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Community Panel Draws Parallels Between Muslim American and Japanese American Experiences

by Nick Turner

Aneela Afzali was born in Kabul, Afghanistan. One day, when she was walking down the boardwalk along Alki Beach, somebody driving by opened their window and shouted obscenities and told her to “go home.” Her home, incidentally, was less than a mile away.

Afzali told this story and others like it to community members gathered for a panel discussion on Saturday in the Nisei Veterans Committee Memorial Hall. The event was called “Facing Prejudice, Past and Present,” and challenged both panelists and those in the audience to see what parallels can be drawn between the experiences of Muslim Americans today and those of Japanese Americans before, during and after World War II.

Afzali, whose family immigrated to the United States and who grew up near Portland, Oregon, is the founder and Executive Director of the American Muslim Empowerment Network, or AMEN, an initiative launched through the Muslim Association of Puget Sounds, or MAPS.

Afzali was joined by five other panelists: Joseph Lachman, presidentelect of the Seattle Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League and the donor relations specialist for the Council on American Islamic Relations; Kim Muromoto, a Nisei Japanese American who was incarcerated in the Minidoka Concentration Camp and drafted into the famed 442nd segregated infantry; Diane Narasaki, who has served as the Executive Director of Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS) since 1995; and Rasul Pasha, a convert to Islam and an activist in issues regarding the Muslim faith.

During the event, panelists took turns answering questions about their own personal thoughts and recollections concerning historical events like the bombing of Pearl Harbor or 9/11, along with the implications of those events and how we see them playing out today.

“Growing up, nobody knew where Afghanistan was. None of them would get anywhere close to finding it on a map. 911 changed all of that,” Afzali said. “People learned where Afghanistan was for all the wrong reasons.”

Afzali described what it was like watching the news on September 11, 2001 in her Harvard Law School dorm room. She felt fear and disbelief, and even began to cry. She was shocked and hurt by the atrocity that had been dealt her country. But, at the same time, she said, she had that feeling in the pit of her stomach, that feeling only people of color know, that anytime anybody in your community does something bad, it reflects on everybody.

“The good does not seem to reflect the same way,” she added.

In years to come, she said, antiMuslim sentiment has only grown. Referring back to her story about what happened near her home in Alki, Afzali explained that she was most afraid for Muslim youth.

“I can take it. I’m an adult. I recognize what’s going on. but the impact on kids is heartbreaking,” she said. “The kind of long-term damage that can have, and the emotional trauma that it can create in people, is really something that we should all be worried about.”

Afzali believes that overcoming racial or religious barriers and recognizing the parallels in the experiences of minority communities is the best way to protect our rights and freedoms. She concluded her statement with an age-old saying: “if we don’t remember the lessons of history, we are bound to repeat them.”