Wave of Islamophobia Sweeping U.S. Is Repeat of Anti-Japanese Hysteria After Pearl Harbor
By SKEETER SANDERS
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
– George Santayana
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As controversy continues to build over the planned construction of an Islamic cultural center and mosque two blocks away from New York’s Ground Zero, there has been a dramatic spike in incidents of anti-Muslim bigotry in recent weeks, indicative of a wave of Islamophobia that is sweeping across the United States.
Opposition to new mosques isn’t limited to New York. There have been demonstrations and acts of violence against existing and proposed Muslim houses of worship from coast to coast — including a suspected arson fire Friday night at the site of a new Islamic center in suburban Nashville.
A spokesman for the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Department said that the blaze, which destroyed construction equipment at the future site of the Islamic center in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, has been ruled as arson. Gasoline was poured over the equipment and ignited.
The Sheriff’s Department and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms — as well as the FBI — are jointly investigating the fire as a possible hate crime, according to Andy Anderson, special agent for the BATF.
MUSLIM TAXI DRIVER IN NEW YORK ATTACKED
Acts of violence against individual Muslims have also risen sharply — the most notorious such incident so far being an attack on a Muslim taxi driver last Tuesday night in New York. The driver, an immigrant from Bangladesh, was slashed by his knife-wielding passenger after he acknowledged being a Muslim.
Police arrested Michael Enright, 21, who had just returned from filming U.S. Marines serving in Afghanistan and charged him with felony attempted murder motivated by religious bias in the attack on 43-year-old taxi driver Ahmed Sharif. Police said Sharif was slashed across the face, arm and hand.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg condemned the attack, telling reporters at a hurriedly-called City Hall news conference that it was "clearly motivated by anti-Muslim bias. . .This attack runs counter to everything that New Yorkers believe, no matter what God we pray to."
ANTI-MUSLIM PASSIONS RAGING ACROSS THE COUNTRY
Much of the anti-Muslim passion is being fanned by conservative politicians and hard-line right-wing Christian evangelicals who consider Islam an "evil" religion and an "enemy of the Judeo-Christian way of life."
Long before the controversy over the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" escalated into a major headline-grabbing battle over the right of Muslims in America to freedom of worship under the First Amendment, there has been a steady uptick in anti-Muslim sentiment across the country:
# Several Christian ministers in Sheboygan, Wisconsin led a noisy protest in May against a proposal to build a local mosque in a former health food store purchased by a Muslim doctor.
# Members of the right-wing Tea Party movement in late July insultingly brought dogs — much beloved by Westerners but considered unclean animals by Muslims — to picket Friday prayers at a mosque in Temecula, California, whose leaders want to build a new house of worship on a vacant lot nearby.
# Also in late July, trustees of a Roman Catholic church in the New York City borough of Staten Island rejected a proposal to sell a former convent owned by the parish to a Muslim group that wanted to convert it into a mosque, after word of the proposed sale was made public, sparking loud anti-Muslim protests by local residents.
# Muslim leaders in Bridgeport, Connecticut asked for police protection on August 6 after members of a right-wing Christian-supremacist group staged an angry protest outside a local mosque during Friday prayers, shouting hateful anti-Muslim invectives at the worshippers, and accusing their children of being "murderers" as they left the mosque. The protesters were members of the Texas-based Operation Save America — an offshoot of anti-abortion extremist Randall Terry’s Operation Rescue.
# And just last Tuesday, a zoning board in Mayfield, Kentucky reversed its decision to allow a group of Muslim refugees to use a local building as a mosque. The owner of a flower shop located next door to the building, a self-described evangelical Christian, said it might have been different if the building was to be used as a Baptist church.
AN EERIE ECHO OF AN UGLY CHAPTER IN U.S. HISTORY RIGHT AFTER PEARL HARBOR
It truly is unfortunate that there are fewer and fewer Americans of the GI Generation still living, for lost with their passing is the collective memory of one of the ugliest chapters of American history — one that the current wave of Islamophobia threatens to repeat.
That chapter is the even more virulent wave of bigotry against Japanese-Americans that swept the country in the months following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor — bigotry so intense and widespread that it ultimately resulted in tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans forcibly removed by the federal government from their homes and businesses and sent to internment camps located in remote area across the western U.S.
The discrimination and hostility that German-Americans experienced during World War I was nothing compared to what Japanese-Americans would endure after Pearl Harbor. The Germans were white and European; the Japanese were neither. What happened to Japanese-Americans during World War II was — most historians today agree — one of the most blatantly racist episodes in the nation’s history.
And it was directed by none other than the man considered America’s greatest president of the 20th Century — Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
That the treatment of Japanese-Americans was motivated by anti-Asian racism was made clear by the uncovering of FBI documents from that era. From 1939 to 1941, the FBI compiled what the bureau called the Custodial Detention Index on U.S. citizens, "enemy" aliens and foreign nationals which might be dangerous. Interestingly, the so-called "enemy races" identified in the FBI’s files specifically excluded those of German and Italian descent.
ANTI-JAPANESE SENTIMENT RAN HIGHEST IN CALIFORNIA, HAWAII
Japan’s rapid military conquest of much of Asia made their war machine appear to some Americans frighteningly unstoppable. Civilian and military officials had concerns about the loyalty of Japanese-Americans and considered them to be a security risk.
