On November 21st, 2015, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump said to supporters in Birmingham, Alabama, "Hey, I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down. And I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down."
Trump's assertion sparked a national verbal wrestling match. Mainstream media and cultural leaders rushed to insist that no American Muslims celebrated 9-11. George Stephanopoulos dismissed accounts as mere "internet rumor." Snopes' Kim LaCapria argued that Muslims celebration of 9-11 is a "claim [that] was long since debunked." LaCapria, quoting an American Psychological Association article, theorized that those who report seeing Muslims celebrate 9-11 suffer from false memory syndrome. The page LaCapria linked to makes no mention of the 9-11 terror attacks and LaCapria cites no research by any scholar who studied self-identified witnesses of Muslim celebrations in NJ. The New York Times wrote that "a persistent Internet rumor of Muslims celebrating in Paterson, N.J., was discounted by police officials at the time.
A search of news accounts from that period shows no reports of mass cheering in Jersey City." Reuters claimed that "Paterson officials promptly issued a statement denying the report." National Public Radio's crack investigators "could not turn up any news accounts of American Muslims cheering or celebrating in the wake of Sept. 11." A Slate headline insisted that Muslims celebrating 9-11 is "one of the oldest 9/11 urban legends." Buzzfeed quoted, with approval, CAIR's Ibrahim Hooper, "This has been one of these vile memes on the anti-Islam hate sites for some time, but there's actually no evidence to support it whatsoever." Buzzfeed also quoted the Anti-Defamation League, "It is unfortunate that Donald Trump is giving new life to long-debunked conspiracy theories about 9/11."
Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow in governance studies at The Brookings Institution, blogging at Lawfare, is among the most self-righteous, highhanded, and inflammatory in his condemnation of Trump and also Ben Carson. These people, Wittes insisted, are spreading the equivalent of "blood libel … being used … to whip up the ignorant into murderous mobs … They are either lying or they are delusional. And assuming they are not suffering both from the same hallucination, they are lying in a fashion calculated to instill anger and hatred against a minority population at a time when nerves are raw, fears are high, and tempers are short. There are a lot of names for this. None of them is nice."
Wittes' charge of blood libel raises the stakes. Blood libel was used as an excuse to murder Jews in pogroms and it can be associated with tens of thousands of deaths. Wittes identifies blood libel as "medieval" and Christian – his meaning is plain. Christians are bad people who are bigoted against others; bigotry is a relic of the past.
In fact blood libel is neither exclusively Christian nor is it medieval. Blood libel goes back at least to Pagan, Classical Rome. In 1910, in Shiraz, Iran, a Jew was accused of murdering a Muslim girl. Muslims injured and killed Jews, and 6,000 Jews were dispossessed. Blood libel is so popular in the modern Muslim world that a 2001 TV series, "Horseman without a Horse," featured it. But to address actual facts, Wittes writes, would be beneath him. "I'm disinclined to rehash the tawdry history of this episode in any detail. To engage the substance of it feels a little to me like arguing with Holocaust deniers."
Even the Facebook page for Weird NJ insisted that no Muslims celebrated 9-11. Weird NJ is a publication usually dedicated to describing phenomena like the Ghost Boy haunting of Clinton Road. When people who promote belief in the Jersey Devil start insisting that an event never happened, you know something is up.
Prof. Irfan Khawaja of Felician College and Al Quds University acknowledges that some Muslims did celebrate 9-11. The group was much smaller than Trump mentioned, so the entire story can and must be labeled a "lie" rather than "an exaggeration." Khawaja writes, "He said that 'thousands and thousands' of people were cheering in Jersey City. That's a blatant lie."
The intense effort by empowered voices to erase an event matters. It is more than a footnote in the 2016 presidential race. Several factors are at play here. They include censorship of truth in order to meet the demands of political correctness, an utterly wrongheaded attempt to protect Muslims, an attempt that will only harm Muslims, and profound racism – the racism of an empowered elite who are convinced that average Americans are nothing but "ignorant murderous mobs."
In a May 5, 1920 photograph of Lenin delivering a speech, Trotsky is clearly visible. After Trotsky fell out of favor, he was airbrushed out of the photo. The Soviets were also good at smearing any speaker of inconvenient truths as too insane to be heard. We must reject the Soviet concept of truth. Truth is truth, even if it is politically incorrect. And truth is our friend. Truth is the friend of non-Muslims and Muslims alike.
