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. P53

    Juan Williams is only concerned about racism, or discrimination, when he feels he is the victim. Not once have i heard him go on air in defense of the many "black" farmers, and lady farmers, that were discriminated against because of gender, and race. NOT ONCE! Fox, and CNN has swept this entire subject under the rug. Obama has also failed to advocate, and spearhead "hope" for these farmer's, and "change" in the way they have been cheated, and disrespected as American Citizens.

    October 26, 2010 at 1:48 pm |
  2. P53

    Juan Williams, and Clarence Thomas are the two biggest example's of uncle tom behaviour, that causes the weak, and spineless among the African American race to bow down, and bend over for racists in America. You know.. the saying goes: "clean up around your own house, before trying to clean up around someone else's." I am African American (N3groid i prefer, but this will get censored if i use it), and I see so much in-fighting amongst "black leaders", and reverse discrimination from people like Juan, and Clarence, it makes one sick and tired! Lets tune these hipocrites, black, caucasian, news outlets, etc.. out! Lets concentrate on making n3groid people, that are honest, good, and smart, relevant again. Vote out the uncle tom, and elitest types.. Then usher in leaders, that we all can be represented by, in a good, and honest fashion. Its that simple.. This is what we owe to ourselves.

    October 26, 2010 at 1:43 pm |
  3. P53

    Bet Juan wont do a story on the kkk, and nazi groups in America, for REAL FEAR of the repercussion's.. Juans' real fear is that caucasian people wont accept him in their folds' unless he is their uncle tom, fear-mongering, token.

    October 26, 2010 at 1:28 pm |
  4. sally

    Rick Sanches got fired over his comments. Helen Thomas had an "early retirement" because of hers. How is this case different? CNN did the same as NPR did, but, somehow, nobody criticized their actions

    October 23, 2010 at 7:57 pm |
  5. Iqbal khan

    You are responsible for all your WRONG actions

    Cost of War in Iraq & Afghanistan

    October 23, 2010 at 5:31 pm |
    • ChipH

      We are paying our Shah of Afghanistan $5B a year stolen from 'humanitarian aid' funds, in broad daylight, and Clinton and
      Kerry are frantically shuffling $4B a year to our new Shah of Pakistan, while at the same time, Hillary's -$35 million broke
      presidential campaign fund now reports she is out of debt! How did Hillary 'take down' $35 million while on the job in only
      19 months, legally? Is that the reason behind her and Kerry's multiple trips to enrich our Shah's of Afghanistan and Pakistan?
      And Defense just got away with a +$95 BILLION bump for 2011, a +14% RAISE, while 1,000,000 Americans are homeless!
      Happy Halloween, you are on the hook for $16,000,000,000,000, and Republicans plan to enact ZERO TAXES for the rich!

      October 29, 2010 at 11:33 pm |
  6. Rue Morgue

    Let's compare the founders of the several major religions: Jesus, Confucius, Buddha, and ... Mohammed. Ummm, see a slight difference in their approach? If not, read your history.

    October 22, 2010 at 8:35 pm |
  7. Mark from Middle River

    I listen to NPR often. Makes a balance to rush limbaugh and at night they broadcast the BBC. Did anyone notice that they waited until after their fall membership drive to fire mr Williams ?

    My thoughts are that they fired mr Williams because he was ... And hear me out.... Because he was black . And being what they felt was an enlightened African American he should be absent those thoughts and fears. It is like if we African Americans stray anywhere outside of a monolithic single thought or view then we are uncle toms or traitors to our race.

    All mr Williams was expected to do is articulate preordained African American views. Then go home and play madden or watch sports center.

    October 22, 2010 at 6:57 pm |
    • ChipH

      Baloney! A TV 'journalist' is charged with accurately reporting the news without bias. He is a millionaire many times over, and
      he knows which side his bread is buttered on. As a public figure, he does NOT have the right to appear on Mr. Potato Head's
      show and terrorize the listening audience by reading his Rovian lines on a teleprompter, now that DHS funding is up for next
      reauthorization, and Defense got away with a +$95 BILLION RAISE for 2011, a +14% RAISE, while Americans are homeless!

