On September 11, 2013 in downtown Manhattan, I asked Abdel Elgendy — an Egyptian man, Arabic speaker, and World Trade Center reconstruction worker — how Arabic’s absence among the translated 9/11 memorial brochures made him feel. He stood waiting for a bus near Zuccotti Park as the Freedom Tower reflected bright sunlight.
The initially stoic man lowered his face before looking up with wet eyes. He repeated “it’s not fair” several times before his Brooklyn-bound bus arrived. As the driver turned onto Cedar Street, he passed a shouting woman with a sign whom I had interviewed earlier. She said Arabic was “too Muslim” for the memorial.
“This is America, after all. We speak English here.”
The 9/11 Memorial Museum, which opened last Thursday, includes in its mission statement: “(to demonstrate) the consequences of terrorism on individual lives and its impact on communities at the local, national, and international levels …”.
Sadly, one consequence was a 1,600 percent spike in anti-Muslim hate crimes between September 2001 and January 2002. This is part of the 9/11 story.
But the museum’s leadership, operating at the site of a national tragedy, has overlooked the Arab-American demographic.
Near the memorial’s reflecting pools, a small stand offers brochures in nine languages: English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Russian, Portuguese, Mandarin and Japanese. These languages, sans Russian, will anchor the museum’s audio tour.
Arabic, the world’s fourth most-spoken language, is used by more New Yorkers than several included languages. Still, 9/11 memorial spokespersons claim 97 percent of visitors are already served, rendering Arabic brochures unnecessary. Through eight months researching this topic for an academic project, I found their staff unreachable.
The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) has experienced similar obstacles. It is arguing that the Arabic language exclusion violates federal law because the receipt of federal funding — at least $329 million from the Department of Housing and Urban Development — bars discrimination and requires “meaningful access” to those with “limited English proficiency.”
The museum’s Interfaith Advisory Group raised concerns about loosely-defined terminology on Islam in the exhibit’s film, “The Rise of al-Qaida.” Muslim and Arab-American organizations asked to view the film before the museum’s opening, but the requests were denied.
Analyst Fareed Zakaria’s 2004 essay in Political Science Quarterly lamented Americans’ understanding of “Islamic”, “Middle Eastern”, and “Arab” as synonyms. This semantic jump to conclusions unfairly links each with one word: “terrorist.”
A Muslim is a follower of Islam. An Arab is an individual with ties to the Arabian Peninsula or Northern Africa; ethnic Arabs constitute about 60 percent of the Middle East’s population. Confusing these terms prompts misunderstanding, and even hatred.
Including Arabic at the memorial museum rhetorically asserts an ethno-linguistic group cannot be condemned for 9/11. Arabic speakers died in the tragedy; their narrative, and the language by which it’s communicated, deserves a voice.
Anything less, as Mr. Elgendy succinctly stated, is not fair.
Chris Fielder of Leawood studies public affairs at Seton Hall University, where he researches and speaks about civil liberties for the debate team.