From the Jews of the McCarthy era to the Muslims of post-9/11, there is always a scapegoat during difficult times, a result of fear and lack of knowledge, said a panel of three speakers at the in Los Gatos on Tuesday.
“When ignorance and misinformation is exploited it can lead to bigotry and hate,” said Wajahat Ali, a Muslim-American playwright from Fremont. “You can inoculate yourself with proper information.”
Brought together through the 2012 Silicon Valley Reads program, Ali was joined by San Jose State Political Science Professor Larry Gerston and U.S. Rep. Mike Honda, D-San Jose, for the panel, “Paranoid Politics.” It is part of this year’s theme, “Muslim and American: Two Perspectives.”
Silicon Valley Reads is in the final month of the three-month-long series of discussion panels. It with an onstage interview with the authors of the program’s selected two books, The Muslim Next Door and the The Butterfly Mosque. The in the Silicon Valley Reads program, hosting two author appearances at the main library and one at the Woodland branch in February and March.
Honda, a Japanese-American who spent his childhood in a World War II internment camp in Colorado, spoke about how prejudice against “the other” can build unknowingly.
When people use derogatory ethnic terms it’s often “part of their vocabulary,” said Honda, referring to a recent incident when an ESPN headline writer wrote about New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin and used a word that also happens to be derogatory to Chinese.
In general, added Gerston, people are afraid of what is “seen as a threat to the status quo”, be it immigration or diversity in general. The public finds itself in a fight or flight pattern, where it shies away from the unknown.
This creates misinformed ideas such as, “'Mexicans are taking our jobs'—even though no one is going to go out there for $8 an hour to pick fruit—but 'they’re taking our jobs,'” said Gerston.
Lack of full information has led Americans to be scared of Muslims, said Ali, citing a figure that 62 percent of Americans say they don’t personally know one. Increasing numbers, as a result, believe that President Obama, a Christian, is a Muslim.
“If he is a Muslim, he is the worst Muslim of all time,” said Ali, evoking laughter from the audience of 160 people. “He drinks alcohol openly and he eats pork.”
When Ali was a student at UC Berkeley in 2002, he felt a need to start a “ DeCal class”—or student-run course—on Islam because he couldn’t find anything comprehensive offered in the curriculum.
The panelists agreed, however, that American society is becoming increasingly accepting of diversity. “We collide," said Gerston. "It’s messy but it still works,” pointing out that a Jew (Gerston), Muslim (Ali) and Christian (Honda) had come together for a panel at the Jewish Community Center.
Mentalities shift through individuals speaking out against them, the panelists said. For example, Honda, who goes to a church regularly, said he has spoken against his pastor, who believes that homosexuality is wrong.
Those who are “different” are not so different after all, said Ali, pointing out that many Americans do not know the beloved poet Rumi was a devout Muslim, but that most associate Osama bin Laden with the religion.
“Religions don’t speak,” said Ali. “Its adherents do.”
Selection of Upcoming Silicon Valley Reads Panels
Sat., April 14
Symbol Ali-Kara Mali, 4 p.m., Barnes and Noble, Campbell’s Pruneyard
Wed., April 18
Getting to Know American Muslims and Their Faith, 7 p.m., Gilroy Library
Sat., April 21
Todd Parr, 10:15 a.m., Mountain View Public Library
“Allah Made Me Funny,” 11 a.m., Berryessa Branch Library
Sun, April 22
Todd Parr, 1 p.m. Los Gatos Library
Thur., April 26
Willow Wilson, 6:30 p.m., Campbell Library
“Allah Made Me Funny,” 7 p.m., Gilroy Library
Sat., April 28
Willow Wilson, 10 a.m., Mountain View Public Library
Willow Wilson, 2 p.m. Gilroy Library
Sun., April 29
Closing event of Silicon Valley Reads with Sumbul Ali-Karamali and Willow Wilson, 2 p.m., Santa Clara Central Park Library
For a complete list of upcoming panels, films, discussions and art exhibits, visit the program’s calendar of events. For a complete list of sponsors, which includes Friends of the Los Gatos Library, visit the sponsor page.