October 21st, 2010
02:23 PM ET

My Take: NPR's firing of Williams imperils national conversation on Islam

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.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Islam

soundoff (92 Responses)
  1. Rob

    An old journalism professor once advised our class of aspiring journalists to "read the same story in five different publications and somewhere, between the five, will be the truth." It's sad that truth no longer has anything to do with reportage. Naively, I have always counted on NPR to be a little closer to the truth than my other listening choices. Today, all of that changed. If they are willing to compromise journalistic integrity, they should also be willing to operate without my support or the support of other taxpayers.

    October 21, 2010 at 5:52 pm |
  2. TRM90

    Juan Williams was the one liberal guy who could regularly treat those who disagree with him with respect, so that honest dialog can happen. NPR fired him because he did not toe their line of mocking conservatives rather than engaging in productive conversation. Did you hear the head of their network say that what Juan said was between "him and his psychiatrist"? She couldn't even say between him and God, so she had to make him sound crazy. Pathetic how threatened they are by class, civility and HONESTY! I will make it my mission to ensure that NPR does not get a red cent of my tax payer dollars. They do NOT deserve it, and represent the worst of what our society is becoming. Let some lobby group fund this type of crap.

    October 21, 2010 at 5:24 pm |
  3. Montana

    Good for NPR, Juan Williams slant belongs to "Fake News" with the rest of the failed political candidstes Palin, Huckabee, or should I say the 2012 GOP Presidential contenders. They are not racist they are just the good old boys. They are the bunch that keep saying that everyong should be scared of BLACKS, scared of ASIANS, sacred of LATINOS, scared of WOMEN, scared of the GAYS and now they are scared of Muslims. So long Johnny,don't let the door hit you. I love that you went crying to "Fake News" and played the victim card, I guess its another "it is a high-tech lynching".

    October 21, 2010 at 5:20 pm |
    • TRM90

      Once again... name calling is much more convenient than thinking!

      October 21, 2010 at 5:25 pm |
    • No Dhimmi

      Shut up!

      October 21, 2010 at 11:35 pm |
  4. Shazia

    Oh please. Do you know how many top media people got fired for making comments that could be construed as anti-Israel or anti-Jewish? THREE. Helen Thomas, Octavia Nasr, and Rick Sanchez. These are not small fish. Do you know how many people got fired for making anti-Muslim comments? NONE. This recent firing of Williams comes as a complete shock. He most likely did not get fired for making anti-Muslim comments, but for going on Fox and supporting O'Reilly. O'Reilly is a prime example of a bigot who spews freely against Muslims and minorities of all stripes with no repercussions. Kilmeade of Fox recently surmised, on air, that all terrorists are Muslim, with absolutely no regret. To conclude that this is stifling free speech and a "national conversation" is ridiculous. We're already having a "national conversation" on Islam, Prothero, and look where it's gotten us: stabbings, murders, robberies and hate crimes against American Muslims. How much more of a conversation do you want?!

    October 21, 2010 at 4:55 pm |
    • TRM90

      Did you actually see the entire interview??? Juan was making a powerful argument about how in spite of fear (raw emotion) people needed to be careful to not lump all Muslims together. That doesn't happen by tip-toeing and beating aroudn the bush. Minds are changed when people are honest and transparent. Juan was fired for not mocking and belittling the host, Bill O'Reilly and all conservative as much as anything else!

      October 21, 2010 at 5:28 pm |
  5. Rolv

    I will not listen to NPR until there is a (very small) government that makes sense. I.e never!

    October 21, 2010 at 4:28 pm |
    • RightRurnClyde

      I never listen to NPR .. it ought to be called PRAVDA ...

      October 21, 2010 at 7:25 pm |
  6. Reality

    Professor P noted: "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."

    Let the conversation begin with this: (for the eyes of new members)

    Mohammed was an illiterate, womanizing, lust and greed-driven, warmongering, hallucinating Arab, who also had embellishing/hallucinating/plagiarizing scribal biographers who not only added "angels" and flying chariots to the koran but also a militaristic agenda to support the plundering and looting of the lands of non-believers.

