A new development in the interminable culture wars over New York City's Ground Zero emerges as the site's museum finally opens. We've already noted outrage over the crass commercialism at the museum's souvenir shop (!). Now a Jews Against Islamophobia coalition is planning a May 21 vigil at the site to demand that the National September 11 Memorial Museum edit a six-minute video to be screened there, entitled "The Rise of Al Qaeda," that "contains disturbing terminology linking Islam with terrorism and that fails to contextualize al-Qaeda." The probem is that this assertion is being made despite the fact that only a select few have actually viewed the video. Daily Beast informs us that Peter Gudaitis, "chief executive of the New York Disaster Interfaith Network" (they apparently mean New York Disaster Interfaith Services, and Gudaitis is listed on their website as a member of the board of directors) "said that after the screening, every single one of the 10 religious leaders present voiced concerns that the video didn't do enough to separate Al Qaeda from mainstream Islam. He called the film in its current form 'reckless.'" According to the Daily News, Sheikh Mostafa Elazabawy, imam of Masjid Manhattan, resigned from the Lower Manhattan Clergy Council, a group advising the museum, after officials rejected the group's suggestions to alter the film. Apparently the offense is that the film calls the 9-11 attackers "Islamists," and describes their mission as "jihad."
OK, context is everything. We applaud efforts by progressive Muslims to reclaim the nomenclature of their faith from al-Qaeda and its ilk—such as those at the website MyJihad, with a kicker of "Taking Back Islam from Muslim and anti-Muslim Extremists Alike." But there is distinction between Islamist and Islamic. The former refers to the ideology of political Islam, which is akin to Christian nationalism in the US, Zionism in Israel or Hindutva in India in seeking to impose the faith (and usually a reactionary "fundamentalist" version of it) as the organizing principle of society. The latter refers to the faith itself. Yes, this distinction may be lost on viewers if the film doesn't make it clear. But the term "Islamist" shouldn't be verboten. Similarly, the word "jihad" is avidly embraced by the Islamists themselves, so it is pretty denialist to declare it off-limits. Of course, it should be made clear that Islamist use of the word is very distinct from more conventional concepts of jihad in Islamic tradition.
Frustratingly, it falls to the reactionary and Islamophobic Front Page Mag to gloat, citing the Jewish journal Algemeiner, that Sheikh Elazabawy ranted in a sermon at his mosque that Jews "killed the Prophets and Messengers" and are a "cancer…in every generation as they get in power." OK, this outburst came amid Israel's Operation Cast Lead, but that's no excuse. Has Elazabawy recanted his words? Have member groups of Jews Against Islamophobia asked him for an accounting? Or do progressives sweep the question under the metaphorical carpet and allow it to be exploited by the likes of Front Page Mag?
The New York Post editorializes on the museum mishegoss:
Unquestionably, the vast majority of Muslims have no sympathy with al Qaeda. In fact, fellow Muslims have suffered much from al Qaeda. That said, the 9/11 hijackers justified their actions by citing their religious beliefs — however much they may have been distorting Islam to do so.
Pretending this isn't true will not alter reality. And a museum that would present what happened on 9/11 as simply a bad event without addressing the hard issues it raises isn't worthy of the name.
Likewise for the absurd claim, repeated just recently by Secretary of State John Kerry, that poverty "in many cases is the root cause of terrorism" whose cure is "providing more economic opportunities."
Yet again. The reactionary Post rightly notes that political Islam should be explicitly identified as the ideology behind the 9-11 attacks—but itself explicitly rejects even looking at the "hard issues" that explain the frightening rise of political Islam over the past generation. Deep social iniquities certainly do fuel the proliferation of Islamist extremism, even if we must reject Kerry's safe language of "more economic opportunities" (as distinct from actual social justice). We yet again remind readers that al-Qaeda and like groups can only be properly understood in the context of a struggle within Islam, and refer readers to our formula for understanding that struggle:
There is really a three-way civil war underway throughout the Islamic world. The three inter-related conflicts are: 1.) Sunni v. Shia, 2.) fundamentalism v. secularism, and 3.) national liberation v. imperialism. The sad irony is that it is the social iniquities that underly this last contradiction that provide the raw material of endemic rage—which is increasingly exploited, siphoned off as it were, into the prior two. Fundamentalists conflate secularism and imperialism (given a propaganda boost by their neocon enemies, who do likewise), and pose the only alternative as a purified, hegemonic Islam which must, of course, crush internal heresy.
The struggle against Islamophobia in the West must be firmly wedded to solidarity with the progressive secularist forces in the Middle East, and within Middle Eastern communities here at home. Instead, as we have had reason to note before with exasperation: Worldwide, secular anti-Islamists are lining up with the neocon right while the secular left aligns with the Islamist right. Are we the only ones who feel like we're through the looking glass here?