CAIRO – A new documentary film due to be screened at the 9/11 Memorial Museum has been stirring criticism from interfaith leaders, seeing it a blurring differences between the militant group and the majority of world Muslims who reject terrorism.
“The screening of this film in its present state would greatly offend our local Muslim believers as well as any foreign Muslim visitor to the museum,” Sheikh Mostafa Elazabawy, the imam of Masjid Manhattan, wrote in a letter to the museum’s director, New York Times reported on Thursday, April 24.
“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.”
The film, The Rise of Al Qaeda, refers to the terrorists as Islamists who viewed their mission as a jihad.
Narrated by NBC News anchor Brian Williams, the less than 7 minutes documentary shows images of terrorist training camps and Qaeda attacks spanning decades.
Debates on how Islam should be represented dates back to 2005 when a group of mostly Lower Manhattan clergy members, involved in recovery work, started to suggest scenarios.
Peter B. Gudaitis, who brought the group together as the chief executive of New York Disaster Interfaith Services, said the museum had rejected certain Islam-related suggestions from the panel, such as telling the story of Mohammad Salman Hamdani, a Muslim cadet with the New York Police Department who was one of the early responders to save victims.
Another suggestion for the exhibit to make clear that Muslims were not just perpetrators, but also among the attack’s victims, mourners and recovery workers, has won larger support.
The panel was pleased to see photographs of mourning Muslims included in photo montages.
The museum also includes stories of Muslim victims and the reflections of Representative Keith Ellison, Democrat of Minnesota, the first Muslim elected to Congress, on the effects of the attacks on America, the museum said.
Seeing the final version of the film, members of the interfaith panel said they found the use of the words “jihad” and “Islamist” without sufficient explanation was inflammatory tone.
“As soon as it was over, everyone was just like, wow, you guys have got to be kidding me,” Gudaitis said.
He and another member of the panel, the Rev. Chloe Breyer, executive director of the Interfaith Center of New York, sent the museum’s directors a formal letter on behalf of the 11 members of the interfaith group who had seen the film, asking for edits.
Other faith leaders have also criticized the film as failing to draw a sharp enough distinction between al Qaeda and Muslims in general.
"The facts are presented in a context that is not nuanced enough for the audience expecting to see the movie," Reverend Ruth Yoder Wenger, of New York Disaster Interfaith Services, told CNN on Wednesday, April 23.
"We're concerned that the way this story is told equates Muslims in general with al Qaeda, and that people coming away from viewing the video will make that same association in their minds," says Wagner.
Akbar Ahmed, the chairman of the Islamic studies department at American University in Washington, has also echoed similar concerns over the use of the terms “Islamist” and “jihadist”.
Using such language in a museum designed to instruct people for generations is that most visitors are “simply going to say Islamist means Muslims, jihadist means Muslims,” he said.
“The terrorists need to be condemned and remembered for what they did,” Dr. Ahmed said.
“But when you associate their religion with what they did, then you are automatically including, by association, one and a half billion people who had nothing to do with these actions and who ultimately the US would not want to unnecessarily alienate.”
Elazabawy added that words “Islamic” and “Islamist” are equally inappropriate to apply to Al Qaeda and the word “jihad” refers to a positive struggle against evil, the opposite of how they view the terrorist attacks.
“Don’t tell me this is an Islamist or an Islamic group; that means they are part of us,” he said in an interview.
“We are all of us against that.”
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