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By Ekram Haque

Our weekend “pilgrimage” to the Manzanar Japanese internment camp was heart-wrenching. Hearing from the former internees, I, and 30 other members of CAIR from around the country, were poignantly reminded of this shameful chapter in our country’s history when an American minority was incarcerated simply due to war hysteria and racism.

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order No. 9066 allowing for the incarceration of Japanese Americans, most of whom lived on the West Coast.

CAIR officials from around the nation joined the “pilgrimage” to the Manzanar internment camp.

Manzanar, which means “apple orchard” in Spanish and is one of 10 Japanese internment camps, also reminded me that despite slavery, the Japanese-American incarceration and our successive refrains of “Never Again” after the Holocaust, minorities in the US continue to experience racism, marginalization, and vilification. Trump’s Muslim Ban, the imprisonment of asylum seekers coupled with the separation from their children, and systemic denial of Syrian refugees’ applications, eerily remind of America’s blotted past.

On a civil-rights “pilgrimage” to Manzanar, April 30, 2019

The Japanese-Americans were not herded into the concentration camps only in response to the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan’s militarist regime. The seeds of Japanese internment were sowed in the late 19th century when they were “subjected to intense racial hatred and vilification.” In this period, the people of Japanese ancestry were often described as an invading horde, yellow peril, or vermin.

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It was a time when xenophobia against non-whites was strong and had permeated American society including the media, politics, and the entertainment industry. Almost 60 years earlier, in 1882, the US government had passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned Chinese immigration for a 10-year period, then extended it to another 10 years and then made it permanent. These actions were driven primarily by resentment and racism. People of Japanese and Chinese ancestry had become quite successful as farmers and laborers.

Due to the poisoned national politics and negative popular perception of these minorities, in 1913 Congress passed Alien Land Law, which prohibited the ownership of agricultural land by aliens ineligible to citizenship. It was followed in 1920 by the Alien Land Act, which barred leasing and sharecropping to them. The Immigration Act of 1924 banned Japanese immigration altogether.

After the Pearl Harbor attack, the Japanese-American community, especially those living in Hawaii, were widely suspected of aiding Japan in planning the attack, a belief that was grounded in this long-held racial animus.

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Fast forward to the Trump Administration. Starting with his presidential campaign in 2015, Donald Trump has mainstreamed bigotry and Islamophobia. He has called Mexicans rapists, likened immigration to an infestation, alleged that the Middle Easterners are coming into the US embedded in the migrant caravans from Latin America, and falsely claimed: “Islam hates us.” Most shockingly, he has banned immigration from majority Muslim countries — Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen.

During his presidential campaign, Trump had called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.” He somewhat fulfilled that promise through the Muslim Ban. To win his case in the Supreme Court after the ban was deemed unconstitutional by lower courts, Trump watered down his executive order and added a case-by-case waiver system. The conservative majority in the Supreme Court acquiesced, with Chief Justice John Roberts writing that the “ban does not violate the constitution or the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).” Seriously? No!

The Muslim Ban did not happen in a vacuum, and the 9/11 attacks, while accelerating the anti-Muslim tropes, were not its main reason. Since the inception of Islam 1400 years ago, especially after the growing Muslim power began to challenge Western Christian domination, there has been a concerted effort in Orientalists writings, Western media, and the entertainment industry to depict Muslims and Arabs as savages, backward, and immoral.

The Crusades played a big role in perpetuating those stereotypes. A few days after the September 11 tragedy, President George Bush told a shaken nation that “this crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while.” The word “crusade” rang alarm bells in Europe and “raised fears that the terrorist attacks could spark a ‘clash of civilizations’ between Christians and Muslims, sowing fresh winds of hatred and mistrust.”

Trump has used old prejudice and his own brand of Islamophobia to paint American Muslims as foreign and a threat to the US, even though Muslims have been part of the fabric of this nation since before it was called the United States of America. An estimated 25 percent of the slaves on whose back this country was built were Muslims, mainly from West Africa. Today, Muslim Americans are first responders, doctors, police officers, teachers and members of our armed forces. They are among the most educated and affluent segments of American society.

As Sir Ralph Norman Angell, an English Nobel Peace Prize winner, once said, “Men, particularly in political matters, are not guided by the facts but by their opinion about the facts.”

To return to the plight of the interned, subsequent government investigations confirmed that Japanese-Americans posed no threat to national security. Yet, they were rounded up and kept imprisoned for years. The entire community was given woefully inadequate time to sell their farms, businesses, and homes. Most did it at a fraction of the real value and some had to abandon their property entirely. In today’s dollars, they lost about $5 billion. The cost of indignity they suffered was immeasurable.

With Phil Shigekuni and his wife Maryanne, both of who were sent to concentration camp, Ambreen Hernandez, CAIR-Houston.

