Ever since I was a young reporter in Toledo, Ohio, where I covered a diverse and vibrant Muslim community—one of the largest and most established in the US—I have gone out of my way to try and challenge the constant stereotyping of Muslims in American media. These efforts even extended to appearing on the old Lou Dobbs show on CNN, where I frequently reminded Mr. Dobbs and his audience that coverage of Islam in general and American Muslims in particular failed to respect the commitment that Muslims have made to religious pluralism and respect for differing views.
So it does not surprise me that one of the first groups to object to the firing of Juan Williams by NPR is the Muslim Public Affairs Council. The council, which for two decades has been promoting political and civic participation by Muslim Americans, has a long history of objecting to the stereotyping of Muslims; and it has objected to offensive remarks regarding Muslim airline passengers that Williams made on FOX's "The O'Reilly Factor." But MPAC also has a long history of defending freedom of speech and other exercises of First Amendment rights; and it has done so again by calling NPR's firing of Williams a mistake.
"NPR's decision to fire Williams was a poor decision with poor timing," argues MPAC. "While Williams expressed his anxieties toward Muslim airline passengers, he then went on to stress that it is the responsibility of O'Reilly and other media commentators to be specific in identifying the threat as coming from extremists rather than any group as a whole and said America has 'an obligation to protect the constitutional rights of everyone in the country.'"Seizing on that theme, MPAC President Salam Al-Marayati says" "We need to use this moment as a catalyst to open a national debate about the grievous misconceptions, fear and suspicion about Islam and Muslims. This discussion needs to be elevated to ethical discourse beyond biases and prejudices."
MPAC sorts the whole controversy out with an analysis that notes: "Williams' description of Muslim passengers who 'identify themselves first and foremost as Muslims' making him nervous because of their 'garb' was not only wrong, but presents a false choice between being outwardly religious and being fully American. Such sentiments further contribute to the troubling current climate of xenophobia and Islamophobia. People can and should wear whatever they choose as a reflection of their American identity."
At the same time, the group points our that: "Bill O'Reilly's statements during the same interview were grossly offensive and bigoted, as he painted Muslims at large as a suspicious population because 'Muslims killed us on 9/11,' and said he would no longer qualify that he was referring to 'extremists.' O'Reilly is sanctioning blanket suspicion of all Muslims, which is bigoted and dangerous. Furthermore, the Fox News Corporation's decision today to hire Williams for a 3-year contract with a substantial pay increase is grossly opportunistic and offensive."
"In the past few months, a number of high profile commentators and journalists—including Rick Sanchez, Dr. Laura Schlessinger, and Helen Thomas—have been fired or quit due to offensive comments they made," argues MPAC. "These incidents have made it clear that more discussions need to take place addressing race, religion and American identity in the face of xenophobia and fear."
It strikes me that MPAC is taking pushing this discussion in the proper direction.
The bumbling removal of Williams by NPR and FOX's opportunistic hiring of the commentator moves everyone to their respective corners without doing much to foster serious dialogue or open and honest debate.
MPAC, to my mind, serves as a voice of reason when it speaks a truth that should be self evident: "more discussions need to take place addressing race, religion and American identity in the face of xenophobia and fear."