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Endorsing the Islamophobic Exception: Fox News and Juan Williams

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Enticed by a permissive political environment, Juan Williams reached the perfectly reasonable conclusion two days ago that there would be no negative consequences for candidly admitting on national television that he was an Islamophobe. How could there be any when such a tepid admission of mere anxiety at the sight of Muslims on a plane pales in comparison to the anti-Muslim venom widely spewed by political and religious leaders and media commentators on the right? But to Williams' surprise, and at the price of his job with NPR, he discovered that the Islamophobic exception to the general "no to prejudice" rule in mainstream media doesn't apply across the board.

Right-wing voices quickly jumped to the defense of Williams, castigating "totalitarian" NPR and "political correctness" for suppressing free speech. Of course, as was pointed out by others, those voices never jumped in to defend Rick Sanchez, Helen Thomas, or Octavia Nasr when they were fired for making comparable comments. Indeed, Juan Williams' lead defender Bill O'Reilly, who now describes NPR's firing of Williams as "disgraceful," had actually suggested that CNN's firing of Rick Sanchez was perfectly appropriate because stupid comments by an anchor can legitimately hurt the credibility of a network. Why he would have us believe that the same doesn't apply to NPR is not readily clear.

In an interesting (though definitely not surprising) twist, Fox News quickly picked up Williams with a three-year, $2 million contract for "an expanded role" on the network. In doing so, Fox News turned the seemingly costly mistake of Williams into a substantial gain. But in doing so, Fox also went beyond the implicit double standard that exists in our political discourse when it comes to offending Muslims and is now publicly and explicitly defending the Islamophic exception. I mean, when all sorts of people who were fired for making unwise comments are ridiculed by Fox commentators at the same time that a sitting Fox anchor repeatedly says that "all terrorists are Muslims" (to say nothing of Jon Stewart's ridicule of the rampant Islamophobia on Fox News), that's the sort of thing that you can blame on subconscious bigotry. But when getting fired for making Islamophobic comments becomes the very reason why one is made a lucrative offer by Fox News, now Fox News is consciously and explicitly saying that Islamophobia is a viewpoint they endorse.

It is certainly worth noting that there are some moderate and liberal voices that have also come out against NPR's firing of Williams, arguing that while his comments may be stupid, he should still be free to express them without fear of losing his job. Indeed, a compelling case can be made in favor of a political culture that is less constrained by political correctness, and where people can speak more candidly about their feelings, even when they can be offensive to some. But that would also be a discourse in which Sanchez, Thomas, and Nasr would still have jobs (the Attorney General of Michigan's idea of free expression goes as far as to allow an employee in his office to keep his job while harassing, stalking, and cyber-bullying a gay student on his private time). The point is that no matter what political culture one is in favor of, it must be consistent and it cannot be exclusively permissive to those who are bigoted toward or suspicious of Islam and Muslims.

As for the moderates who are defending the substance of Williams' remarks as merely "honest," it's important to note that he was not only candidly admitting harboring negative feelings about Muslims to say "hey, no one's perfect;" but was offering such feelings in defense of the legitimacy of fearing people who look Muslim. More importantly, he was offering them in defense of Bill O'Reilly's heated exchange on "The View" where he argued that a Muslim cultural center near ground Zero was inappropriate because "Muslims" attacked us on 9/11 (the absurdity of this logic may be harder to miss if he had argued that a Jewish community center wasn't appropriate in the vicinity of Wall street because Bernie Madoff is Jewish). There is nothing reasonable about establishing a Muslim-free zone around ground zero (the bigots still won't tell us how many blocks in diameter that's supposed to be), and attempting to reassure O'Reilly's alleged reasonableness on this by saying "hey I worry when I see Muslims too" merely compound the original argument's bigotry with a good dose of stupidity.

The decision of Fox News to adopt this sentiment raises once again the question once debated by John Oliver and Wyatt Cenac of the Daily Show, and demonstrates the extent to which the anti-Muslim sentiment on the far right has become part of normal discourse. It is no longer subconscious bigotry that is inadvertently tolerated. It is the exception to religious tolerance which they openly endorse.