    This agenda continues as shown by the ma-ssacre in Mumbai, the as-sas-sinations of Bhutto and Theo Van Gogh, the conduct of the seven Muslim doctors in the UK, the 9/11 terrorists, the 24/7 Sunni suicide/roadside/market/mosque bombers, the 24/7 Shiite suicide/roadside/market/mosque bombers, the Islamic bombers of the trains in the UK and Spain, the Bali crazies, the Kenya crazies, the Pakistani “koranics”, the Palestine suicide bombers/rocketeers, the Lebanese nutcases, the Taliban nut jobs, the Ft. Hood follower of the koran, and the Filipino “koranics”. (and one wonders why we get nervous when a Muslim is on a plane?)

    And who funds this muck and stench of terror? The warmongering, Islamic, Shiite terror and torture theocracy of Iran aka the Third Axis of Evil and also the Sunni "Wannabees" of Saudi Arabia.

    Current crises:
    The Sunni-Shiite blood feud and the warmongering, womanizing (11 wives), hallucinating founder.

    And what instigated the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon? The koran, Mohammed's book of death for all infidels and Muslim domination of the world by any means. Muslims must clean up this book removing said passages admitting that they are based on the Gabriel myth and therefore obviously the hallucinations and/or lies of Mohammed. Then we can talk about the location and safety of mosques and what is taught therein. Until then, no Muslim can be trusted anytime or anywhere.

    October 21, 2010 at 4:02 pm |
    • No-To-Islam John

      REALITY tells it as it is! Muhammad was no prophet, he was a quick-tempered, murderous pervert. This so-called "holy man" admitted to Zaid, his adopted son, that he, Muhammad, lusted after Zaynab. Zaynab was Zaid's WIFE, a.k.a. the daughter-in-law of the so-called "prophet"! (Hello! Does this seem holy to you?) As a favor to dear old Dad, Zaid divorces Zaynab. Muhammad then marries Zaynab, accomplishing both adultery and incest in one fell swoop. Naturally, many grumbled at Muhammad's actions. Muhammad solves this by claiming a twofold "revelation" from his god, ("Allah"): 1). Muhammad's marriage to Zaynab was a "gift from Allah", and, 2). There is no such thing as adoption, says Allah, thus, Zaid wasn't really Muhammad's son, thus no incest. NOTE: Revelation 1). also sanctioned for Muhammad alone to have any woman he chose. Allah made it clear that this sanction was "specifically for The Prophet, but not for the rest of the believers." (Google Sura 33:50 in the Koran). If any so called "prophet" had told me of such a convenient "revelation", I'd have told him to go to Hell. What rubbish!
      Oh, yes: For an encore, that Imam of Incest, Muhammad, married a six-year-old girl when he was fifty-four. How charming, eh?

      October 23, 2010 at 8:52 pm |
  7. Zulfikar

    This in reference to Juan Williams controversy.

    Can you on your show tonight say that when I see a Black person I get scared they might mug me or do a double take.

    See how far you get with that comment.

    Why is Juan Williams comment any different the that.

    That's all I wanted to say.

    Thanks and regards,


    October 21, 2010 at 3:32 pm |
    • Someone

      If you were to place that one 'intimate and slightly ashamed confession' in context of your strong commitment against racism and bigotry (like Williams DID do in his extended comments), then... yes you SHOULD be allowed.

      Hint: In America, FREE SPEECH (or at least the Illusion of it) is Very Important if not our CORE issue.

      Context is very important, and your simplistic example neglects this. Nice try, though.

      October 21, 2010 at 3:43 pm |
    • knez011


      The next time black people fly four planes into buildings and kill thousands of people in the name of the race, you can pose that question. Just as I can say, being white, that I feel nervous around Timothy McVeigh wanna-be's. Will the Moslems EVER condemn 9/11 in force, instead of playing the victims' card, from Palestine to Iraq? Ever?

      October 21, 2010 at 3:55 pm |
    • Daniel

      I bet a Black (or sorry... African American) commentator could say that being around White cops makes him nervous and the only outrage would come from Conservative Whites. Then of course, you and the typical Liberal Media would just write off those Conservative Whites as Bigoted, Blind, Racist, Crazy, or insert whatever derogatory term you prefer to denigrate people of differing opinion. The fact is that in the past White cops have done things in certain communities to make some Black people feel nervous just as Muslims wearing full Muslim attire have attacked and killed Americans. Who are you to control what feelings or experiences someone has? Open discussion is the best way to get these thoughts and issues out in the public. Public discourse is never a bad thing. "The shall set us all free!!"

