For a group of interfaith representatives, scholars and historians, when the National September 11 Memorial Museum opens today with a ceremony featuring President Barack Obama, it will have missed a great opportunity and failed an important mission.
At the core of the grievance voiced by those assembled for a Wednesday morning press conference at the Interchurch Center in New York City is a seven-minute film to be featured near the end of the museum exhibition. Titled “The Rise of Al Qaeda,” it is narrated by NBC Evening News anchor Brian Williams, who lent his dulcet tones and, by implication, his establishment journalist cred to the project.
While neither the film — nor information about who made it — has been seen by the general public, members of the museum’s interfaith advisory group were invited to preview it earlier this year. Immediately after that screening, several members raised alarm over what they saw as incendiary and sloppy language that conflated Islam and its adherents with members of Al Qaeda. They also pointed out that the voiceover translation of non-English audio, done in heavily accented and broken English, had, at best, a caricaturing effect.
The New York Times, which had an opportunity to preview the film, called it “contextless and unnuanced.”
The advisory group suggested edits, meetings with scholars, and even proposed a model for how to construct and insert a disclaimer, much like what happened after the NYPD published a report that construed American Muslims as a domestic threat [PDF]. Those assembled said their suggestions, and even their request for further discussion, were ignored by the museum.
Similarly, the museum previously ignored three years’ worth of requests to include mention of Little Syria — the lower Manhattan neighborhood that once thrived near the footprint of the twin towers — in an exhibit on the history of the area. So intertwined were the paths and histories of the neighborhood that when rubble of the collapsed towers was being cleared, workers found the cornerstone of one of the first Arab churches in the U.S., which had been demolished to build the towers.
In the weeks and months after the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, America witnessed a wave of violence against Arabs and Muslims in the U.S. (and even against those who were only perceived as Muslim, such as Sikhs), and part of the blame for those dark acts has to lie with plain, basic ignorance. Before 9/11, the experiences and history of Arab and Muslim Americans were invisible and unknown to many Americans — they were not seen as part of the greater society, and so assigning collective guilt and acting on racist tendencies became that much easier.
Sadly, for too many who will visit the museum, that ignorance might still exist. If the characterizations of the film prove to be accurate, and those biases are allowed to remain, then, instead of moving the nation forward, the museum — which has received millions of dollars in public monies — will remain partly mired in the same terrible prejudices that led to the attacks and the backlash.
This is to take nothing away from the very real and still very present pain caused by the events recalled here, but if the museum’s curators and director are allowed to sustain their own isolation, then the misconceptions that divide us will be allowed to persist, and the wounds opened at ground zero by Al Qaeda almost 13 years ago will continue to fester.
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Any views expressed on The Scrutineer are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.