On the evening of December 7th, Dick and I attended a talk presented by the Southern California American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The speakers, Mia Yamamoto, an attorney who was born in a World War II internment camp, and Hussam Ayloush, Executive Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, spoke on “The Politics of Fear & Persecution”. Moderated by Ahilan Arulanantham of the ACLU/SC, the talk was presented at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles on the anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Mia Yamamoto was born in 1943 at the Poston Relocation Camp, in Arizona. The daughter of Japanese-American parents, her father was an attorney, her mother a nurse. They hailed from Hawaii where Mia’s family lived for several generations. The Yamamoto family came to the mainland to study and gain professional credentials. Mia’s father attended and graduated from Loyola Law School. Her mother got a degree in nursing. Like many American families, they worked hard striving to achieve and live the American dream.
When Pearl Harbor was bombed, the Yamamoto family was as traumatized as any other family in America — in some ways, more so because of their deep family connections in Hawaii. But their ethnicity marked them for a post Pearl Harbor experience significantly different from other Americans.
Mia was born in a concentration camp. Her early years were spent behind barbed wire fences with armed guards. When someone in the audience asked if there was a possibility that the American government interned Japanese-Americans to protect them, Mia smiled and responded that as a child she had heard that same proposition. Back then, when she posed it to her mother, her mother simply stated, “if they interned us for our protection, why are the machine guns pointed at us?”. Mia learned, in her earliest childhood years, the impact of the politics of fear.
She watched men, who had been successful professionals and business owners — who were the bread winners and heads of the household, become disempowered and demoralized, unable to protect their families or their property. She observed and experienced, first hand, the emotional and psychological stigma of being locked up as her family returned to their community only to be treated like second class citizens.
The politics of fear led to the post-Pearl Harbor internment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans, yet not a single one of the interned was ever found to have any connection to the bombing. Mia learned that simply being born Japanese-American was reason enough to be treated like a criminal.
Unlike Mia, Hussam Ayloush learned about the politics of fear later in life. Like Yamamoto, Ayloush is an American citizen. He was living out the American dream. After graduating with a B.S. degree in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin, he went on to gain an M.B.A. degree from California State University Fullerton. His pre-9/11 experiences led him to believe that racism was a thing of the past. He believed that in America everyone had the same opportunities. They just have to take advantage of them.
When the planes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11, the Ayloush family was as traumatized as any family in America. Yet, they too, were marked by their ethnicity. They too were to gain a very different American experience — much different than the experience they had come to know. Hussam remarked that an African-American man once said to him that before 9/11 many Muslims thought they were white. Ayloush admitted that many in the Muslim community didn’t have the kind of awareness of discrimination before 9/11 that he and others have now. He acknowledged that the minority experience in America, particularly that of African-Americans, is not understood by whites and sometimes not by other minorities.
Hussam Ayloush, who is now the Executive Director of the Greater Los Angeles Area’s office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), frequently lectures on Islam, media relations, civil rights, hate crimes and international affairs. Since 9/11, he has consistently appeared in local, national, and international media advocating and articulating the mainstream Muslim position on issues. Having close family members who are Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox Christians, Mormons and Jews, Hussam is an active member of various interfaith groups promoting pluralism, dialogue, understanding and cooperation among America’s and our world’s diverse faith communities.
The politics of fear led to the post-9/11 detention or questioning of over 83,000 Muslims in America, within months of the 9/11 attacks. 13,000 of them were deported. Yet, not a single one of those detained was ever found to have any connection to 9/11 or terrorism. Hussam learned that simply being a Muslim in America was reason enough to be treated like a criminal.
As we remember Pearl Harbor and 9/11, let’s work towards ending the discriminatory treatment that Muslims and others continue to experience in the United States. Detaining and/or interning over 200,000 people required a tremendous am
ount of resources, resulted in the loss of property and continues to take a huge emotional toll on its victims. Yet, this ineffective security measure continues with little notice from the dominant culture.