Monday, October 25, 2010

Juan Williams. Free Speech. Who Needs 'Em? Muslims.

Freedom of speech is the best friend American Muslims have. CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, may feel that it won a victory in NPR's October 20, 2010 firing of Civil Rights author Juan Williams. Williams was fired because, as part of an attempt to have a productive conversation about a best possible response to terrorism, he publicly confessed that he feels "nervous" when he sees passengers in "Muslim garb" on airplanes. CAIR's victory was pyrrhic. This vanquishing of an identified enemy of Islam did American Muslims more harm than good.

Americans who have grown up with freedom of speech, and who have never had to fight for it, take it for granted. Even when invited to do so, my American students can't imagine living under a system that monitors what you say, what you don't say, what films you view, what pictures you hang on the wall of your business or your home. They really can't imagine living in a country where paid informants monitor your private convictions and the faith you mention to a personal friend.

For me the question is more concrete. In Poland I saw Solidarity graffiti mushroom overnight, and I saw state employees whitewash that revolutionary graffiti within hours of its appearance.

A clean city is a dead city. Source

In Nepal, ruled by a Hindu God-king, I met secret Christians who feared imprisonment if they spoke publicly of their faith. In several countries I have been stopped by friends and loved ones in the middle of sentences and warned not to speak the next word I was about to pronounce.

Once you've lived without free speech, you realize how very revolutionary those dead white males who authored the US Constitution really were. Once you've lived without free speech, you think harder about it. Once you've lived without free speech, you question: Do I really want free speech? Free speech causes trouble: hurt feelings, social tension, quarrels, division, and, yes, death.

The surprise is that many people don't want free speech, and, in fact, have no use for it. They are not forming original observations; they feel no prod to confess complicated internal struggles; they're not inventing some product or process no one's ever thought of before. Free speech opens Pandora's Box. Better to leave all that mess in the deep, locked, dark. Better just go with the flow. Even in 1989, when protestors filled the streets of the Soviet Empire, most citizens stayed indoors, watching their government-run TV stations. Who needs the headaches, the complications, the mess, of free speech? Life is so much smoother when you have one benevolent Big Brother taking care of all the thinking for everybody.

In September, 2010, I posted a message on my Facebook page in support of Molly Norris. Norris was – note the past tense – a young Seattle cartoonist who innocently proposed a tongue-in-cheek holiday called "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day." Norris never actually drew Mohammed. She just proposed this holiday in an "I-am-Spartacus" gesture. She was responding to controversy over "South Park"'s ribbing of Mohammed, and the subsequent death threats that animated series' creators received. Her reasoning was that if everyone drew a picture of Mohammed, it would be harder for terrorists to single out one cartoonist and threaten that person. Norris, a previously obscure cartoonist, received so many credible death threats that to protect her life she had to "go ghost," as her former employer put it. She erased her life, her public record, her home, and her relationships, and she disappeared.

I posted a message about Norris on Facebook. I immediately received two messages, both from posters who self-identify as multicultural, sexually liberated, peace-and-love, hot-tub-and-massage liberals. One message was rageful, the other was diabolical in its quiet. Both said the same thing, paraphrase: "To hell with Molly Norris. Norris, with her big mouth, stirred up trouble. If she'd just kept quiet and not needled the Muslims, we wouldn't have this mess. Molly Norris got exactly what she deserved."

Other people had already marched through the muck, the terror, the flak and the inconvenience, to make these two Facebook posters free. Like pizza delivery boys, soldiers and activists had already delivered to these Facebook posters their lifetime supply of free speech. These posters had been born into what they wanted: enough freedom to enjoy unconventional sex lives and backyard barbecues and online games and a superior contempt for Western Civilization and the Judeo-Christian tradition. Just like those Soviet citizens who never did join us in the streets in 1989, these two were happy to consume un-free, standard-issue speech that never upset anyone who might cause a fuss, whose fuss might disrupt the barbecue, the hot tub, the predictable conversation and its predictable sneers at Tea Party activists and others you can insult who won't hurt you in return.

After Juan Williams was fired, a leftist friend, a white woman who has given her life to international black liberation struggles, posted a message criticizing Juan Williams. I shuddered. How could this woman so rapidly denounce Williams, a black man who chronicled the Civil Rights movement? This is how Stalinism works. What really matters is not the loyalty a true believer owes to any one person. What really matters is ideological purity. NPR and its ideologically pure followers dispatched Williams with the ruthless speed and cruelty of the ice axe that penetrated Leon Trotsky's transgressive brain.

Leftist ideologues play with ethnic minorities the way Bobby Fischer played with chess pieces. According to African American author Shelby Steele, white liberals demand that blacks play an assigned role. Blacks must certify white liberals' worth. Blacks perform this service for white liberals when they reinforce the image of most Americans as so racist that blacks can never do anything to improve their own status. It is only white liberals, in this scenario, who will associate with, and uplift, the black man.

