Twenty-four years ago, Juan Williams wrote Eyes on the Prize, a companion volume to the documentary history of the civil rights movement. The book, like the series, focused on the movement's leaders. But it also explored white America's difficulty in absorbing racial integration. Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy struggled to reconcile the truth of the movement's principles with the challenge of holding the country together. Martin Luther King Jr. wrestled with Fannie Lou Hamer over the wisdom of compromising with the Democratic Party. When the Little Rock Nine walked into Central High School, onlookers shrieked and wept. It was a long, slow story of fear, debate, and transcendence.
This is how we must understand what's happening today with American Muslims. There are obvious differences: Muslim terrorists killed nearly 3,000 Americans on 9/11. But millions of American Muslims who had nothing to do with those attacks, other than losing loved ones in them, are now paying the price in fear and suspicion. And this compounds the difficulty that Muslims, like immigrants and minority religions of previous generations, face in gaining acceptance. In a Washington Post/ABC News poll released last month, Americans expressed a net unfavorable opinion of Islam (49 percent unfavorable to 37 percent favorable), and two-thirds opposed the construction of an Islamic community center near Ground Zero.
Many pundits think the public's unease with Islam justifies opposition to the community center. They argue that the project's sponsors should move it elsewhere in deference to the "sensitivities" of other Americans, particularly families who lost loved ones on 9/11. Williams is one of these pundits. Three months ago, he called the project "a thumb in the eye to so many people who lost their lives and went through the trauma there." Bill O'Reilly, the Fox News host, is another. In an Oct. 14 appearance on The View, he called the project "inappropriate because a lot of the 9/11 families, who I know, say, 'Look, we don't want that.' " When Whoopi Goldberg pressed him for an underlying justification, O'Reilly answered: "Muslims killed us on 9/11." Goldberg walked out and didn't return until O'Reilly said, "If anybody felt that I was demeaning all Muslims, I apologize." He rephrased his position this way: "Muslim fanatics—terrorists, whatever word—killed us."
This was the context for O'Reilly's commentary on his own program four days later. "The vast majority of American Muslims are good citizens and deplore the extreme actions in the Muslim world," he acknowledged. "But they know there is a clash of civilizations in play." He continued:
No sane individual thinks Muhammad Ali or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is responsible for 9/11. But the reality is that most Americans are uneasy with the Muslim world in general because moderate Muslims have not stepped up in a visible way to help combat the jihadists. … The cold truth is that in the world today, jihad, aided and abetted by some Muslim nations, is the biggest threat on the planet. … I call for all peace-loving Muslims to join the United States and other conscientious nations to fight the jihadists to defeat radical Islam.
That speech, in turn, prompted O'Reilly's next guest, Williams, to say this:
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. Now, I remember also that when the Times Square bomber was at court, I think this was just last week. He said the war with Muslims, America's war is just beginning, first drop of blood. I don't think there's any way to get away from these facts.
O'Reilly, Williams, and another guest went on to have an extended conversation about Islamic terrorism and Islamophobia. Williams argued that the problem is extremism rather than Islam, that we aren't at war with a religion, that it would be wrong to generalize about Christians from Christian terrorism, and that anti-Muslim rhetoric might encourage anti-Muslim violence. O'Reilly replied that "we are smart enough to understand who the good Muslims are and who the bad Muslims are." But he chafed at the suggestion that he shouldn't associate Islam with terrorism: "I'm not going to say, 'Oh, it's only a few, it's only a tiny bit.' It's not, Juan. It's whole nations: Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, whole nations."
The O'Reilly-Williams conversation wasn't just a TV shouting match. It's the conversation many Americans have been having with each other and in their own heads since 9/11. Islamic terrorism is real. Jihad is a global threat. The people who killed us on 9/11 were Muslims. Yet we know there are many good Muslims, and we don't want a war with them, nor do we want violence against minorities in our country. We're a nation of immigrants. Our Constitution respects religious freedom. We want to be fair. But some of us are angry. And sometimes, we're afraid.
Today, many liberals are celebrating NPR's decision to fire Williams over his comments on O'Reilly's show. They equate his confession of fear with bigotry. They're making a terrible mistake. Bigotry is when you treat others as members of a group rather than as individuals. It's when you let your fear run your life. Acknowledging your fear, while at the same time recognizing its irrationality and danger, isn't how you succumb to bigotry. It's how you transcend it.
Americans' discomfort with Islam will take decades to dissolve. The task before us today is more urgent: to separate discomfort from discrimination. Sarah Palin, Rudy Giuliani, and many other politicians think the former justifies the latter. In the words of Abe Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, the "anguish" of the 9/11 families "entitles them to positions that others would categorize as irrational or bigoted." From this, the ADL concludes that "building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain—unnecessarily—and that is not right."
But pain doesn't settle what's right. The black kids who walked into Central High caused the white folks outside plenty of pain. That's what the shrieking and weeping were about. Americans outraged by the thought of an Islamic building near Ground Zero will have to work through their anguish. O'Reilly will have to reconcile his gut feeling that the project is "inappropriate" with his acknowledgment that "the vast majority of American Muslims" deplore Islamic terrorism. And Williams will have to think through the relationship between his fears and his values, as he began to do Friday on Good Morning America.
Our job is to facilitate these forthright reflections, not suppress them. We must let people know that it's OK to feel the fear without acting on it. Treating confessions of fear as a firing offense won't make the fear go away. It will only drive it underground or push its bearers into the arms of Fox News. It will reinforce the central myth of the anti-mosque lobby: that feelings about groups of people warrant differential treatment. Feelings are worth talking about, but conduct is what matters. Keep your eyes on the prize.