left, Muslim Moroccan-French actor Said Taghmaoui does not care much for shirts; right, scary Muslim garb

The recent debate over remarks by NPR reporter Juan Williams on the Bill O’Reilly Show is quite revealing, although not in terms of fashion. Of late NPR has gone public with its No Partisan Reporting image, placing comments on Fox News atop the same perch as Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity. Lost in the shuffle is the ultimate bottom line in media as business: Williams has just signed a multi-year contract with Fox News. In commenting on his statement that he personally feels uncomfortable traveling on an airplane with fashionably coded devout Muslims, Williams is quoted on the Fox News website (with the typographical error intact):

“They take something totally out of context,” Williams said Thursday night, adding that his point was that Americans must come to grips with their prejudices.

“I have always thought of journalism, in a way, as a priesthood. you honor it you protect it,” he said, before criticizing his former employer. “These people don’t have ay sense of righteousness, of what’s right here. They’re self righteous.”

Of course, we all know that Fox News, especially someone like O’Reilly is not at all “self-righteous.” Reeling in “an unpredictable black liberal” (as Williams defines himself in the article) is quite a coup for a network that boasts conservative celebrities like Karl Rove and Sarah Palin.

To the extent Williams is referring to an obvious fact, that many Americans have a negative view of any visible sign of Islam and that the most conservative insist on defining President Obama as an oxymoronic Muslim cum Socialist, his point is correct. If this is his own fear, he is certainly allowed to express his feelings to friends and colleagues. He can also say what he thinks, within the guidelines of his employment (imagine Bill O’Reilly or Glenn Back promoting a liberal agenda on Fox News), but why would he want to add fuel to the fire of negative rhetoric. My reaction against his comments is that it feeds into the Islamophobic frenzy that Fox News, among other outlets, perpetuates. Why would an individual who has eloquently spoken out against racial prejudice in the past not extend the same rationale to American Muslims? Consider how many self-righteous Americans have fears about Black men who don’t dress like White men, who dress Black.

Does wearing Muslim garb, which terrorists do not in fact do on American soil, mean that Islam comes first and therefore makes him or her anti-American? Most Americans would no doubt say that their religion comes first, but this does not cause a conflict with their patriotism. Is Williams saying that personal expression of faith is incompatible with allegiance to our government? It is not the clothes that make a suicide bomber. Indeed, Williams should feel comfortable if a man does wear Muslim clothing, because this guy is going to get far heavier scrutiny than any real terrorist.

The problem is seeing all Muslims through a distinctive form of dress or body feature. The Black Sambo with thick lips and fuzzy hair, the European Ghetto Jew with a hooked nose, and equally the Muslim or Arab (as though some people want to tell a difference) as Osama-bearded, skull-capped and followed by a veiled wife: these are all the same symbols of prejudice. The reluctant disclaimer that the fear is only of extremist Muslims is hardly sincere when the talk is only about extremists and terrorists. If Fox News is on the right track (oxymoronic as that pun is intended), then look out for apocalypse, since a billion plus individuals on this planet follow Islam and even more dangerous “others” live in China. Ironically, the people who most fear and hate Islam are the ones who are most likely to believe in their own apocalypse, rapturing the true believers and unprecedented divine punishment for the unbelievers.

In the meantime, before the End Times begin, can you spot the Muslim by what he or she wears? Try these on for size.

Daniel Martin Varisco