Current discrimination against Arab and Muslim Americans reflects WWII discrimination against Japanese-Americans
In February 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, relocating all people of Japanese ancestry in the United States, documented and undocumented, into internment camps. Fast-forward 75 years, and Arab and Muslim Americans are facing discrimination in ways that resonate with the memories of Japanese-Americans.
The internment of Japanese-Americans followed the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. Nearly 120,000 Japanese-Americans were sent to the internment camps, roughly two-thirds of whom were native-born citizens in the United States.
Japanese-Americans spent, on average, three years in the camps, living in cramped barracks, often with only a single working light bulb.
Anti-Japanese sentiment was high before the attack on Pearl Harbor, and even higher afterward. The Japanese relocation to internment camps was met with nearly no opposition by the non-Japanese-American population.
In November of 2016, shortly after he was elected, Trump suggested the possibility of a Muslim registry and in January of this year, Trump pushed for a ban on travel from seven majority-Muslim countries.
LSA senior Haleemah Aqel, Islamophobia Working Group student coordinator, has experienced forms of discrimination she likened to that of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Despite that, she did note “the severity of our discriminations are on different levels.”
"You sometimes feel as if you don’t belong because of certain policies, certain wars and especially this year with the Muslim registry. I have definitely felt as if I’ve questioned, ‘Am I really American?’” Aqel said. “We kind of all just feel sometimes as if we don’t belong.”
"The Japanese race is an enemy race," wrote Lieutenant General John DeWitt in 1942 in the Final Report: Japanese Evacuation from the West Coast. "While many second and third generation Japanese born on American soil, possessed of American citizenship, have become 'Americanized,' the racial strains are undiluted."
Roosevelt justified the internment of Japanese-Americans by deeming them a threat to national security and labeled them “enemy aliens.”
Japanese-Americans have recognized similarities between the oppression they and generations before them faced during World War II and the oppression Arab and Muslim Americans face. The similarities in oppression have pushed Japanese-Americans to stand up for the rights of Arab and Muslim Americans.
Matthew Stiffler, a researcher at the Arab American National Museum and lecturer at the University of Michigan, noticed the alliance form in the early ’90s, long before the announcement of the immigration ban from the majority-Muslim countries.
“The Japanese and the Arab community specifically and the Japanese and the Muslim community more broadly has had an affinity not just since the announcement of the Muslim ban in January, but going back a lot further,” Stiffler said. “So the first case that I found of cooperation was in 1991. That was the run up to the first Gulf War in Iraq.”
Stiffler added the support for the Arab and Muslim American communities started with a Japanese-American congressman.
“And during that time, the FBI was going around and interviewing Arab American community leaders about the run-up to the war in Iraq and a Japanese-American, he was a Congressman at the time, former Secretary Norman Mineta, spoke out very publicly against this, as a Japanese-American himself, whose family was incarcerated during World War II,” Stiffler said. “He said we’re not going to go down that road again.”
Aqel said alliances between minority groups have more power than one group standing on its own.
"This alliance and connections and solidarity networks between groups have been formed specifically since I think a lot of people of color have noticed that this discrimination against them is so high that sometimes we … think that doing things by ourselves won’t go anywhere but forming alliances will allow both of our movements, both our voices, our people to expand for others to hear our struggle,” Aqel said.
LSA junior Maureen O’Bryan, the co-event chair for the Japanese Student Association, wrote in an email interview that connecting Japanese discrimination to the discrimination of Arab and Muslim Americans today puts their reality in context.
“It’s powerful because Japanese-Americans have (experienced) this and we say never again should this happen,” O’Bryan wrote. “I think if the Trump administration really wants to use Japanese incarceration as precedent for his Muslim ban, he’s going to see a strengthening alliance between these two groups because we’re not going to let what happened to us be used against another minority group that is a supposed ‘threat’ to national security because it was found that Japanese-Americans did not pose any threat to the U.S. during WWII.”
Stiffler has personally seen the alliance through his work at the Arab American National Museum. The museum has close ties with the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, which helped train some of the employees at the Arab American National Museum when it opened in 2005.
“We’ve shared exhibits, we’ve hosted their staff here for workshops, we’ve shared ideas. So we feel that we’re very closely aligned with them,” Stiffler said. “We call them our sister museum, just because there is that shared history both what it’s like to be an ethnic group in the U.S. today but also an ethnic group that has been targeted for civil rights violations by the federal government.”
There has been coordination between the two groups on campus, according to O’Bryan. She said she saw the alliance strengthen last year following the election and the announcement of the immigration ban.
“Just recently the Lebanese Student Association reached out to collaborate with the Japan Student Association, and as the external chair for JSA I plan on pursuing this relationship,” O’Bryan wrote. “I am hoping that this friendship between these two groups will continue to grow on our campus and all around the country. Even if it is the Muslim ban that brought us together, I hope even after it is hopefully defeated we can maintain a stronger alliance.”