Reporting from Washington — NPR's decision to fire news analyst Juan Williams for remarks he made about Muslims on airliners was not only roundly criticized by conservatives Thursday, but also was viewed with alarm by some Muslim American activists and scholars.
Williams said Monday on Fox News' "The O'Reilly Factor" that he worries when he sees Muslims in traditional garb on airplanes. NPR fired Williams on Wednesday, saying that his comment violated the news organization's ethics guidelines and undermined his credibility.
Some prominent Muslims expressed concern Thursday that his firing would widen a gulf between Muslims and non-Muslims in the United States.
"The greater American public remains unsure about Islam and very often hostile about Islam," said Akbar Ahmed, chair of Islamic Studies at American University, who examines the divide in his new film and book, "Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam."
Ahmed said he was disappointed by Williams' comments. But he added that NPR's abrupt firing "does not bring the temperature down against Muslims…. Now the debate is, are we being oversensitive to Muslims?"
The flap over Williams' remarks is the latest example of how the topic of Islam has become a political live wire in this midterm election year.
An emotional fight over the construction of an Islamic community center blocks from the site of the destroyed World Trade Center in New York erupted into a national controversy this summer and became fodder for campaign ads that have aired in Iowa and North Carolina.
At the same time, a threat by a Florida pastor to burn copies of the Koran swelled into an international issue, drawing condemnation from leaders, including President Obama.
The latest furor began last week when Fox News host Bill O'Reilly made an appearance on ABC's "The View" and declared, "Muslims killed us on 9/11." That prompted co-hosts Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar to walk off the stage.
That was the incident O'Reilly and Williams were discussing Monday night when Williams said, "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." He also noted that it was not fair to cast all Muslims as extremists.
"We as a country are engaged in a very wild and wooly conversation about Islam and Muslim Americans," said Suhail Khan, a conservative activist who is a Muslim American, noting that minorities such as Catholics, Jews and Japanese Americans have faced similar hostility throughout U.S. history. "Sometimes the conversation is thoughtful and sometimes it's ugly."
But Khan said NPR overreacted in letting Williams go. "While Juan's comments may have been a little rough around the edges, he was voicing an honest opinion and trying to articulate his personal questions and struggles with perceptions in regards to Muslims," he said.
The decision drew an avalanche of complaints against the media organization. By Thursday evening, more than 5,400 comments had been posted on NPR.org, many of them angrily accusing the organization of political correctness. Conservative leaders such as Newt Gingrich and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee called for cuts to NPR's funding.
NPR receives no direct federal money for its operations, but between 1% and 3% of its $160 million budget comes from competitive grants awarded by publicly funded entities such as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts
Dana Davis Rehm, NPR's senior vice president for communications, said that Williams had been warned several times in the past for comments that violated ethics guidelines that prohibit NPR journalists from participating in programs "that encourage punditry and speculation rather than fact-based analysis."
"We felt we really didn't have an alternative," she said. "And it was not without regret and it was not a decision that was made lightly by any means."
In a piece for FoxNews.com, Williams called his firing "an outrageous violation of journalistic standards and ethics by management that has no use for a diversity of opinion, ideas or a diversity of staff." He said his discussion with O'Reilly included "no support for anti-Muslim sentiments of any kind."
Fox News moved aggressively to turn the controversy to its advantage, signing Williams to an expanded role at the cable news network.