Since its opening on March 24, the National September 11 Memorial & Museum at Ground Zero has struggled to find the proper language and tone to express the September 11 attacks, which killed almost 3,000 civilians of many faiths. The museum has been criticized for housing the remains of 9/11 victims, for items in its gift shop (including a cheese plate) and for using the phrase “Islamic terrorist” on its website. The most recent criticism comes over the museum’s portrayal of Islam which, The New York Times reports, has drawn criticism from visitors for failing to clearly distinguish the religion from the extremist group Al-Qaeda that was responsible for the attacks.
At the center of the controversy is a seven-minute video titled “The Rise of Al-Qaeda” which plays on loop in inside the museum. The film, narrated by NBC anchor Brian Williams, seeks to briefly explain the origins of the attacks, at times describing the attackers as “Islamic.”
The film’s apparent conflation of Islam and Al-Qaeda initially caused controversy when, prior to the museum’s opening, it was shown to an advisory group of interfaith clergy members. The group took such strong objection to the short movie that when its protests were ignored, the imam in the group resigned, explaining, “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.”
After the debate over the video was reported in April, the concern was dismissed by some in the media as overly sensitive. “In short, facts will cause us rubes to beat Muslims up,” said Fox’s Greg Gutfeld on The Five. “Look, if you feel that basic words harm your beliefs that’s more about your insecurity than our rage. And what would the imam prefer us say? That 9/11 was caused by men unhappy with tall buildings?”
Since the museum’s opening to the general public, however, many patrons appear to agree that it fails to properly draw a distinction between Islam and radical extremists.
“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,” one visitor told the Times after visiting the museum. Others voiced similar concerns over the film’s broad language. On the whole, however, they told the Times they did not consider the museum anti-Islam.
Though it has so far refused to edit the film, it has shown itself willing to change in the face of prior public criticism. Before the video controversy, the museum was criticized for using the phrase “Islamic terrorist” on its website. After an activist collected about 100 signatures from scholars protesting the language, it was removed from the site. The museum gift shop was also criticized by victims’ families for selling cheese plates in the shape of the United States, with small hearts at the locations of the attacks. Late last week it pulled the item from the gift shop.
“Once the public starts coming in, you learn so much,” the museum foundation’s president Joe Daniels told The Wall Street Journal. “We in no way presume to get everything right. We will accept that criticism, absolutely.”