The September 11 Memorial Museum’s Moral Responsibility

Sunday’s shooting at a Jewish community center in Kansas reminds us of the violent anti-Semitism that stubbornly persists. For people of Jewish ancestry, the news activated deeply-seated anxieties and fears — traces of the pogroms, genocide, and everyday discriminations of the past. Even more troublesome for me, this disturbing event in the public eye coincided with threats and anti-Semitic insults that I received last week after writing about the September 11 Museum at the World Trade Center. As a person of Jewish ancestry, I received these threats, not from the Ku Klux Klan, but from popular anti-Islam websites such as “Bare Naked Islam.”

How did I find myself the target-of-the-day for the Islamophobic hate machine? As a student of New York City history, with degrees in international politics, I have followed the gradual formation of the September 11 Memorial Museum, which opens on May 21, with great interest and concern. The stories we tell about the past shape our perceptions of the present, and no other contemporary story — or “narrative” — has had more impact on our world than the events of September 11, 2001. September 11 was a most real event years ago, but still, as a story and as a memory, it remains quite present. The decisions made in its narration have, and will continue to have, serious consequences, including implications of life-and-death. And at a time when nearly all children and teenagers have no personal memory of September 11, society’s assignments of blame will increasingly be determined by institutional arbiters of collective memory, such as the September 11 Museum.

The new institution has solemn and important responsibilities: it is tasked with honoring the victims and with depicting the horrors of what happened that day. The museum, further, has chosen to install an exhibition hall that offers a history of al-Qaeda and presents its motivations and ideology. Yet, al-Qaeda represents only a small group of people, and there are around 1.6 billion Muslims. It is crucial that the terminology the museum uses in this section not generalize and blame the world’s Muslims as a whole. We do not provoke Christians by calling the Kansas shooter a product of “Christian terrorism” and implicitly blaming the religion, so why do we continue to tolerate the term “Islamic terrorism?” Two weeks ago, I discovered that the September 11 Museum was using this term in its advance material, suggesting that similar language might be in the opening exhibition. On Thursday, April 3, I posted an article on that urged the reconsideration of the phrasing, as it could imply collective responsibility for the attacks, possibly distorting the cultural debate for decades to come, while causing massive offense to Muslims.

The museum, surely well-meaning, would not provoke and distort in a deliberate or blatant way. However, the words used to describe al-Qaeda have been and will continue to be politicized by ideologues who smear Islam and its followers. In my article, when I argued that terrorism is not an inherent product of the religion itself, I challenged a fundamental assumption of the anti-Islam bigots. As a result, I experienced an online onslaught of vitriol. I suspect that the authors of these websites were fearful that if the September 11 Museum rejects terminology that associates Islam and terrorism, it might undermine and discredit their entire worldview.

Indeed, these bigots went to great lengths to intimidate and to defend their warped perspective. Aggressive and tasteless websites such as “Bare Naked Islam,” “Weasel Zippers,” “iOwnTheWorld,” and “Patriot Update” attacked my article, as well as myself with my “Jewish-sounding name,” in an echo chamber of hatred and hostility. Several comments made subtle, and not so subtle, violent threats.

A comment on Bare Naked Islam stated: “People like Todd need to be removed from the public eye. I’m sure there must be some way of doing this.”

One on Patriot Update warned: “[i]f you keep this crap up you might be visiting those who were killed!”

And another on Weasel Zippers exclaimed: “You can only dispatch a politician with your vote, you can dispatch these cockroach journalists with relevant ease. DO IT…”

Needless to say, as a writer with primary interest in Arab-American literature and the history of ethnic immigration, I am not accustomed to receiving even indirect death threats. Unfortunately, these sorts of threats are ubiquitous online, and their targets usually ignore them, so as not to give them credibility and attention. However, the existence of such hatred, with its desire to intimidate and control, calls for special awareness and sensitivity. While the museum obviously has no link to these noxious postings, which would they would surely reject, it is obliged to take a leadership role in opposing inaccurate terminology that is the basis for this hateful discourse.

The list of hate violence is long: the Jewish community center shooting in Kansas on April 13, the massacre at the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin in 2012, the rampage of Anders Behring Breivik in Norway in 2011, and the stabbing of Muslim taxi driver Ahmed Sharif in New York in 2010. These events should shock us all into confronting the sources of such violence preemptively. What all of the perpetrators of these crimes shared in common was the consumption and citation of hate-filled websites and forums. Now, with the opening of the September 11 Museum as an important national event, we must expose and shun this anti-Islamic discourse and shake off the ambivalent and lackadaisical tendencies in our society that facilitate its indoctrination and growth. If only ignored and not actively discredited, these daily, vitriolic rants against so-called “Islamic terrorism” will continue to inspire violence, here and abroad.

To its credit, last week the September 11 Memorial Museum did acknowledge the impropriety of the term “Islamic terrorism,” and they removed it from their website, writing “Islamist extremism” instead. Through my prompting and that of my friends and colleagues, a group of over 100 scholars came together to challenge the original terminology in a joint letter, although many of the signers still question the replacement phrasing. “Islamist” is a vague term, almost exclusively used in the West, and it may be improper to describe al-Qaeda since “Islamism” refers primarily to organized political parties and organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Some scholars are concerned, further, that the museum will not clearly define “Islamic” or “Islamist” in its exhibitions and videos, in practice still conflating terrorism and Islam.

In addition to the problem with the term “Islamic terrorism,” the museum’s advance materials also reference the term “jihadi.” This word, like the phrase “Islamic terrorism,” is not accepted by most scholars of Islam. It is not even a valid noun in Arabic and it often functions as a slur, dehumanizing its recipients much like the words “gook” or “Judenschwein.” Its repeated appearance in the museum’s advance materials is yet another sign of the need for further scholarly review of their exhibition before it opens in five short weeks.

On the iOwnTheWorld website, one comment on the post about my article asked: “Isn’t Mr. Todd Fine Jewish? Why is he colluding with the enemies of our country?”

The question is absurd and disgusting. It is precisely my Jewish ancestry that makes me extraordinarily concerned about the narrative content of the September 11 Memorial Museum, and about the rhetorical violence directed constantly toward Arabs and Muslims. I will always condemn Islamophobia with the same ferocity that mainstream society condemns anti-Jewish discrimination.

The September 11 Memorial Museum should organize an immediate, outside review of its exhibition and materials by scholars and religious leaders. Unfortunately, the academic vetting of the museum’s permanent exhibition at this point has been opaque. It is not enough to lack bad intentions, but one must be cautious to not fuel the rage of those who do.

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.