By Ryan Grewal, city editor
Academics and activists from local Japanese-American and Muslim-American communities debated and discussed parallels between World War II-era Japanese internment and contemporary persecution of Muslims at a forum Saturday afternoon at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
The panel discussion, titled “National Security and Civil Liberties: 1942 & 2017,” was part of the Starr Forum series hosted by MIT’s Center for International Studies (CIS). Organizers intended the event to be a remembrance the 75th anniversary of Japanese-American internment through a discussion of civil liberties in the contemporary context.
Paul Watanabe, the director of the University of Massachusetts Boston Institute for Asian American Studies, pointed out the similarities between the method President Franklin D. Roosevelt used in interning Japanese-Americans to that which President Donald J. Trump has used.
“With a stroke of his pen, Trump’s recent executive orders have spread terror among our huddled masses – refugees, immigrants – the tempest-tost,” Watanabe said, alluding to the “The New Colossus,” Emma Lazarus’ sonnet which is engraved on the Statue of Liberty. “Seventy-five years ago, the pen was wielded by Franklin Roosevelt, signing […] Executive Order 9066, which immediately began the forced removal of Americans of Japanese descent.”
Gautam Mukunda, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Harvard Business School, expressed a frightened uncertainty about how the Trump administration might go further than Roosevelt’s in persecuting ethnic minorities.
“Franklin Roosevelt, for all of his willingness to intern the Japanese population, did have ethical restraints in what he was willing to do and how far he was willing to go – even though by our standards he went far beyond what we could imagine,” Mukunda said. “I am not certain what ethical restraints Steve Bannon […] has, but I don’t think there are very many.”
Shannon Al-Wakeel, the executive director of the Muslim Justice League in Boston, spoke of other anti-Muslim policies in the United States. She drew a comparison between the racist policies faced by 20th century Japanese immigrants and the Department of Homeland Security’s formerly-covert Controlled Application Review and Resolution Program (CARRP), which has operated in near secrecy to suppress immigration from Muslim-majority nations since 2008, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
“When I was hearing about the inability of Japanese-Americans to naturalize as citizens beginning in 1924, that struck a cord,” Al-Wakeel said. “CARRP did not explicitly bar Muslims from naturalizing, but it […] directed immigration authorities to continually delay and – if they could find a reason to – deny citizenship applications if they had any number of factors […] that are essentially proxies for being Muslim.”
Hoda Elsharkawi, MIT’s Muslim chaplain, read and translated a passage of the Quran and gave an invocation to begin the program.
“May our efforts be blessed with insight, guided by understanding and wisdom, with respect for all,” Elsharkawi said. “I pray that we find that which unites us, then allow this unity to allow us to reach great things.”
Tensions began to rise in the heat of the un-air conditioned auditorium after panelist and Cambridge City Councilor Nadeem Mazen announced to the crowd that U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) lost his bid to become the first Muslim-American chair of the Democratic National Convention. Many in the audience groaned and jeered in response to the news.
During the Q&A portion of the program, an audience member launched into a minutes-long diatribe and was shouted down by the audience after he claimed that Trump’s executive order was not a ban on Muslims.
“What we saw there was a microcosm for something that’s happening in liberal circles,” Mazen said of the skirmish. “There are a lot of people who are going to change parties in the next election.”
Photo by John Phelan, Creative Commons