More than 100 local Muslims will take part in a pilgrimage north to the Manzanar World War II internment camp today to raise awareness about threats to civil rights during times of war.
For many, the trip is both a celebration of civil rights strides made in the last 60 years as well as a reminder of the dark pages in history written by prejudice and fear, said Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Ayloush is a U.S. citizen who was born in Lebanon and now lives in Corona. He journeyed to Manzanar, at the foot of the Sierras, last year with his children.
"I can honestly say it was one of the most shocking experiences of my life. It really awakened me," Ayloush said.
Staring down at the tiny graves of children who died at the internment camp, Ayloush said he was struck by the need to defend civil liberties during times of peril such as World War II or the current war on terror.
"You could almost hear the sounds of the people who were there," he said. "The freedoms we enjoy today came at a very heavy price by those who came before us."
Ayloush sees key similarities and differences between the experiences of Japanese-Americans during World War II and American Muslims during today's war on terror.
Just like innocent Japanese-Americans were the target of prejudice and suspicion after the Pearl Harbor attacks, Muslims in this country have been subject to widespread suspicions since the Sept. 11 attacks, he said.
Muslims experienced immigration delays, were profiled at airports, and were subject to electronic surveillance, and 83,000 Muslim men were required to report to federal agents, he said.
Ayloush said he has been the victim of harassment at airports as well as electronic spying. Last year, he made headlines when he and the American Civil Liberties Union sued the federal government to find out whether federal agents were monitoring him as a leader in the Muslim community.
"Muslims have to go to the airport two or three hours early," he said. "You're stopped. You're searched. They take your laptop. They copy your business cards."
Ayloush said these experiences along with the pilgrimage to Manzanar drive him to crusade for civil rights protections.
"Civil liberties are best tested during hard times," he said. "It's easy to say we are a nation of civil liberties when things are easy." (MORE)