National

Japanese-Americans reach out to Muslims

During the chaotic days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Basim Elkarra was passing by an Islamic school in Sacramento, Calif., when he did a double-take: The windows were covered with thousands of origami paper cranes — peace symbols that had been folded and donated by Japanese-Americans.

Amid the anger and suspicions being aimed at Muslims at that time, the show of support "was a powerful symbol that no one will ever forget," said Elkarra, a Muslim American community leader in California.

It was also the beginning of an unlikely bond between the two groups that has intensified as House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King, R-N.Y., prepares to launch a series of controversial hearings Thursday on radical Islam in the United States.

Spurred by memories of the World War II-era roundup and internment of 110,000 of their own people, Japanese Americans, especially on the West Coast, have been among the most vocal and passionate supporters of embattled Muslims. They've rallied public support against hate crimes at mosques, signed on to legal briefs opposing the indefinite detention of Muslims by the government, organized cross-cultural trips to the Manzanar internment camp memorial in California and held "Bridging Communities" workshops in Islamic schools and on college campuses.

Last week, Rep. Michael Honda, D-Calif., 69, who as a child spent several wartime years living behind barbed wire at Camp Amache in southeastern Colorado, denounced King's hearings as "something similarly sinister."

"Rep. King's intent seems clear: To cast suspicion upon all Muslim Americans and to stoke the fires of anti-Muslim prejudice and Islamophobia," Honda wrote in an op-ed published by the San Francisco Chronicle.

King has defended the hearings by arguing that the American Muslim community has not always cooperated with the FBI and other law enforcement authorities in countering the growth of radical Islam. And he rejects accusations that he is demonizing Muslims and ignoring threats from other extremists.

In an interview Sunday on CNN, King noted that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder "is not saying he's staying awake at night because of what's coming from anti-abortion demonstrators or coming from environmental extremists or from neo-Nazis. It's the radicalization right now in the Muslim community."

But Honda compared King's position not only to the wartime roundup of the Japanese but also to the anti-Communist hearings staged by Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s.

"I'll be damned if I'm going to stay quiet and not say something," Honda said in an interview this week. "We have to show people that as Americans, we're not going to put up with this kind of nonsense."

Japanese remember

Though the youngest internees are in their late 60s and early 70s, Japanese Americans remember what it means to be targeted by nationality during wartime.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered that all ethnic Japanese along the Pacific Coast be sent to one of 10 isolated internment camps in seven states. Of those imprisoned, 62 percent were second- and third-generation Japanese Americans born in the United States. Most lost their property to the government.

In 1988, Congress approved legislation that apologized and distributed $1.6 billion in reparations for internment, blaming the roundup on "race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership."

It was the memory of the camps that led the Japanese to reach out to their Muslim counterparts, said Kathy Masaoka, a high school teacher who co-chairs the Los Angeles chapter of the Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress.

"It dawned on us that this is really something that could escalate among Muslims, the same things our parents faced," she said. "They were being scapegoated."

What followed was a candlelight vigil in Los Angeles's Little Tokyo and a program called "Bridging Communities" aimed at educating Muslim and Japanese high school students on diversity. Last year 40 students participated in five seminars, sharing stories of challenges they face related to race, religion and ethnicity.

"They see clearly that they have similar experiences," said Affad Shaikh, civil rights manager for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "Even though the target group of the discrimination is different, the purpose of that harassment is the same."

  Comments