Approaching the 20th anniversary of the attacks, the National September 11 Memorial & Museum at the World Trade Center faces a reckoning. Its president Alice Greenwald has said that COVID-19 destroyed the private nonprofit’s “business model” of appealing to tourists at $26 a ticket to fund an $80 million annual budget. After the organization fired a large percentage of staff and bungled the public relations of a decision to suspend the Tribute in Light commemoration, former workers criticized Greenwald in the New York Times for seizing creative control. At the same time, a new documentary film called The Outsider, authorized to follow the museum’s creation, illuminates how its leadership made top-down decisions that condensed and weaponized the memory of September 11 into a quasi-religion that can be relied on to indefinitely fuel a vengeful American nationalism.
In this context, another long-standing concern has reemerged: the treatment of Arab-Americans, Muslims, and Islam. One of the former staff members quoted in the New York Times claims that the museum actively blocked programming that would consider the spread of Islamophobia after September 11. She also relates how her bosses rejected the inclusion of Christchurch, New Zealand in a new exhibit about other terrorist attacks. For the Muslim and Arab communities of the New York City area — the largest in the United States — these claims align with a long history of hostile behavior from the institution.
Beginning with the airport-style security control at the entrance, the September 11 Museum sells a full and visceral immersion into the horrific day, as if aiming to place their guests under siege, making them feel like victims themselves. What follows is a series of exhibits that draw from a specific curatorial philosophy of “witness,” relentlessly exploiting architectural and cinematographic tricks — moody lighting, cacophonous sounds, horrific imagery, claustrophobic passageways with heavy crowds, first-person narration, and deeply-set religious archetypes — to evoke an unsettled, highly emotional response that can be channeled in any direction.
Alice Greenwald, who conceived the experience, came from the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, the prototypical example of the new genre of a “memorial museum,” which seeks not just to educate and inform, but to move its visitor emotionally — for example to ensure that we “never again” face a genocide. Yet, the New York museum would never ask guests to consider how they might prevent a terrorist attack; hence the cultivated feelings of victimization and humiliation may have nowhere to go except desire for vengeance against those “responsible,” a perfect brew for “never forget” nationalism.
It is in this context that many have been concerned about the section on al-Qaeda, which follows the journey through the dreadful day. With no destination for productive catharsis besides a sloppy and amateurish treatment of the religious motivations of al-Qaeda, many visitors may no longer have the presence of mind to evaluate these interpretative materials. Even if one could defend the appropriateness of the museum’s terminology of “Islamism,” “Islamic law,” and “Jihadism,” in the actual context of the experience, there is a real danger that visitors stop at the word Islam and assign collective responsibility. This clip from The Outsider confirms what Muslim and Arab advocacy groups, interfaith allies, and hundreds of scholars have been saying for years. The museum solicited minimal academic review of this section, which has no informed context of the modern history of the regions where the ideologies that influenced al-Qaeda developed.
As much as we might wish to offer the benefit of the doubt given the minefields of controversy facing any cultural institution dedicated to September 11, a pattern of behavior indicates that the harm done results from intentional decisions of leadership, who have been antagonistic toward reasonable requests from Muslim and Arab communities. Note that this leadership still includes Debra Burlingame, a board member who served on the committee approving the museum’s exhibitions yet is one of the nation’s leading, and most vile, anti-Muslim activists.
Four concrete examples suffice. First, after the museum screened a film called “The Rise of al-Qaeda” for review by its interfaith advisory group, their suggestions for editing the religious language or offering a disclaimer about collective responsibility were disdainfully rejected, forcing advisors to resign. For two months before opening, the institution refused to show the film to concerned Muslim and Arab-American organizations.
Second, despite offering many multilingual resources, for a long period, the museum refused to offer Arabic-language brochures, an omission so blatant that the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington, DC had to file a complaint, successfully leading the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to intervene and force a settlement.
Third, despite many requests, the museum consistently rejected suggestions to include additional representations of Muslims and Arabs in appropriate sections of their exhibits. Despite receiving many donations of materials from religious and interfaith groups, they ultimately declined to depict the interfaith movement that developed locally and nationally after September 11 and strove to dispel the inevitability of a “clash of civilizations.” Their required local history section includes the commercial history of the area, but they refused even a one-sentence mention of its former history as “Little Syria,” despite the discovery of the cornerstone of a Lebanese and Syrian Maronite church under the rubble.
Fourth, the institution has repeatedly refused the pleas of Pakistani-American Talat Hamdani, the mother of emergency medical technician Salman Hamdani, to place his name in the New York Police Department section of the memorial as a cadet-in-training. Salman was one of the great heroes of September 11, who risked his life for others even though he was not on duty. Despite continual appeals by his family and by Muslim and interfaith organizations to move his name from the south tower’s final panel of people with no affiliation, the institution and its chairman Michael Bloomberg still refuse.
Defenders of these decisions might argue that the mission is to focus on September 11 strictly, and that other issues distract from that focus. A week ago, Anthoula Katsimatides, a board member who lost a brother in the attacks, went on FOX 5 News and said that Islamophobia was “not an issue that the Memorial Museum should tackle,” and that it should focus on remembering “the people who died that day.” Unfortunately, the decision to build a mega-attraction that explores the aftermath of the day was made long ago. The institution cannot be willing to have a massive exhibition on US intelligence agencies’ effort to kill Bin Laden, but ignore the wars and the sociopolitical ramifications that followed September 11.
Advocacy for change does not diminish the memory of those who were murdered. The most commendable section — which arguably should have remained the centerpiece at this stage of historical separation — is a room in which every victim’s name is read with short audio and video from family members about their lives.
Memory is not neutral or unmediated, nor is it a dispassionate recollection of raw, historical data. It is a conscious process of meaning making and interpretation. It is very much possible to create an exhibition that honors the victims of the attacks, and that blames the perpetrators, without filling an emotional reservoir with desire for violent revenge against an ill-defined enemy to redeem a wounded nation.
With increasing temporal distance from September 11, new generations will need the space to interpret the meaning and consequences without such an imposed and manipulative curation. Now is the time to fully reckon with the world that was created thereafter, a world of surveillance, Muslim bans, and needless and disastrous wars, so that we may finally heal and learn lessons. Reforming the National September 11 Memorial & Museum is a necessary step.
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