In 2012, the Save Washington Street campaign met with curators at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum to discuss the history of Little Syria, the historic Arab-American neighborhood in the immediate vicinity of the World Trade Center site. We learned that they had no plans to mention Little Syria in the required section of their museum dedicated to local history and the surrounding area. As a result, we wrote letters to the leadership of Memorial Museum asking that they consider including a short -- even one sentence -- mention in this section or, alternatively, an artifact related to Arab-American history discovered under the rubble, possibly the cornerstone of St. Joseph’s Chapel if an agreement with the Maronite church could be reached.
After being rebuffed by the leadership of the Memorial -- Joe Daniels and Alice Greenwald -- we determined to investigate conceivable sources of bias at the museum. Before the museum opened in 2014, we discovered that the academic vetting of the museum’s core exhibition was minimal and opaque (apparently led by Princeton Professor Bernard Haykel), and that the exhibition committee of the board of directors included one of the nation’s most vocal anti-Muslim hate activists, Debra Burlingame. A New York Times article revealed that, likely under pressure from Burlingame and others, the Memorial Museum had deviated from LMDC guidelines to avoid a focus on the perpetrators, toward presenting a politicized history of the motivations for the September 11 attacks based around religious terminology like jihad and “Islamic/islamist terrorism.”
Weeks before its opening in 2014, we discovered that the museum was using the terminology of “Islamic terrorism” on its website and that this likely indicated similar terminology in the core museum exhibition. We organized a large letter from scholars opposing such terminology. Eventually, weeks later, the Memorial Museum changed this language on its website, but it refused to allow scholars or Arab-American organizations to look at its exhibits before it opened.
In the process, we also discovered that the religious advisory group for the Memorial Museum had objected to a film that the museum had prepared, The Rise of Al-Qaeda, similarly because of its improper use of religious terminology. Despite letters and the resignation of the Muslim participants of the advisory group, the Museum had refused to make any changes. We then sought publicity on this matter, bringing it to the frontpage of The New York Times, facilitated meetings among Muslims in New York City, and encouraged the involvement of national Arab and Muslim organizations.
Unfortunately, the Memorial Museum under new President Alice Greenwald has continued to refuse to make any changes to the film, and seven years after opening, it has still not included a mention of “Little Syria” in its local history section. It has also rebuffed continual appeals for dialogue and for removing Debra Burlingame or reducing her influence. However, after a lawsuit by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the Memorial did agree to include brochures with Arabic translation after refusing to do so for years.
Daily News, May 18, 2013: https://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/activists-syria-cited-9-11-memorial-article-1.1347376
The Incluseum, September 4, 2013: https://incluseum.com/2013/09/04/memorializing-911-remembering-little-syria/
New York Times, April 23, 2014: https://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/24/nyregion/interfaith-panel-denounces-a-9-11-museum-exhibits-portrayal-of-islam.html
France 24, April 24, 2014: https://www.france24.com/en/20140425-new-york-september-11-museum-sparks-anger-over-portrayal-islam-al-qaeda
New York Post, April 24, 2014: https://nypost.com/2014/04/24/cleric-says-911-documentary-makes-all-muslims-look-like-terrorists/
The Daily Beast, April 28, 2014: https://www.thedailybeast.com/the-911-museums-muslim-problem?ref=scroll
Associated Press, May 13, 2014: https://finance.yahoo.com/news/muslim-advocates-amplify-9-11-105238716.html
Al-Jazeera America, May 15, 2014: http://america.aljazeera.com/blogs/scrutineer/2014/5/15/9-11-museum-s-unnuancedfilmmissesopportunitytoeducateheal.html
New York Times, June 1, 2014: https://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/02/nyregion/sept-11-museum.html?_r=1
Newsweek, June 2, 2014: https://www.newsweek.com/video-spurs-more-controversy-september-11-memorial-museum-252973
ArtNet, April 12, 2015: https://news.artnet.com/art-world/brian-williams-911-museum-286281