21 October 2010

Admit Islamophobia and You're Fired

The conservatives are going to be right about this one, I think: in an excess of political correctness, National Public Radio has fired longtime correspondent Juan Williams for admitting to a degree of Islamophobia during an appearance on The O'Reilly Factor. Williams is a regular sort of house progressive for Fox News, and was debating O'Reilly about the Islamophobic comments the host himself had made as a guest on The View last week when he admitted that he felt uncomfortable riding in airplanes with Muslims. He then went on to transcend his emotions and criticize O'Reilly for generalizing about Muslims in more overtly offensive fashion -- the right-wing talker had said that he opposed the "Ground Zero mosque" project because "Muslims" had destroyed the World Trade Center, but apologized later on The View.

Based on the excerpts from the O'Reilly-Williams exchange published by MSNBC, Williams was clearly talking about his own feelings and not actually generalizing about Muslims in an accusatory fashion. But the Council on American-Islamic Relations missed the distinction and accused Williams of saying that all Muslims on airplanes were security risks. Meanwhile, MSNBC makes it sound like NPR was looking for an excuse for dumping Williams, having disliked the implication that he somehow represented the radio network on Fox News.

Predictably, some reactionaries, already resenting the network's "liberal bias," are using the Williams affair as an excuse to pressure Congress to withdraw funding from NPR. That's excessive, but this is clearly a case in which political correctness deserves criticism. Williams himself appears to have made the correct distinction between gut feelings and public policies that should not be determined by gut feelings, while CAIR appears to have taken the unrealistic position that no one should even admit to gut feelings in public. While the state should still presume individual Muslims innocent until they give material cause for suspicion, nothing short of thought-control can force all individuals to make the same presumption, and nothing short of censorship can compel them to keep their suspicions quiet.

If I may be allowed to generalize, too many Muslims are thin-skinned. I won't attempt to speculate on the reasons, though I will acknowledge some understandable anxiety about the possibility of hate crime, but Muslims often seem to be more intolerant of perceived insults than any other group of people on earth. Few people other than Muslims seem so ready to answer perceived insults -- even unintended ones -- with violence. In this country, some people would resent Muslims for their thin-skinnedness (i.e. "political correctness")alone, before you add history and current events to the equation. In the U.S., we may still dream of brotherhood as children, but most of us are reconciled to the fact that many of our fellow citizens will never like us, for political reasons if not for anything else. We are able to live together regardless of mutual dislike by refusing to resent the fact. Muslim Americans are understandably resentful of the suspicion aimed at a once-model minority only recently, but suspicion and dislike are not crimes. Muslims themselves should avoid generalizations: not everyone who looks crossly or worriedly at you is going to beat you up or burn your mosque. Not everyone who admits to nervousness in the presence of observant Muslims is their enemy. I have no way to know whether CAIR's complaints influenced NPR's decision to fire Williams. But if I were part of CAIR, I wouldn't care to claim credit for it. Today's news won't make any American respect Muslims any more than they did before; I hope it won't make them respect them any less.

To judge Williams for yourselves, take a look at the complete transcript on this site of his dialogue with O'Reilly.

No comments: