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The Myth at the Heart of the 9/11 Museum Film Backlash

Can you tell the story of the 9/11 attacks without frequent mention of the words “Islamist” and “jihad?” To anyone even remotely familiar with the history of the war being waged on the United States and the West by al-Qaeda, such a suggestion is as absurd as it is unthinkable. The 9/11 terrorists were part of a movement that embarked on a campaign aimed at mass murder because of their religious beliefs. Those beliefs are not shared by all Muslims, but to edit them out of the story or to portray them as either incidental to the attacks or an inconvenient detail that must be minimized, if it is to be mentioned at all, does a disservice to the truth as well as to the public-policy aspects of 9/11 memorials. But, as the New York Times reports, that is exactly what the members of an interfaith advisory group to the soon-to-be-opened National September 11 Memorial Museum are demanding.

After a preview of a film that will be part of the museum’s permanent exhibit titled “The Rise of Al Qaeda,” the interfaith group is demanding the movie be changed to eliminate the use of terms like Islamist and jihad and to alter the depiction of the terrorists so as to avoid prejudicing its audience against them. They believe that the film, which is narrated by NBC’s Brian Williams, will exacerbate interfaith tensions and cause those who visit the museum to come away with the impression that will associate all Muslims with the crimes of 9/11. They even believe that having the statements of the 9/11 terrorists read in Arab-accented English is an act of prejudice that will promote hate.

Yet the impulse driving this protest has little to do with the truth about 9/11. In fact, it is just the opposite. Their agenda is one that regards the need to understand what drove the terrorists to their crimes as less important than a desire to absolve Islam of any connection with al-Qaeda. At the heart of this controversy is the myth about a post-9/11 backlash against American Muslims that is utterly disconnected from the facts. But by promoting the idea that the nation’s primary duty in the wake of the atrocity was to protect the good name of Islam rather than to root out Islamist extremism, interfaith advocates are not only telling lies about al-Qaeda; they are undermining any hope of genuine reconciliation in the wake of 9/11.

As I first wrote in COMMENTARY in 2010 at the height of the debate about the plans to build a mosque in the shadow of the remains of the World Trade Center, the media-driven narrative about a wave of discrimination against Muslims after 9/11 is largely made up out of whole cloth. No credible study of any kind has demonstrated that there was an increase in bias in this country. Each subsequent year since then, FBI statistics about religion-based hate crimes have demonstrated that anti-Muslim attacks are statistically insignificant and are but a fraction of those committed against Jews in the United States. But driven by the media as well as by a pop culture establishment that largely treated any mention of Muslim connections to terror as an expression of prejudice, the notion that 9/11 created such a backlash has become entrenched in the public consciousness.

While the Ground Zero mosque was never built in spite of the support that the idea drew from most of New York’s elites and political leadership, the narrative that emerged from the controversy in which the need to absolve Islam from any ties to the terrorists or al-Qaeda has prevailed. And it is on that basis that the interfaith group protesting the 9/11 museum film may hope to force the institution to surrender.

But the argument about the museum film goes deeper than just the question of whether a group of Lower Manhattan clerics have the political pull to force the museum to pull the film. As 9/11 recedes further into our historical memory, the desire to treat the events of that day as a singular crime disconnected from history or from an international conflict that began long before it and will continue long after it has become more pronounced. Part of this is rooted in a desire to return to the world of September 10, 2011, when Americans could ignore the Islamist threat–a sentiment that has gained traction in the wake of the long and inconclusive wars fought in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But rather than think seriously about the implications of a significant segment of the adherents of a major world faith regarding themselves as being at war with the West and the United States, many Americans prefer to simply pretend it isn’t true. They tell us that jihad is an internal struggle for self-improvement, not a duty to wage holy war against non-Muslims that is integral to the history of that faith’s interactions with the rest of the world. They wish to pretend that the radical Islam that motivated al-Qaeda on 9/11 and continues to drive its adherents to terror attacks on Westerners and Americans to this day is marginal when we know that in much of the Islamic world, it is those who preach peace with the West who are the outliers.

In promoting this sanitized version of 9/11 in which Islam was not the primary motivation for the attackers, they hope to spare Muslims from the taint of the crime. But what they are really doing is disarming Americans against a potent threat that continues to simmer abroad and even at home as the homegrown extremists who have perpetrated several attacks since then, including the Boston Marathon bombing whose anniversary we just commemorated, have shown.

Rather than seek to edit Islam out of the 9/11 story, those who truly wish to promote better interfaith relations must continue to point out the dangers of these beliefs and the peril of either tolerating them or pretending that they are no longer a threat. As I wrote in October 2010:

Unlike planned memorials at Ground Zero that should serve to perpetuate the memory of the thousands of victims of 9/11 who perished at the hands of Islamist fanatics determined to pursue their war against the West, Park51’s ultimate purpose will be to reinterpret that national tragedy in a way that will fundamentally distort that memory. The shift in the debate threatens to transmute 9/11 into a story of a strange one-off event that led to a mythical reign of domestic terror in which Muslims and their faith came under siege. It exempts every major branch of Islam from even the most remote connection to al-Qaeda and it casts the adherents of that faith as the ultimate sufferers of 9/11.

This account is an effort to redirect, redefine, and rewrite the unambiguous meaning of an unambiguous event. To achieve this aim, those who propound it are painting a vicious and libelous portrait of the United States and its citizens as hostile to and violent toward a minority population that was almost entirely left in peace and protected from any implication of involvement in the 9/11 crimes.

It now appears that in the absence of the proposed Muslim community center, interfaith advocates seek to transform the official September 11 memorial into a place where that false narrative and misleading mission may be pursued. Those who care about the memory of 9/11 and those who regard the need to defend Americans of all faiths against the Islamist threat must see to it that they don’t succeed.


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