists, warriors in the cause of Islam.
If you have any further questions, I’m right here.
3. Otterman to Spencer:
Several controversies have been coming up in relation to how Islam is spoken about in the muesum materials.
The 9/11 Museum website used the term “Islamic terrorism”, but it was recently removed after a protest letter signed by about 100 academics. I spoke to some other prominent Islam experts, John Esposito, etc., who agreed that “Islamic terrorism” unfairly conflated terrorism and Islam, when Al Qaeda ideology is a fringe perversion of Islam and when things like the KKK dont get described as Christian terrorism, etc.
Esposito prefers terms like Al Qaeda terrorism or even Muslim terrorism. I wonder what you think about the term Islamic Terrorism?
Clergy that have been to the museum are also objecting to the terms “jihadist” and “Islamist” being used to describe Al Qaeda, arguing that they must be further explained or modified rather than standing alone in reference to terrorists. For example, better would be militant jihadist or militant/ radical Islamist. I’m wondering if you agree.
I also wonder if you think it is important to also show other types of images of Muslims at the museum, such as pictures of Muslims mourning the victims of 9/11, to balance out any impression that Islam and terrorism are one and the same thing.
And if you think this whole debate is just about whitewashing or political correctness.
4. Spencer to Otterman:
Of course the whole debate is about whitewashing and political correctness. As I showed in my first response to you, the hijackers and plotters themselves explained and justified their actions by reference to Islam. That makes it Islamic terrorism. Esposito saying that “Muslim terrorism” is OK but “Islamic terrorism” is not proceeds from the idea that they were terrorists who just happened to be Muslim — suggesting that Islam actually had nothing to do with motivating them to commit the terrorist act. That is a false claim. In reality, as you can see from the quotes, Islam was at the core and center of their motivations. That is relevant, and should be noted at the museum.
It is not the museum’s job either to indict or exonerate Islam. They should not go out of their way to depict Muslims mourning 9/11, unless it is part of a presentation showing all kinds of people mourning 9/11. The museum’s job is to depict the events of 9/11 accurately. That is all. The idea that it has to show Muslims positively in order to offset the effects of showing what happened on that day is as absurd as saying that a museum about the Civil War should have a wing about how nice some Southern slaveowners were to their slaves, to offset anti-Southern feeling arising from the institution of slavery.
As for “militant jihadist” or “militant/radical Islamist,” these are absurd formulations that reassure jittery multiculturalists that Islam is really a religion of peace at heart, no matter what jihad terrorists do in the name of Islam. They arise as a response to the quite successful campaign by Islamic supremacist groups such as the Hamas-linked Council on American-Islamic Relations to tar any opposition to jihad terror as “hate,” “bigotry” and even “racism.” The museum should call the jihadis of 9/11 what they called themselves: jihadis. Mujahideen. Warriors in the cause of Islam.
And here is the actual article:
“Interfaith Panel Denounces a 9/11 Museum Exhibit’s Portrayal of Islam,” by Sharon Otterman, New York Times, April 23:
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.
“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.
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 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 of New York Disaster Interfaith Services, said the museum 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 attacks and was initially suspected as a perpetrator.
There was wide agreement, however, that the exhibit space should make clear that Muslims were not just perpetrators, but also among the attack’s victims, mourners and recovery workers — an integral part of the fabric of American life.
A year ago, concerns about how the film might be viewed by Muslim visitors were raised at a screening by a select group of Sept. 11 family members, law enforcement and others. As a result, several months ago, museum officials invited the interfaith group to view the film and tour the still unfinished exhibits.
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.
“In general, everybody was very moved and impressed,” Mr. Gudaitis 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.
He and another member of the panel, the Rev. Chloe Breyer, executive director of the Interfaith Center of New York, began to organize a response. On Monday, they sent the museum’s directors a formal letter on behalf of the 11 members of the interfaith group who had seen the film, asking for edits. Their concern was heightened by the personal experience many on them have had with anti-Muslim sentiment, including the national uproar over the construction of a mosque and Muslim community center a few blocks from ground zero.
The response from the museum was immediate, though accidental: Clifford Chanin, the education director, inadvertently sent the group an email intended solely for the museum’s senior directors, indicating he was not overly concerned.
“I don’t see this as difficult to respond to, if any response is even needed,” he wrote.
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 terror 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.
Michael Frazier, a museum spokesman, said the film would be shown in a gallery that also had two large interpretive panels illustrating how Al Qaeda was portrayed as “a far fringe of Islam.” Museum officials emphasized that Mr. Chanin and the rest of the museum took the concerns about the film very seriously.
“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.”