Juan Williams vs. NPR
In a recent Daily Show segment on the Williams firing, correspondents Wyatt Cenac and Aasif Mandvi bantered about the transition of racial prejudices from African Americans onto Muslims living in the United States in the years following 9/11. Mandvi jokes about the ease with which he can get reactions from passengers merely by shifting his eyes a certain way or counting the steps to the plane’s bathroom. Stewart points out the potential error in assuming that all people have prejudices against Muslim. Mandvi’s response–If white people can assume that all people who worship a certain god are violent extremists, why can’t I assume all white people are intolerant bigots?–epitomizes the racial divisions at the heart of the Williams controversy.
On Monday, October 25th, Williams appeared as a guest on Fox News’ “The O’Reilly Factor.” Responding to a question about where the United States is facing a dilemma regarding its Muslim population, Williams responded “when I get on the plane […] 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.” Two days later, NPR issued a statement announcing that they were severing his contract, as his remarks on O’Reilly’s program were “inconsistent with our [NPR’s] editorial standards and practices.” Fox News quickly capitalized on Williams’ new free agency, signing him to a three year, $2 million contract.
Williams’ remarks are not the words of an inveterate racist, nor do they reflect an irrational bias against people of a certain race or creed. By expressing his concern upon seeing people who openly identify themselves as Muslim boarding the same plane as he is, Williams is undoubtedly echoing a fear that a large proportion of the American population harbor to some extent, due primarily to the events of September 11, 2001 and subsequent depictions of Muslim extremists in media and entertainment. Understandably, this presents problems for the Muslim population in the United States who have as little to do with terrorists as you or me. By endorsing the viewpoint that merely identifying yourself as a Muslim is cause to be viewed with suspicion, Williams is exacerbating the racial divisions that unfairly cast all Muslim Americans in the same light as an extremist sect.
As long as we equate Muslim traditions and symbols with religious extremism, no matter how subtle and unconscious the connection, this prejudice will have an adverse effect on race relations with people who identify themselves as Muslims. To suggest, as some have, that Muslims have an obligation to actively denounce the crimes perpetrated in the name of their faith is insulting and senseless, as absurd as asking a Christian to apologize for the Inquisition, or a German to speak out against the Nazi genocides. Asking that they actively denounce the extremist acts not only unjustly implicates them in the deeds, it engenders a culture in which, as a Muslim, you are guilty until proven innocent, which can only perpetrate the hateful bias they endure day in and day out.
Karl Wallulis is a guest blogger forGuide to Online Schools.