By popular demand (okay, only one person asked, but I gotta start somewhere), here's my take on the Juan Williams situation of a few weeks ago. Williams, longtime NPR analyst, admitted to Bill O'Reilly that he gets nervous when he boards a plane with people in Muslim dress. Here's the quote, if you haven't heard it already: "But when I get on the plane, 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."
When I first heard of the exchange, I thought that maybe Williams' words were taken out of context, as was the case in the Shirley Sherrod incident. Perhaps Williams was admitting to these feelings in a moment of self-reflection, recognizing that he, like many of us, slips into prejudiced and stereotypical thinking, but actively resists this kind of narrow-mindedness. After reading the entire transcript, though, I think it's much more complicated than that. Williams' implication that people who identify themselves as Muslims through their dress are immediately suspect is troubling, of course, because it implies that if people don't want to be seen as terrorists they shouldn't dress like terrorists, and makes no attempt to separate radical Islamic terrorists from the general Muslim population. These words, taken alone, seem to support the notion that all Muslims are terrorists. (His statement actually reminded me of a comment someone made recently about a man we passed on the street who was wearing a turban. "That makes me nervous," the person said.) So, based on this one quote, it did appear that Williams was agreeing with O'Reilly's incendiary assertion that "Muslims killed us" on 9/11.
However, if you read the entire transcript*, you will find that Williams does recognize the danger and unfairness of stereotypes, and speaks against this kind of thinking several times during the exchange. For example, he says, "Wait a second though, wait, hold on, because if you said Timothy McVeigh, the Atlanta bomber, these people who are protesting against homosexuality at military funerals, very obnoxious, you don’t say first and foremost, we got a problem with Christians. That’s crazy."
So, are Williams' words troubling? Yes, in a way. If people in Muslim clothing make us "nervous," we need to think more deeply about these feelings. But were these words taken out of context? Yes, I think so, especially when you consider how hard it is to get a word in edgewise in a venue like The O'Reilly Factor. Should he have been fired? I'll leave that to the folks who know much more about news media employee policy than I do. But it sure feels a lot like censorship to me.
*You can read the transcript here: