World Trade Center Memorial

World Trade Center Memorial from wikipedia

The September 11 Memorial Museum at the World Trade Center site is scheduled to open on May 21.   Given the trauma of the 9/11 attacks, and the trauma brought on the world by the response of the United States, the Memorial Museum is bound to be a historically significant part of the commemoration of this tragic, violent, and sad day in human history.

The Memorial Museum describes itself as: “an educational and historical institution honoring the victims and examining 9/11 and its continued global significance.”

All of which is why it is important to get the language and symbolism involved in the Memorial Museum right.   Every aspect of this Memorial Museum is going to be carefully scrutinized by the many parties involved to make sure that the “global significance” of the event is accurately portrayed.  And here is where the Memorial Museum is already falling short.

The Memorial Museum has established a website to promote some advanced material, and at least one item in it has many of the scholars involved in studying the legacy of 9/11 deeply concerned. In discussing Bin Laden’s activity leading up to the atrocities of September 11th, the Memorial Museum website states that Bin Laden’s activities “had a significant impact on America’s view of the threat of Islamic terrorism.”

It is doubtlessly true that the attacks of 9/11 have had an impact on America’s view of Islam, and the threat of terrorism.  And there is little reason to doubt that the attacks of 9/11 were carried out by Muslims.   Also true that Bin Laden tried to justify his violent attacks by couching them in Islamic terms.    And yet to speak of them as “Islamic terrorism” is to bestow upon Bin Laden and al-Qaeda the religious legitimacy that they desperately craved—and do not deserve.

To label Al-Qaeda as “Islamic terrorism” is equivalent to labeling the KKK a Christian organization, instead of recognizing Al-Qaeda as a perversion of Islamic teaching and the KKK a perversion of Christianity.

One has to be intellectually honest here: Bin Laden was a Muslim, and so were his followers.   The terrorists who carried out the attacks of 9/11 were pathetic Muslims, who spent the last few nights before the attacks in a drunken stupor, visiting nude shops and hiring prostitutes—hardly the model of observant, pious Muslims.

But one has to recognize that the Islamic tradition is a discursive tradition that functions through a cumulative scholarly interpretation, and that tradition has clearly and unambiguously stood against the type of mass collective attacks on non-combatants that al-Qaeda has repeatedly engaged in.

Islamic law does not permit the random, indiscriminate killing of civilians.   It is categorically forbidden.  The Prophet Muhammad himself forbade the killing of women, elderly, civilians, and religious leaders.

9/11 memorial lights

9/11 memorial lights from Shutterstock

This is not an exercise in “defending” and “saving” a pristine Islam.   It is rather an insistence that the victims of a tragedy should not—ironically—legitimize the attackers by granting them the very legitimacy that they crave—and do not deserve.

One hopes that the 9/11 Memorial Museum does not end up inadvertently legitimizing the very movement that led to the immense suffering on September 11th.

Let us hope and pray that the September 11th Memorial Museum does end up being an institution to provide healing, and shine a light on the path that we as humanity have to walk to seek a better tomorrow.

 

 

 

20 Comments

  1. Religious legitimacy is not a finite commodity. Every person plays a role in defining their claimed communities, religious or otherwise. If the KKK claim to be Christian, they contribute to the definition of Christianity. If Al-Qaeda claims to be Muslim, they contribute to the definition of Islam.

    One can’t just mention off-handedly that Al-Qaeda tries to make Islamic arguments and then completely dismiss them by using an elitist (and in my opinion, very misleading) appeal to “the scholars.” That’s like saying the Protestant reformers deserved no legitimacy as Christians because they represented a break from the Catholic/Orthodox scholarly tradition. The reason Al-Qaeda is properly called an Islamic organization is not because they proved that they represent Islamic consensus (a very tall order, and what of the Ismaili’s, Alevis, and other such small groups?) but because they actively make the effort to identify and justify themselves as Islamic. They gain – and deserve – religious legitimacy by the very act of craving it.

    This argument, of course, goes both ways. Islamic LBGT organizations, to take just one example, are courageously engaging with the scholarly tradition to claim legitimacy. But as helpful as it is that they are making the effort, on a basic level they shouldn’t have to. They shouldn’t have to jump through 50 hoops of interpretation and scholarship and linguistics and legal rulings to “prove” their legitimacy as an Islamic organization. Just by wanting to be LBGT Muslims, they gain and deserve basic legitimacy. They don’t suddenly define all of Islam, but they share in it. But Professor Safi’s argument is easily turned against them.