I lived in and worked in Paterson, NJ, in the 1980s to 1990. I loved my Arab and Muslim friends then, and I love them now. In our many hours-long debates, many of my Arab and Muslim friends expressed enthusiastic and unshakeable support for terrorism. Not all did so; my Muslim friend Emmie's utter rejection of terrorism is described here. I wasn't surprised when 9-11 happened. As horrible as that day was, in one small sense, I experienced a pinprick of relief. Finally, I thought, we can start having an honest conversation about the support that even otherwise good but profoundly misguided people can voice for terrorism.
That conversation has yet fully to emerge. We are still too afraid of saying politically incorrect things. This censorship isn't just a bad thing for non-Muslims. It's a bad thing for Muslims as well. Those who witnessed the 9-11 celebrations, their friends and loved ones see much effort being exerted to smear and silence them, and to negate the historically important truth they speak. This silencing will only increase resentment against Muslims. An open and free public conversation will serve everyone's best interests.
People whom I trust told me that they witnessed the celebrations. None agreed to be named here. They know that speaking this truth in public sets them up for attack. One witness is my former student. He is an Italian-American, an A student who attended class regularly and handed in assignments on time. He is a responsible adult who worked during the day and took courses at night. Almost a decade ago, during a long conversation that touched on many topics, he told me of the celebration he witnessed. He named the location, the public library on Main Avenue.
Another witness was a prominent figure in Democratic politics, in which I used to participate. His account was similar to my student's account. The two men don't know each other. A third witness permits me to quote her here. "I stopped for gas in Belleville immediately after the second fall and there were two men in the station cheering at the TV coverage as if they were watching the Super Bowl and their team was winning." I have known this woman for years. I have to rely on her in financial and other matters. She has never lied to me.
There are tried-and-true methods to assess truth. These include Occam's Razor, multiple accounts, cui bono, and consistency with otherwise verified data. All of these can be applied in the accounts of Muslims celebrating 9-11.
Occam's Razor says that the simplest explanation is best. Numerous New York and New Jersey residents insist that they or those close to them saw New Jersey Muslims celebrate 9-11. New Jersey radio station 101.5 quotes some of these accounts here. A sampling:
Tom Penicaro: "I worked for PSEG in Clifton on the Paterson boarder and I witnessed it firsthand. They were celebrating in the streets cheering and stomping on the flag. I am a Marine and I remember very very clearly because I was so pissed I wanted to engage them with a bat I had in my van."
William Hugelmeyer: "I was working in the jail when the attacks occurred. Once it was clear it was a terrorist attack, we had inmates celebrating. This instantly caused a lockdown. As you could imagine, many other inmates and officers didn't share their jubilation."
John Pezzino: "They were in the streets banging on the cars trying to drive through the crowd in the street. The Muslims were shouting death to Americans and Allah is great other crap I didn't understand. We were amused until a car with 3 young women mistakenly turned on to main st. The muslims were banging on their windows and screaming, thats when we came out of our car and pushed the muslims off their car helped them back out and get back to the Parkway."
Walter Emiliantsev: "I lived in NJ at the time on Demott Ave., Clifton! When I tried to go to Paterson to my brother in laws shop, I usually took Main Ave. There were so many people dancing on Main, I couldn't get through! I KNOW what I saw!"
Occam's Razor suggests that when numerous people, using their first and last names in a public forum, and providing concrete details that can be checked, all provide similar accounts of public behavior, chances are they are telling the truth. It is possible that all of these people, as Kim LaCapria suggests, are suffering from false memory syndrome, or are all attempting to whip up murderous hatred against Muslims, as Benjamin Wittes accuses, but neither LaCapria nor Wittes provides any support for their smears.
Cui bono directs us to consider "who benefits" from a statement. New Jersey has one of the largest Muslim populations in the US, after Michigan. New Jersey's Muslim population constitutes the second highest, by percent, in the US, after Illinois and above Michigan. New Jersey Muslims wield political clout. Note Republican Governor Chris Christie's nomination of Sohail Mohammed for the New Jersey Superior Court in spite of intense pressure, and Christie's dismissal as "crap" any concerns that New Jerseyans might have about sharia law. Note also that a New Jersey judge ruled that a Muslim man had the basis to beat, torture, and rape his 17-year-old wife because he believed that Islam granted him this right. Muslim political clout may explain why so many empowered voices insist that the 9-11 celebrations never happened.
