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“Prejudice squints when it looks and lies when it talks.”
– Duchess d’Abrantès
Prejudice is insidious.
It rears its head in the least expected situations and circumstances, bringing to the fore deeply-held sentiments of intolerance and ill-conceived prejudgment. When exposed, it is anything but subtle.
Generally defined as an “adverse opinion formed without just grounds or sufficient knowledge”, it manifests as an “irrational attitude of hostility directed against an individual, a group, a race, or their supposed characteristics” (Merriam-Webster Online).
Walking on the opposite side of the street when a group of African-American men walk down the other; the inner discomfort felt when parents learn their child has befriended one of the Jewish faith; the wary look at a Sikh’s beard and turban; the unease experienced when the cashier reverts to speaking in Spanish with other customers; the condescending glare shot the way of the rural, indigent Caucasian family; its expressions are many.
It is has found practice through law enforcement’s unofficial use of racial profiling, and in the sociopolitical mood of today’s United States, one group has been on its receiving end.
Last week, National Public Radio (NPR) severed the contract of its longtime news analyst Juan Williams after he appeared on Fox News Channel’s The O’Reilly Factor and said the following:
“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 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.”
In a statement, NPR said Williams’ remarks “ … were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR.”
Williams retorted that the real reason for his termination was because “I appear on Fox” and “I’m not a predictable, black liberal.”
I will leave it to journalism professors to discuss and debate the appropriate lines that ought to be drawn between reporter, analyst and commentator, or how NPR should have handled Williams’ discordant roles on its airwaves and Fox News’. Let us also set aside comparisons with the dismissals of Helen Thomas, Octavia Nasr, Rick Sanchez and the issue of Williams’ (uncontested) right to free speech.
Far more important than these matters are the essence of his comments, for they illustrate how commonplace bigoted, preconceived notions of Muslims have become. The instinctive suspicion Williams voiced about Muslims is undoubtedly immersed in stereotypes and caricature, conflating culture, nationality and religion.
What exactly is “Muslim garb”? Is there a unifying dress code of more than one billion Muslims of every race and ethnicity? Is it the hijab, or headscarf, worn by observant Muslim women, albeit in different forms, colors and styles depending on one’s country of origin? Is it the kufi cap worn by some, but certainly not most, Muslim men?
Williams likely has the image of a Saudi man dressed in his white thawb and shmagh head dress, or the Palestinian in a checkered kaffiyeh, or the Pakistani in the traditional shalwar khameez; all of which pertain to cultural, not religious, identity.
Is Williams’ fear of those identifying themselves “first and foremost” as people of faith meant to infer that the practice of religion somehow equates itself with disloyalty to the state? Or does this just apply to Muslims?
Salon.com columnist Glenn Greenwald eloquently explained why conservatives rushed to Williams’ defense:
“The principal reason the Williams firing resonated so much and provoked so much fury is that it threatens the preservation of one of the most important American mythologies: that Muslims are a serious threat to America and Americans … and it is this fear-sustaining, anti-Muslim slander that NPR’s firing of Williams threatened to delegitimize.”
Williams was betrayed by bigotry—not NPR, the “liberal” media or his role on Fox.
In the language of his new-found friends on the right: “man up” Juan Williams. Admit your prejudice and the hateful climate your remarks engender.
RANNIE AMIRI is an independent Middle East commentator.