[Photo Credit: Facebook/AsianAmericanFederation, (from l to r): Panelists Chris M. Kwok, Kermit Roosevelt, Deepa Iyer; Moderator Arun Venugopal; organizers Joo Han, JoAnn Yoo and Howard Shih]
Last month, the Asian American Federation organized a panel discussion titled “From Yellow Peril to Islamophobia: How Asian Stereotypes Impact Our Lives” at New York University to discuss the resurgence in Islamophobia, or the “Green Peril,” as well as how it is recreating the kind of sociopolitical climate that led to the Yellow Peril—the Japanese American internment in the 1940s.
In the midst of the current presidential campaign, the word “internment” has been loosely tossed about quite a bit as part of some of the candidate’s anti-Muslim rhetoric. While political commentators and media are condemning the use of such a language, activist Deepa Iyer said she is not surprised at the explicit use of the word.
“Instead of using a coded racial language of dog whistle politics that we are used to hearing from politicians, we have now people using microphones to amplify the messages and are being very explicit in saying those words,” Iyer, senior research fellow at Center for Inclusion, said.
She added that even though the word is only making rounds in the media now, the country has been implementing policies that are very similar to Japanese internment of 1942 since 9/11—and continues to do so even today.
“While the word is something that I think has come up more recently, it is not a new phenomenon,” Iyer added. “What justified the internment of Japanese Americans as ‘national security justifications,’ has been in place since 9/11 and for the past decade and a half. So, some of the policies under the national security infrastructure, such as special registration or NCR’s, arbitrary detentions and deportations have been once that we have heard that language before, of the other, of people who are disloyal.”
And this doesn’t just play out at the policy level, Iyer said, pointing to a report titled “Fear Inc” that was published a couple of years ago by Center for American Progress.
“There is a cottage industry of Islamophobia in this country. The report actually documents that it’s a very small group of spokespeople and organizations and investors who invest millions of dollars in shaping that narrative around the fear of Muslims and anyone perceived to be Muslims as terrorists and terrorists in waiting. And that particular narrative winds itself in media, and it re-enforces the biases that people have, and feeds into state-level laws and obstruction to the construction of mosques like in the case of Murfreesboro in Tennessee.”
In terms of the similarities between post-World War II (WWII) and the post 9/11 era, Kermit Roosevelt, law professor at University of Pennsylvania Law School, noted that there is a pattern that occurs in the American history over and over again—from the alien and sedition act to the red scare, and even the treatment of German-Americans during World War I.
“It’s typically a different group each time, but this is what we do, we get scared, and we identify certain people as others who might be dangerous,” Roosevelt said. “And then once we class them as the other, we think it is justified to inflict enormous harm on them if it possibly makes us even a little bit safer. That’s the general dynamic.”
He stated that the concept of internment in post 9/11 era is an outdated one, especially in the wake of mass surveillance states—but he agrees with Iyer that there are policies and programs that exist today which to a large extent equivalent to internment.
“When people say look back at the detention of Japanese Americans, could it happen again? It did happen,” Roosevelt, author of “Allegiance,” which concerns the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, said. “We didn’t lock people up in camps, but if you are looking for mass violation of constitutional rights on the basis of generalized suspicion on the basis of religion, that’s the NYPD’s surveillance program where they do exactly that. They target people for no reason other than their religion; they say ‘we suspect that you are a security threat’ and in some cases even try to lure you into disloyal activity and so on.”
“We are having internment of our times,” Chris Kwok, alternative dispute coordinator for the mediation program at the US Equal Employment Opportunity office in New York chimed in. “We are almost fighting the battles in history again today, but then we are fighting the battle of yesteryears. They are taking different forms, they are taking different institutions, technology enables them to operate differently and more visible, and yet we don’t know, and that’s the power of government that we don’t know until much later when we see the records.”
All the three panelists stressed the need to look at the Japanese American redress movement as it sets an example for other communities who are going through similar experiences—especially the setting up of a public commission, financial reparations, the passage of the civil rights act 1985 and a formal apology by President Ronald Reagan in 1988.
However, Iyer is not hopeful that South Asians, Arabs and Muslim communities will get the same response.
“I am not optimistic that, that kind of response will come regarding post 9/11 era for South Asian, Arab and Muslim communities,” she said. “I think that we are entrenched in this war on terror. It is one that manifests in so many different ways and so right now what activists are pushing for is to dismantle the infrastructure that has been setup much less demand for an apology… It would take movement building and public will to push policy makers to make those changes.”
She talked about Asian American cohesive identity and how it falls short when it comes to supporting the causes of South Asian and Muslim Americans.
“Why couldn’t we find a home in broader Asian American movement? Why is it that we needed to form our own coalition identity? Why is it that there are not enough traction within the broader Asian American political movement to hold this, there wasn’t and there still isn’t,” she said.
She even suggested few steps for how Asian Americans, in general, and the South Asian community, in particular, can get involved in the fight against Islamophobia and xenophobic rhetoric.
“We have to hold political leaders accountable for their divisive and harmful political rhetoric, support and invest in the South Asian, Muslim, Arab community, and develop more empathy by visiting a local mosque that has been a site for anti-Islam rally to show support, or write letter to the editor when there is discussion about Islamophobia, we need to talk about these issues in racial justice context and not national security,” she said.
While Roosevelt stressed the importance of art, Kwok talked about including Asian American studies in the curriculum in college in pushing the message from the margins to the mainstream.
“Art really can increase empathy,” he said. “Art, narrative, and storytelling can reach people in ways that abstract moral philosophy appeals or political argument just don’t. So people who are very resistant to the principles we want them to embrace can be brought around if they are exposed to a persuasive artistic depiction. And there is diversity in the mainstream mass entertainment now, which was missing during WWII era.”
“I think people on the margins needs to push counter majority stories, be part of pop culture because sadly that is where we get most of our history now or consciousness about what it means to be an American,” Kwok added.
The panel discussion moderated by Arun Venugopal, reporter and host of WNYC’s “Micropolis.”