Juan Williams, Islamophobia, and Journalistic Fairness

Jamil Khader
October 26, 2010

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… [continue reading]

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.”

“A Week of Dialogue” At Mosques, Inviting Non-Muslims Inside to Ease Hostility Toward Islam

This week, hundreds of mosques and Islamic organizations across the country have been encouraging their members to invite non-Muslims to attend prayers, discussions and tours of Islamic centers as a way to defuse hostility toward the Muslim population. “A Week of Dialogue,” materialized from a summit of Islamic leaders last month in New York and was, in part, a response to the furor surrounding a plan to open a Muslim community center and mosque near ground zero.

A New York Times poll in August found that 75 percent of New Yorkers had never visited a mosque, and that those who had, or who had a close Muslim friend, were more likely to support the Muslim center planned in Lower Manhattan. “In terms of rectifying this Islamophobia and bigotry, we should focus on our relationship with our neighbors,” said Zaheer Uddin, executive director of the Islamic Leadership Council of Metropolitan New York, an umbrella group of mosques and Islamic groups in the city.

Juan Williams gave voice to such concerns this week when he said on the Fox News Channel, where he is a political analyst, that he got “nervous” when he saw people in “Muslim garb” on an airplane. National Public Radio, where Mr. Williams had also worked, terminated his contract on Wednesday; Fox gave him a new contract on Thursday. The organizers of the weeklong dialogue said the open houses were intended to help dispel just the sort of concerns that Mr. Williams expressed.

Fired by NPR, Juan Williams Begins Bigger Role at Fox, Keeps up Criticism of Ex-employer

Juan Williams was fired Wednesday over comments he made on “The O’Reilly Factor.” “When I get on a plane,” he said, “I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.” After his remarks, Fox announced it had re-signed Williams, who has been with the network since 1997, to a multi year deal that will give him an expanded role–while, NPR terminated his contract.

In an interview on Friday, Vivian Schiller, NPR’s chief executive, defended the decision to dismiss Mr. Williams and said it was not the product of political or financial pressures. “And that is the sole reason,” she added. “This is not a First Amendment issue.” The public radio organization has come under severe criticism — largely from people who are not listeners, it believes — for having fired Mr. Williams. Some have said his comment was bigoted, but others have rallied to Mr. Williams’s defense, and many conservatives have seized on his firing to resurrect their war against public broadcasting.

NPR radio stations are independently owned and operated and, like the nation’s public TV stations, receive government funding through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which got about $420 million this year from Washington. As for NPR’s headquarters operation, federal grants account for less than 2 percent — or $3.3 million — of its $166 million annual budget. It is funded primarily by its affiliates, corporate sponsors and major donors.