WASHINGTON — NPR's decision to fire news analyst Juan Williams for remarks he made about Muslims on airplanes was not only roundly criticized by conservatives Thursday but was viewed with alarm by some American Muslim activists and scholars.
Public radio executives defended the move, saying that Williams' comment on Fox News violated the news organization's ethics guidelines and undermined his credibility. Williams said Monday on "The O'Reilly Factor" that he worries when he sees Muslims in traditional garb on airplanes.
But some prominent Muslim thinkers expressed concern Thursday that his firing would contribute to what appears to be a widening gulf between Muslims and people of other beliefs 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 of the news analyst "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 election year, perhaps even more than in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
An emotional fight over the construction of an Islamic community center blocks from the site of the destroyed World Trade Center in New York exploded into a national controversy this summer and became fodder for campaign ads that have aired in Iowa and North Carolina.
On Monday night, O'Reilly and Williams were discussing O'Reilly's recent controversial appearance on ABC's "The View" 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.
For its part, Fox News moved aggressively to turn the controversy to its advantage, signing Williams to an expanded role at the cable news network.