      October 29, 2010 at 11:28 pm |
  8. frederick lee

    Amazingly I agree with you on ths. But do you also postulate the firing of senior White House correspondent Helen Thomas for antisemitic remarks imperils the US standing on the Israel – Arab peace process?

    October 22, 2010 at 2:15 pm |
    • Iqbal khan

      That was done because.. you know WHAT?

      October 23, 2010 at 5:34 pm |
  9. Tippy

    I agree with the sentiment that he was expressing himself – however imagine if in the workplace high profile individuals just starting expressing themselves about different races and religions. When you choose to be a news analyst or journalist you know the risks of doing so – look at Rick Sanchez and countless others that got fired for "expressing" themselves.
    Unfortunately, the media in the US has been taking sides, because as a country we have created the atmosphere of "if you are not with me then you are against me" and it has become big business and a platform for people to get noticed for selfish reasons.
    The individuals reporting news are not giving any face time with Muslims, however, they continue to gather those with like opinions around themselves inorder to continue to strike fear in the hearts of Americans. What's next Muslim sections on airplanes? Muslim water fountains? Muslim bathrooms?
    I think (I hope) NPR, CNN and all of the other news outlets make their decisions based on the level of integrity they expect, Lord knows we do not get that from our politicians anymore.

    October 22, 2010 at 1:19 pm |
  10. Rick McDaniel

    No, it simply shows that "political correctness" has exceeded its value.

    Time to cast that concept aside, and say our minds, whether others like it, or not.

    October 22, 2010 at 9:02 am |
  11. poda metha

    NPR news carry the maximum pro-islamic news than any other western news channels.Is NPR the official spokesperson for CAIR? IS IT FUNDED BY THE SAUDI WAHABBI'S

    October 22, 2010 at 7:53 am |
    • USPtrt

      NPR is funded mostly by public listeners and not Saudis, most of their sponsors that connected with religion and mention as the sponsors are the American Jews Foundation that is mention on the radio.

      Regardless, stop the lies and stop diverting attention from what the real issues are such trying to find out why America is spending billions in the middle east?

      October 22, 2010 at 9:35 am |
  12. Russ

    What, exactly, is "full Muslim garb"? Whatever it is, the terrorists who hijacked planes on 9/11 weren't wearing it.

    If someone saw young male relatives of Juan Williams walking down the street and felt afraid to be around young black men, is it bigotry? or merely a "feeling"?

    October 22, 2010 at 5:53 am |
    • Common Misconception

      First, this debate opened up a huge double standard, and we’ve seen other people fired for similar racial comments. If this issue was about someone talking about being nervous around another race in a different situation, the outcome would have been the same. Just because it's 'acceptable' now to be bigoted against Muslims does not make this comment any more acceptable.

      And second, it’s just stupid to be afraid of someone in a traditional Persian or Arabic garb. The person blowing up the plane isn’t going to make themselves that obvious, none of the 9/11 hijackers did.

      October 22, 2010 at 8:39 am |
  13. jane

    I am not a fan of FOX but I am disturbed by a few things about a certain NPR contributor that has gotten a free pass for years now. NPR fired Juan Williams for saying (in so many words) he (correctly) feels Muslims are more likely to attempt aviation terrorism than non-Muslims. Yet Tavis Smiley, another NPR contributor, promotes hate speech by giving a platform to Louis Farrakhan, head of the black hate group Nation of Islam. He invites Farrakhan to his "State of the Black Union" and neither he nor his fellow panelists are taken to task for it. Why not? NPR would fire a white commentator who promoted the views of the KKK or invited to be a panelist the head of Aryan Nation, labelled him a "great scholar", and treated him as someone full of wisdom and deserving of respect. Nation of Islam is responsible for more murder in the last 10 years than Aryan Nation and the KKK combined. They scapegoat Jews like the KKK once did blacks. Tavis openly promotes and praises this guy, then turns around and labels other people and groups "racist"? And where is the outcry among "anti-racists"? Why has NPR remained silent on this? Smiley has also made several comments about Jews that would be considered unacceptable if said about blacks. He has also used his job at NPR to spread hype about Tea Party racism. I am not a Tea Party fan, but there is no doubt that Nation of Islam is a far more extreame and hateful group. The irony that he promotes the hate group Nation of Islam yet calls the Tea Party racist on the air and states rumors about racist incidents as though they were proven fact in troubling.They have no business firing Williams while giving Smiley a free pass.

