Juan Williams And The Way We Talk About Islam

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While the attempt to treat Juan Williams as some kind of martyr for free speech is ridiculous on its face, (and the use of the word “dissident” for a guy who just got a $2 million contract for his trouble is disgusting) I agree with Reuel Marc Gerecht that “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.” I’m just not sure if we necessarily agree on what “more open” means, or on the role that the President of the United States is supposed to play in that discussion:

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.

Obviously, Gerecht makes some claims here about the impact of Obama’s rhetorical approach that he doesn’t provide evidence for (note the strategic use of words like “probably,” “unlikely,” “appears”). Leaving aside whether Gerecht’s rendering of the trends in “Muslim self-criticism” is accurate, color me skeptical of his suggestion that Obama could make a more positive impact if only he would be ruder to the world’s Muslims. And I’m always a bit perplexed by warnings against “Western self-doubt,” as if Western liberalism’s tendency toward self-criticism and self-correction weren’t one of its greatest strengths. This is, after all, according to Gerecht, precisely what we’re supposed to be hoping for and cultivating in the so-called “Muslim world,” a sense of self-doubt and self-criticism about the trajectory of their faith and their societies.

In terms of self-criticism, as Marc Lynch showed in his book Voices of the New Arab Public: Iraq, al-Jazeera, and Middle East Politics Today, al-Jazeera provided an important forum for quite a bit of self-criticism among Arabs over why they had countenanced Saddam’s tyranny for so long. This is obviously anecdotal, but I get invited on al-Jazeera fairly regularly despite my habit of saying outrageous things about how democracy is good and how no, we’re not just doing it for the oil. This also gets at the fact that it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to decouple America’s message to the world’s Muslims from the American policies that impact many of those Muslims, either directly or through media, which unfortunately involve a lot of people and things exploding.

As for the President Obama’s rhetoric, I don’t think it’s really the president’s responsibility to get into fine-grained discussions about Islamic doctrine, but to set a general tone for the debate. In my view Obama has, despite a few missteps, done this fairly well. To his credit, so did George W. Bush, even though his party has pretty much devolved into an endless game of Islamophobic one-downsmanship since he left office.

Carrying out the deeper public debate about the problem of violent Islamic extremism, and America’s response to it, is the job of scholars, pundits, and analysts like Gerecht, and like your humble narrator. And in that, I think it’s clear that we need to do a lot better. I don’t think anyone can look at the quality of the current mainstream media discourse around Islam, America, national security, particularly the persistence of the ridiculous and deeply stupid-making “war of civilizations” frame, and conclude anything other than that we have, despite some bright exceptions, collectively pretty much failed at promoting a discussion of these issues at a level of seriousness that they really merit, given what’s at stake. And that’s a problem.

It’s not a problem, however, that has much to do with Juan Williams, though I suspect that one of the consequences of Williams’ axing is that it will be used by Islam-bashers to continue to deny that there is actually a double standard in regard to what is permissible to say about Islam and Muslims versus other faiths and groups, or that this somehow righted the imbalance. What Williams said was stupid and offensive, but I don’t think he should’ve been fired by NPR in the way that he was. He should’ve been fired long ago for not having offered a remotely interesting political insight in years. But then they’d have had to fire Cokie Roberts, too. (Which they should do!)

The fact is that if Williams were an effective advocate for progressivism/critic of conservatism he wouldn’t have had a job at Fox News in the first place, but I hope that his new status as the world’s best remunerated, least oppressed “dissident” won’t serve to further cheapen the important debate around how best to confront Islamic extremism.