Was National Public Radio correct to fire Juan Williams, their National News Analyst, for saying, “…when I get on a plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they’re identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous"? The answer is a simple one: you betcha. This is, as The Atlantic‘s Andrew Sullivan wrote, "anti-religious bigotry in its purest, clearest form." How could NPR employ an ostensibly unbiased “national news analyst” who admits an irrational bias against Arabs and Muslims? What would our reaction be had he voiced similar sentiments toward any other religion or ethnicity? As Salon.com columnist Glenn Greenwald made plain, “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’s no coincidence that Williams happened to express these views on Fox News. In the Obama era, the cable network has chosen to become a fully functioning engine of racism, operating what can be described as a fifty-state Southern strategy, playing to white anxieties about an increasingly multicultural America. Sure enough, Fox gave Juan Williams, the day after his firing, a $2 million contract. Islamophobia pays, especially when voiced by an African-American who touts his own liberal credentials. (As Fox Anchor Brit Hume said affectionately of Juan Williams on Sunday, he’s a "Bill Cosby Liberal." Nope, no racism at Fox.)
In addition to being very well compensated, Williams has received full-throated support from the usual suspects of intolerance. Figures of the right like Fox News employees Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee and Karl Rove, along with the utterly repellent professional Islamophobe Pam Gellar, have rushed to Williams’s defense on First Amendment grounds. These figures, to put it mildly, lack a degree of credibility on any issue pertaining to “free speech.” They all celebrated the firing of CNN correspondent Octavia Nasr for tweeting sympathies after the death of Lebanon’s Ayatollah Mohammad Hussain Fadlallah, a cleric who became the spiritual leader of the Lebanese resistance after the 1982 Israeli invasion. They laughed it up when their press-pool nemesis Helen Thomas was forced to retire in disgrace after saying that Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine.” But when Dr. Laura Schlessinger was pushed out after using the n-word repeatedly on the air, Palin rushed to her defense; and now as Juan Williams is punished for expressing his Islamic paranoia, Fox & Friends reveal the only kind of speech they fight to defend.
The usual suspects of intolerance don’t defend Islamophobia because they’re bigots, although that certainly helps. There is a wing of the political establishment with a pressing stake in anti-Muslim paranoia this election season. Candidates around the country like Nevada senatorial candidate Sharron Angle are running for office on idiotic planks of fending off creeping “Sharia law” in the United States and stopping a “Ground Zero mosque” in New York City that is neither a mosque nor at “Ground Zero.” While Fox News has of course been the engine of breathless coverage against Muslim Americans, this has not just been the province of the right. Both Democratic Senatorial Majority Leader Harry Reid and liberal favorite Howard Dean have luridly railed against the “Ground Zero mosque.” As for President Obama, we are still trying to decipher his position.