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Letter to the Muslim American Community 2011

Dear Muslim American Friends,

I am writing to you to extend a hand of support and understanding and to let you know that members of the American Muslim community are not alone when it comes to standing up to hate and intolerance in our country.

Norman Mineta and Muslim American youth from the Bridging Communities program. Photo by Richard Watanabe

As a third generation Japanese American (aka “Sansei”), I am deeply troubled by the current environment of hate, fear, vandalism, and violence toward the American Muslim community. It is eerily reminiscent of the time during World War II when members of my family and 120,000 Japanese Americans were rounded up after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, forcibly removed from their homes on the West Coast and incarcerated in desolate “relocation centers”—all because they looked like the Japanese enemy and were thought to be threats to our country’s national security.

All of a sudden, immigrant parents and their U.S citizen children alike were not to be trusted, their loyalty to America was questioned and pretty soon a call went out—led by California politicians, military leaders, and mainstream newspapers—to round up all Japanese Americans and “put them away in concentration camps.” On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 which made it official: All persons of Japanese ancestry, two-thirds of whom (70,000) were American citizens, were imprisoned in ten concentration camps located in the badlands of America, without due process, without cause, all due to “military necessity”—a claim, researchers later discovered, was a lie.

My family, including my mother, father, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and the entire West Coast Japanese American community was hauled away in old, dusty trains and dumped in these camps, where most of them were confined for over three years.

As we have approached the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the co-chairs of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission earlier this week expressed their concern over another possible 9/11-type terrorist attack, and how we are not as prepared as they would like us to be. My concern is that if an attack like this were to happen again, the American Muslim community would face the very same circumstances that Japanese Americans encountered after Pearl Harbor, especially given the extremists currently in Congress and the present-day climate of ignorance, fear, hatred, and intolerance.

We in the Japanese American community do not always agree on many things, but the one thing we do agree on is this: NEVER AGAIN. It has become like a mantra, repeated over and over again at Japanese American community events: That what happened to us during WWII must never happen again to any other group of people in America. But the one thing we’ve learned is that we must remain vigilant, and we must learn from the mistakes and lies of the past to prevent it from happening again.

And to prevent it from happening again, we must understand the ugly truth of what happened to an innocent, law-abiding and loyal group of American citizens and their immigrant parents. And that ugly truth is this: To “cover-up” its unprecedented and entirely unconstitutional actions against our community, the U.S. government brought in some “creative writers” who used a series of cleverly worded euphemisms to hide the truth of what was really happening.

There are numerous examples, but the most glaring included calling the American citizen Nisei “non-aliens” when describing them on its government-issued eviction order that was distributed throughout our communities. You can’t imprison an American citizen without due process, but you can do whatever you want with “non-aliens.” (And they did.) Then they decided to call these camps “relocation centers,” instead of what they really were: American-style concentration camps. Even the name of the newly created department that was responsible for the camps—the War Relocation Authority—was a lie to deceive the American public.

There were many more euphemisms and lies that led to bigger lies, but I think you get the picture. This is why it’s important for us in the Japanese American community to educate ourselves and understand these facts and more so we can accurately tell the American public the truth about what happened. That we were completely betrayed by our own country and its leaders, and that the vast majority of Americans stood by and let it happen. It’s also just as important for you to learn the truth, so that if it were to happen again, you will be able to recognize the “plays from this playbook” and take steps to stop it.

Photo by Richard Watanabe

The scary part about all this is that it can happen again, and almost did, after 9-11, according to a recent statement by former Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, who was serving under the Bush administration when the attack happened. I share all this with you because I want you to know that members of the Japanese American community already have and will continue to stand with you.

Earlier this year, Japanese American organizations including the Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress (NCRR), the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) Pacific Southwest District, and the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) publicly stated in a joint resolution with American Muslim organizations its “Call to Action” at this year’s Day of Remembrance ceremony held on February 19, 2011. It stated, in part:

“Be It Resolved That: We commit ourselves to stand up for the civil liberties and the rights of all Americans to express their beliefs and practice their faith peacefully and without harassment.

“We, the Japanese American and American Muslim communities, commit ourselves to educate ourselves and others about our shared history and values contributing to a society that is respectful of all cultures, ethnicities, and religions.”

Photo by Richard Watanabe

If another attack were to occur, and there was another call out to “put you away in concentration camps,” concerned members of the Japanese American community will be there to ensure that what happened to us will not and can not happen to you. We will not stand for it. We will not accept it. You are not alone, and together, we will stand united.

© 2011 Soji Kashiwagi

9/11 discrimination incarceration internment japanese american muslim american racism World War II