The Ties That Bind: Muslim Americans join Japanese Americans on Manzanar Pilgrimage

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More than 100 Muslim Americans from across California joined Japanese Americans for the 39th annual Manzanar Pilgrimage on April 26.

Many in the Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian community have found steady allies in the Japanese American community, both groups all too familiar with being the target of “anti-terror” xenophobia and discrimination during war time. The San Francisco, Sacramento and Southern California Japanese American Citizens Leagues and Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress have been working with the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the National Legal Sanctuary for Community Advancement, among others.

This year’s shared journey to Manzanar, in a desert 230 miles northeast of Los Angeles and one of 10 camps where more than 110,000 Japanese Americans were interned during World War II, highlighted the historical connection and modern relevance of the camps among Japanese American and Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian people.

Nineteen-year-old Fatima Elkabti, a junior at Scripps College and president of the student body, went to Manzanar for the first time this year to overcome anxiety of a possible Muslim American internment. “I went to Manzanar because it embodied my fears,” Elkabti said. “As a Muslim living in a post-9/11 world, I have too often heard Muslim Americans whispering their worries that we too would be numbered and carted off into a wholesale prison.”

The Muslim American presence enriched the annual Manzanar At Dusk discussion forum, typically attended only by Japanese American college students and former internees. Greg Marutani, board member of the San Francisco Japanese American Citizens League, was struck by the words of Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California.  “He said that there may not be a physical internment, but many Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian people are in a psychological internment, fearful of what will happen next,” Marutani said. “Now from a Nisei perspective, at least in the camps they knew they were safe.”

The internment also lasted only three years, from 1942 to 1945. “I thought, they’ve been going through this longer than we were in World War II,” Marutani said. “Six and a half years of psychological trauma, never knowing the next time that doorbell rings if it’s the government come to get you.”

For Banafsheh Akhlaghi, founder and president of National Legal Sanctuary for Community Advancement, a nonprofit for Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian human rights, her first thought when she heard about the Manzanar Pilgrimage was, “The Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian community needs to come see this.  Because it is our story.  What a privilege to have the generosity of the Japanese American community and to be able to learn from their experience.”

Akhlaghi noted that the internment within the Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian community was not only emotional and psychological, but physical as well. “There are detentions literally taking place on a daily basis,” she said. “There are individuals who, after 9/11, were detained and are still detained.”

The National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (also called NSEERS or Special Registration) was initiated in September 2002 as part of the war on terrorism, and required non-citizen males from 25 designated countries to register at an INS office, be fingerprinted, photographed and interrogated. According to a report from the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, after four rounds of Special Registration by April 2003, the government reported that 82,581 individuals had complied with the program, of which at least 13,153, or 16 percent, were put into deportation proceedings.

The precedent for NSEERS came directly from the Japanese American internment, according to the report.

But Akhlaghi drew a distinction between the experiences of Japanese Americans and the Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian community. “The Japanese Americans were interned for a period of time, but there wasn’t a massive attempt to deport,” she said, adding that post-9/11 detainees were not held in a camp but an immigration detention facility.

Differences aside, Elkabti said Japanese Americans have supported Muslim, Middle Eastern and South Asian Americans since the earliest days of the war on terror. “Japanese Americans were among the first to contact my mosque post-9/11 to promise us safety and to fight with us against blanket accusations,” Elkabti said. “The solidarity of the J.A. community with the M.A. community is comforting and optimism-inspiring.”

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