It seems that the National September 11 Memorial Museum has been in the news lately for every reason but the fact that it opened last month. There’s the gift shop with questionable souvenirs; the lavish cocktail party thrown for wealthy benefactors; and the reporter who was kicked out for asking an innocuous question. But incredibly, the biggest flap about the museum has to do with the role Islamic extremism played in the 9/11 attacks, as if it’s actually controversial. A decade ago it would be unthinkable that acknowledging this would be noteworthy at all, but this is exactly what has happened.
In the days leading up to the opening, a short documentary now available to all museum attendees was screened for a handful of people. Narrated by NBC’s Brian Williams, The Rise of Al Qaeda quickly had critics grumbling that the film distorted the role Islam played in the attacks. They also said it could leave people with the impression that all or most Muslims approved of Osama bin Laden’s ideology and methods. Several articles have appeared decrying this supposed slander against Islam and Muslims, culminating in an absurd piece on Monday by Patrick L. Smith in Salon (of course) in which he actually says of the 9/11 attacks,
There is the story of the perpetrators. These are identified not as terrorists, a term I always consider problematic in that it is a descriptive with only two dimensions, but rather resolutely as “Islamic terrorists.” So, problematic twice, this story.
It is not snark to say that for defenders of Islam vis-à-vis 9/11, reality is deeply problematic as this passage clearly illustrates. If Smith truly finds it “problematic twice” to refer to the hijackers as “Islamic terrorists,” then his problem is not with the phrase, but with the English language. Twice.
For those who are curious as to just what The Rise of Al Qaeda actually says, the transcript can be viewed here. It is an unremarkable and straightforward telling of the roots of the radical ideology of bin Laden. Yet, critics have denounced its use of words like “Islamist” and “jihad.” This criticism is typified by erstwhile apologist Nathan Lean, who calls the film’s use of “jihad,” not incorrect, but “one-dimensional” and “uncritical.” In an especially puzzling question he asks,
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?
Surely, truth counts as an important value. Here again, we see the difficulty reality poses for devoted defenders intent on whitewashing religion’s role from the 9/11 attacks. The Rise of Al Qaeda does indeed in several places use qualifying terms like “radical,” “some,” and “fringe” in describing the ascendance of the terrorist organization. Yet these measures are not enough to placate the heightened sensitivities of Islam’s defenders, who conveniently omit that the film does in fact discuss U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia and the region as a key motivator for bin Laden:
When Iraq invaded Kuwait, Bin Laden offered Saudi King Fahd the use of his al-Qaeda fighting force to defend the neighboring kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden’s proposal was rejected. King Fahd invited U.S. troops to provide that military presence. This infuriated Bin Laden who believed that Saudi Arabia, as home to Islam’s two holiest sites in Mecca and Medina, should be free of nonbelievers.
No one but a conservative of the Rudy Giuliani variety would dare deny the role U.S. influence and intervention in the Middle East had on Al Qaeda’s motives, but it would be utterly foolish and dangerous to ignore the very powerful influence that Islam had on the people who, angered by U.S. foreign policy, were inspired by god to do great harm.