      October 24, 2010 at 12:41 pm |
  8. bruceben9

    alani is the most bigoted poster so far. how dare you decide for mr. williams what he is or is not. you should be fired.

    October 21, 2010 at 3:29 pm |
  9. Barrylm

    Agree with you–NPR showed its true colors by firing Juan Williams. I hope Fox picks up Mr. Williams–he adds a nice blend of moderate liberal to the mix.

    October 21, 2010 at 3:27 pm |
  10. knez011


    The "experiment" ended on 9/11 and we have seen no effort to rekindle it in earnest....

    October 21, 2010 at 3:17 pm |
  11. JohnQuest

    I have been a fan of NPR for most of my adulthood, I have sent a donation every year (when I have the money) not any more. I don't even agree with Mr. Williams point of view on most issues but he had the right to say it, that is the one thing that made NPR great, dissenting voices. It breaks my heart not to be able to listen to "This American Life' or "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me" or my favorite "All Things Considered", I can always use the time to read.

    October 21, 2010 at 3:16 pm |
  12. bruceben9

    i do not support mr. williams firing. i WAS a registered dem for 25yrs. the left has gone so far left they are about to meet the far right on the other side. i am sick of extremists running our country.

    October 21, 2010 at 3:15 pm |
    • RightRurnClyde

      I hope more and more Democrats wake up to your revelation before it is to late. This is not the U.S. of 1960 when Percy was a "moderate" and Adlai Stevenson III was kind of left. It is not the U.S. of the 1970's when Carter was way-left and President Ford was a moderate acceptable to Democrat and Republican. It is not the U.S. of the 90's under President Clinton and Tip O'Neill. It is the FAR LEFT and they are anti-U.S. .. refuse to salute her, refuse to help her, suing states for being states, forming extra-national alliance to sue Arizona, soft on Islam, tolerant of Islamic cells ... communists like Jane Fonda and Bill Ayers ... communizing the U.S. as fast as they can. Methodically

      October 21, 2010 at 7:31 pm |
  13. Muneef

    Such as these comments that tear any multicultural nations apart weakening their unity and specially on the Media generating, feeding hatred and fears among unity therefore it is wise to dismiss such people with hidden agendas from the Media Posts otherwise it would be the end of the multicultural experiment and unity would be divided as you can not just ship generations out to their original race country? Expect those half mix to suffer if no one of both sides would accept to take them??

    October 21, 2010 at 3:10 pm |
    • MicheleG

      a nearly unreadable and useless post....ever hear of the period...? Or grammar? Syntax?

      November 13, 2010 at 8:21 pm |
  14. YolkyPalky

    Seriously? A credible reporter who was written plenty on the Civil Rights movement, etc. gets fired for saying something so entirely benign as getting nervous when seeing overtly Muslim dressed passengers on an airplane? My God, "Political Correctness" has reached levels of insanity.

    God forbid we offend those who killed thousands of Americans on 9/11, bombed the USS Cole, Marine barracks in Beruit, tried to bomb the World Trade Center the first time, routinely stones women to death for alleged adultery (or lesser crimes), and scores of other unprovoked acts of terror.

    Juan was telling the truth and he gets fired for that? I also do a double-take if I see overtly dressed Muslims on my airplane, and why wouldn't I? Correct my if I am wrong, but isn't it 100% Muslims that took over airplanes with box cutters and purposely crashed them? Isn't it 100% Muslims that tried to light their shoes on fire that had been turned into bombs? Yes, this is why everyone must take off their shoes at airports now, thank you Muslims. The list goes on and on. How can it be a bigoted attack when 100% of the terrorist threats on civil airplanes have come from Muslims?

    Ellen Weiss of NPR, who the heck are you protecting here?

    October 21, 2010 at 3:10 pm |
    • RightRurnClyde

      Political correctness has ALWAYS been insane (because it has always been false) .. Democrats wake up! It's almost too late.

      October 21, 2010 at 7:33 pm |
    • No Dhimmi

      Isn't it obvious? CAIR – who apparently now owns the entire country – got to them and probably threatened to blow up their building.

      What else is new? Just another day to Islamist thugs.

      October 21, 2010 at 11:33 pm |
  15. jodraco

    HA HA HA!
    This big fat liberal got canned by his own fellow liberals. He strayed from the party line of brainwashing the gullible Sheeple.
    Walk around and be meek to the enemies that are out to destroy you. Smile and stand around and be stupid, while you get your throat cut by a Muslim aggressor.

