By Janice Nesamani
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
While few spoke out during World War II, the Nisei Veterans Committee Foundation (NVCF) is making sure that there is a strong voice of opposition to Islamophobia and hate against members of the Muslim community.
When the current administration announced its ‘Muslim travel ban,’ the city of Seattle strongly condemned and stood up against it. Among the voices of dissent, particularly strong and poignant, were those of the Japanese American community. It stemmed from a painful history of being in a similar situation during WWII.
For many of the Nisei (second generation), and Sansei (third generation), the ban is a reminder of Executive Order 9066, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, that led to the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans based on their ethnic identity. The order that was signed after the attack on Pearl Harbor resulted in Japanese Americans losing their homes, farmland, businesses, and even their way of life, and came on the back of derogatory representation of the community that fueled anti-Japanese sentiment in the country.
Concerned about how we may have not learned our lesson from history, the Nisei Veterans Committee (NVC) and NVCF organized a panel discussion on Aug. 5 that addressed how prejudice against Muslim Americans has steadily risen since the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center (WTC), prompting the ‘War on Terror’ and more recently, resulted in the rise of hate crimes against the community within the United States.
“NVC has a strong connection to our history and the past. However, we were looking at how we can be relevant even today. Our intern Danielle Hirano came up with this idea and we helped her take it forward.
There were some concerns about us having this event, which is why I requested security for the event,” said Bev Kashino.
Panelists at the event presented accounts of how their lives were influenced by events that occurred during 9/11 and/or Pearl Harbor attacks and relocation of several Japanese Americans.
Panelists included Aneela Afzali, who came to the United States from Kabul, Afghanistan as a refugee. She is now the founder and executive director of the American Muslim Empowerment Network, a new initiative of the Muslim Association of Puget Sound; Joseph Shoji Lachman, president-elect of the Japanese American Citizens League and donor relations specialist of the Council of American Islamic Relations in Seattle; Kim Muromoto, a Nisei held at the Minidoka Concentration Camp and then served in the 442nd segregated infantry during WWII; Diane Narasaki, an API activist and executive director of Asian Counseling and Referral Service; Rasul Pasha, CEO of Centric Ltd, a Seattleite who converted to Islam at the age of 21; and Benjamin Shabazz of the Al Islam Center in Seattle.
Facilitator Ken Mochizuki introduced the event while pointing out the significance of the venue — a space that Nisei veterans, who served their countries despite being incarcerated, built because they weren’t welcomed in officer’s clubs. He asked panelists to recount their feelings during the 9/11 and/or Pearl Harbor attacks, how it impacted their race, religion, and heritage, and asked for some action steps the community could take to avoid Islamophobia and injustice against the Muslim American community.
Kim Muromoto said, “We heard about the Pearl Harbor attacks and initially did not think much about it. We had to go to work, that’s what we thought about. When we left work and people looked at us differently, but we didn’t think too much about it until the internment.” Muromoto’s family was one of the lucky ones that had their farmland returned when they came back from the camps.
Pasha, who was playing basketball in the gym, recalls being told, “Look what your guys did,” while on the court. While watching reruns on the television, he realized that this attack would have grave implications on the Muslim Americans.
Afzali recalls being in her dorm at Harvard and says that she was what you’d call a Ramadan Muslim at the time, but then came to realize in the pit of her stomach that this would have a bad impact on Muslims across the country. She remembered how before 9/11, Americans couldn’t place her home country on a map and how the ensuing War on Terror changed that, and not in a good way.
Speaking of the impact of the internment, Lachman mentioned how he didn’t learn a lot about the internment of his community and family through them or while studying history in school. He delved into the subject, did his research, and learned of the loss of a differently abled grand aunt. “My grandfather didn’t take a suitcase, he carried his sister Flora instead. Due to the poor living conditions at the camps, her condition deteriorated and she was taken to the Idaho State Hospital. She never made it back and my family transferred the sense of her loss through the generations. My family also had to burn all their Japanese possessions, like documents, photographs, and mementos, so they weren’t suspected of being Japanese sympathizers. After the internment, my family encouraged the next generation to speak in English and assimilate. I am the first person in my family who has studied Japanese and can speak it proficiently. Nobody should be made to choose between their heritage, culture, and way of life ever again,” he said.
Narasaki, who recalls being at a retreat with her colleagues when she heard about 9/11, remembers how they knew at that moment that it would change things drastically for the Muslim American community. She said, “Asians were deliberately kept as a minority for a reason. Asians were considered dirty and sneaky. My parents encouraged us to speak English and go to college. The elders and community came together and focused on things that could not be taken away — education was one of them.” She was brought up by parents who nurtured a healthy skepticism for the government, while encouraging her to assimilate into American society. She also witnessed how the Civil Rights Movement changed the image of the community, portraying Asians as the perfect American or model minority community, which she felt works against other immigrant communities that have not had the time to weave themselves into the American fabric.
An interesting observation came from Shabazz, who recalls watching replays of the planes crashing into the WTC. He recalls that the Black community realized that they were not going to be the targets anymore.
Afzali, on the other hand, embraced her Muslim identity after 9/11. She started to wear the hijab to stand in solidarity with her Muslim brothers and sisters. “We saw a rise in the number of hate crimes, that was not only based on religion but ethnicity,” she said. Quoting a study by Toronto-based 416 Labs that examined the headlines of the New York Times and found that Muslims were portrayed more negatively than cancer, cocaine, and alcohol, Afzali feels that the representation of Muslim Americans is extremely negative. “Under the recent administration, the number of hate crimes against Muslims has steadily increased. The sign of the Muslim Association of Puget Sound mosque in Redmond was vandalized twice. In one instance, we caught the perpetrator on camera. However, instead of focusing on the negative actions of one individual, I would like to focus on the goodwill and support from the community.”
“The community has come closer together. The outpouring of support from people in the community was heartening. Messages of people saying ‘We stand with you’ is what I’d like to focus on.”
Ending the discussion, Afzali distributed a document that would help educate people about Islam and countering Islamophobia. She encouraged people to educate themselves about Islam and be aware of what’s happening around them, and meet their Muslim neighbors, colleagues, and fellow citizens. She asked the members present to be active allies and use their pens and voices to provide support and build solidarity within the community.
Janice can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.