CNN: Ahmed Rehab on Wolf Blitzer's The Situation Room, Debates Juan Williams Controversy

CAIR-Chicago Executive Director Ahmed Rehab discusses the Juan Williams/NPR controversy on CNN’s The Situation with Wolf Blitzer.  Rehab debates conservative pundit Cliff May, of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, on the irrationality of William’s comment.


BLITZER: Let’s dig deeper right now in the firing of Juan Williams over at NPR.

Joining us now, Ahmed Rehab. He’s the executive director of the Chicago chapter of CAIR. That’s the Council on American Islamic Relations. And Cliff May, he’s the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

Thanks to you and to Cliff for coming in. Let me play the little clip. This is a shortened version of what Juan Williams said on “The O’Reilly Factor” that got him in trouble with you. Listen to this.


JUAN WILLIAMS, FORMER NPR COMMENTATOR: Look, Bill, I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country, but when I get on a plane, I’ve 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. I get nervous.


BLITZER: All right. That’s the little clip. Earlier, we gave it some more perspective. Why did that so upset CAIR?

AHMED REHAB, CAIR: Well, let me follow up on the last segment, in answer to your question. This is not a debate left versus right or conservative versus liberal. This is a debate of rational versus irrational.

And Mr. — himself, Juan Williams himself was the first to admit that his views, while honest — and I can see that they’re honest — were irrational. So the question to him is what do you do about your irrational points of view?

You also — you also have intellect, and it’s — it’s incumbent upon you, the onus is on you to let your intellect overcome irrational sentiment or emotional feelings.

BLITZER: Specifically, tell us — tell us why CAIR quickly issued a statement expressing its deep concern over those remarks. Explain why this so…

REHAB: These remarks, well, they didn’t anger us, but disappointed us. These remarks were problematic, because they were, in a sense, stereotypical. He’s talking about Muslims at large, and Muslim garb. He’s talking about identity and not action.

To me, terrorists are a problem because of what they do. They’re not a problem because they’re Muslim. Muslims who are not terrorists, who are not intentional terrorists or are not engaged in any violent activity or any extremism are not what we ought to be talking about when we’re talking about threats. They ought not to make us nervous.

And so Mr. Juan came up there and started to talk about Muslims at large in a stereotypical fashion, much like on this very same network, Rick did the same thing. Rick Sanchez was also fired from CNN.

BLITZER: What about that, Cliff? Go ahead and react to what you just heard from Ahmed. CLIFF MAY: Well, the difficulty here, Wolf, I think, is the following. It’s — Juan Williams if you followed his work and if you listened to what he said, there is nothing bigoted, there is no stereotyping.

Why is he saying he has become afraid of Muslims? The fact of the matter is we have had literally thousands of terrorist acts committed since 9/11, and the important part is not that they were committed by Muslims though they were, but that they were committed by people who said they were acting in the name of Islam. And that has caused a fear among a lot of people.

And I’m not necessarily sharing that fear. I was in Pakistan not long ago. I was in Iraq not long ago. I was in Afghanistan. There are people there who are absolutely as opposed to terrorism as you or I, but there are those there who think that terrorism is justified, because Islam needs to win in the struggle it’s in with the infidels, with the west, with America, with Israel, et cetera.

So this fear should be discussed in a rational way, rather than have what happened here, which is that CAIR wrote a pretty angry letter to NPR, and I think that letter intended to get him fired and in fact did. What Juan was doing was starting a conversation we need to have.

BLITZER: Well, Ahmed, respond to that. Was that your intent to get him fired from NPR?

REHAB: No. Our intent was to engage with our own freedom of speech to express how we feel about his statements. And a lot of the defenders of freedom of speech, quote, unquote, like Mr. May here, unfortunately, they approach freedom of speech on a one-way street. It’s a two-way street. He does have ever right to express his emotions and his feelings, which is what he did. We have every right to respond, which is what we did.

The outcome was left in the hands of NPR and NPR alone. We did not tell them what to do. We have no power to tell them what to do. All we can do is express our own feelings, which is exactly what we did.

MAY: You did. And I would call on NPR to rehire him. I wonder if you wouldn’t do the same thing right here and now, because we need him in the debate, and we need NPR in the debate. We don’t need the message that NPR has now sent, which is that you cannot discuss these issues. It’s just not allowed to discuss your fears or your opinions of the fact that we have a problem, and not at least in the Muslim world, but in the Islamic militancy.

REHAB: Mr. — if Juan Williams admits that his views are irrational, the question to him is what is he doing about his irrational? What is he doing to make him rational?

MAY: Well, look, we’ve got to be honest about this, and I think you can be. We have had thousands of attacks by Muslims acting as Muslims in the name of Islam. That has made people worry that maybe there, the Muslims they see, are part of that movement. Part of those organizations, part of those regimes.

