I’m Muslim and I Visited a Japanese Internment Camp This Summer

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by Namira Islam

On Friday, June 24, 2016, I delivered the keynote address to about 250 people attending the 2016 Minidoka Pilgrimage. I spoke about my academic, personal, and professional interest in the US incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. I spoke about the similarities between the experiences of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor and American Muslims after 9/11. I spoke about the context of discrimination in a country built and funded by slavery and genocide. And I spoke about the tie that binds these issues of anti-black racism, colonialism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia: white supremacy, a system that categorically dehumanizes and harms.

At the end of my address, I played the video clip above of American Muslim kids reading letters written by Japanese American kids during incarceration. As I concluded, I found myself looking at Japanese American elders – some of whom were once children in the camps – standing in applause for me with tears in their eyes. “We stand with you,” so many individuals told me, and I knew the weight of those words given the context and lived experiences. The Minidoka Pilgrimage space was the first majority non-Muslim environment since 9/11 in which I had felt deeply and unconditionally understood.

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The next day, I visited the site of the Minidoka Camp, colloquially once known as Hunt Camp. As we neared the site, I was silent, recalling the news story I had read from a few months prior, reporting that the Twin Falls Islamic Center had been vandalized with the words “Hunt Camp?” written in gray spray paint across plywood boards.

Yesterday, on Fox News, a Trump surrogate cited the concentration camps as “precedent” while being interviewed regarding how a proposed Muslim registry would likely pass constitutional muster.

It is because of these links that when asked to participate at the Minidoka Pilgrimage event this year, we knew that as Muslims, we needed to be in this space. In my work, I routinely explore the space between human rights violations (like genocide) and the interpersonal and systemic impacts of racism. We cannot fight racism if we do not understand it. We cannot prevent future mass atrocities without examining the circumstances that have allowed for such widespread violence to take place more than once across continents and centuries.

Recently, we have been building toward a painfully uncomfortable reality of increased dehumanization of non-white and racialized individuals. The protests and narratives that have gained traction and advanced our understandings of racial justice have also lead to renewed whitelash to suppress those who are fighting for justice and re-secure power and control in the hands of those who see equality as oppression.

In this climate, calls for registries take on a much different tone and impact. I can still recall my feelings as I stepped into the re-built barracks on the Minidoka concentration camp site this past summer. Donald J. Trump was the Republican nominee, and Hillary Clinton was the favorite to win. I knew, irrespective of any mandate for the Democrats in the November election if they managed a victory, the forces that were howling and demanding misplaced retribution in the guise of ‘security’ would not easily be tamped after being nurtured so carefully by Trump for his own material gain.

And so, as I looked around the barracks,  the suffering and pain endured by thousands of innocent individuals years ago hit home in a much different way. I walked alongside a woman who was a child in this camp, and listened to her tell her grandchildren about her experiences. I reminded myself then, as I do now: we resist. We survive. We thrive, even in times of immense hardship.

But there is also trauma and heartbreaking loss, much of which is still being explored by the survivors of human rights disasters of the 20th century. So I watch the news and just like in the barracks, my mouth goes dry, and my breathing quickens.

The Prophet (pbuh) advised to “trust in Allah, and tie your camel,” I explained during my keynote at Minidoka. We must never falter in each taking the necessary steps to prevent future disaster for any who are marginalized. Tie your camel, and then place your trust in a higher power to give you strength and patience as you face whatever challenges may lie in wait.

I hope that we prepare for the worst, and never see occasion to meet it.

 


Namira Islam is a metro Detroit-area lawyer and graphic designer. She is the Executive Director of the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative.

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