"Our goal tonight is really very simple," Simitian said. "It's to create a better understanding of Islam among the general public."
The evening event, which drew close to 500 people who packed the Mountain View Center for Performing Arts, ranged from Islam 101 and the basics for practicing the faith to thorny topics like terrorist acts carried out by people claiming their violent attacks were rooted in religious conviction.
Panelists frequently pushed back against the idea that Islam is somehow separate and vastly different from Judeo-Christian traditions, or that the religion and all of its myriad sects are inherently incompatible with democracy and Western cultural values.
Like Christianity and Judaism, some small groups of Muslims may follow a set of beliefs that clash with democracy, womens' rights and acceptance of other religions, but that hardly represents the majority, said Anita Husen, associate dean and director of the Markaz Resource Center at Stanford University. She challenged the use of the term Judeo-Christian as a semantic way of pushing Islam out of mainstream Western religions, turning it into the "other" as somehow fundamentally different.
"Judeo-Christian as a phrase doesn't really serve much of a purpose," she said. "Most religions share more in common than they have differences."
Jihad Turk, president of the Bayan Claremont graduate school, argued that conflicts between Muslim sects, particularly Sunni and Shia, are often misunderstood as divisions based on religious differences. He said it really comes down to tribalism and fights over national identity throughout the Middle East, and that there's a rich history of Sunnis and Shias getting along and intermarrying absent any political strife.
"It really is about nationalism," he said.
Although hot-button political topics, including surveillance and immigration bans from Muslim-majority countries, are slated for a future panel discussion later this month, it was impossible to keep it from bubbling up during the Monday discussion. Maha Elgenaidi, executive director of Islamic Networks Group, encouraged residents to be cognizant of a troubling rise in hate crimes, mosques being vandalized and Muslim children being bullied or harassed in school.
"Islamophobia, as well as anti-Semitism, is growing in this country, particularly after this last presidential election," she said.
The trends are concerning, but Elgenaidi said she was encouraged to see people of all faiths showing up in droves at airports when the travel ban was imposed last year, and stand in solidarity against the idea of creating a Muslim registry.
Turk called for open lines of dialogue between the Muslim community other religious groups, and said that his experience being born and raised in the U.S. is that Americans are more curious about the religion than fearful or hateful. He said his first name — Jihad — often sparks conversations, but he said it hasn't led to discrimination or hostility or gotten him pulled aside at an airport.
"I reaffirmed my Americanism, or my positivity towards what it means to be American, because almost everyone I meet who asks me (about the name) is interested and wants to know more," he said.
Simitian told the Voice that he launched the Mountain View series after a similar three-part discussion on Islam sparked huge public interest in Palo Alto last year — so much so that would-be attendees had to be turned away. He said he was expecting the Monday event to be popular, and that it was great to see so many people show up interested to learn.
"My hunch was that we would have significant interest, and I was delighted to see 500 folks make their way there," he said. "I think it speaks well of our community that so many folks want to take the time to understand."
Simitian said the extraordinary interest in Palo Alto and in Mountain View is a sign that residents in the community want to know more about a small but significant minority in Santa Clara County that has been "thrust" into the public's consciousness, particularly following the 2016 presidential election. Getting that kind of information in a way that's easy to absorb can be difficult, and he said the panelists did a good job sharing the fundamental elements of their faith and how they show it in their daily lives.
When he brings it up with people outside the county, Simitian said the response is often disbelief — that 500 or more people are drawn to events on cerebral topics like understanding religion.
"That's the district that I'm privileged to represent," he said.
The next event in the series will focus on women and Islam on Monday, April 23. The final event, on U.S. policies and fear of Sharia and terrorism, is scheduled for April 30. Both are scheduled to run from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the MVCPA.
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