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Williams comments should spark discussion, not firing

By Clifford D. May, Special to CNN
  • Clifford May says NPR fired Juan Williams for stating a fear that many Americans share
  • Saying it should not get you fired, he says; there is basis for fear of Muslim terrorists
  • He says many terrorist attacks have occurred in name of Islam, including ones involving planes
  • May: Discussion of opinions and fears should not be punished, even if they cause discomfort

Editor's note: Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism. From 1997 to 2001, he was director of communications for the Republican National Committee; he also served as an adviser in 2006 to the Iraq Study Group.

(CNN) -- So much for National Public Radio's commitment to freedom of speech. As just about everyone now knows, NPR fired commentator Juan Williams for expressing not an opinion but a fear -- one that millions of Americans almost certainly share.

"When I get on a plane," Williams told Fox News' Bill O'Reilly, "I've 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."

This reminded me: A few years ago, I was traveling with a government official from the Middle East. His name clearly identified him as a Muslim. We were screened at two airports, and I noticed he was not searched thoroughly. He told me that was not unusual -- and he was not pleased by it. Why not? Because, he said, "If they're not scrutinizing me, who else are they not looking at? I don't want to get killed in a terrorist attack any more than you do."

To express that fear in public cannot be a firing offense.

Americans are not fighting a war against Muslims. But within what we have come to call "the Muslim world," there are regimes, organizations and movements that are fighting a war against us.

Would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, following his conviction in a New York courtroom, put it this way: "Brace yourselves, because the war with Muslims has just begun. Consider me the first droplet of the blood that will follow. ... Defeat is the destiny of the United States. It's imminent."

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Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab, who tried to blow up a passenger plane in flight December 25, also was acting on the basis of religious ideology.

So too, was American-born Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the alleged perpetrator of the Fort Hood massacre. He received "spiritual guidance" from Imam Anwar al-Awlaki, an Islamic cleric -- and al Qaeda member. Al-Awlaki used to preach in a moderate mosque just outside Washington.

The reason the subject came up when Williams was on Fox: A few days earlier, O'Reilly appeared on ABC's "The View," where he expressed his opposition to plans to build an elaborate Islamic center on the edge of ground zero in New York.

Asked why he had a problem with that, O'Reilly blurted out: "Because Muslims killed us on 9/11." At which point two of the show's panelists, Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar, walked off the set -- refusing to engage in debate, attempting to make clear that such discussion was off-limits.

Many terrorist attacks have been carried out over the past nine years in the name of Islam.

Serious Muslim reformers are not afraid to grapple with these issues. Irshad Manji titled her latest book "The Trouble with Islam Today." Does that eliminate her forever as a commentator for NPR? If so, that's the least of her worries because, having written it, she faces death threats from extremists -- extremists with a religiously-based ideology. It's worth remembering that it's not just that most terrorists today are Muslim; most victims of terrorism are Muslims, too.

In punishing a man for discussing these complex issues frankly, NPR joins an unsavory alliance. Seattle cartoonist Molly Norris recently went into hiding after an imam called for her to be killed for the "crime" of suggesting that an "Everyone Draw Mohammad Day" would bolster freedom of speech.

In Europe, Theo van Gogh was murdered for the "crime" of making a film that criticized the treatment of women under Islam. Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders is on trial right now for the "crime" of expressing opinions offensive to Muslims.

Too many journalists at NPR are reluctant to air these issues. I know: A few years ago, an executive at NPR -- a friend from years earlier when we were both newspaper reporters -- asked me to provide occasional commentary on terrorism, Islamism and national security.

But it quickly became clear that the producer to whom I was assigned did not care for my views on these matters and that I would be allowed to comment on air only so long as I took more dovish positions.

After being continually told that they had enough commentary on an issue or didn't thrill at the angle I was proposing, I stopped sending the producer my suggestions.

More than ever, Americans need free and open discussion. We need to be able to express our opinions -- and our fears -- even when doing so causes occasional heartburn.

I find it hard to believe the journalists working at NPR lack either the insight to perceive this or the courage to stand up and say it.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Clifford May.