Upon examination of historical record, however, it became clear that these concerns often grew more out of anti-Asian racial hatred than any actual security risk, particularly since no such alarm was raised about German-Americans and Italian-Americans.
Nonetheless, American attitudes toward the Japanese and Japanese-Americans in World War II stood in stark contrast to their attitudes toward Americans of German and Italian ancestry — even when compared to the prejudice toward German-Americans during World War I. Then-President Woodrow Wilson never issued an executive order for the detention of Americans of German or Austro-Hungarian ancestry during that war.
FDR ORDERS INTERNMENT OF UP TO 120,000 JAPANESE-AMERICANS
Thus, on February 20, 1942, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, ordering the forcible relocation of approximately 112,000 to 120,000 ethnic Japanese — 62 percent of whom were U.S. citizens — from their homes to hastily-constructed "war relocation camps" located primarily in remote regions, far from the country’s major urban centers.
Roosevelt’s order authorized U.S. military commanders to designate "military areas" at their discretion, "from which any or all persons may be excluded." These "exclusion zones," unlike the "alien enemy" roundups, were applicable to anyone that an authorized military commander might choose, whether citizen or non-citizen.
Eventually such areas would include both the east and west coasts, and about a third of the country’s interior — and were applied almost exclusively to all of those of Japanese ancestry, although there were many instances of Chinese-Americans also getting caught up in the internment. Indeed, the internments in California brought back memories of violent attacks on Chinese nationals and Chinese-Americans by white mobs in San Francisco in the late 1800s.
INTERNMENT PROVED IMPRACTICAL IN HAWAII
The internment order proved, however, to be impractical to enforce in Hawaii — despite the fact that Japanese-Americans there were closer to essential military facilities than most of their compatriots on the U.S. mainland. This was because Japanese-Americans were over a third of Hawaii’s population — and were too vital to the islands’ economy.
Instead, the whole of Hawaii — which, although a U.S. territory, was not yet the nation’s 50th state — was placed under martial law. The Army imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew on the entire population of Hawaii except those on official business and compiled intelligence dossiers on nearly half a million Hawaiians.
Today, Hawaii is the only state in the U.S. that has a majority-Asian population. Slightly more than 50 percent of Hawaii’s residents today are of Japanese ancestry — including U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye — a highly-decorated World War II veteran — and U.S. Representative Mazie Hirono.
In 1988, Congress passed and President Ronald Reagan signed legislation which apologized for the internment on behalf of the U.S. government. The legislation stated that government actions were based on "race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership." Over $1.6 billion in reparations were later disbursed by the U.S.
government to Japanese-Americans who had either suffered internment or were heirs of those who had suffered internment.
WILL HISTORY REPEAT ITSELF WITH AMERICA’S 1.3 MILLION MUSLIMS?
With the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II all but faded from the collective American memory, there is a real danger that this dark chapter of American history, as the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana warns in his famous aphorism quoted at the beginning of this column, could be repeated — this time against America’s estimated 1.3 million Muslims.
The open hatred that the 9/11 attacks have generated against Muslims ignores the fact that, of the more than 3,500 people who were slaughtered at the hands of the 19 al-Qaida terrorists, there were dozens of victims who were themselves Muslims — including Salman Hamdani, a 23-year-old New York City police cadet who was also a part-time ambulance driver and a medical student; and Mohammed Jawarta, who worked for MAS, a private security firm.
Let’s not forget that among the nation’s 1.3 million Muslims include a significant number of celebrities, including three-time heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali; basketball Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; the reigning Miss USA, Rima Fakiah — even though she has herself come out against the proposed Cordoba House Islamic Center; actor/comedian Dave Chappelle; Aasif Mandvi, of the faux-news comedy "Daily Show;" and composer A. R. Rahman, a frequent visitor to the U.S. from India who’s best known for scoring the music of the Golden Globe and Oscar-winning film, "Slumdog Millionaire."
WAVE OF ISLAMOPHOBIA A DANGEROUS PRECURSOR TO OUTRIGHT FASCISM
The strong, passionate feelings expressed by the loved ones of the more than 3,500 people murdered by the 9/11 terrorists are something that has to be taken seriously. But the voices of the relatives of the 9/11 victims have, unfortunately, been joined by an ugly chorus of anti-Muslim bigots and extremely arrogant WASP evangelicals who believe that all non-Christian people of faith are condemned to go to hell for praying to a "false god."
That this chorus is disregarding the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion to ALL Americans — including the nation’s Muslims — is an obscene affront to the very foundations upon which this country was built — and to which I, as a member of a faith minority myself (I’m a Wiccan) — must raise my voice in protest.
It is also a dangerous descent into an ideology that this country sent up to 12 million of its bravest to fight against in World War II.
That ideology is fascism — the belief that one race or one religion or one ethnicity or one nationality is superior to all others and/or that all others are evil. What some Americans are saying about Muslims today is little different from what Hitler and his Nazis said about Jews in Germany more than 70 years ago.
Even Japanese-American survivors of the World War II-era internment see dangerous parallels between 9/11 and Pearl Harbor, with some survivors warning within days of the 9/11 attacks that what happened to them could happen to American Muslims.
Santayana is right. Those who cannot remember the past truly are condemned to repeat it.