Last week, Ben Affleck courageously took a stand on Bill Maher's show, Real Time. He questioned Maher and his guest panelist, Sam Harris, for making sweeping generalizations about the majority of Muslims.
As the world looks with horror and disgust at the barbaric acts of extremists in Iraq and Syria, it is understandable that people of good will are justifiably searching for answers. When we witness evil, all humans have a fundamental need to label it. By categorizing it, we hope we can eliminate evil from our midst.
When we attempt to categorize the evil of one or a few, we invariably brand most, if not all, with the sins of the few.
Unfortunately, our very human characteristic -- to notice difference and categorize entire groups of people based on it -- can be exploited by those who have other agendas.
That can include Fox News, which knows that fostering anti-Muslim attitudes not only spikes ratings, but advances their political agenda. It also includes Bill Maher, who is suspicious of all religions, and who has a particular contempt for Muslims and Islam.
As a nation, we have been here before. It's unbelievable now to think it was an official American policy to round up and imprison Japanese Americans following the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
I struggle to imagine what it was like to be a Japanese American family during the anti-Japanese hysteria of World War II. One day, you are engaged in your routine: taking your kids to school, going to work, returning home to sit down to dinner with your family. The next day, you and your loved ones are rounded up and transported to a prison hundreds, even thousands, of miles away.
Of course, those transitions -- from sitting down with your family to being transported to an internment camp -- don't happen over night. Fear and confusion often simmer for awhile. However, irresponsible rhetoric and a loud megaphone can cause things to boil over very quickly.
That's what's so worrisome about Bill Maher's rhetoric.
When the heat gets turned up, we know it's not long before we see a spike in anti-Muslim hate and bigotry. In fact, in the last few years, we have seen a 50 percent increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes -- which were already at unacceptably high levels after 9/11. Will this latest wave of irresponsible rhetoric increase anti-Muslim bigotry? I hope not, but I am worried.
This anti-Muslim sentiment doesn't just impact those who are Muslim. Less than five days after 9/11, a Sikh gas station owner was murdered in a hate crime -- killed because his murderer could not distinguish between a Muslim and a Sikh person.
This also happened during World War II. I recall the experience of a Chinese American civil rights leader who was a child in the early 1940s. He recounted the story of his father passing out newspapers and scissors with the instructions to cut out the big letters from the headlines. His family took the letters and taped the following message to their car window: "We are Chinese."
As a nation, we look back at these moments of our history both as a source of shame, but also with a commitment not to repeat past mistakes.
As I travel around the country, I often hear American Muslims express similar fears: "I want to make sure that my daughter doesn't grow up ashamed to be Muslim" or "I worry that my son will get bullied in school."
Those comments are always the most difficult to hear.
That is why I want to thank Ben Affleck for his words. Those, like him, who are willing to take courageous stands, help our nation transcend the fear. They remind us that we are stronger together -- not despite our differences but because of our differences. E pluribus unum -- out of many, we are one.
I appreciated his reminder that the billion Muslims across the globe "want to go to school" or want to "have some sandwiches" (yes, we love sandwiches, too!). Ben is talking about Muslims who aspire to the same things that all people of genuine good will aspire to, aspirations widely shared by most Americans. Hard work. Raising a family. Giving to charity. Practicing our faith. And the opportunity to do so free of judgment -- certainly free of fear or violence.
I know we can be that nation. We have moved past these difficult moments in our history before. Courageous, thoughtful people like Ben Affleck will help us get there.