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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.