You Understand Our Pain

By Sam Hakim, representing Muslim Public Affairs Council

Thank you for inviting me to share with you this special anniversary, on this special day, and among special friends.

Sam Hakim, from MPAC, "today there are 1200 Arab and Muslim Americans held in US jails under the Patriot Act."

Today we reflect on a sad part of our modern history and remember how innocent fellow citizens were robbed of their human dignity in a large scale effort of collective punishment against an entire ethnic group of our society. As we bow in respect for those who suffered at the hands of this injustice, we wonder why it took 46 years to admit the moral tragedy of Manzanar. The important issue here is not the need for more compensation or apologies but a commitment from our country of no more Manzanars. This is what drove people like Grace Harada whose spirit we celebrate today and many like her who devoted their life for this important cause.

When we look at the world, we find that our modern history is littered with collective punishment and Manzanars all committed in the name of security as if the perpetrators were trying to make them look legitimate. The sad part is that the policy of collective punishment often leads to massacres. Let me share with you some horrible statistics.

In 94, close to 1m of Ruwanda ethnic Tutsi minority and moderate Hutus were exterminated by the Hutus army. The same evil also caused Armenians to be slaughtered in the early 1900’s, the concentration camps for Jews in World War II, the genocide of Bosnians in the mid nineties, and just recently the siege of Palestinians in the holy land.

Today 3m Palestinian live under siege, in their camps, villages and towns. They cannot go to work, to school, or walk on the street. Israelis have also been inflicted with deaths and injuries. Their pain is real and their suffering considerable. So one has to question the policy of collective punishment that Mr. Sharon is applying today. A policy where might is right, where people are not punished on the basis of what they do but who they are. We hope that at some point, decent Israelis will rise up to the moral challenge and tell their government that these actions cannot be condoned even when trying to apprehend terrorists. I remember that back in 1982, when 3000 Palestinians were massacred in refugee camps, 400,000 decent Israelis took to the streets and forced their government to switch course. Such large display of Israeli moral courage is required now because this senseless killing on both sides cannot, and should not, continue.

Turning back to our country, today there are 1200 Arab and Muslim Americans held in US jails under the Patriot Act. The evidence against these civilians is sealed. It cannot be seen, it cannot be analyzed, it can never be challenged. A report by PBS recently revealed that those arrested have not received contacts with their families since 9/11. Their families had reported them missing, and when they finally approached the FBI, they were told that their loved one, husband, wife, son, daughter or relative has indeed been arrested. Each person arrested is given a list of lawyers and phone numbers. However, these lawyers have either moved or specialize in divorce and family law, not criminal justice. More importantly, these arrests have caused a tremendous financial distress on the family because the person arrested is often the main source of income.

There has also been flagrant violation of civil laws by the police and the FBI. In trying to serve search warrants of Muslim homes, a 65 year old grandparent is handcuffed while his gandchildren watch and cry. The search warrants are carried out at 2am when everyone is sleeping. The police doesn’t ring the door bell. They knock down the door and destroy it. They turn the house upside down. All closets, drawers, and cabinets are emptied. They take away picture and files they suspect may contain some evidence of wrong-doing. And the police leaves behind a family in shock, a house in mess, children in fear, a house without a door, and neighbors who will treat you as a suspect for as long as you live near them.

While all this is going on there are hundred of stories of people fired of their jobs, or denied services because of who they are. One ironic incident is one of a Muslim secret service agent kicked off an American Airlines flight because of his name and ethnicity. The agent was in charge of President Bush own security and was flying to Texas to carry out his duties. He showed his identity and the FBI confirmed his security clearance but to no avail. The pilot said ‘I don’t want him on the plane’. Obviously we are all concerned about improving safety particularly at airlines, but religious and ethnic profiling is not the way to make flying more secure.

The irony is that of all those arrested, only 1 person was charged. He is not an even an American citizen. He is a French citizen living in the US. This all suggests that the government has launched a policy of blanket arrests and intimidation which breaks down the social fabric which unites us all.

I am sharing the problems of the US Muslim and Arab community with you today because I know you went through a similar miscarriage of justice. You feel our pain and suffering. You understand our humiliation when other suspect your loyalty to this country, when they question your motive not because of something you did but because of who you are.

One the 1st things that many Arab and Muslim Americans did after 9/11 is to go to libraries and read newspapers, books and articles about the tragedy of the concentration camps of Japanese Americans.

I remember my wife asking me whether this could happen to us. I looked at her eyes. There was fear, mixed with hurt, and a startle that 60 years later, history may repeat itself. The more things change, the more they stay the same, she said. My wife asked me ‘what about all these laws, and the civil liberties that we strive for? Isn’t there something to protect us? In her pain she came to realize that laws are made by individuals. And individuals can change laws anytime and in anyplace.

I share these personal feelings with you because I feel that Arab and Muslim Americans have a lot to learn from you today. You set an example and a role model for us to follow. We admire your struggle to reclaim your place in society, we admire your pride in your ancestry, and we admire your efforts which have consistently proved that your heritage doesn’t threaten but enrich this land we all love.

As we struggle through the difficult steps you took 60 years ago, I want to thank you for inviting me today and I want to thank you for your continuous support.

This speech was presented at the Manzanar Pilgrimage in 2002.