[Guest writer Munira Syeda, communications coordinator for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, contributed her article after her visit to Manzanar with a group of other California Muslims.]

In February 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, setting into motion a mass displacement and detainment of an entire community – American men, women and children of Japanese ancestry – less than two months after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

Of the more than 120,000 Japanese Americans interned at 11 military-style camps scattered throughout the country, not one was charged with espionage or sabotage.

The internment of this ethnic group turned out to be one of the darkest moments in United States history. It raised a national debate as well as frustration over suspension of civil liberties during war time. Nearly a half century elapsed before an apology was issued in 1988 by President Ronald Reagan, who said then, “”¦we must recognize that the internment of Japanese-Americans was just that: a mistake.”

One of the internment camps was Manzanar (Spanish for apple orchard) War Relocation Center in the Owens Valley, about 200 miles northeast of Los Angeles. The camp was home to some 10,000 internees, crammed into 504 barracks, which in turn were organized into 36 blocks. Stripped of privacy and the most basic human rights, these families lived at Manzanar for three long, painful years.

On Saturday, April 28 around 1,000 Americans and members of the California Muslim community made a pilgrimage to Manzanar National Historic Site, in what was called the 38th Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage, to learn about the experiences of Japanese American detainees. Among the visitors was the Southern California Muslim family of Barbara Serhal, whose Japanese American parents were incarcerated at Manzanar. The trip of Muslim community members was coordinated through the Los Angeles Area and Sacramento Valley offices of the Council on American-Islamic Relations known as CAIR.

Speakers noted that the Japanese detainees’ situation is similar to the current debate surrounding the “War on Terror” amid mounting calls for profiling of American Muslims and Arabs.

“It is vital to visit Manzanar and other internment camps, not only for Muslims, but for all Americans especially after Sept. 11, so that people understand that war backlash has happened before,” said Andy Noguchi, coordinator of the Florin Japanese American Citizens’ League Manzanar Pilgrimage. “It is important to bring a lot of concerned Americans together to spread awareness of what happened to Japanese Americans during World War II and how the Muslim community is now being affected in similar ways.”


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