    It also doesn’t help Professor Safi’s larger goal when he states things as “categorically” true when clearly, there exists dissent. To pick at very low-hanging fruit, just look at Bukhari 004, Book 052, Hadith Number 256:

    “Narrated By As-Sab bin Jaththama : The Prophet passed by me at a place called Al-Abwa or Waddan, and was asked whether it was permissible to attack the pagan warriors at night with the probability of exposing their women and children to danger. The Prophet replied, “They (i.e. women and children) are from them (i.e. pagans).” I also heard the Prophet saying, “The institution of Hima is invalid except for Allah and His Apostle.””

    There is a wealth of scholarly opinion on this hadith that actively seeks to understand it in light of hadith like Bukhari 004, Book 052, Hadith Number 257 (the very next one!):

    “Narrated By ‘Abdullah : During some of the Ghazawat of the Prophet a woman was found killed. Allah’s Apostle disapproved the killing of women and children.”

    But if I hear you make the categorical statement first and then read that Hadith and Al-Qaeda’s associated arguments (which exist), I’m going to think you didn’t know what you were talking about, or that you were being condescending. I’m not going to listen to you now expound on the details of this issue. You’ve lost me – and this is what has happened a lot in the fight against different extremisms around the world. “You don’t deserve legitimacy!” as a religious argument, does much more harm than good.

    One of the great things about secular society that stops the “but if everyone who claims it is religiously legitimate, how can we have laws and morals?” argument is that religious legitimacy does not need to mean complete social or legal legitimacy. Doubtless there can be changes made to how the 9/11 museum defines Al-Qaeda and bin Laden’s ideology. But the reasoning used in Professor Safi’s post, I believe, is ultimately negative to humanity’s quest for that “better tomorrow.”

    • I think Professor Safi’s argument is spot on.

      Anyone can call themselves a member of, or representative of a particular religion. That does not legitimize their claim. According to the Christian tradition, Yeshua bar Yosef, the rabbi from Galilee, broke with Mosaic tradition, told the Sanhedrin that “an eye for an eye” was not the way to supplicate Yahweh. Rather, love was the approach a benevolent “Father” would prefer — loving one’s neighbor as oneself. Did Jesus actually say that? Who knows, but “love” became the defining principle of Christianity. However, reading the gospels, you get a very contradictory idea of who Jesus was and what he said. “I come not to bring peace but a sword” comes to mind. Does that single phrase legitimize the Crusades and all the slaughter of Jews, Muslims, heretics, doctors who perform abortions, and homosexuals? I don’t think any Christian would say it does. Yet it all happened and still there is no mention of “Christian terrorism” in the media.

      The same argument could be made about relying on the Hadiths of Islam to define the intention and personality of Muhammad. But unlike Jesus, who never labeled his followers “Christian,” Muhammad specifically chose the word “muslim”– one who has surrendered (to God’s will) as the defining principle of his community. Whatever binLaden and the perpetrators of 9/11 “surrendered” to, it was not the will of Al’Llah as defined by his prophet, Muhammad.

      The term “Islamic terrorism” is as much an oxymoron as “Christian terrorism.” One cannot surrender to God’s will by committing acts of terror and mayhem against His beloved creations. Thank you, Omid, for reiterating this important point of semantics.

      • So Jesus broke with tradition (again, arguable, see Matt. 5:17), does that mean he was not legitimately Jewish? Are Jews who today reject or modify “an eye for an eye” not legitimately Jewish? Were Christians who maintained Jewish law not legitimately Christians?

        Augustine wrestled with the problem of justifying violence with Christian love. He argued that while forceful self-defense is not justifiable (turn the other cheek), if you saw your neighbor being attacked, it was justifiable to use fatal force to attack the assailant. The Catholic Church developed over time an ethic of just war (within which we can discuss the Crusades) that modifies Augustine greatly and is still very relevant today. Throughout this, pacifism has always remained a part of wider Christian thought and practice.

        Who’s not legitimately Christian here? Augustine? The later Catholic Church? The pacifists (among whom are some Catholics)?

        Bear in mind, legitimate does not equal correct or admirable or representative. It just takes people at their word when they explain why they are doing what they do. Defining Islamic/Christian terrorism as oxymoronic is an exclusivist religious claim and is especially out of place in a secular space like the museum.

        The argument Professor Safi uses (“If Christians pin us with Al-Qaeda, I’ll pin Christians with the KKK”) is intellectually coercive and preys on our tribal instincts. Fighting guilt by association does not require deriding those we disagree with as no true Scotsmen. If it bothers you so much that the KKK claims to be Christian, go pray with them. Walk the second mile with them. Show them your Christianity. Give them some basic respect as fellow “beloved creations” of God. And yes – maintain a secular rule of law that guarantees people’s rights.