Too, no decent New Jerseyan wanted to see retaliatory attacks against Muslims in our state. Many speculate, and some report as fact, that police, journalists and local officials downplayed or denied Muslim celebrations to protect Muslims from retaliatory attacks.
In contrast, those who insist that they witnessed Muslim celebrations have nothing to gain by making these statements publicly, and everything to lose. First, many of those speaking out now have no public record of making these statements previous to this controversy. They saw what they saw and they kept it to themselves, or told only those closest to them, for the past fourteen years. It is only the attempt to expunge this historical fact from public memory, and to smear and disgrace anyone who speaks this truth, that caused witnesses to come forward. They are average New Jerseyans simply telling the truth in the face of a wave of censorship and demonization that could cost them their friends or their jobs.
Are accounts of Muslims in New Jersey celebrating 9-11 consistent with other verified data? Indeed they are.
Palestinians make up a large percentage of Paterson's Muslim population, so much so that the neighborhood where the 9-11 celebration is alleged to have taken place is sometimes nicknamed "Little Ramallah." Local businesses are often named for Palestinian landmarks, for example the Al-Quds restaurant, Al-Quds Halal meat and the Al-Quds bakery. Paterson has a large Hispanic population; there are businesses with the provocative and irredentist name of El Andalus Discount Store and Andalus Islamic Fashion. Paterson Palestinians are not shy about expressing their opposition to Israel, see here. Indeed, Paterson's City Hall famously flew the Palestinian flag. One Paterson resident, Moneer Simreen, is quoted referring to Palestine, not the US, as "our country." Americans, Tariq Elsamma said, "need to obey our needs because we are a large community." Paterson's mayor, Jose Torres, wore a kaffiyeh and supported making Ramallah Paterson's sister city.
Even those who deny that any American Muslims celebrated 9-11 acknowledge that Palestinians overseas did celebrate the attacks. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are familially related to Palestinians in Paterson.
Further, polling data indicate that there is not inconsiderable support for terror among some Muslims, with support varying by group. In a 2005 FAFO Foundation poll, a significant percentage of Palestinian respondents supported "Al Qaeda's actions like bombings in USA and Europe." A 2013 Pew Poll found that 40% of Palestinians support suicide bombing in defense of Islam. In the same poll, only one percent of Muslims in Azerbaijan voiced support for suicide bombing.
Finally, we know that six of the 9-11 hijackers lived in Paterson, NJ, and they used the computers of a nearby campus in planning their attacks.
There are all too many non-Muslims who voice support for terror as well. One notorious example: Ward Churchill, a white American university professor of European, Christian descent called the 9-11 victims "little Eichmanns." Other non-Muslims say that poverty or injustice justifies terrorism.
Good people of all beliefs need to say, without ambiguity or apology, that Western Civilization is worth maintaining, and that terrorism is both immoral and a tactical dead-end. If Muslims don't like an aspect of public life, they can change it through organizing and hard work. But we aren't having that conversation to the extent that we should. Instead too many of our cultural elites are apologetic about Western Civilization, and too eager to make excuses for terrorism.
No, Ms. LaCapria, there is no evidence that the people who witnessed New Jersey Muslims celebrating 9-11 suffer from false memory syndrome. No, Benjamin Wittes, those who witnessed the celebrations are not "lying delusional murderous mobs." Rather, the real bigots and racists are those who demonize the honest New Jerseyans who risk censure by simply stating what they saw. From universities, newspaper suites and think tanks, the erasers of history look down on average Americans and sneer. They believe the worst of the American people. They are convinced that if Americans know one small fact – that some New Jersey Muslims celebrated on 9-11 – we will rise up with our pitchforks and torches and erupt into slaughter. They are the delusional ones.
Americans are nice people. We are not especially bigoted. We know that 9-11 happened. Most Americans probably suspect that some minority of Muslims celebrated, openly or in secret. It's been fourteen years, and the pogrom that some have been perversely hoping for and trying to foment never happened.
What we need is frank speech. We need to talk to our Muslim fellow citizens about why some of them celebrated on 9-11. And we need to – through speech – convince those who celebrated 9-11 that they are mistaken. The day that we do so will be a good day. We delay that day by denying that these celebrations ever happened.