We do have in the — in the Muslim world regimes, movements, and organizations that are dedicated to killing westerners and infidels. You do agree with that?

REHAB: You’re making — you’re making correct statements, factual statements.

MAY: Yes.

REHAB: But you’re making them in order to draw false conclusions. The problem here is one of scalability. Al Qaeda is the problem. The extremist network that supports it is a problem. Muslims at large are not. If we fail to distinguish between the specific and the general, we will continue to have a false premise.

MAY: I agree. I agree.

BLITZER: Let me — let me — hold on.

REHAB: Please, let me add this. Let me just add this, that we had what happened in Fort Hood, which was a American-born Muslim, a psychiatrist and a major in the Army. We had Anwar al-Awlaki, an imam here in the Washington area who everyone thought was a moderate turned out to be an al Qaeda member. This is going to cause people to be suspicious. That is unfortunate. That is bad. And that’s why we do need to discuss exactly what Juan was discussing: how do we know who is a moderate and who is a radical?

REHAB: He came on Bill O’Reilly and he just said that he had these irrational fears. Neither of them engaged in trying to help each other overcome these irrational fears. You now are admitting that these are suspicions and these are problematic. Again, you’re not telling me how what you’re doing about overcoming those, you know, false suspicions about people at large. That needs to be part of the discussion.

It isn’t just to come out and say, “Well, hey, these are honest views.” You know what? All forms of racism in some ways are honest. People are honestly bigoted. People are honestly confused. We need to overcome that. We have an intellect over our to irrational fears.

MAY: I don’t think that’s irrational. I don’t agree that it’s irrational. Would you not agree that, within the Islam world, within the Islamic community, there is a problem with terrorism, with militancy and with extremism as expressed, yes, by al Qaeda, also by the Taliban, also al Shabab, also Hezbollah, also Hamas. And I could name ten other organizations like that.

REHAB: Right. Look, yes, I agree that these are problems, and you know who else agrees? The great majority of Muslims. The majority of the people that Mr. Williams is afraid to sit next to on the plane. And that’s the problem. He is unable or unwilling to distinguish between the problem and the solution.

BLITZER: I’ve known Juan Williams for a long time, and he is definitely sympathetic, Ahmed, to the problem that Muslim — American Muslims who are decent, honorable citizens. He’s very — the irony of all of this, he is somebody who’s been sympathetic to your concerns and now he’s been fired by NPR, which is, you know, something that a lot of us who know Juan, and I’ve known him for many years find, you know, very ironic. And I assume you appreciate that, as well. You know his views.

REHAB: Let me be clear. I don’t think he’s a bigot. A statement that he made can be seen as bigoted. I think it’s definitely prejudiced. I don’t think he is a bigot as a person. And I think that hat he needs to do is be more responsible about when he expresses his irrational perspectives, and he admits that they’re irrational, he needs to employ his intellect to overcome the irrational sentiment, as explained to people how to do that.

MAY: Let me — let me just make this point. You had — there was, recently, a cartoonist in Seattle who decided maybe through freedom of speech we should have an “Everyone Draw Muhammad Day,” and that was offensive to some people, so she withdrew it. An American- born imam said she should be killed for that, and she has had to disappear. This is the reason some people get frightened. They’re frightened if they say the wrong thing they’ll be targeted. Irshad Manji, who by the way…


BLITZER: Hold on, hold on. Hurry up, guys. But quickly.

REHAB: CAIR reached out to Molly Norris. Molly Norris withdrew the cartoons not because of — that they offended people; because she saw that people on the far right wing were exploiting her honest attempt to get a discussion going in order to draw bigoted expressions themselves.


REHAB: … that reason. When she was attacked, we stood by her.

MAY: You stood by her? She has disappeared. She has gone into hiding. She is afraid of militant Islamics…

REHAB: Look, I get hate mail all the time, and I could go into hiding, too, and that was her decision for all the safety.

BLITZER: All right, Cliff. Hold on, hold on. We’ve got to — we’ve got to — we’re going to leave this for another day, unfortunately, but a good discussion.

Ahmed Rehab, thanks very much for coming in. Cliff May, thanks to you, as well. Clearly, this is a sensitive issue. I’ll just leave it with the thought that Juan Williams has got a job. He’s going to be just fine. He’s working at FOX, and I’m sure he’ll be very successful there.

MAY: It’s NPR that should be ashamed of itself, I have to say. BLITZER: All right. Well, NPR has its own — NPR has got a lot of its own problems right now as a result of the way it handled this — this incident. Clearly, a huge blunder in terms of the PR and the way they’ve handled it. All right, guys, thanks very — thanks very much.