        • David, I’m not sure what your point is. I think Professor Safi’s point — and mine — is simply that you cannot be a “Christian” or “Muslim” ( in the true sense of what these words were intended to mean) and a “terrorist” which negates the fundamental principals of both Christianity and Islam. If you want to call this point of view “exclusivist,” so be it. I do not think that the litmus test of legitimacy is satisfied just because the KKK has prayer meetings before they hang a black man, any more than because al-Qaeda operatives perform salat before they fly a plane into a skyscraper. If you pray to God and then kill innocent people in “His” name, you are unclear on the concept of your religion. There is no intellectual nuance there.

          • What gives a secular institution (the 9/11 Museum) the right to define what is truly Christian or Islamic?

            My point is that al-Qaeda didn’t just pray Salat and then attack. They weren’t “Muslims who happened to also be terrorists” the way my friend Bilal is a Muslim who happens to like Subway. They actively sought to justify their actions according to their claimed religion and its traditions. As Professor Safi said, they craved legitimacy. And when it comes to claiming a place in a religious tradition, that should be all you need.

            I know it’s really tempting to say that people you don’t like are perverting their religious tradition. Especially in a case that seems as clear-cut as terrorism. But this reasoning is the same that leads extremists to denounce everyone else as infidels worth killing. It consistently leads to oppression because it is oppressive. Even when it’s used against “bad” people. And especially if it’s used by official institutions like a national museum.

            There are strategies of engagement that are actually useful, and they start by taking the subjects seriously when they say “this is why we do what we do.”

  2. David, I disagree with your first statement. Christianity is what it is. Islam is what it is. The fact that we are all fallible sinners does not change the essential truth of God’s message. I am reminded of the argument against going to church “because there are too many Christians there” (meaning hypocrites). We’re all hypocrites, myself included. I don’t think it changes the truth of the message.

    I do agree with your point that Professor Safi is a little off base – I think he is, at least secondarily, trying to defend Islam when it is at best unclear whether Islam is defensible on the point of “non-combatants”. But I do agree with him that calling Al Qaeda or the KKK as representative of their espoused religion is not fair to that religion, and in the case of Al Qaeda, the legitimizing of their take on Islam is potentially dangerous to the civilized world.

    I’ll speak of Christianity as I know that better. I like to think of Jesus identifying the two greatest commandments. If I’m not obeying those two (Love the Lord… and love your neighbor as yourself), then I’m not doing God’s will, whatever else I can point to in the Bible.

    • Let me try to explain myself this way. It wouldn’t really be fair to speak of “Christian adulterers” for example, because while many Christians commit adultery, I haven’t heard any attempt to say it is legitimate in Christianity.

      On the other hand, look at homosexuality. Many gay (and allied) Christians have started a major intellectual movement saying that same-sex relations are not sinful, and that they can in fact be justified and honored in Christianity.

      Islamic terrorists (and Christian/Hindu/Jewish/etc. terrorists) generally fall under the second example. What are we to do with people who crave legitimacy in their religion? Test them? Deny them?

      Legitimizing Al-Qaeda does not mean saying that their actions and propaganda are socially or legally acceptable. It doesn’t mean saying that they are right when they say they are truly following the Prophet’s message. It doesn’t mean saying that they represent their espoused religion to a greater extent then their actual numbers and influence. It just means recognizing that they have a take on Islam and engaging them from there. And this engagement should include a reasoned critique of their positions and context about their place (for they do have a place) in a much greater 1400 year Islamic tradition. Otherwise we just give extremism a forbidden mystique (“What the 9/11 Museum doesn’t want you to know!!”) and make it more attractive as an ideology.

      Similarly, in a museum exhibit on the Crusades, I would object to the museum saying that the Crusaders were not actually following God’s will. I would rather that they spend time explaining the diversity and evolution of Christian opinion on the idea of just war, situating the Crusaders in that conversation.

  3. I can think of plenty of things to object to the 9/11 Memorial Museum for, but this is the most minor.

    The ticket cost is rather high in a city where its largest and most famous museums are free.

    By trying to consolidate the 9/11 official memorials to one place, it diminishes the presence of them scattered throughout the city. Most notably the two incredibly old churches adjacent to the WTC which played a prominent role in the rescue/cleanup effort and virtually every firehouse and police station in lower Manhattan.

    I suspect a level of whitewashing will be done concerning the suffering of rescue/cleanup workers from hazardous conditions experienced.

      • Right.

        The proposed ticket price of $24 is still a bit high for admission. It gives the memorial a tourist trap feel to it.

        I have some affection for St. Paul’s Chapel and their role as the de facto 9/11 Memorial for so many years. You get a sense of the role the community took in dealing with the aftermath.

