Maybe I shouldn’t have been so glib about talking about internment camps when I gave my speech. Well, at the time it had felt a little glib — but in hindsight, it feels prescient. I was at an award ceremony for a local Asian American organization where my co-podcaster and I were accepting a Rising Star Award for our #GoodMuslimBadMuslim podcast. It was two weeks before Election Day, and as I accepted the award, I ended my speech with, “Finally, when you vote on November 8, please think of faces like ours — when you vote, you aren’t just voting for yourselves — you’re doing it to not send us to an internment camp.” We both gave campy sad faces. People in the crowd laughed uncomfortably. The internment of Japanese Americans is no joke. But given the absurdity of the world, I thought a bit of absurd humor might make for a compelling get-out-the-vote argument.
After we got off stage, an elderly petite Japanese American woman with stylish short white hair came up to us. She reached out a frail hand and grabbed our arms to say congratulations and tell us that Nisei people like herself were in solidarity with us. When she was a child, she had been in the internment camps, she said. She was little, but she remembered.
Her eyes welled up with tears as she poured out her story. She started to cry as she told us how important it was for us to speak out against racist and Islamophobic abuses, reflecting on how quickly situations can become dire. She talked about how, after she got out, she married a white man, to try to assimilate more. He didn’t treat her well, because he didn’t need to, she said — their interracial marriage was still considered illegal back then, after all. She left him, eventually.
Always the organizer, I immediately tried to draw her into current resistance movements, telling her about all the Muslim-Japanese solidarity work that’s been done over the years. She just looked at me with sadness in her eyes and I trailed off, not sure what to say. She hadn’t been looking to get organized — she was expressing empathy. Because internment had happened to her. I didn’t know how to hold the immediacy of her fear that the same thing could happen to me.
Attacks on Muslims in the Wake of the Election
Two weeks after Election Day, her fear now feels like a harbinger of events soon to come. Since November 9, there has been a rampant increase in attacks on Muslims, immigrants and LGBTQ people, all being invoked in the name of Donald Trump. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which is collecting hate crime incidences at #ReportHate, listed more than 701 incidents of hateful intimidation and harassment between November 9 and November 16 alone. Hijabs have been pulled off of the heads of women, and in a frightening incident in Houston, a Muslim man had a firebomb thrown inside his car, resulting in third-degree burns on his arms. In total so far, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Islamophobia Monitor, there have been 111 anti-Muslim bias incidents between the election and November 14.
For the Muslim American community, this does not come as a surprise — due to the increased anti-Muslim campaign rhetoric of the past year, it makes sense that anti-Muslim hate crimes in the United States rose 67 percent, from 154 incidents in 2014, to 257 in 2015. In the podcast I co-host, we lift up the narratives of anti-Muslim crimes that mainstream media don’t cover. Every month leading up to Election Day has seen an escalation of hate directed to the Muslim community. It’s not a surprise — the use of fear-mongering to drive voters to the polls has been a tried and true tactic — and given that between 2008 and 2011, $119 million has been poured into organizations that are working to make more people hate Muslims, it is likely these funds continued to rake in donations in the years leading up to Election Day.
What did this lead to? In Kansas, a plot to bomb a Somali immigrant apartment complex by a three-person anti-Muslim group was foiled in August. The members had intentions of sparking a crusade with their action. A 60-year-old Bangladeshi woman was stabbed while walking the streets of Queens at 9 pm. A man in Tulsa was shot by his neighbor at his home by a man who called him a “dirty Arab.” There has been a dramatic increase in anti-mosque attacks and bullying of Muslim children in grade school, all leading up to Election Day.
In a “60 Minutes” interview on the Sunday after Election Day, a reporter asked the president-elect about the increase in hate crimes carried out in his name. Trump dismissed the acts of violence as media manipulation, and said he hadn’t heard of anything actually happening. When pushed further, he looked at the camera and said, “Stop it.” Clearly, his statement hasn’t stopped the violence.
