Juan Williams, and the Case for Uncomfortable Dialogue

If we are going to eradicate prejudice we must have an honest -- sometimes uncomfortable -- discussion that is continuing and well informed about the fears that underlie these attitudes.
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I want to hire Juan Williams -- well only for a day. If we are going to eradicate prejudice we must have an honest -- sometimes uncomfortable -- discussion that is continuing and well informed about the fears that underlie these attitudes. Juan Williams expressed a deeply troubling, yet, sincere fear of Muslims that regrettably is all too pervasive throughout American society. What is most worrisome is that this fear is manifested not only in the most hardened of intolerant bigots, but with many otherwise good people as well.

A recent ABC/Washington Post Poll showed that 49% of Americans have an unfavorable view of Islam. If an accomplished journalist and author of two incredible books on the civil rights movement can feel prejudice in this way, then our country is in trouble and is in need of an honest and informed dialogue. If there is a positive aspect about this incident, it is that there was an airing of something that many feel, but won't ever meaningfully discuss. His statement offered an incredible, though possibly lost, opportunity to move forward an important dialogue with our American Muslim brothers and sisters, beyond fear into understanding. One of the key things to know about prejudice is that it consists of three parts. Often the hardest part of prejudice to address is the one that is most deeply shrouded -- the affective, or emotional component where our fears and concerns reside.

The solution, thus, is not to mechanistically punish Williams or silence one of the more articulate voices in the media, but rather to use the power of our media, community, and academic institutions to engage him and explore these deeply held emotions that many have, but don't have the ability to honestly discuss.

Our Center holds Islamophobia as one of our major areas of concern. We believe it to be so important that we recently proposed having one of the nation's top analysts on Islamophobia and Arabaphobia come speak at California State University, San Bernardino in our main annual lecture event (some funding has been a bit difficult over recent years due to our state's economic downturn so we don't get to do as many events as we otherwise would like). It would be my pleasure to have Juan Williams discuss prejudice and Islamophobia with me and our other guest in an environment where thoughtful, non confrontational dialogue can take place. And if either Fox News or NPR want to come, they're welcome to cover the discussion too.

Williams disquieting, though honest reflection offers an incredible teaching moment for the nation that can actually address uncomfortable issues that are all too often left either unresolved in office coffee breaks or lulls at family gatherings. Worse yet these fears are often exploited and left unchallenged by hard core Islamophobes like Pamella Gellar, Gert Wilders or Robert Spencer on websites or at rallies.

Prejudice is an attitude that in varying depths, even exceptional people like Juan Williams (and all of us) can have. It involves making judgments about people before interacting with them in a meaningful way. One reason that I do not fear Muslims in the way that others might is because I addressed two critical voids: meaningful interaction and education. I've spoken at length to Islamophobes and checked their mostly, though not totally, uninformed drivel against the works of more informed Muslim scholars and analysts throughout the world. In my travels and research I have found a not so shocking, yet obvious conclusion about Islam that I will share with you. As with their Abrahamic brethren of Judaism and Christianity, there are some incredibly brilliant and diverse good-hearted adherents sprinkled with some really dangerous intolerant fanatics. The precise dynamics of the fanatical influence exerted on each faith, as well as how they are organized, funded, and evolving is open to informed debate and analysis. However, what hard core Islamophobes fail to meaningfully grasp is the overall truth that each Abrahamic faith has struggled at various times with inner and outward conflict.

To be sure, a splinter of organized violent Salafists pose a significant risk of terrorism which will quite possibly hit the United States or Europe in the not too distant future. In addition dialogue must address mistrust and discourse from both sides. A 2007 survey of American Muslims found that only 40% of American Muslims believe Arabs carried out the 9/11 attacks. In addition some American Muslim groups and student organizations have regrettably promoted intolerance against American democracy, gays, Jews, and even other Muslims, and our dialogue must include these issues as well. Not addressing these issues leaves to the Islamophobes the ability to exploit these issues in a nefarious manner.

Most Muslims in the United States, like most people of other faiths, or of no faith are good, and we need to capitalize on that as well as the unique freedom that our democracy affords. A real solution must involve well meaning, but sometimes awkward dialogue, if we are going to advance to meaningful understanding and tolerance of all of Abraham's children.

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