Fostering friendships among all Americans

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American Muslim

San Francisco Chronicle August 7, 2003

Japanese Americans can feel Muslims' pain

By Annei Nakao

Building bridges. Just the sort of phrase that could put a columnist to sleep. After all, we've heard it a million times.

So when I see it actually working, it kind of tilts the world a degree or two off its normal axis, and I sit up and take notice.

The scene of my awakening was the basement of the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California in San Francisco's Japantown. I've been in that room many times. My daughter and I took mother-child taiko lessons there. I've eaten sushi and rice cakes here at some holiday event or another. And watched giant rice cookers steaming up the room in preparation for senior lunch service.

This time, it was different. There was Jordanian-born American Muslim Amjad T. Obeidat, 35, talking about the "beautiful friendships" he's developed with Japanese Americans as part of his activism in Amila, a Bay Area organization of spiritually and civic-minded young Muslim Americans. And there was Japanese American activist and law student Dina Shek, responding in kind because her friendship with Obeidat is real.

"I've gotten to know Amjad so well as a friend," said Shek, 33, of San Francisco. "I just went to his engagement party."

The catalyst for this friendship was Sept. 11, 2001, the day terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center and changed America forever. In a single stroke, they also laid bare the vulnerability of Muslim and Arab Americans and South Asians in a world that saw them as terrorists, and brought back for Japanese Americans visceral memories of wartime injustice. You might say it was inevitable that these people would find each other.

But nothing is inevitable. So it is heartening that Japanese Americans -- so traumatized by their World War II internment that they spent the next half century relentlessly pursuing the American dream of assimilation -- were among the first to step up and stand behind Muslims and Arabs in the days after Sept. 11.

"Being privy to their community's reaction and studying my own history, I thought, wow, this is what it must have been like," Shek said.

"They told us, 'We're going to stand with you,' and I could tell this was real," Obeidat said. "They said, 'We won't allow this to happen again.' "

"This" was the casting of an entire people as potential enemies of the United States in 1942, when 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, two-thirds of them U.S. citizens, were forcibly removed from the West Coast after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. Asserting that it could not tell the loyal from the disloyal, the government ordered the mass incarceration.

A net cast too wide.

We see it again when, in the aftermath of Sept. 11, the government's efforts to prevent another terrorist attack caused it to zero in on immigrants from Muslim and Arab countries. Now the Justice Department has criticized Attorney General John Ashcroft and company for the handling of hundreds of foreigners held on immigration violations who languished in jail for months without ever being connected to terrorism. There is also the new registration of men from mostly Muslim and Arab countries who do not have green cards. I do not defend those who violate immigration law. What I do defend against is a blanket policy that assumes that only men from certain countries are good terrorist material. Whatever happened to intelligence gathering?

So it's good to see other folks reject that kind of thinking. And it doesn't have to entail a political rally. Could be just breaking bread and talking. Or painting a mural, like the beautiful one that Obeidat, Shek and other Japanese Americans and Muslims, Arabs and South Asians recently worked on together at a local mosque. Or simple friendship.

E-mail Annie Nakao at anakao@sfchronicle.com.

URL: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2003/08/07/DD297141.DTL