    October 21, 2010 at 8:43 pm |
  14. Doc

    I feel the same way as Williams. Why are these people dressing like they live in the desert from whence they came? If they want to live in the West, why don't they dress like Westerners?

    October 21, 2010 at 8:35 pm |
  15. Iqbal khan

    The problem in the media in general is that all those who are supposed to be just giving the news have started giving the opinions of their "Masters" and owners of the organizations or the special "interest groups" and some who have become a little famous like Rush, Bill O'Riley,Glen Beck,Shawn hannity and others by clowning with the news with their own spin rehtorics are getting so much out of control that they don't care what their words can do to the unity of this country, all they care is getting a big spotlight and feeling good by spreading their venum

    October 21, 2010 at 8:16 pm |
  16. LogicalUS

    Juan Willams was not fired for saying his simple remarks on Muslims but because of the far-left loons at NPR and their jihad against FOX News. They are simply acting as the toadies for the POS Barack Obama and his handler, George Soros, who has tried to wage war on FOX News for nearly two years.

    So the far-left thugs at NPR who would NEVER, EVER consider putting on conservative viewpoints or analysts fired Juan Williams because he was invited on the "biased" FOX to give a liberal view of daily issues?

    It is well past time that American begin throwing this trash out. CNN was all up in attack mode this week trying to get gotcha on Republicans about spending cuts, well, we can instantly save 360 million a year by closing these far-left thugs off from public funding. Let them get their money from their beloved Nazi, George Soros.

    October 21, 2010 at 8:09 pm |
  17. Keith

    "The highest court in the United Arab Emirates ruled that a man is allowed to beat his wife and children as long as he does not leave bruises or other marks", The National reported Monday. I'm curious, did cnn cover this story in the belief blog? Isn't the 'religion of peace' wonderful? Where do I sign up? Bring on the Sharia Law. This warped religion needs cnn to come running to its defense every chance they get.

    October 21, 2010 at 7:53 pm |
    • Peace2All


      FYI- Yes... It was on the CNN Belief Blog just a few days ago,

      October 22, 2010 at 6:08 am |
  18. InfidelHere

    Meanwhile...muslim jihadists are probably laughing their butts off at our ridiculously PC culture run a muck.

    Face it...even a progressive like Juan Williams knows deep down inside that islam means "peace" IF...big "IF" here...when one "submits and surrenders" to their (sharia) way of life and their moon-god-allah.

    If you don't submit to their crap...well then...THERE IS NO PEACE!!

    Never has, is, nor will be with this idealogy that is responsible for 99.99% of all terrorist attacks made in the name of their screwed up religion!

    October 21, 2010 at 7:25 pm |
  19. RightRurnClyde

    The fired him because the felt like it. All of these five reporters were fired because their publisher didn't like what they said. They allow others to say outrageous things because they agree with them and they fire anyone who has conservative views. MOST OF US do not want a mosque at ground zero (and other incursions) but the national media does not care. They have their own agenda and it is not fair and HONEST reporting ..

    October 21, 2010 at 7:23 pm |
  20. HotAirAce

    I think that NPR over-reacted. But I also think this is an example of how much power religion does have in the USA. It seems that if anyone says anything critical of a mainstream religion, they're in danger of being labelled a bigot. Yes, I just opened the door to all the other religions to claim that they are attacked every day and nothing is done...

    Of course, as an atheist, I think anyone shining a light on the whole religious scam should be given a reward, but that's a whole other conversation...

    My hope, with all the chatter about pulling government financial support or their not-for-profit tax-free status, is that the government yanks the same support and status for all similar (from a government funding/tax status perspective) organizations such as all faith-based organizations. I suspect though that the people currently suggesting this for NPR, mostly on the right wing which tends to be the religious right, will all of a sudden shut up and nothing will change.

    October 21, 2010 at 7:08 pm |
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