9-11 film: Vague criticisms mar NYT article on protest

Writing about a film you haven’t seen is like discussing food you haven’t tasted. Sure, you can ask others who have had it. But until you try it yourself, you literally don’t know what you’re talking about. Especially with a risky film like The Rise of Al Qaeda, a documentary on 9-11 that hasn't yet been released. The reporter who wrote a story on the film didn’t get to see it herself.

Planned as part of the National September 11 Memorial Museum, the brief film -- less than seven minutes long, according to the Times -- has caught fire from Muslim and ecumenical leaders alike.

The documentary describes the 9-11 terrorists -- and Al-Qaida -- as "Islamist" and "jihadist." Muslims are understandably concerned about what that will do to the image of their faith in the eyes of other Americans. But their criticisms are long on problems -- actually, worries about potential problems -- and short on solutions:

The terms “Islamist” and “jihadist” are often used to describe extremist Muslim ideologies. But the problem with 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,” said Akbar Ahmed, the chairman of the Islamic studies department at American University in Washington.

“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 U.S. would not want to unnecessarily alienate.”

Critics are quoted, well, liberally, including interfaith leaders who took alarm at what they considered an "inflammatory" tone.

“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. “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.”

Museum officials are standing by the film, which they say was vetted by several scholars of Islam and of terrorism. A museum spokesman and panel members described the contents of the film, which was not made available to The New York Times for viewing.

The story, however, never names or quotes any of the promised scholars of Islam and of terrorism. The closest is toward the end:

For his part, Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University, defended the film, whose script he vetted.

“The critics who are going to say, ‘Let’s not talk about it as an Islamic or Islamist movement,’ could end up not telling the story at all, or diluting it so much that you wonder where Al Qaeda comes from,” Dr. Haykel said.

And that doesn’t come close to answering the objections by the two Muslim leaders.

Museum officials and supporters play defense, and not well. The head of the foundation supporting the museum is allowed to say that the goal was "in no way [to] smear an entire religion when we are talking about a terrorist group ... We have gone out of the way to tell the truth."

Like how? And how does he answer the objections of the Muslim leaders?

Apparently the flap began when the museum showed the film to several focus groups, including the interfaith alliance. Why wasn’t the Times reporter invited, too? Perhaps the museum wanted to allow the viewers to voice opinions freely, away from the media. But now that the media are involved, why not let them see it?

And which other focus groups saw the film? Why did the Times bear down only on the interfaith group? Was it that the newspaper wasn’t given contact information for them? Or because the interfaith quotes were juicier?

The Times also needed to push a little more on what changes the critics wanted. They’re quoted as wanting the museum to show that "Muslims were not just perpetrators, but also among the attack’s victims, mourners and recovery workers — an integral part of the fabric of American life." Yet the article also says the museum includes stories of Muslim victims and photos of Muslims mourning.

The critics also wanted some word studies:

In interviews, several leading scholars of Islam said that the term “Islamic terrorist” was broadly rejected as unfairly conflating Islam and terrorism, but the terms Islamist and jihadist can be used, in the proper context, to refer to Al Qaeda, preferably with additional qualifiers, like “radical,” or “militant.”

There's those "several scholars" again. But the article doesn’t quote them -- only the anemic response from Haykel. The story needed someone speaking more forcefully, and specifically, for the other side.

Then the article returns to Elazabawy, who rejects any association of "Islamist" or "Islamic" with Al-Qaida -- and says all Muslims agree with him: "Don’t tell me this is an Islamist or an Islamic group; that means they are part of us."

So several unnamed leading scholars of Islam offer suggestions, and one of two Muslim leaders say most believers would reject them. This is the essence of squishy reporting.

The Times should have returned to its sources for clarification. It should have pushed the protestors for some valid fixes to the documentary, on which they agreed.

The paper also could have taken some of the quotes to the museum and said, "Look at what people have been telling me about the film! Don’t you think it's time I get to see it directly?"

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