Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Tag: Muslims (page 1 of 3)

Did firing Juan Williams shut down a conversation about Muslims in America?

I don’t believe I live in a country where Muslims are seen as ordinary human beings.  It’s nearly impossible for the media to have a serious discussion of Islam in America; when they try, they’re seen as “sympathizers.”  Journalists with bigoted views toward Muslims are allowed to say whatever they want with impunity; just look at Bill O’Reilly, Marty Peretz, the cast of Fox News.  And it’s only gotten worse since this summer, when the media machine lost its mind and decided that Pamela Geller was a reliable source, thereby catapulting the otherwise fairly-unknown “issue” of Park51 into the mainstream.

That’s why I was fairly surprised when, last night, NPR fired commentator Juan Williams, for bigoted anti-Muslim remarks made during an appearance on Fox News.  Before delving into a discussion of whether or not NPR’s decision was justified, let’s examine what Williams said:

I mean, look, Bill, I’m not a bigot.  You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country. But 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 are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.

The first question is whether or not Williams’s comments were bigoted.  I would argue that yes, they were.  Surprisingly, I agree with Andrew Sullivan’s assessment:

What percentage of traditionally garbed Muslims — I assume wearing a covered veil or some other indicator and being of darker skin — have committed acts of terror? . . . The literal defense of anti-Muslim bigotry on Fox is becoming endemic. It’s disgusting.

What Williams has done is equate religiosity with terrorism which, as Sullivan describes, is the very definition of bigotry.  As Glenn Greenwald points out, Williams’s comments were “suffused with falsehoods, not facts.”  Every single Muslim who has thus far committed an act of terror on an airplane was wearing Western clothing, not “Muslim garb.”  And wearing traditional clothing does not necessarily imply putting one’s religion before other identifiers – hijab, for example, is (though there’s certainly plenty of debate around this point) prescribed by Islam, therefore, it seeks to reason that anyone wearing it is simply fulfilling their religious duty.  A Muslim woman wearing hijab is just as normal as a Jew refusing pork: a part of the religion, not the be-all, end-all.  Not the foremost identifier.

To those defending Williams’s comments, I also wonder where they draw the line.  One person argued to me that this was “different from racism,” because “Muslims choose their religion.”  I would beg to differ; the racialization of Muslims is an important concept to understand.  It’s why Arab Christians and Sikhs suffer the same treatment in airports as Muslims.  You can’t simply justify that by calling it “fear.”

I also have to wonder what would have been the reaction if a commentator had said they fear for their children in the presence of priests, or that they move to the other side of the street when they encounter a black man.

But in the end, was NPR still right to fire Williams, based on that single incident?  Greenwald hits the nail on the head:

I’m not someone who believes that journalists should lose their jobs over controversial remarks, especially isolated, one-time comments.  But if that’s going to be the prevailing standard, then I want to see it applied equally.

Over the course of the past year, we’ve witnessed the firings of Helen Thomas, Octavia Nasr, and Shirley Sherrod, all of whom were fired for sharing their personal beliefs, however controversial.  More recently, Rick Sanchez was fired from CNN for “criticizing his employer,” because of a suggestion that CNN was run by Jews (oddly enough, NPR called it a result of bullying).

The firing of Juan Williams is, in the broader context, justified.  Fundamentally, however, should any of these people been fired?  A few people, such as journalism professor Jeff Jarvis, have suggested that it would be better to talk it out:

Jarvis unfortunately wouldn’t answer my question as to whether or not he held the same opinion in respect to Thomas, Nasr, or Sanchez.

I think that’s a question worth asking: Would it have been better to have an honest discussion of the origins of Israel than firing the White House’s oldest correspondent?  Would it have been better to talk about why some people have respect for Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah?  Would it have been better to have a real conversation about whether or not Jews today are a persecuted minority?

Frankly, I would answer yes to every one of these questions.  Fundamentally, I don’t believe that firing Thomas, Nasr, or Sanchez was the right move (nor Sherrod, of course, but let’s stick to journalists for the purpose of this discussion).  It most certainly would have been better to hold honest discussions on tricky subjects, but every time, for fear of offense, there has been refusal to do so.

At the same time, I don’t believe for a second that we can have a productive conversation about the American fear of Muslims in this country, let alone one lead by anyone at Fox News.  Judging by Williams’s comments, I don’t believe he’s ever spent much time with Muslims, and I’m positive that O’Reilly hasn’t.  Even the more sensible of American television commentators, Christiane Amanpour and Diane Sawyer, have been criticized heavily for their recent framing of discussions about Islam in America from both sides of the line.  Many people saw Amanpour’s framing of the question (“should Americans fear Islam?”) as feeding into the hands of the Right, while those on the Right saw her handling of the debate as biased in favor of Muslims.

