What the Heck is “Muslim Garb?”

October 22nd, 2010, by

NPR senior news analyst Juan Williams appeared on Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor recently and made a controversial statement: “I mean, look, Bill, I’m not a bigot… But when I get on a plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they’re identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.”

That was not all that Williams said. He actually argued with Fox News host Bill O’Reilly about his recent statement that “Muslims killed us on 9/11” — a statement that sparked a little controversy for O’Reilly on ABC News’ The View.

NPR fired Williams for sharing his opinion on Fox News. In a FoxNews.com post titled “I Was Fired for Telling the Truth,” the veteran journalist explained his position and describes what he feels is an attack on free speech.

But, for me, the entire episode raises a question that has gone unnoticed.

What the heck was Juan Williams talking about when he said “Muslim garb?”

That point might be trivial to you, but I really want to know what he’s looking for when he gets on a plane. A turban? The hijab?

I ask this because it’s easy to throw around terms like “Muslim garb,” “radical Muslims,” “jihad,” “Muslim extremism” without taking the time to really discern the meaning.

If you recall, there was some brouhaha during the 2008 presidential campaign when photos surfaced of then-Sen. Barack Obama appearing in “Somalian garb” (read: white turban, also known as “Muslim garb”) intensifying existing fears that he really was a Muslim — a scary, turban-wearing, Kalashnikov-toting, jihad-proclaiming Muslim running for President of the United States with diabolical plans to destroy the American empire.

Sorry. I got a little carried away there.

Anyway, does anyone really stop to think what terms like “Muslim garb” truly mean?

Think about it. Do you really know what the term is referring to specifically? Maybe you do. Maybe you don’t. But the denotation doesn’t much matter, after all. It’s the connotation that creates the fear and dread. The terms have currency; they call forth images in the minds of the listener.

The terms also can betray the speaker if used improperly.

Should we be suspicious of a woman who gets on a plane wearing a burka because she is identifying herself “first and foremost” as Muslim, as Williams put it? I think that would be silly, quite frankly.

Is Williams a bigot? I don’t know. I actually don’t care. But, I do get concerned about the careless (and perhaps unconscious) fear-mongering masquerading as public discourse in post-9/11 America.

Last modified: May 25, 2011 at 6:44 pm