Heated rhetoric continues to swirl around the proposal to build an Islamic community center a few blocks from the World Trade Center site. Historians say this sort of debate has many precedents in American history. Historian Scott Kurashige sees a parallel between the controversy over the community center and efforts to block Japanese immigrants from building Buddhist temples and shrines in the decades surrounding World War II. (flickr image: Jukka Vuokko) Download MP3
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MARCO WERMAN: The proposal to build an Islamic center just two blocks from Ground Zero in New York is generating heated political debate all over the US. This isn’t the first time Americans have had such a debate. Today’s controversy reminds historian Scott Kurashige of efforts to block Japanese immigrants from building Buddhist temples and shrines in the decades around World War Two. Kurashige says Japanese immigrants in the US back then faced stiff resistance when they tried to establish any sort of religious institution.
SCOTT KURASHIGE: If you go back to the earlier decades of the 20th century, actually in Los Angeles where I’ve based much of my research, some of the biggest opposition was not even to temples, but actually to Japanese Christian churches. There were groups with names like the Anti-Asiatic Association or the Asian Exclusion Association, that were simply trying to declare neighborhoods and the state of California, the US as a nation, to be territories that belonged to white Americans.
WERMAN: What goes through your mind as you listen to this very noisy debate on the Park 51 Islamic Center?
KURASHIGE: I think it actually does bring to mind a number of parallels with what happened to Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants during World War Two. Just after Pearl Harbor, again the government did arrest anyone they possibly thought could be even a remotely potential threat. In many cases these arrests were unjustified. My grandfather, for instance, had committed no crime. His only act of causing him to be suspicious was to be a Buddhist minister. So, again, roughly 5,000 had already been detained and yet there were so many in American society that felt that was not sufficient. What they wanted was to simply wipe the influence of all Japanese Americans, immigrants who are American born, out of their neighborhoods, out of their cities. And it ultimately led to an extremely irrational case that Japanese were suspected of being threats and saboteurs and fifth columnists. Dr. Seuss even did a cartoon during World War Two which portrayed these bucktoothed Japanese Americans, hordes of them lined up to receive dynamite from a Japanese agent and the caption is, “Waiting for the signal from home” as if every Japanese person in America was a potential threat to society. They sort of looked like a cross between the Lorax and a human being with these Dr. Seuss features.
WERMAN: Things have changed a lot obviously. We do live in a different time today. But we look at the debate over the Park 51 Islamic Center – people are looking at this and saying, wow, this was an attack on American soil.
KURASHIGE: Obviously, they said the same thing about Pearl Harbor, that is was an attack on American soil. It was an attack by foreign agents in both cases. And in both cases you had Americans of a particular ethnic ancestry or religious community that were being targeted. And I think it’s important, just as in World War Two, that eventually the government and the military in the US decided that we cannot continue to portray the Pacific War as a race war. We have to recognize that we building alliances with Japanese Americans. And after the war, of course, it was very important for the US to build an alliance with Japan and promote this new idea of friendship. That’s your incentive, this idea that all Japanese were forever perpetual enemies because they had some sort of savage and barbarous blood within their veins. I think there’s the same issue today that it’s very important to recognize. The attack on 9-11 was not the start of a holy war between all Americans and all Muslims. It was a specific act by a specific organization that needs to be recognized for the danger that it poses. But the idea that somehow any potentially Muslim or Islamic institution could harbor some kind of secret threat or danger, I think that’s the real parallel that needs to be recognized and needs to serve as a cautionary tale.
WERMAN: And the shift away from that discrimination. I mean you make it sound like it’s almost a policy that the race war had to end. That kind of came from the top down. Wasn’t it more organic than that?
KURASHIGE: Attitudes did change over time, but they changed from below and from above. You know, you have to remember that during World War Two Japan was setting up puppet governments throughout Asia and arguing that it was uniting all the Asians to end the humiliation of western colonialism. So it became very important for the US and is allies to say that it is not fighting a race war, when in fact what it is doing is allying with the democratic element in Asia against the Japanese militarists and fascists. I think the same thing is just as essential today. That our struggle for global peace in America and throughout the world is not a war against a particular religion and its not based on a clash of civilizations as some would want to see it, but is instead, again, a fight to unite all the people who believe in democracy and peace against those elements that pose a threat.
WERMAN: Right, fair enough, but a lot of people have looked at this divide between East and West and said this is going to be a, some have said, a forever war. I mean it’s not like World War Two. I mean this could go on for a long time and maybe the discrimination won’t end in my lifetime.
KURASHIGE: But I think that’s tied in many ways to the changes that are going on within this country. The anti-Japanese agitation in the early 20th century came at a time when you had had heightened immigration. There was this whole question about what is the American identity now. I think that’s going on today as well. But we need to look forward to a new way in which we can embrace our diversity within this country and recognize that that’s the true [SOUNDS LIKE] opportune that we have to build peaceful and friendly relations with the rest of the global community.
WERMAN: Scott Kurashige directs the Asian Pacific Islander American Studies program at the University of Michigan. His latest book is The Shifting Grounds of Race. Scott, thank you very much.
KURASHIGE: Thank you for having me.
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