Visitors Say That the 9/11 Museum’s Depiction of Islam Could Use a Little Work

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Photo: Spencer Platt/2014 Getty Images

Now that the public has thoroughly critiqued the National September 11 Memorial Museum's gift shop, restaurant, and suitability as a party venue, it's time to move on to the arguably more important matter of what is actually being displayed there. Though the museum's contents have been widely praised, some visitors have noted that the exhibits don't do a great job of differentiating Al Qaeda's violent ideology from the typical teachings and practices of Islam.

Back in April, the New York Times reported that an advisory group of interfaith clergy members "took strong exception" to The Rise of Al Qaeda, a seven-minute, Brian Williams–narrated documentary intended to teach museumgoers about "the historical roots" of the 9/11 attacks:

At issue is whether it is inflammatory for the museum to use terms like “Islamist” and “jihad” in conjunction with the Sept. 11 attack, without making clear that the vast majority of Muslims are peaceful. The panel has urged the use of more specific language, such as “Al Qaeda-inspired terrorism” and doing more to explain the meaning of jihad.

Though the group's sole imam, Sheikh Mostafa Elazabawy, resigned in protest, museum officials declined to alter the film. Recently, the Times interviewed tourists on their way out of the museum. Their comments seemed to at least partially confirm the fears of those who objected to the The Rise of Al Qaeda, as well as the installations' general treatment of the Muslim faith, which is mentioned "almost entirely" within the context of terrorism: 

"I think they should have talked about Islam more, just so people understand that there is a difference between Islam and people who do terrorist attacks but who also happen to be Islamic,” said Adrian Cabreros, 22, visiting with his mother from San Francisco. “They just sort of said that the people from Al Qaeda wanted to have a more Islamic state, but it was hard to distinguish, to separate Islam itself. It kind of gives Islam a bad vibe.”

And:

Cathy and David Kelly, tourists from Sydney, Australia, said that over all they felt the museum was excellent. But on the question of the film, they said “there could be some more differentiation” drawn between Islam and the terrorists...“There was one photograph in a corner that showed an Islamic person that was killed who was being carried out of an Islamic church, with an American flag draped over him,” Mr. Kelly said. “I think a little bit more could have been made about that, that there were Islamic people killed who were Americans.”

Meanwhile, some decided to just skip the small (and comparably unimpressive-looking) Al Qaeda section altogether. "I mean it just said, 'Terrorists, Islamic terrorists,' that's all," said a visitor from Las Vegas. "I think this place is about what happened that day. It belongs to the people who died and should just be left at that. It shouldn't be made a political kind of thing." But retired NYPD officer Ron Speedbay and his friend Ben Schwecke, a disabled veteran, felt that the museum's depiction of Islam should be a bit more nuanced. The exhibits "did not really make clear that this is a fringe organization that really has corrupted much of the Quran," said Schwecke, who suggested that an imam be asked to contribute a film about "who Muslims really are." That certainly sounds like a better idea than allowing the single imam advising the museum to quit.