Japanese American Internment as a “Precedent” for a Muslim Registry
The president-elect’s administration appointments have been some of the most Islamophobic ones to date. For attorney general, we have Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, who had argued for a religious test to ban Muslims in 2015. For the head of the CIA, we have Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo, who, in 2013, falsely alleged that American Muslim leaders were potentially complicit in terrorist acts.
Finally, last week Trump political operative Carl Higbie went on Fox News to discuss the Muslim registry proposed by Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state whom Trump has named as part of his transition team. In the conversation, Higbie suggested that the mass internment of Japanese Americans during World War II was a “precedent” for the plan to create a registry. When pushed, he said it would “hold constitutional muster.” The internment of the Japanese Americans forced the relocation of close to 120,000 people on the West Coast to internment camps in California, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah and Arkansas.
Technically, Higbie is not wrong. The landmark 1944 case of Korematsu v. Supreme Court, though challenged over the years, held up the principle that the government’s need to protect against espionage outweighed an individual’s rights, and the rights of Americans of Japanese descent. In 2011, the solicitor general of the United States issued a “confession of error” for the internment of the Japanese but technically, the ruling wasn’t overturned. Despite the Trump team’s latest lie about his past statements on this issue, the fear is very real that 70 years later, just replace “Japanese” with “Muslim” and this can happen again.
We Must Fight Now to Put Safeguards in Place
As we move forward in trying to retain a sense of normalcy during the reeling aftermath of this election, we must ultimately remember that this is not normal. We cannot let this be our normal. But we also must remember, that for the most part, we’ve been here before. The tactics that will be used against people of color have been used in the past. And the tactics needed to strategically push back against this oppressive power are actions that we’ve employed in the past, too — except now, we are better organized.
The news of this week has made me woefully nostalgic for the days that led me to the path of becoming an activist. One of my first actions in organizing the South Asian community was to drive around to South Asian grocery stores in the suburbs of Washington, DC, and hand out Know Your Rights flyers. It was 2002 and everyone was reeling from September 11 and its backlash. Homeland Security had been hastily created and the USA Patriot Act had been quickly enacted. Mosques were infiltrated by FBI informants, and Muslims were put on no-fly lists and “randomly” searched at airports. One of the largest security measures enacted was the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), which required men who emigrated from certain Muslim nations to register. Before it was disbanded in 2011, the NSEERS program registered 93,000 people, and 13,740 immigrants were deported in conjunction with it. Zero people were prosecuted on terrorism charges.
As talk of a Muslim registry is re-inserted in political conversations, I think back to this moment. NSEERS was implemented with little pushback from the mainstream community and was kept enforceable well into the Obama administration. And while activists have mentioned they would add their names to a registry in solidarity with Muslims, not many people remember that NSEERS was a Muslim registry that had actually been in place only five years ago.
There are still two months left before Trump takes office, and we need to focus on doing everything we can to make sure he can’t create a registry. First, we must pressure President Obama to dismantle the infrastructure around NSEERS; he can still do so during his remaining months in office. Next, we must push to put as many safeguards as possible in place. Some efforts are already underway. Democratic Congress member Suzan DelBene has proposed a bill that would ban religious registries ahead of any attempts at establishing one. An enormous public mobilization could create pressure in Congress for the passage of this bill.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised that New York will sue Trump if he establishes the registry or requests from New York City ID records. People in other cities throughout the country could pressure their own mayors to issue similar threats and preemptively commit to this kind of pushback.
And incoming American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Legal Director David Cole “says any proposal from President-elect Donald Trump to create a registry for Muslims is unconstitutional,” according to The Hill. It appears that the ACLU will immediately challenge Trump’s efforts as unconstitutional. We can all pressure other legal organizations to also commit to this kind of immediate pushback, should Trump make actual moves toward establishing a registry.
We need to act now to prevent a repeat of history.