One of the most humiliating things the internees had to endure was open air latrines without any privacy, according to Phil Shigekuni, an 85-year-old former detainee. Shigekuni was eight years old when he and his family were incarcerated. He didn’t know for what crime they were sent to Manzanar, a patch of land five hours bus drive from Los Angeles that belonged to the Native Americans.

One may not discern the somber nature of the internment camp by looking at the pictures in the Manzanar museum which depict a somewhat easygoing life. The reality was much harsher.

What is amazing about the Japanese-American community is that scores of them heroically served in the 442nd Infantry Regiment during the Second World War on the European front, while their families served time in the internment camp. This unit became the most decorated in the US military history.

Due to cultural reasons, the Japanese American elders were opposed to seeking redress or reparations from the US government. Doing so would have opened old wounds. They just wanted the ignominious chapter to be forgotten. Most never discussed their incarceration with their children. However, that was not the view of the younger Japanese Americans, some of whom had started to ask the government to apologize and right the historic wrong.

Fred Korematsu, who was 23 years old in 1944, went a step further. He defied the relocation order and filed a lawsuit claiming that as a US citizen he had the right to live wherever he wished. But the Supreme Court, in a 6-3 decision in Korematsu v. the United States, disagreed and called the internment a “military necessity.” In his dissenting opinion, Justice Frank Murphy called the majority decision an “ugly abyss of racism.”

The Japanese-Americans also found inspiration in the 1960s Black civil rights movement which taught them how to organize and protest peacefully. The community also received political support from Japanese-American politicians like Senators Daniel Inouye and Spark Matsunaga, Representatives Robert Matsui, Norman Mineta, and others. In 1984, a federal court voided Korematsu’s conviction, and in 1998 President Bill Clinton bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, on Fred Korematsu. The government also awarded $20,000 to each surviving member of the internment camp, a pittance for what they had lost and too late for those who had already died, but the government’s formal apology brought closure and healing to the community who can could finally put this dark chapter behind them.

Former inmates of the Crystal City Department of Justice detention site during World War II at a protest of present-day family detention centers in Dilley, Texas. Left to right: Kaz Naganuma, James Arima, Joe Ozaki, Hiroshi Shimizu, Hiroshi Fukuda and Satsuki Ina. Photo by Martha Nakagawa. Courtesy: https://www.nichibei.org/2019/04/japanese-americans-gather-in-texas-to-protest-family-detention-at-border/

Due to their experience, Japanese-Americans have been very supportive of the rights of other Americans, including Muslims. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Japanese-Americans were the first to offer support to the American Muslim community that faced a torrent of suspicion and abuse like the Japanese did nearly 60 years earlier. In April 2019, several former Japanese Americans who were imprisoned in Texas’ Crystal City internment camp after Pearl Harbor protested the detention of asylum-seeking families in nearby Dilley.

The anti-Muslim sentiments being whipped up by Trump and his supporters have no basis in fact. Muslim Americans are loyal, law-abiding, tax-paying citizens. In the last two years, most of the violence in our country has been committed not by Muslims but by white nationalists.

As Trump’s Islamophobic rhetoric ramped up, there were renewed calls for creating a Muslim registry, an idea that was already reflected in the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, or NSEERS program that was instituted in 2002. Outwardly, NSEERS was not meant for American Muslims, but it required foreign nationals from certain countries to check in with the government before entering and leaving the country, and obliged some foreigners living in the United States to report regularly to immigration officials. At one point, the NSEERS list included 26 countries, all of them Muslim majority nations, except North Korea.

What lessons can be drawn from the internment of Japanese-Americans and how those can be applied to fighting today’s bigotry against Muslims and other people of color? Japanese-Americans had become an easy target because they didn’t have political representation in the government at the time. No matter how successful the American Muslims are, unless they at the table where laws are made they will be easily vilified and victimized.

The election of Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, two outspoken Muslims, have buoyed the Muslim community sadly they are, especially Omar, under intense attacks by the rightwing and Zionist lobbies. Several dozen other Muslims have also been elected to public offices, including the first Muslim attorney general of Minnesota, Keith Ellison. This is still a minuscule number and it would need to be helped by successive waves of Muslim elected officials at every level of government to stem the tide of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim legislation.

The internment of Japanese-Americans and Muslim Ban are not only a problem for these two communities, they are an American problem. An attack against one community’s civil rights is an attack against all communities. Although slavery and segregation are officially illegal, racial equality for blacks is still elusive. Islamophobia, racism, and antisemitism are interconnected and fighting them requires collaboration. The past progress in race relations could not have been achieved without the support of other Americans, including conscientious whites. Same way, Muslim-Americans will not be able to defeat Islamophobia without the help of fellow citizens who are equally appalled by injustice and racism.

Ekram Haque is Interim Executive Director for the Dallas chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-DFW). He is the author of Muhammad: Son of Abraham, Brother of Moses, Successor of Jesus; The Radiant Lamp; and Powered by Hope, Positivity, and Optimism.