The Rhetoric of “Islamic Terrorism” and the September 11 Memorial Museum 

This article, first published on April 3, 2014, along with parallel advocacy, led the September 11 Memorial Museum to delete the specific terminology of “Islamic terrorism” from its advance material on April 8. It evolved into a group letter in opposition signed by over 100 scholars.

Scheduled to open on May 21, thirteen years after the attacks, the September 11 Memorial Museum at the World Trade Center site promises to become one of the most visited and influential cultural institutions in the United States. Although built with around 1 billion dollars in federal grants and other government support, the memorial operates as a private foundation, immune from public input on its exhibition content.

The curatorial team made numerous politically-charged decisions in the design of the museum’s permanent exhibition, and one of the most sensitive, and likely subject to substantial international scrutiny, will be the characterization of Islam in relation to the ideology of al-Qaeda. Islam is the religion of nearly one-fourth of the world’s population, and tying the beliefs of 1.6 billion people to the actions of a small group would be highly reckless in such a prominent setting. Therefore, I was alarmed to discover that the museum has indeed chosen to conflate terrorism and religion, with their advance materials using the highly problematic term “Islamic terrorism.”

In a section that addresses terrorist attacks before September 11, their website states that the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000 “had a significant impact on America’s view of the threat of Islamic terrorism.”

Leading scholars like Mark Juergensmeyer and Richard Jackson, who study the religious motivation of groups such as al-Qaeda, condemn the use of the phrase “Islamic terrorism” as sloppy and simplistic. Even if self-proclaimed Muslims are responsible for a particular violent act defined as terrorism, this does not make the action “Islamic” in any logical sense. John Brennan, President Obama’s former counterterrorism advisor and the current Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, argued in 2010 that “Islamic terrorism” should be banned from White House communications completely. He suggested that “describing our enemy in religious terms would lend credence to the lie propagated by al-Qaeda and its affiliates to justify terrorism, that the United States is somehow at war against Islam…. After all, Islam, like so many faiths, is part of America.”

Defining terrorism in religious terms repeats in other places in the museum’s advance materials, as al-Qaeda is described as an “Islamist extremist” group. Although used by some scholars, “Islamist” is an extremely vague term that is deployed almost exclusively in Western and non-Islamic countries. It purports to define a modern ideology that finds political guidance in religion. For classifying groups in practice, however, the term is often meaningless and misleading because Islam has had extensive political content since its origination, and almost all religions have deep political implications. Even if “Islamist” is defined to match the specific ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, the term is not especially useful for al-Qaeda since its political objectives are quite challenging to define in a conventional sense, especially in relationship to government and the state.

The museum’s materials also define an “Islamist extremist” as an individual who “believe[s] violence is acceptable to achieve these [Islamist] ends,” yet almost any political ideology can justify violence without needing necessarily to be considered “extreme.” Describing the American revolutionaries, who themselves deployed violence, as “democratic extremists” would not be considered a particularly useful classification. The term “extremist” is largely a pejorative; it has no direct connection with the types of violence defined as “terrorism.”

In practice, for the streams of millions of tourists visiting the museum, any possible subtlely to the definitions of “Islamic terrorism” and “Islamist terrorism” may not be effectively communicated, and the use of the terminology will serve only to further darken perceptions of Islam and create greater division and distrust.

The extent to which the permanent exhibition itself will reflect the problematic terminology of the museum’s existing materials is unknown because, even as it opens in six weeks, the 9/11 Memorial has not invited the leading Arab-American and Muslim-American organizations to receive advance tours, despite repeated prompting. For constituencies with serious anxieties and concerns about the museum’s content and essential message, the exhibition will be a complete surprise, a risky proposition given that a single inaccuracy or controversial statement could generate deep offense and possible global protest. With tens of millions likely to visit as the museum inevitably becomes a core American institution, inaccuracies might distort the broader culture for decades to come.

Rather than seek to generalize about so-called “Islamic terrorism,” the 9/11 Memorial would be better suited to describe the events as they occurred and to create a calm, peaceful place for the families of the victims to visit and to mourn. While the individuals responsible for the attacks should certainly be identified and condemned, as a culture, it would be healthier for us to use this museum to try to find a basis for international understanding and peace that could overcome the hatreds that produce such antagonism, even if this requires deep and careful exploration of decades of history and the avoidance of hasty generalization. We might even argue that, since widely-expressed stereotypes and hatreds have led to crimes like the massacre at the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin, the museum has an affirmative obligation to humanize Arabs, South Asians, and Muslims.

The very site of the World Trade Center was once known as “Little Syria” and sheltered well-known writers such as Khalil Gibran and Ameen Rihani who dedicated their lives to communicating the beautiful aspects of Islam, and to building bridges between America and the Arab world. I would suggest that to unite, instead of divide, the museum mention this local history and include an inspiring quotation in a quiet place of reflection. Rihani, the founder of Arab-American literature, grew up on Washington Street in the future shadow of the World Trade Center. He once wrote: “We are not of the East or the West; no boundaries exist in our breast; we are free.”

Todd Fine is an independent scholar of the Arab-American writer Ameen Rihani (1876-1940). He holds a B.A. in Government from Harvard University and an M.A. in International Relations from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University.

President of Washington Street Advocacy Group; PhD Candidate in History at Graduate Center of City University of New York.

President of Washington Street Advocacy Group; PhD Candidate in History at Graduate Center of City University of New York.