From the Jews of the McCarthy era to the post-9/11 Muslims, American politics always points its finger toward a scapegoat due to fear and lack of knowledge, said a panel of three speakers at the in Los Gatos on Tuesday.
“When ignorance and misinformation [are] exploited, [they] 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 University political scientist Larry Gerston and Congressman Mike Honda for a “Paranoid Politics” panel.
Under this year’s theme “Muslim and American: Two Perspectives,” the SV Reads program organized a series of discussion panels, kicking off in February through a talk on the selected book, “The Muslim Next Door.”
Honda, who spent his childhood in a Japanese internment camp in Colorado, spoke about how prejudice against “the other” can build unknowingly.
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.
Such stereotypes and pre-conceived ideas have lead Americans to be scared of Muslims, said Ali, adding 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.
In the U.S. “we collide. It’s messy but it still works,” said Gerston, pointing out that a Jew (Gerston), Muslim (Ali) and Christian (Honda) had come together for a panel at the Jewish Community Center.
Reactionary politics has also gotten a bad rap in America, said Ali. It is still practiced, but looked down upon in retrospect by most.
“When we engage in knee-jerk politics, we feel a sense of shame as with McCarthyism,” said Ali.
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 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.