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I’ve had a very Muslim week.
August 18, 2010

I’ve had a very Muslim week.

It began just after Shabbat on Aug. 8, when I drove to Exposition Park to attend the Pakistan Independence Day festival. A member of

the organizing committee invited me, and, to be honest, I expected to walk into a picnic area and get stared at by a few dozen bearded men and their heavily veiled wives.

The reality was different. PakDayLA is an annual event that takes over a vast field near the Los Angeles Coliseum, filling it with booths selling everything from Pakistani clothing and crafts to life insurance, cell phones, cable and wireless service, travel packages and, of course, Pakistani food. Some 20,000 people showed up; some were in traditional dress, but the vast majority looked like the crowd at The Grove.

On the center stage, public officials welcomed the crowd, while prominent Pakistanis urged the audience to support relief efforts for people suffering from devastating floods back home.

Then the main attraction came out — a London-based pop star named Annie.

“She’s our Madonna,” a young man explained to me, except she’s 30 years younger, with flowing black hair, skin-tight pants and a tight-fitting top. She brought the young people in the crowd to a frenzy. I was expecting a religious revival; I got a Shakira concert.

On Aug. 9, two Muslim journalists showed up for work at The Jewish Journal. For the past five years, the Los Angeles-based Daniel Pearl Foundation has selected midcareer Muslim journalists from developing countries to become Daniel Pearl Fellows. The Fellows spend six months working at mainstream publications, then a week at The Jewish Journal.

In many ways, Aoun Sahi and Nasry Ahmed Esmat were as different from one another as both were from me.  Sahi, 31, is a reporter for The News, Pakistan’s prominent English-language paper. Esmat, 29, is an award-winning reporter and editor for Al-Ahram newspaper in Cairo. Sahi came to The Journal after spending six months at the Atlanta bureau of The Wall Street Journal, where Daniel Pearl once worked. Esmat had spent six months at the nonprofit investigative news Web site ProPublica, then a few weeks at The Los Angeles Times.

Sahi is tall, witty and self-deprecating — a tan Jeff Goldblum. Esmat is more stocky, more earnest — with, as I pointed out to him, the identical speech and mannerisms of an Israeli.

“I’m a Shi’ite,” Sahi explained to me at our first meeting. “You’re a Jew.” He pointed to Esmat, a member of the Sunni majority, and smiled mischievously. “He’s trying to kill us both.”

I took both men to visit Wilshire Boulevard Temple, which is across the street from our Koreatown offices; it was their first time in a synagogue. They sat in on an editorial meeting, where Rabbi Arthur Green spoke about the need for Israel to be “generous” vis-a-vis the Palestinians. They witnessed the vibrancy and joy of Sinai Temple’s Friday Night Live. I could tell it all gave them pause.

“You understand,” Esmat said, “when we think of a Jew, all we ever think of is a screaming man with a beard or a soldier with a gun.”

Throughout much of the Muslim world, they agreed, the image of America is formed 90 percent by Hollywood movies and 10 percent by news of conflict among Israel, America and Muslims. Given the low literacy rates in their countries, these images shape intellects. A Pakistani or Egyptian child is reared with a pathological ignorance of Jews, Judaism and Israel, having had zero contact with anything resembling a three-dimensional live Jew. By any definition, they are brainwashed.

“We blame the Jews for everything,” Esmat told me. “It’s like a joke.”

Sahi agreed that his fellow Muslims believe Jews control the media, business and government. It’s as if the collapse of Nasserism and communism has left only anti-Semitism as the most viable belief system. The fragile monarchs that pass for Muslim leaders (often with U.S. support, thank you) are only too happy to perpetuate these myths to distract the masses from the misery they perpetrate.

It’s why, as Sahi explained at a presentation to the Los Angeles Press Club the evening of Aug. 12, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan are, by far, the most popular Muslim leaders: Who else will stand up to the all-powerful, violent, belligerent Jews?

Back in my office, Sahi pulled some books from my shelf to take home: “The Case for Israel,” by Alan Dershowitz, and Walter Lacquer’s “A History of Zionism.”

“I want to read the other side,” Sahi said. “We only get one side.”

Of course, all this took place as the national debate raged over the building of an Islamic community center two blocks from the site of Ground Zero. Back in Pakistan, Sahi said, people were following the debate closely, certain that it was evidence of America’s hostility to Islam. Sure, there are Americans who revel in their ignorance and hatred of Islam. But having been at PakDayLA, and having been welcomed on Ramadan at the vibrant, diverse Islamic Center of Southern California, both men now knew the truth is more complicated.

At the Press Club event, I asked Esmat if the Internet could help break down some of the barriers erected by propaganda and prejudice.

“Absolutely,” Esmat answered. “When there is no democracy offline, you can have democracy online.”

That evening, after the Pearl Fellows left, I friended them on Facebook. Next, I’ll Facebook their friends. For now, in a world with too few Pearl Fellows and too little cross-cultural contact, maybe the virtual world is the best place for us to get real. What the Internet needs is a thousand places where Muslims and Jews can share their interests and lives in a brainwash-free zone.

That’s what I would create — if only I controlled the media.

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