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9/11 Museum Must Address Film Concerns

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The 9/11 Memorial Museum finally opened its doors on May 21, bringing a long-needed physical space to house public reflections of that apocalyptic September morning.

It is a milestone that is as important for the nation's collective emotional health as it is for the education of future generations.

In recent weeks, a nexus between the two -- emotion and education -- has emerged, fueling a debate over a seven-minute film that occupies a portion of the exhibit. A group of scholars and interfaith advisers allege that "The Rise of Al-Qaeda," which traces the historical roots of the attacks, uses terms like "Islamist" and "jihad" in a one-dimensional way that equates them with terrorism. They fear the imprecision may engender prejudiced views of Islam and hostility towards Muslims.

The museum must address these concerns. Any cultural institution of its stature and influence is responsible for ensuring that its language neither misinforms nor maligns. Prejudice, after all, thrives on vagueness.

When it comes to discourses on Islam, there seems to be a pervasive tendency to accept extremes as norms. Islamic law, for instance, is equated with hand chopping or stoning. Yet, it encompasses everything from economic matters to personal hygiene. Muslim legal scholars routinely disagree about its various interpretations (it is not a singular, codified doctrine), and a 2013 Pew poll shows that while most Muslims want it as the official law in their countries, they are at odds about what to include.

Islamism often conjures images of angry Muslim Brothers or Al-Qaeda. But conservative sheikhs and moderate statesmen alike espouse this religio-political ideology. Relating 9/11 to Islamism writ large is intellectually lazy and lumps Tunisia's Rachid Ghannouchi and Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan into a pile with Osama Bin Laden and Hassan Nasrallah. Islamism is not a united movement and its definitional borders are not neat. Rather, like Sharia, it is a loosely knit outline of general beliefs to which diverse swaths of Muslim populations may subscribe.

Jihad, an Arabic word for "struggle," is usually perceived in a wholly physical way, though most Muslims understand it as an inner moral battle. Yet whether by the sword or by the soul, its etymology yields only positive connotations for Muslims (According to the Quran, a Muslim should "struggle in the way of Allah"). Only presenting one interpretation -- that of the terrorists -- normalizes it and shields audiences from the more complete and accurate picture.

Surely, some Muslims do adopt extreme understandings of these concepts. The terrorists who attacked the United States on 9/11 are chiefly among them. The museum's uncritical use of these terms, though, supposes that because the hijackers viewed their attacks as a "jihad," and Bin Laden his mission as restoring God's law on earth, it must necessarily be so.

The horrible acts that occurred on that day nearly 13 years ago were acts of terrorism, regardless of how else we describe or understand them. They bore no distinctive "Islamic" marker that warrants such religious terminology, save the language used to justify them. And the pain the terrorists wrought isn't especially different because they were Muslims, though it must sting doubly for the peaceful majority whose religion was twisted into an unrecognizable object of contempt.

What value do we gain by ascribing "Islamist" or "jihad" or other similar terms to the national narrative we have constructed around this tragedy, apart from pleasing those who so adamantly insist on magnifying our religious differences?

The strongest statement against these views is a rejection of the religious language that they are wrapped in. Describing 9/11 as a terrorist attack carried out by al Qaeda is sufficient. Doing so places blame squarely on the group that claimed responsibility without conflating the views of the world's 1.6 billion Muslims, more than 2 million of who call America home.

This important museum should memorialize the tragedy of 9/11 and the beauty of America's resolve. It should remind the world that while terrorists may aim to crumble her buildings, the pillars of liberty on which she stands support all who seek her shores, and are fortified by the rich diversity of her people.

Enshrining contested Islamic terminology in this museum stigmatizes Muslims and signals that the work they have done to reclaim their faith from extremists will not soon be complete.