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We Interned Japanese-Americans - Are Muslims Next? Local Groups Fear Future

By Ted Cox | December 7, 2016 3:15pm | Updated on December 9, 2016 10:23am
 Sufyan Sohel of the Council on American Islamic Relations and World War II detainee Chiyoko Omachi urge the nation not to return to the
Sufyan Sohel of the Council on American Islamic Relations and World War II detainee Chiyoko Omachi urge the nation not to return to the "hysteria" of the past at the Midwest Buddhist Temple.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

OLD TOWN TRIANGLE — A coalition of Muslim and Japanese-American groups used the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor Wednesday to argue against registering or even potentially incarcerating Muslim-Americans.

"My community is being threatened," said Sufyan Sohel, deputy director of the Council on American Islamic Relations in Chicago. "My community is afraid, afraid that America will repeat the injustice faced by our Japanese-American brothers and sisters."

"We have just elected a president who openly expresses racist and Islamophobic views," said Brant Rosen, Midwest director of the American Friends Service Committee. "It is not the time to engage in wishful thinking, to forgive these words as rhetoric or give our president-elect the benefit of the doubt. Now is the time to stand in solidarity with our Muslim-American brothers and sisters who are currently under attack."

According to Sohel, the FBI recently reported a 67 percent increase in hate crimes against American Muslims, with estimates that only a third of all such crimes are even reported. Locally, he added, CAIR had seen a rise in crimes and discrimination, including school bullying, with 300 cases currently open.

A handful of local Japanese-American and Muslim leaders and legal experts addressed the issue Wednesday at the Midwest Buddhist Temple, 435 W. Menomonee St., on the Pearl Harbor anniversary. Christine Munteanu, of the Japanese-American Citizen League, which played host to the event, spoke on "the dangers of allowing fear and hysteria to lead us to compromise our civil liberties and democratic principles."

Within a few months of the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which led the United States into World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order that eventually placed 120,000 Japanese-Americans, many of them U.S. citizens, in internment camps over fears of their conspiring with the Japanese war effort.

Sandra Yamate, former head of the Asian-American Bar Association, and Anthony Becknek, of the Chicago Bar Association, both cited how President-elect Donald Trump had suggested a Muslim registry on the campaign trail, while his advisers mentioned the possibility of internment camps, using the Japanese-American experience in World War II as a precedent.

Yamate called that a "fallacy," and both she and Becknek insisted there was no such standing legal precedent in a practice that has been almost universally denounced ever since.

Becknek cited the 1988 Civil Liberties Act in calling internment "unjustified and unconstitutional." Yamate added that the country must not return to "imprisonment without due process."

Becknek called it "discriminatory and reprehensible" and said it was "the result of racial prejudice, war hysteria and the failure of political leadership."

Ninety-year-old Chiyoko Omachi spoke of her experience being held at the Poston War Relocation Center in Arizona, the largest of the U.S. internment camps, as a 15-year-old and said the practice must not be repeated with Muslim-Americans.

"I think it's important to say that there was a lot of prejudice, and job-finding was hard also," Omachi said.

Rosen called internment "one of the most flagrant violations of civil rights in American history" and a "shameful moment in our national past."

Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) has suggested, "If Trump creates a registry for Muslims, my family will register. We all should register as Muslims."

"Now is the time to stand in solidarity with our Muslim-American brothers and sisters," said Brant Rosen (right) of the American Friends Service Committee.
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"To those who want us to go home, we are home," Sohel said. "We are as much a part of the American story as anyone."