October 21st, 2010
02:23 PM ET
Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.
By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN
I don’t know the heart of Juan Williams. Neither do I know whether NPR fired him because he said on the “The O’Reilly Factor” on Monday that seeing people on planes in traditional Muslim garb makes him nervous, or because of an accumulation of immoderate things he has said in the past on the Fox News Channel.
But NPR made a mistake either way. It was wrong to fire Williams for giving voice to fears that many other Americans, on both the left and the right, share.
Note what Williams was expressing. It was not a belief or even an opinion. He was not saying, as the Reverend Franklin Graham has said, that Islam is "a very evil and wicked religion." He was expressing a feeling, a fear.
“I get worried,” he said. “I get nervous.”
Williams also took pains to tell O’Reilly not to blame all Muslims for the actions of a few “extremists,” any more than he would blame all Christians for the actions of extremists like the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
Late last night NPR issued a statement justifying its decision to terminate Williams’ contract. “His remarks on The O’Reilly Factor this past Monday were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices," the statement said, "and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR.”
There are broader issues here about the crossover of people like Williams from delivering the news on one station to offering commentary on another. And any news outlet that attempts, as does NPR, to be unbiased is right to be concerned about public perceptions that its employees are shills for one political party or another.
In this case, however, NPR is undermining its own claims to be fair and balanced, prompting, for example, a statement by the former Arkansas governor (and Fox talk show host) Mike Huckabee, calling for federal funding cuts at NPR.
As I have said repeatedly, the United States desperately needs a public conversation about Islam that is informed and civil. In order to have that conversation, however, people of good will (and I include Williams in that category) need to feel free to express not only their beliefs and opinions but also their worries and fears.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.
About this blog
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.