So where do we go from here?  How can we have a reasonable discussion about Islam and Muslims in America when so many Americans are unwilling to admit that Islamophobia is not so different from racism? More importantly, how can we foster better understanding when so many Americans are unwilling to open their minds?

Maine newspaper apologizes for acknowledging Muslims are human

from Jillian C. York
to rconnor@pressherald.com
date Tue, Sep 14, 2010 at 3:27 PM
subject Shame on you for issuing an apology!

Dear Mr. Connor:

As a researcher of the media and its interplay with the Internet, I am ashamed of your paper’s actions in regard to the apology you issued after complaints arose from a photograph you published that showed Muslims peacefully praying.

The way I see it is this: Your paper did the right thing by marking the end of Ramadan for your local Muslim community. Kudos to that, but that’s where my praise ends. What follows is this: You got some letters from bigoted “real Americans” who took offense at the very existence of Muslims in your community, and rather than defend those Muslims–who are both American and a very real part of your community–you took a different route, apologizing for treating them as equal human beings.

Mr. Connor, it seems that you–like many Americans who claim to be well-meaning–have fallen prey to the latest, rather insipid form of racism (yes, I know Muslims aren’t a race, but that doesn’t matter) penetrating this country. By apologizing to your mostly white constituency, you are essentially stating that your version of “American” is in fact more American than your Muslim citizens.

Shame on you and the Portland Press Herald.

Most Sincerely,

Jillian C. York

Is This America?

Yesterday, referring to the hate speech run amok against Muslims in this country, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof asked the question, “Is this America?”  Citing the recent words of bigot de l’année Marty Peretz of The New Republic, Kristof wonders aloud where all of the lessons learned in the past say, sixty years, have gone.

I’ve certainly done enough railing against my fellow–yes, white–Americans for what appears to be a resurgence in say-it-loud-and-clear racism, this time toward Muslims (and don’t give me that “Muslims aren’t a race” crap).  But at a point, it feels disingenuous to do only that.  I’m American, I live in the U.S. currently.  I spend my time around other Americans, none of whom have said a single harsh word against Muslims (or Park51), and most of whom have outright supported them.  I also don’t blame my friends in other countries for feeling anger toward my country right now; it’s all too easy to find examples of how things have gone wrong.

But one of the first lessons I learned living abroad was that anger toward one’s country or government does not necessarily–or even usually–imply anger toward one’s people.  And though there are individuals I wouldn’t blame a soul for feeling anger toward (Pamela Geller, Pastor Terry Jones…), I think most people are capable of seeing the good as well.

Kristof, in his column, points to Rachel Barenblat, the Velveteen Rabbi, as an example: Angered by the New York man who entered a mosque and urinated on its prayer rugs, Barenblat took to her blog to raise funds to send to the mosque.  The final check was for $1,100.

And what about the New Yorkers who rallied to raise $30,000 to support Ahmed Sharif, the cab driver stabbed in his own taxi last month?

And then there are the tweets: counterwording, an ingenious Twitter bot set up by some good friends of mine, has been tweeting to anyone that mentions “Ground Zero” and “mosque” in the same sentence.  Though many of the responses to the bot have played along the lines of conspiracy theory and bigotry (“I’m well aware it’s a Muslim cultural center & will recruit Muslims in the shadow of Ground Zero” – aurich109), there have been lots of pleasant surprises as well from Americans ready to defend the rights of their fellow Americans.  The following are some of the positive responses to the question “Did you know that Park51 is not a mosque and is not at Ground Zero?”

  • “yeah, i know its actuaLLy a community center 4 bLocks away. wouLdnt bother me if it was onLy a mosque on Ground Zero”
  • “It’s a mosque AND an Islamic cultural-outreach center, to my knowledge. And antis to it are mostly racists from outside NYC.”
  • “Yes I do know & I support them building it, they own the property and they should be able to do as they please.”
  • “Yes. That’s why I put Ground Zero in speech marks, to denote it is a baseless opinion. I support the community centre.”

And the list goes on. Of course these outpourings of support are all isolated examples, but in my experience, so are the outpourings of bigotry, at least where I’m from.

And in New York, where I’m not from but which I know to be one of this country’s most tolerant, most diverse places, an Egyptian New Yorker has been standing outside of Park51 for a couple of weeks, and tells us that most of her companions in solidarity are not Muslim.  They’re just New Yorkers, standing up for what they believe in as New Yorkers are wont to do.

No matter how convinced I remain that I don’t like the direction this country is headed in, politically, militarily and otherwise, I remain convinced also that there are loads of amazing people out there who agree with that point, and who are out there fighting as best they can, or standing up for their fellow countrymen and women, or helping someone in need.

And just as there is bad everywhere, so is there good.

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