Brian Williams Scandal Grants the 9/11 Museum a Second Chance

A view of the National September 11 Memorial Museum with the north reflecting pool in foreground during the museum's dedicati
A view of the National September 11 Memorial Museum with the north reflecting pool in foreground during the museum's dedication ceremony in New York on Thursday, May 15, 2014. (AP Photo/Justin Lane, Pool)

For its controversial film that defines al Qaeda's motivations, the newly opened National September 11 Memorial Museum chose a narrator they believed would offer trust and authority: NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams. After Williams' recent suspension for lying about experiences during the Iraq War, his symbol no longer projects trust, but reminds of a craven attempt to associate with danger in wartime.

With even The Hollywood Reporter now questioning whether the September 11 Museum may have to change the "voice" for The Rise of al Qaeda, it seems inevitable that some sort of editing may have to take place. In doing so, the museum should revisit the advice of its interfaith advisory council and engage a group of leading scholars to review the film and the connected exhibition section on Al Qaeda's ideology.

On February 18, 2015, President Barack Obama gave the closing speech for the "Summit on Countering Violent Extremism" his administration convened in Washington, D.C. In this address, he elaborated a very different tact than the September 11 Museum takes in its educational programming and in its film.

Obama declined to define "extremism" and "terrorism" with religious descriptives, such as "Islamist" or "Islamic," and insisted that we seriously examine the deeper root causes of political violence. The museum's permanent exhibition, on the other hand, anchors its historical presentation with the concept of "Islamist extremism" and insists on deploying religious terminology throughout. It constantly uses terms such as "armed jihad," "Islamic state," "radical Islam," "Muslim lands," the "rule of Islamic law," and "Islamist extremism," with almost no context or definition. The museum sprinkles religious terminology in its permanent exhibition like salt or like potpourri, potentially (and possibly intentionally given its leadership) reinforcing impressions that Islam itself was the cause of the attacks, and that Muslims are inherently violent and dangerous. Interviewing visitors after the museum opened, The New York Times confirmed the validity of such fears. Since the September 11 Memorial Museum has received hundreds of millions of dollars in funding from the federal government, it is extremely disappointing that its stance differs so stridently, and inclines toward overt politicization.

The museum, rather than offering a substantial history of the modern Middle East, contextualizing how it might produce an organization like al Qaeda, chose to define the attackers' motivations subjectively, legitimizing their propaganda and their claim to advance "the rule of Islamic law." In markedly ahistorical fashion, the September 11 Museum doesn't simply repeat how al Qaeda members describe their motivations in statements or propaganda, it generalizes about and affirms the motivations in theological language. The result of this decision was predictable: When the museum showed the film to its own interfaith advisory council (after objections from advance viewers had raised concern), this esteemed group of New York City religious figures raised a chorus of urgent recommendations. Yet, the museum ignored these calls for months in advance of opening (the only Muslim representative resigned in response), and it further refused to screen the film for leading Muslim, Sikh, Arab-American and South Asian anti-discrimination organizations who had requested to view it. Despite pledges from the museum that they would address these concerns in other ways after opening in May 2014, zero follow-up has occurred one year later.

Further complicating its decisions, the museum's focus on generalizing about political violence is actually opposed to its original government charter, which restricts it from becoming a general authority on terrorism, and even from addressing the motivations of al Qaeda. The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation's guidelines intentionally curtail the museum's focus to the known details of how the specific September 11 attack was prepared and the tactical methods that were used, leaving ideology out entirely. In 2012, Patricia Cohen of The New York Times described how the museum had initiated "Talmudic-like analysis" of its legal guidelines to expand its charge toward addressing the politics and motivations of al Qaeda.

Now, a further thrust to solidify the institution as a general authority on terrorism (with its own particular stance of tying al Qaeda to larger "Islamist" movements) is becoming apparent. In March 2015, the museum began a series of live talks entitled "The Heart of the Matter," which focus on "Islamist radicalism" and "extremist Islamist ideology," marking "the latest chapter in the story, as it's unfolding around the world." In addition to further stretching the museum's chartered guidelines by politicizing the subjective question of what is the truly the "heart of the matter" with regard to terrorism, the specific conveners of this series, Clifford Chanin and Bernard Haykel, raise concern about its content. Clifford Chanin is the museum's education director, and, according to The New York Times, he suggested that the museum ignore the recommendations of its advisory council on the film. In the midst of the controversy as the museum was preparing to open, Chanin appeared on FOX News to announce confidently that the museum would refuse any further dialogue.

Bernard Haykel is a Princeton professor who studies violent groups and ideologies, and he is the only academic authority that the September 11 Museum has cited as influencing its exhibition content on Islam and on the motivations of al Qaeda. Normally, large museums will publicly display the names of scholars who vet key films, such as "The Rise of al Qaeda," but the September 11 Museum has refused to provide a list even to reporters.

While Haykel is certainly an important academic and is entitled to his views, a recent article demonstrated that he is quite a controversial figure. In March, The Atlantic published a long polemic by Graeme Wood, entitled "What ISIS Really Wants," that argues "Islam" and "ISIS" are worthy of direct verbal conflation ("The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.").

Haykel provides Wood's sole scholarly support. While Wood's article makes valid points in considering how strands of religion are used by members of ISIS, the article does not analyze the political contingencies that fostered its elevation as "a threat" (such as the Iraq War), or whether defining ISIS as chiefly a phenomenon of religion is productive for policy response. If defining ISIS as "un-Islamic" is impossible given different, inherently subjective interpretations of religion (as Wood and Haykel argue), then defining it as definitively "Islamic" is similarly flawed. Haykel clearly falls into this pitfall in the article.

In a discussion of ISIS's implementation of "slavery" and "crucifixion," he is quoted as saying, "The only principled ground that the Islamic State's opponents could take is to say that certain core texts and traditional teachings of Islam are no longer valid." A number of scholars of Islam expressed disagreement, saying that valid counter-interpretations exist on these points as well and that, like ISIS itself, Haykel treats Islam as a static belief system. Haykel's commitment toward essentializing terrorism through religious descriptives is not matched by most scholars of Islam or of terrorism.

Haykel is one voice and one scholar, yet there are dozens of other leading scholars who the September 11 Museum could consult in the modification of its permanent exhibition. If the museum continues to insist that it is charged to present the political context for September 11, Haykel's own recent caution that ISIS is "a symptom of a much deeper structural set of problems in the Sunni Arab world" should be incorporated into a potential re-editing and re-evaluation with regard to al Qaeda. In the late 1990s, the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. undertook an analogous action of additional review after a film it had created on anti-Semitism and Christianity was widely criticized.

The fears articulated by the museum's advisory council are serious. The September 11 Memorial Museum will have a major cultural impact for decades to come, and recent acts of violence against Muslims in the United States demonstrate the serious risks if this museum magnifies hatred and prejudice.

For the institution to continue to ignore its own established mechanism for advice and review is reckless and untenable. Fortunately, the Brian Williams scandal offers an elegant way out. As he is removed as the museum's "voice," a new direction of compromise could finally be followed.