Juan Williams challenged this liberal gospel simply by appearing on Fox News. In these appearances, Williams made clear that conservative Americans are not the racist boogiemen that white liberals insist they are. Williams, just by having a respectful exchange with Bill O'Reilly, withdrew his certification for white liberals' worth. It almost didn't matter what Williams said. Williams refused to be a token. Williams, with his free speech, in the tradition of public confession, exhibited human individuality. For its firing of Williams, some black commentators have labeled NPR a "plantation" that punished Williams for being "uppity."

In his book, "White Guilt," Shelby Steele described his own reaction when he encounters white liberals who cannot see him as an individual, but see him, rather, only as a token black man whose struggle and gratitude certifies white liberals' worth. In the presence of such white liberals, Steele reports feeling "a palpable anger, potentially more intense even than any I felt back in the sixties when confronted by open racists. It is a sharp, bristling, and ego-fueled anger that, on the level of metaphor, would annihilate the offending party. It is triggered by encountering someone who cannot see you, even as he stands before you, because of all the presumptions he has made about you."

Muslims Trump Blacks. Why?
In NPR's chess game, Muslims trump blacks. Why? One possible explanation: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Islam poses an existential threat to Western Civilization in a way that African Americans, themselves participants in and products of Western Civilization, never could. Witness Martin Luther King, who created revolution not by uprooting and discarding the West, but by calling it back to its best self, from the words of the God of the Book of Exodus: "Let my people go!" to the strategy of Henry David Thoreau's Civil Disobedience. In this ethnic chess game, a black man, a Civil Rights author like Juan Williams, must stand aside as NPR kowtows to CAIR.

Williams' public confession of his fear of Muslims on airplanes reminds us: freedom of speech has an invisible, silent twin: freedom of conscience. You get to think what you want. You get to feel what you want. You get to decide what you want, including the god of your own choice. Because you have all these freedoms, you have a responsibility: to examine your own conscience, and publicly confess your misgivings and mental processes. Again, freedom of conscience is so much a part of the Western tradition that it's hard for many of us to imagine living in a world without it. Imagine it. Such worlds exist. Just ask men like Brian O'Connor, who was imprisoned and tortured in Saudi Arabia for the crime of owning a Bible.

Choice is central to the Judeo-Christian tradition. It's there in Genesis, the oldest story many of us know. God gave Adam and Eve a garden, a tree, and a choice. In Deuteronomy, God said: I have placed before you life and death. Choose life. Jesus continued the radical theme of a deity who grants his creations free choice in order that they have the option of choosing him. If you preach about me in the town and they aren't open to the message, Jesus said, leave the town. Don't torch the town. Don't mount a military assault against the town. Don't boycott or tax or even curse its inhabitants. Just – move on.

No one can argue that Jews and Christians have always lived up to the message of freedom of conscience; we have not – but no one can deny that freedom of conscience, granted by a loving God who wants us to use our own free will to choose him, is central to the tradition, the North Star that we, in spite of our having gotten lost at times, have strived to navigate by, to guide us home to the free will that God granted to Adam and Eve.

A key cultural feature of freedom of conscience and its handmaiden, free speech, is the Judeo-Christian tradition of ritualized confession – the very kind of confession that Williams made that lead to his firing. Jews and Christians are remarkable for their repeated and ritualized examination of conscience, and public articulation, in narrative form, of where they went wrong and how they hope to do right in the future. This ritual is so central and so revolutionary that cultural observers have cited it as foundational to Western products like the novel, individuality, psychoanalysis, and the very idea of progress, of a future that can be better than the past.

In Islam, on the other hand, apostasy – leaving Islam – is a capital offense. Freedom of speech cannot even be a consideration as long as this tradition is enforced: that whoever insults Mohammed should be killed. Public confession is not emphasized. Consider that Turkey, a model, modern, Muslim state, uses all its might to resist owning up to its genocide of Christian Armenians. Given this hostility to freedom of conscience and freedom of speech, CAIR might indeed celebrate NPR's firing of Juan Williams.

Even though it causes a lot of trouble, even though many of those blessed with it have no use for it, even though one must fight to keep it, freedom of speech is the best option we have. In fact, freedom of speech is the best friend Muslims living in the West have.

Life requires movement. Stasis, standing still, is a quality of lifeless objects. A free mind and free speech are the best way to move around new ideas. Imprisoning the mind and suppressing speech guarantees a build up of inarticulate hostilities. When liberals erect a Politically Correct Iron Curtain around speech and thought about Islam, they make the world a less safe place for Muslims. When liberals like NPR CEO Vivian Schiller, who said that Juan Williams should mention his fears of Muslims on airplanes only to his psychiatrist, demonize or pathologize free speech about Islam, they guarantee that resentments against Muslims will build up, and eventually explode.

The most frequent compliment writers hear is, "Thank you so much; you said exactly what I have been thinking, but what I could not put into words." A society's wordsmiths – lucky individuals exactly like Juan Williams – must put into words what others are thinking. When wordsmiths do this, they do no less of a service than construction workers in building our physical infrastructure. As Winston Churchill said, "Jaw jaw is better than war war." Juan Williams was contributing to bringing America closer to having a conversation about Islam, a frank conversation it desperately needs. Juan Williams said what everybody, including liberals, including Schiller herself, almost certainly has felt.

