Juan Williams and the Million-to-1 Fear
by MAHMOUD SADRI and AHMAD SADRI
25 Oct 2010 10:43
[ opinion ] Let's face it, Juan Williams said nothing that a lot of other Americans didn't already think. That is the one saving grace of this sorry episode. If we look at it closely, Williams was not sanctioned for climbing the pedestal of "punditry" while "nervous," but for descending it to confess the insecurity he shares with the average Joe, warts and all.
As a pundit, Williams has written and spoken against stereotyping minorities. He has decried the fact that blacks were denied entry into the posh jewelry establishments of Washington, D.C., on account of the presumed risk a small minority of them posed to these stores. As an average Juan, however, he suspects that Muslims on his flight are more likely to come from a 1,000 or so Islamic terrorists than from the 1,000 million or so peaceful adherents of the faith. But this same mind is never prompted to caution against middle-class white man, although 85 percent of serial killers are white, middle-class, clean-cut Americans. Although nearly two-thirds of them exclusively target strangers. Although at any given time dozens of these psychopathic killers are on the prowl. As Dan Ariely observes in his bestseller Predictably Irrational, people routinely ignore logic, jump to ridiculous conclusions, and fear the wrong things.
Those of us who are on the receiving end of such pernicious racial images pay for them in the currency of dehumanization. Even though there has been no Iranian terrorist in recent memory either before or after the events of September 2001, and despite the fact that the Green grassroots of Iran are firmly opposed to fanaticism and violence, diaspora Iranians find themselves tarred and feathered by the kind of prejudice to which Williams has given prominent voice. One of the authors of this commentary was once expelled from a United Airlines flight and then barred from reboarding after he was cleared of all suspicion on the grounds that his presence would make passengers and crew uncomfortable.
Like the mythical Sisyphus, stigmatized minorities are constantly rolling the rock of their humanity up the hill of public mistrust. Then one of them, one in a million in the case of Muslims associated with terrorism, fulfills the dark prophecy and the rock is back where it was. Dealing with this pressure in humorous ways is the leitmotif of the wildly successful "Axis of Evil" comedy tour. Arabs, Muslims, Middle Easterners, even Sikhs, have learned to endure the burden of guilt by association. We attempt to deflect suspicion by changing the subject, turning to humor, advertising our benign intentions, hiding our identities.
Three years ago, the Washington Post published a series of articles under the rubric "Being Black in America." The widespread expressions of support for Juan Williams confirm that few care about the difficulties of being Muslim in America. As the conventions of civility afforded to other religious and racial minorities (Hispanics, Jews, and blacks) erode in our case, we are for the most part laying low and waiting, hopefully, for the storm to subside.
But we should do more. We should decry our defamation and insist on being treated with civility. It goes without saying that we ought to take responsibility for the abuses of our religion and debate these issues with courage and in the spirit of open self-criticism. But that doesn't mean that we can lie supine in the face of racist profiling.
After Williams's expectoration that revealed his anti-Muslim "nervousness," may we not expect a bevy of blonde, red-clad Fox commentators who applaud his defiance of political correctness to come forth and open up about their own fear of entering an empty elevator or subway car with a burly black man? If this doesn't happen, and it will not, we must point out the inconsistency. Muslims are not the guinea pigs of a "nervous" America's rejection of political correctness.
Mahmoud Sadri is a professor of sociology at Texas Woman's University and with the Federation of North Texas Area Universities. Ahmad Sadri is a professor of sociology and James P. Gorter Chair of Islamic World Studies at Lake Forest College, Chicago.