By Reuel Marc Gerecht
Friday, October 22, 2010; A27
Did journalist Juan Williams, who was fired Wednesday by NPR, show unacceptable insensitivity or unforgiveable stupidity when he expressed anxiety about Muslim airplane passengers during an interview with conservative TV host Bill O'Reilly? Free speech shouldn't guarantee immunity from the standards of basic decency, but Williams's comments were hardly a firing offense. We would all be better off -- Muslim Americans first and foremost -- if we could have a more open discussion about Islam, Islamic militancy and what Muslims, here and abroad, think it means to be Muslim.
Williams told O'Reilly: "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're identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous."
I bet that every business executive, producer and talk-show host at NPR felt some rise in attentiveness after Sept. 11, 2001, when he or she spotted a Muslim waiting for a flight. That simply means that NPR employees, like almost everyone else, process information much as the counterterrorism officers at the FBI, CIA and Department of Homeland Security do; security officials worry constantly about blond, blue-eyed converts to Islam blowing up aircraft but scrutinize Scandinavian types a lot less than they do those of swarthier complexion.
Williams was wrong about the likelihood of a Muslim in traditional garb being a terrorist -- Muslims who wear Western clothing and speak English with Marxist-Islamist vocabulary are vastly more likely to be suicide bombers in the West than a devout Muslim in an abaya or thobe or Pakistani shalwar qameez. But while his manner may have been clumsy, Williams was right to suggest that there is a troubling nexus between the modern Islamic identity and the embrace of terrorism as a holy act.
The would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad and accused Fort Hood shooter Maj. Nidal M. Hasan saw their Islamic identities both as paramount and at war with the United States. Muslim fundamentalist literature is monomaniacal in underscoring the need for Muslims to see themselves, above all else, as a religious community that transcends national borders. In this perspective, they are under siege by the culture of non-believers. Fundamentalists emphasize the inner spiritual jihad -- an idea rooted in the Koran -- as essential to combat moral turpitude. The distance between the inner spiritual jihad and the external violent one regrettably has been covered by many Muslims -- far too many to call radical Islam a fringe movement. Violent militants have locked on to the age-old Islamic legal tenet dividing the world between the "House of Islam" and the "House of War," where infidels rule, and often turned it into an offensive weapon -- such as turning wives, sisters and daughters, whose honor men have lived to protect, into suicide bombers -- that runs roughshod over other traditional Islamic teachings.
The firing of Williams, who is also a paid commentator with Fox News, sparked a heated argument over political correctness -- and calls for the public "defunding" of NPR -- that is, in part, obscuring a more necessary debate: How do you approach the problem of Islamic militancy in the West and in the Middle East? President Obama, who has had innumerable briefings on the threats posed by al-Qaeda and other radical Islamic groups, has chosen to dial down American rhetoric (it was actually pretty tame under President George W. Bush) in the hope that average Muslims, wherever they may be, will view the United States as more friend than foe, and help Washington combat "violent extremism."
This friendly approach is probably, unfortunately, counterproductive. So far, it's unlikely that Muslim self-criticism -- our ultimate salvation from Islamic holy warriors -- has improved under Obama. Judging by the satellite channel Al-Jazeera, a vibrant hodgepodge of all things Arab, the opposite current, fed by Western self-doubt, appears to be gaining force. By being nice, we suggest that nothing within "Islam" -- by which I mean the 1,400-year-old evolving marriage of faith, culture and politics -- is terribly wrong. By being kind, we fail to provoke controversy among Muslims about why so many Muslims from so many lands have called suicide bombers against Western targets "martyrs" and not monsters. Worst of all, by being considerate we fail to echo the great Muslim dissidents, deeply religious men such as the Iranians Abdolkarim Soroush and Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari, who see that something has gone very wrong within their country and their civilization. The president would do well to be more nuanced in his outreach to the Muslim world, giving more sustenance to those who see its systemic problems.
It is not surprising, however, that some Westerners are having a more vivid debate about Islam's travails than most Muslims are having. Williams may not be a student of Islam, but he's got good eyes and a decent heart. Would that the executives at NPR were as perspicacious and liberal.
Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and author of the forthcoming book "The Wave: Man, God, and the Ballot Box in the Middle East."