    October 21, 2010 at 3:08 pm |
    • Alfred123

      Well put Mr. "Hitler."

      October 21, 2010 at 4:08 pm |
    • No Dhimmi

      Actually, Hitler was allies with the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and had many Muslims in his ranks. So, anyone trying to stop the anti-Semitism of Islam is actually the opposite of Hitler.

      October 21, 2010 at 11:32 pm |
    • Frankly Speaking..

      @ No Dhimmi

      get a job loser and in the meantime change your user name to "No Idea" or "No Job"

      January 12, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
  16. dave

    The recent firing of Juan Williams flies in the face of what NPR stands for. I do not agree with most things Mr. Williams says. In fact I don't even like what he says in many instances. But at least he has a strong conviction for his positions and I respect that. The fact that NPR receives money from the federal government and far left leaning (Soros) whack jobs and is under the PC dominion of CARE, makes his firing so much more egregious. As the only African American they have at NPR, and then putting out a statement about his Psychiatrist? Are those guys nuts? Really? they have painted themselves into a tiny corner of Americana that the mass, overwhelming majority of Americans can't relate to and disagree. The hypocrisy NPR is exhibiting will taint their selected “news” for years to come.

    October 21, 2010 at 3:05 pm |
  17. Jodi Giddings

    alani: NEWSFLASH: Juan is a liberal! BTW, NPR is tax-funded, so we have a great interest in what they do to tread on freedom of speech in this country. Answer this honestly: Do you think they'd have fired him if he'd said something like "Christians are evil"? The answer is a resounding NO.

    There is more to this story than NPR will have you believe:

    I just read the Wikipedia entry for NPR and I found this very curious entry;

    "George Soros grant

    In October 2010, NPR accepted a $1.8 million grant from George Soros, given through his Open Society Foundation. The grant is meant to begin a project called Impact of Government that is intended to add at least 100 journalists at NPR member radio stations in all 50 states over the next three years[22]"

    Soros is out to annihilate FOX News, Juan's other employer. Sound "unbiased" to you?

    October 21, 2010 at 3:05 pm |
  18. Rita

    Alani – I'm an American and I'm black. Many of my ancestors may have come from Africa, but I am not an African. Charlize Theron is more of an African American than Juan Williams and I.

    October 21, 2010 at 3:00 pm |
  19. Peace2All

    @Stephen Prothero

    Agreed.. and well said. While I typically like NPR, I do believe that they were out of line in the firing of Juan Williams.

    October 21, 2010 at 2:56 pm |
    • Raison


      Aha! Something on which we do not agree! (my grin cannot be properly expressed, I'm afraid)

      If he was speaking as a person, then he is free to say what he likes. If he is there representing a company as an employee, then his words should express the policies of the company and avoid any mention of his own, unless he was not actually representing NPR and just there as himself....

      Doing interviews without tripping over your own feet is difficult. If he can't speak intelligently about his fears and prejudices, then he needs a job where this is not going to be a problem.
      So there! 😛

      October 21, 2010 at 5:23 pm |
    • Sum Dude (aka Raison)

      name change!

      October 21, 2010 at 6:24 pm |
    • Peace2All

      @Sum Dude

      Well, we will just have to agree to disagree on this one.... eventhough you are in denial and 'wrong'.. You're still my friend. 🙂

      I read the whole post and "NPR's isssued statement and the article... and my post stands. Along with the majority of NPR people who are commenting on the NPR website... along with a lot of 'liberals' agree with me too.

      You 'fundies' are all alike... 🙂

      I asked you a question on one of the other articles.... Can't remember now which one it was... hopefully you can find it.. I want to hear your response.

      Peace bro...

      October 21, 2010 at 8:08 pm |
    • Peace2All

      @Sum Dude

      BTW-- A bit tired tonight, I just don't have the energy to get into your obviously, well-thought out point of disagreement with me.

      Since things can be often misinterpreted in writing, I just wanted to add this note, as I respect your thoughts.

      I am going to log off now... Maybe back on later or tomorrow..

      Take care bro...