What happens in the absence of words? On September 11, 2001, I was walking across the parking lot of the university library in Bloomington, Indiana. I saw a pickup truck with a sign in the rear window. The crude, handmade sign promised that the truck driver's plan for the day was to do physical harm to any passing Muslims he encountered. I approached the man in the truck. The young, muscular man had a shaved head and was wearing heavy boots. I began to talk. The man responded. We talked at length. He was convinced that his comrades, men in uniform, had been killed in terrorist attacks. He wanted revenge. He wanted to hurt Muslims. He looked physically strong and intimidating enough to do someone harm. He began to cry.

I didn't tell this man to keep his "Islamophobic" thoughts between himself and his psychiatrist. I didn't demonize him, pathologize him, or tell him to take a course in multicultural relations. I didn't phone his boss and demand that he be fired. I listened and I nodded and I talked, too. I talked about my own Muslim friends, neighbors, and students who were lights in my life. People who were kind to me, hospitable to me, loving to me. People who would no more harm me than I them. I acknowledged the pain this man felt. I didn't take away his pain. All I did was talk: move ideas around with words, rather than with fists. Ideas do move in response to words, if you let them. But you have to have a free environment, where people are allowed to say what they feel. The man in the pickup truck didn't beat up any Muslims that day. He could have. He did not. He did talk. And he did cry.

I've also been in environments where people do not feel free to say what they feel – to confess their fears and move ideas around with words. In the recent past, I lead a discussion on a university campus. We were talking about America's multicultural population and how the coming together of various cultures would have an impact on education in the future. When it came to Islam, many participants froze up, and remained completely silent. They had been well-trained. In an age when a powerful public figure like Juan Williams can lose his job over taboo speech about Islam, average people feel all the more intimidated. If they said what they really thought about Islam, they risked punishment. In America, on a university campus, I saw the kind of rigid and fearful facial expressions I saw in the old Soviet Empire. In the face of this silence, this absence of movement, this apparent death, one might think that CAIR had won. One would be wrong.

One of the group participants was a lovely young woman, a future teacher, and herself a member of a minority group. Before she left the meeting, she handed me a written note. My jaw dropped as I read. This very gentle, polite woman, who breathed not a single taboo word, wrote that she despised Muslims and their culture, and that she knew she'd never change her mind about that. Perhaps if I had gotten her to speak, we could have moved her ideas around. But she would not speak. She knew the barriers, and the penalties, too well. She was frozen in hate.

Islam's apologists keep insisting that Islam is a sophisticated, non-violent system, profound and powerful enough to withstand any intellectual criticism. And then they prove that they don't really believe that, by, in this country, clamping down speech codes on any criticism of Islam, insulating Islam in a way that Christianity and Judaism, not to mention Hinduism and Buddhism, are not insulated. In Muslim countries, those who criticize Islam face dreadful fates. In this, Islam's apologists reveal that whatever Islam's true nature, they themselves do not believe that Islam can withstand the same intellectual critique that Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism have endured, and, often, enthusiastically invited, for thousands of years. Both Muslims and those of us who love Muslims and don't want to see any more violence should not celebrate Juan Williams' firing. Muslims should call for Williams to be rehired. And then Muslims should roll up their sleeves and get ready – not to fight – but to do what other persons of faith have been doing since the founding of their faiths. Muslims should get ready to use words, and, in a no-verbal-holds-barred environment – to debate.


  1. Sandy, thank you for reading and commenting. Even though few read this blog, I was afraid to post about this topic. People are being punished for feelings, opinions. Crazy.

  2. Update on "Muslims trump blacks"

    According to Salman Rushdie, Jon Stewart, host of the Daily Show, is "fine" with Cat Stevens' support of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie.

    Rushdie isn't black, of course, just dark skinned. The Ayatollah Khomeini ordered that he be killed after he published a book about the Koran's Satanic Verses, in which Mohammed temporarily -- allegedly under the influence of Satan -- sanctioned the worship of three goddesses, along with Allah.

  3. I see a statement of fearing someone in tradition Islamic dress (which is tremendously varied, depending on culture) analogous to fearing a young black male in a hoodie. Both are racist sentiments. There may be history that can be used to justify both, but that doesn't make them acceptable.
    Also, a nominally Christian nation (now), Russia refuses to acknowledge their crimes against their own people. So this behavior is not limited to the Islamic world. This is a common behavior, in the past countries such as the US, Canada, Australia, and South Africa (all having a western Judeo-Christian heritage) horribly mistreated their Native populations and other minorities. All have now admitted the past injustices, but it wasn't easy for them.
    I think this may explain the efforts to "bend over backwards" when injustices are happening to yet another minority. They don't want another issue which will be hard to admit in the future. Better to try to "nip it in the bud." And don't forget the numbers of times these anti-Muslim attackers have actually targeted other communities--Sikhs and Arab Christians come to mind.


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