Confronting our fears

Monday, October 25, 2010 

Up here at the Borderlands Lodge, winter slowly seems to be heading our way. While it's been in the 60s pretty much every day for the past couple of weeks, this week the weather is supposed to turn colder. On the mountains, the snowline has been growing steadily each day.

Meanwhile, the Juan Williams controversy has been heating up the rest of the country, generating lots of chatter and denunciations (Juan Cole weighs in here and here). 

Williams, of course, had said the following while appearing on Fox's O'Reilly show:

"I mean, look, 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 are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous."
What to make of this?

On the one hand: yes, if someone had made comments about African-Americans or others of the nature that Williams made about Muslims, the outcry would have been a lot greater and defense of Williams would have been much more muted. The fact that Williams made these comments and lots of people (on Fox) have been loudly defending him (and celebrating his comments) is without question a sign of a big problem in our country.

And yes, I think Williams' connections with Fox and the fact that he was appearing on Bill O'Reilly's show made Williams more likely to express his thoughts in an Islamophobic discourse that he assumed would find more resonance with O'Reilly's audience.

But at the same time, I agree with the commentator who defended Williams by pointing out that admitting one's fears about other people isn't necessarily a terrible thing.

The fact is, Muslims "dressing in their garb," to use Williams' expression, are indeed scary to many Americans. It shouldn't be that way, and people need to overcome their fears, but admitting to such fears--while acknowledging that they reflect a weakness with the person experiencing them, who should work to overcome them--is not something that people should avoid doing.

Most of my students come from very small towns in Montana and elsewhere in the northern Rockies. The great majority of the people I have met here are open-minded and very interested in learning about the world, but nevertheless they are not always very experienced in dealing with people from different cultural backgrounds. And when we talk about Islam in class, everybody is very politically correct--no one would dream of saying something like Williams said, or anything else that could possibly be interpreted as intolerant or unsophisticated.

But then again, in talking to people (and not only students) in casual conversation, I hear very different views about Muslims. People are curious, even mystified, yet are often afraid to ask questions or admit to their own fears and prejudices. 

Frankly, I wish people would talk more openly about their fears concerning Muslims, because it seems obvious to me that many Americans (and others) do indeed harbor such fears.

Yes, what Williams said is offensive in numerous ways, and I understand that he may have violated his contract at NPR by editorializing in this way. And why indeed is he appearing on a snake-pit network like Fox in the first place? Is this the venue one should choose for overcoming cross-cultural stereotypes? Not likely.

But at the same time, it seems to me that firing people for admitting fears about encountering Muslims dressed in "Islamic" clothes is not the greatest step forward for us. Americans, and not only Americans, need to confront these fears in an honest and serious way, rather than pretend they don't exist.

Talking about these fears is something that should be encouraged so that people can deal with them--because the fears and the stereotypes are definitely there.

And on that note, here is a link that one of my students (from whom Juan Williams could learn a thing or to) passed on to me a propos of "Muslim garb." 

Not all Muslims wear the same "garb," Juan
More links, info and analysis can be found at the Borderlands Lounge

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