      October 21, 2010 at 8:58 pm |
    • Sum Dude

      You are right, I did not read everything I could or should have....so I'll go with your assessment. You are usually right about a lot of things. I was going to skip over this one, as I like NPR and wondered why anyone would care, but you have caught me.
      I am guilty again. I do not usually play the provocateur.
      Peace and energy to you. Sounds like you need it. See ya later, dude. 🙂

      October 22, 2010 at 12:09 am |
  20. alani

    I support NPR firing Juan Williams. He is not unbiased and has gone out of his way to attack African Americans who he considers liberal. Although he is an African in America, he is not African American, and has no idea of our struggles. He should stick to commenting on his own experience as an immigrant into a country built on the Land of Natives and the labor of African Slaves. Good riddance to bad rubbish!

    October 21, 2010 at 2:38 pm |
    • therealhawkman

      "I support NPR firing Juan Williams. He is not unbiased and has gone out of his way to attack African Americans who he considers liberal. Although he is an African in America, he is not African American, and has no idea of our struggles. He should stick to commenting on his own experience as an immigrant into a country built on the Land of Natives and the labor of African Slaves. Good riddance to bad rubbish!"

      Are you serious? When is a conversation or discussion and attack on anyone? Part of the problem in this country right now is because there are so many politically correct that it is almost impossible to carry on a discussion of anything without being labeled a bigot, racist, or Islam hater, or (name your pet subject). Get over yourself. Oh, and African slaves weren't the only ones this country was built on. Try Chinese, Italians, Germans, Swedish, Armenians, and on and on. So, check your history and facts and please spare me the exhausted rhetoric of Native this or slaves that. At some point in history every race or ethnicity had been enslaved to some degree by another race. Have you been to the Sudan? I have. Wanna talk slavery? Still exists there. How about doing something about that. At some point in history all peoples or nations were taken over or displaced by outsiders. Lets go back say........8000 years and make it right for everyone.

      God help us. Your comment is sooooooo lame and stinks of rubbish (racism)!

      October 21, 2010 at 3:54 pm |
    • Exeter


      October 21, 2010 at 7:53 pm |
    • No Dhimmi

      Give me a break. So the poor black man needs to stick to subject he'd know all about, because of the color of his skin? Wow! What a racist.

      Islam is a foul ideology that destroys people's minds and souls, as we can see so abundantly from the posters who defend it.

      October 21, 2010 at 11:28 pm |
    • USPtrt

      Anyone can defend their side of the story, the best way to really know about Islam or anything you feel uncomfortable is to read about it rather than listening or reading someone else' strong feeling against that religion or way of life.

      Don't get your story from the media alone, read and don't just read from only those that have the same opinion as you but from the opposite view as well so that you can make a better decision of what to say and do about others and in life in general.

      If you keep hating everything, you never enjoy life. When you are unsure of something, ask those people, talk to them see what they have to say, after all, they are not going to bite you:)

      October 22, 2010 at 9:22 am |
    • Shaun

      “Out to lunch he gets nervous when he’s see Muslims because he bought in to the notion that if you look different than a white guy in a three piece suit than you must be a criminal trust me I don't think if a guy is going to blow up a plane he would be wearing a turban.”

      October 23, 2010 at 12:46 am |
    • P53

      I would like to say that if Juan had made that comment about j3ws(jews), then there would be not 1person against his firing. In fact, if you simply type j3w(jew) in the context of your sentence, it is flagged and censored by cnn, and other "news" org's. This is racist, and censorship, when you cannot make a comparrison, or give an opinion of a person of the jewish religion. Such hipocrisy, and ignorance in these news org's. or should I say regime's. You people talk about freedom of expression, and speech...please, Minister Louis Farrakan can't even speak on the "news" outlet's in this country, because of the racism of j3w's. Stop the hipocrisy cnn, fox, abc, msnbc, nbc, msn, cbs, and the rest of you.

      October 26, 2010 at 1:24 pm |
    • Brandy bucktook

      NPR confirmed exactly what he was fired for. And it was not for speaking out against African Americans. Clearly you did not read this article. It was specifically for what he said on O'rielly which was about his fears and worries of people dressed in Muslim attire on a plane. Are we not allowed to give opinions these days. How would you like to be fired for simply stating your opinion? Wouldn't that be descriminating? Surely someone who is descriminated against. Would not like to be descriminated against.

      November 16, 2010 at 5:24 am |
    • loudandproud

      Alani, you have no struggles get over it. Get out of this country Juan was expressing his 1st amendment rights its people like you that give this country a bad name.

      January 2, 2011 at 8:33 am |
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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.