On Tuesday, the Nikkei Student Union and the Muslim Student Union collaborated in an event, which included speakers, a spoken word performance, a Quran recitation and an emotional candlelight vigil, to remember the hardships the Japanese American community faced after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s executive order to move all people of Japanese ancestry into internment camps. It also highlighted the ways those same injustices are reflected and reproduced in post-9/11 Islamophobic attitudes, particularly in reference to Donald Trump’s recent executive order.
This event stirred memories of my maternal grandparents, great-uncles and aunts recounting their own stories of their internment experience. They spoke of being forcibly removed from their homes in Washington by the army, taking only what they could carry in a suitcase, relocated to the barracks of Minidoka War Relocation Center in the desert of central Idaho where they were surrounded by barbed wire, guards, and watchtowers. They continued to pledge their allegiance to the United States of America — some going as far as enlisting in the United States army — and were left to wonder when or if they would be returning to their lives outside of the surveillance of the government. They weren’t released for two and a half years, and were not compensated until 46 years later.
The message that reverberates in the surviving generation of the Japanese Internment camps, both in my own family and in many other survivors, is that despite identifying as American far before Japanese, their government antagonized them and treated them as a separate and dangerous entity deserving of suspicion and surveillance.
“During World War II, we were considered a people without a country. Japan didn’t want us because we were American and America didn’t want us because we were of Japanese ancestry,” said Robert Wada, a speaker for Nikkei Student Union who was interned between the ages of 12 and 15.
“This has been and will always be my country.”
— Robert Wada
Life in America was the only one they knew. Yet they were stripped of their identities and subject not only to incarceration by the government but also popularized racist sentiment among fellow Americans.
The same attitudes are now felt within the Muslim population across the U.S., as their fears of being targeted for their religion are legitimized through the new administration’s harsh words and actions. While the Trump administration has not yet targeted Muslim U.S. citizens or greencard holders, the executive order to bar immigration from seven majority Muslim countries has sent a message: in Trump’s America: Muslims are not welcome. We know what his administration thinks, regardless of how they try to package it. And that alone is enough. Zahra Billoo, a civil rights attorney and speaker for the Muslim Student Union, said “There’s this idea that to come into this country you must align yourself with his values,” referring to Donald Trump. Our country champions its promise to provide opportunities for people of any ethnic background and practicing any religion, yet it continues not only to set restrictive qualifications, but also to prey on individuals of specific backgrounds. And just like what happened over 70 years ago, an entire group of people is again subject to the scapegoating of an ignorant administration as well as normalized discrimination among many resentful and misinformed Americans.
The irony in both Executive Order 9066 in 1942 and Executive Order: “Protecting the nation from foreign terrorist entry into the United States” in 2017 is that threaded into their fabric is an unspoken expectation for these groups to prove their loyalty to the government — a government that has excluded and estranged them to a point where loyalty should logically be all but severed. They pay their taxes and pledge their allegiance to a flag symbolizing a government that condemns their very identities. “This has been and will always be my country,” Wada said. In the country you call home, nothing should have to be proven, and rights should not have to be earned.
“Stand up for what is just and correct. When one community is targeted, any community can be targeted.”
— Zahra Billoo
Regardless of what we learn from history, it has the potential to repeat itself if we collectively fail to act on the lessons of the past. “We recognize what our country has done in the past and make the parallels to what is going on today,” Wada said. Islamophobia and the Japanese Internment should be conceptualized and appreciated individually, but discussed in tandem. If we don’t draw parallels between past injustices and current ones, there is no paradigm to use to suppress their reemergence. The same racist sentiment that led to the Japanese Internment that are now reflected in current Islamophobic rhetoric cannot be ignored. “Stand up for what is just and correct,” Billoo said. “This is bigger than the Muslim community and bigger than one executive order. When one community is targeted, any community can be targeted.”
Despite the new administration and the misinformed racist ideas that still persist, we live in a much more inclusive and diverse America than 70 years ago. “Back then it was difficult because there were no minority groups to band with, but now it’s much easier because the country is much more diverse,” Wada said. We can be thankful that although intolerance seems so much more pronounced than before with the administration that is currently in control, America as a whole is not a more intolerant country. “What makes America great is its diversity and that long fought battle to protect our communities,” Billoo said. No matter how immoral the government remains across centuries and between administrations, the resiliency of the American people is something we can always be proud of.
Author: Contact Jasmine Tatah at [email protected].