  4. There is not one sect of Islam. In Syria, for example Muslim Sunni are fighting Muslim Shia and the Jihadi are using the Quran to justify their terrorism, Jizia tax, beheading and all in the name religious piety. Egypt is a mess Muslim killing Muslim and Muslim killing non Muslim. Most of the conflicts in the world today are Islamic related. They are all using the Qur’an, they all accept Mohamed as their prophet and are always pushing for Sharia law in countries that do not practice it.
    It is the Qur’an that defines a Muslim not their actions. Their actions define them as sinners.
    Changing the words on the memorial is not going to change a thing! Islam is a politico/religion and it has been since the 7th century.
    Good look with your project. But I hope you fail you are only adding insult to injury in my opinion.

    • I’d say what defines a Muslim (or a member of any religious tradition) as such is what they do and also how they fit what they do into their understanding of what should be done. A Christian who likes to eat ice cream is different from a Christian who thinks God wants her to eat ice cream, and is also different from a Christian who doesn’t think that God especially wants her to eat ice cream, but wants her to be happy, and sees ice cream as a way to feel a small hint of God’s love.

      It’s all wonderfully complicated.

  5. What an interesting discourse with the exception of the entry of cost to visit the museum — by the way, Tuesdays will be free to all so maybe that’s your day to take a peek Larry and understand that the cost of entering the museum is the minor issue, not the latter discussion at hand. I recall after 9/11 distinctly sharing with my young children that ‘yes, Osama bin Laden was Muslim but his practice of Islam as shown by his actions on 9/11 (an event that killed my children’s father) were those of a man that mangled the teachings of the prophet Mohammed and that all Muslims who practiced the religion of Islam were not inherently in any way like Osama bin Laden.’ i”ll never forget one of my daughter’s responses – ‘so you are saying he is kind of like Hitler except he believes in God and Hitler didn’t?’ I didn’t really know what to say but nodded a yes because on an elementary level it was dead on! Every conversation in my house around the subject of Islam was always geared toward the bastardization of the religion by OSB and those that followed his concept of the prophet Mohammed’s teachings. So back to the coining of the phrase ‘Islamic terrorism’ by the 9/11 Museum. Here is what I understand ‘Islamic terrorism’ to mean – a sect of Muslims who have gone against the teachings of their religion and who perpetrate onto innocent people a violent and unwarranted death by and through acts of terrorism. Ideas of legitimacy as a result of these two words together may appear to legitimize Islamic extremists’ actions, in this case perception does not eclipse reality. f

  6. Michael Burke

    On 9/11 my brother, Capt. William F. Burke, Jr., was killed in the attacks on the WTC.

    Interesting debate, most beyond my realm of knowledge. While clearly most Muslims are not terrorists I have no knowledge to say that theirs is warped version of Islam. I do not presume that it is not; maybe there is something inherent in Islam and/or Islamic culture that leads to terrorism.

    I would side with David’s viewpoint; if one is to study Islam in world history you would have to include modern terrorism. If you study Christianity in world history you have to study the Crusades, KKK, etc. You cannot simply dismiss them as not “real” examples of either and assign them to some other branch of study entirely.

    The museum – which will include my brother’s fire truck – will cost too much. Building it underground, rather than in a building on the plaza, added hundreds of millions to its cost. The only reason it is underground is too hide all history and evidence of the attacks out of sight of visitors to the site.

    If we are speaking about white washing of history that is what the memorial is for. It has giant, really cool waterfalls and lots of pretty trees and visitors say it is very pretty and “calming” and “soothing.” it allows them to forget about what really happened here.

    It is the only memorial at the site of the event it is supposedly commemorating that does not include any artifacts of that event. Imagine the USS Arizona Memorial w/o the USS Arizona. Gettysburg w/o the battlefield. Hiroshima w/o the dome remnants; Auschwitz w/o the camps.

    For 30 yrs the Koenig Sphere stood in the center of the WTC as a symbol of world peace. On 9/11 it emerged damaged but the only artifact to survive intact. it was thus embraced as a symbol of the perseverance of the best of humanity over the worst. Yet today, while millions visit the “national” 9/11 WTC memorial, the Sphere sits down at Battery Park, beside a Korean War memorial. What sense does this make?

    Please see facebook, Save the Sphere. Search WTC Sphere online. Thousands, including 9/11 family members, survivors and downtown residents have called for the return of the Sphere. The memorial foundation ignores us all. Contact savethesphere@gmail.com

  7. The author like nearly every Islam apologist that steps forward tries to make the cases how rare and so not Islamic all these terrorists are. And again we are shown a few random passages that are suppose to prove to us how peaceful and tolerant muslims are. But never ever is it addressed that why in every single country in the world where Muslims become the majority that country becomes violent, oppressive, practices gender apartheid, other beliefs and religions are not tolerated or allowed…. So answer me this if the majority of Muslims are peaceful and loving and tolerant why as soon as they become the majority the country becomes intolerant violent oppressive to women and other religions and ways of life. Sorry but you are being judged on cold hard reality of what you are really like… Not the lies you spread.

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