This piece was co-authored with Elly Bulkin.
As Jews, we know all too well from our own history the power of language and imagery that stereotype, scapegoat and dehumanize people. We are angry and saddened to learn that the National September 11 Memorial Museum is airing a video that does just that. The Museum is refusing to heed the recommendations of its own multi-faith advisory council. The council has expressed serious concerns about the language used in the Museum's six-minute video, "The Rise of Al Qaeda," which will be shown when the Museum opens on May 21. The advisory council's sole imam resigned in protest. Yet the Museum has seemed unmoved, even as leading Muslim and Arab-American organizations and community leaders also urged that it edit the video so as to provide an accurate portrayal of the attackers.
Instead, the Museum has insisted on screening a video that, according to a group of 400 scholars, contains problematic terminology linking Islam with terrorism and fails to contextualize al Qaeda. "Labels to describe organizations such as al Qaeda are heavily disputed among academics, and in a public environment, without proper explanation and historical context, these terms could easily mislead and assign collective responsibility to Muslims and Islam," they wrote.
The video's current script will reinforce a dangerous falsehood at the heart of a post-September 11 narrative: that all Muslims, and the teaching of Islam, are responsible for the attacks on September 11. For those who visit the Museum wanting to learn, but most often lacking an understanding of Islam, the Museum's video will provide an inaccurate message for them to take back to their communities. For right-wing tabloids, as well as for anti-Islam blogs and talk radio shows, the Museum's inaccuracy will confirm the propaganda they already promote about Islam and Muslims -- and help fuel the fire.
While members of the Muslim and many others communities have protested the current video, its script has received support from the Museum's 11-person board, which includes Debra Burlingame. No fan of accuracy, Burlingame, who is the sister of one of the murdered pilots, stated a year ago that "Islam is a trans-national threat." In 2010, when ideologues like Pamela Geller raised Muslim-hating to a fever pitch, Burlingame denounced Park51, the proposed Muslim mosque and community center a few blocks from Ground Zero. Its very presence in that site, she argued, would lead to the "subjugation of all free people, including secular Muslims who come to this country fleeing that medieval ideology, which destroys lives and crushes the human spirit." The Museum, which has refused to show the video to the media, has also refused to describe Burlingame's role in determining the video's message.
The conflation of Islam with the September 11 attackers helped make possible the ugly confrontations and the media circus around Park51 in 2010 and has helped drive a national anti-Muslim backlash. In addition to the proliferation of hate crimes against Muslims, and those assumed to be Muslims -- Arabs, as well as Sikhs and other South Asians -- numerous examples illustrate the extent to which the backlash is institutionalized. Even the hate crime statistics, for example, are gathered by government agencies that have themselves been spying on the Muslim community, planting informers in their institutions, and infiltrating their mosques.
Further, local, state and federal funding has gone to advocates of anti-Muslim conspiracy theories who train police and other public security personnel. Congress has held public hearings reinforcing the idea that Muslim Americans constitute a threat to the country. And people who demonize Islam have provided a template and resources to state legislators who have passed laws to "protect" the U.S. judicial system against the imagined threat of "Sharia law."
Institutions like the National September 11 Memorial Museum that receive government funding have a particular obligation to counter -- not to help promulgate -- the misconceptions and propaganda that help create a climate in which hatred, discrimination and violence thrive. We urge the Museum, which will play a unique role in educating the public about September 11, to reverse course and follow the recommendations of its own advisory council. An institution whose public mission is to "inspire an end to hatred, ignorance and intolerance" should do no less.
Elly Bulkin and Donna Nevel, founding members of the Jews Against Islamophobia Coalition in New York City and the national Jewish Voice for Peace Network Against Islamophobia, have recently published a book,Islamophobia & Israel.