Juan Williams, Islamophobia, and Journalistic Fairness

By Jamil Khader
Stetson University, Florida

Should Juan Williams have been forced to resign after his unfortunate remarks about “Muslim garb”? Although I believe that something should have been done, I’m not sure firing him was the right answer. NPR could have taken him at his own word, demanding that he lives up to his “I’m not a bigot, but . . . ” remark. Instead of turning this into an opportunity to confront the mostly irrational fears many Americans have about Islam and Muslims, NPR perhaps inadvertently fueled that fear even more. While he could have been easily turned into an ally in the fight against prejudice in all its forms, Williams is now instead basking with a 2 million dollar contract with Fox news.

First of all, we have to acknowledge the existence of this visceral fear that many Americans have about Islam and Muslims after 9/11, while at
the same time insist that public discourse must remain rational and devoid of absurd statement like the ones Mr. Williams has made. Mr. Williams is entitled to his own emotional visceral response, but he could have found a more productive way of articulating that fear. As a Muslim myself, I’m not really sure what Williams means by “Muslim garb” especially, since none of the 9/11 terrorists was wearing anything remotely close to the stereotypical Islamic garb Mr. Williams had in mind. In fact, from what I clearly remember of the security feed, these terrorists looked completely western. Nothing about their clothes was Islamic. Moreover, I have not come across any criminologist or sociologist who has made a link between clothing and criminal behavior, not even among Goth teens and tattooed bikers. Mr. Williams’ bias against Arabs and Muslims is clearly irrational, making it, in the words of the conservative republican commentator, Andrew Sullivan, “anti-religious bigotry in its purest, clearest form.”

By pandering to O’Reilly, Mr. Williams has unfortunately contributed to the demonization of all Muslims, those who are for him total strangers—they do not look like us and, therefore, they terrify us just by their looks. What makes this dangerous and irresponsible on his part is that Muslims are the most maligned ethnic/religious groups in the US today, and that his comments, or most of the bigoted comments that are continuously streamed in the media and public culture, could not have been made about any other ethnic or religious group in the country. It would be instructive to examine the reaction of those who came to Williams’ defense with and against the firestorm of condemnation and protest following the bigoted comments recently made by other journalists such as Helen Thomas, Rick Sanchez, and Octavia Nasr. As salon.com columnist Glenn Greenwald states, “If we’re going to fire or otherwise punish people for expressing prohibited ideas against various groups, it’s long overdue that those standards be applied equally to anti-Muslim animus, now easily one of the most — if not the single most — pervasive, tolerated and dangerous forms of blatant bigotry in America.” It is not really difficult to understand the reason why Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Pam Geller, Karl Rove and Newt Gingrich, among others, stayed silent when Thomas, Sanchez, and Nasr, but not Williams, were forced to resign. Again, our culture today condones racist and insensitive comments about Muslims, but not about other groups. Muslims, it seems, have not been granted entry into the gates of PC culture.

Unlike other recent cases of conspicuous journalistic bigotry, Williams’ remarks subtly condoned and legitimized prejudice against Muslims. What he seems to say to O’Reilly, in fact, is that the latter is certainly justified in his view of all Muslims as potential terrorists. Having publicly expressed such bigotry, Williams has lost all the credibility, fairness and objectivity that are the foundations of his profession (but obviously in some news outlets like Fox news this does not matter). Should he have been forced to resign over one comment? He clearly violated his employer’s ethical code, but he should have been at least given a chance to explain himself. More importantly, NPR like all other power institutions in the country cannot just demand from American citizens to be sensitive to diversity without providing them with the necessary training and the tools to deal with such touchy topics with the sensitivity and cross-cultural competence needed. Such an educational effort requires the continuous planning, cooperation and investment of everyone not through one diversity training session or day, but throughout the year. As one educator said, “Diversity is everybody’s everyday work.”