When ‘truth’ isn’t objective fact

Critics worry that a film at a 9/11 museum uses incendiary words that may stigmatize Muslims.

Brian Reinken

A multi-faith panel has condemned the content of a short film that will play in the National September 11 Memorial Museum, saying that the film’s inclusion of the terms “jihadist” and “Islamist” will contribute to a stigmatization of Muslims.

Titled “The Rise of Al Qaeda,” the film will be only one of the many exhibits to open in New York City on May 21. Despite the panel’s criticism, the September 11 Museum has officially refused to make any last-minute changes to the film’s script.

To the museum’s credit, it has taken other steps to avoid stigmatizing Muslims. Earlier this month, it removed the term “Islamic terrorism” from its website. Additionally, several of the museum’s exhibits display photographs of Muslim-American mourners. One of them includes a video of Rep. Keith Ellison, DFL-Minneapolis, the first Muslim elected to Congress, speaking about how 9/11 affected the United States.

The president of the nonprofit organization overseeing the museum has expressed a desire both to uphold the “objective” facts of 9/11 and to avoid implicating an entire religion in the process.

Then, predictably, both those who attack and those who defend the content of the museum’s film focus their arguments on the difficulty of balancing those two ideals.

Those who oppose the terms “Islamist” and “jihadist” fear that the museum’s visitors — many of whom may come with preconceived notions about who was responsible for 9/11 — will not grasp the differences between Islam and al-Qaida’s warped ideology. Consequently, they may leave the museum with a negative impression of Muslims.

On the other side of the argument, supporters of the film’s current content argue that any alterations would place political correctness ahead of historical truth. Removing the disputed terms, they say, would disrespect 9/11’s victims by failing to acknowledge the terrorists’ alleged motives.

In self-defense, many of the film’s supporters highlight the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum as a model hybrid between historical chronicle and national memorial.

Because of the Holocaust Museum’s nature, supporters say, it empathizes more with the Holocaust’s victims than its perpetrators. Overall, the museum’s portrayal of Germany is chilling, but no visitor should leave with the idea that all Germans are wicked advocates of genocide.

However, this argument falls short when considered more closely. The Holocaust Museum opened in 1993, almost 50 years after the fall of the Nazi regime. Though more than a decade ago, 9/11 is fresher in the American public’s memory, and Muslim-Americans still feel its effects.

For example, it was only earlier this month that the NYPD disbanded a surveillance unit designed specifically to monitor New York’s Muslims and mosques. In 1993, no one profiled German citizens or viewed them as potential threats to national security.

Moreover, it seems unlikely that qualifying the terms “jihadist” and “Islamist” would somehow disrespect the victims of 9/11. By all accounts, the terms are inflammatory, and it’s highly contested whether they’re even applicable to describe the terrorists that carried out the 9/11 attacks.

Ultimately, faith in “objective historical truth” may only be a convenient mask for racist ideologies.

‘Objective’ racism

In her recent book “The Triple Package,” Amy Chua — better known as the “tiger mother” — describes her beliefs on why eight particular cultural groups are more successful in the United States than others. She purports to be objective, detailing only the “facts.” For her, cultures succeed because their members share a superiority complex, personal insecurities and impulse control.

Of course, when explaining the path to success, Chua overlooks such crucial determinants as linguistic barriers, racial prejudices and pre-existing cultural/economic networks. The omission speaks volumes about her ideology. The “facts” we ignore are often as important as those we acknowledge.

Those who would defend the 9/11 museum’s film based on objective historical truth should understand that the world isn’t objective. The feelings associated with tragedy, especially, are anything but rational. Sorrow, hatred, anger and bitterness are all intensely subjective experiences.

The museum has the right to include whatever content it chooses, but it also has the responsibility to ensure that its exhibits do more public good than harm. As evidenced by the too-recent dissolution of the NYPD surveillance unit, New York City’s relationship with its Muslim population continues to be tenuous. The last thing it needs is a film that could reignite the passions of 9/11.

Ultimately, it would not be difficult to alter the film’s content. If people fear that removing the terms “jihadist” and “Islamist” would somehow dishonor the victims of 9/11, these terms could remain in the film, provided that the museum adds an explanation of the widespread controversy regarding their use.

The purpose of this memorial is to remind us of a tragedy bred from hatred — it should do everything necessary to prevent all forms of hatred in the future.