By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 8, 2011; 11:48 PM
During the chaotic days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Basim Elkarra was passing by an Islamic school in Sacramento when he did a double-take: The windows were covered with thousands of origami cranes - peace symbols that had been created and donated by Japanese Americans.
Amid the anger and suspicions being aimed at Muslims at that time, the show of support "was a powerful symbol that no one will ever forget," said Elkarra, a Muslim American community leader in California.
It was also the beginning of a bond between the two groups that has intensified as House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) prepares to launch a series of controversial hearings Thursday on radical Islam in the United States.
Spurred by memories of the World War II-era roundup and internment of 110,000 of their own people, Japanese Americans - especially those on the West Coast - have been among the most vocal and passionate supporters of embattled Muslims. They've rallied public support against hate crimes at mosques, signed on to legal briefs opposing the government's indefinite detention of Muslims, organized cross-cultural trips to the Manzanar internment camp memorial near the Sierra Nevada mountains in California, and held "Bridging Communities" workshops in Islamic schools and on college campuses.
Last week, Rep. Michael M. Honda (D-Calif.), who as a child spent several wartime years living behind barbed wire at Camp Amache in southeastern Colorado, denounced King's hearings as "something similarly sinister."
"Rep. King's intent seems clear: To cast suspicion upon all Muslim Americans and to stoke the fires of anti-Muslim prejudice and Islamophobia," Honda wrote in an op-ed published by the San Francisco Chronicle.
King has defended the hearings by arguing that the Muslim American community has not always been cooperative with the FBI and other law enforcement authorities in countering the growth of radical Islam. And he rejects accusations that he is demonizing Muslims and ignoring threats from other extremists.
In an interview Sunday on CNN, King noted that U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. "is not saying he's staying awake at night because of what's coming from antiabortion demonstrators or coming from environmental extremists or from neo-Nazis. It's the radicalization right now in the Muslim community."
But Honda compared King's position not only to the wartime roundup of the Japanese, but also to the anti-Communist hearings staged by Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s.
"I'll be damned if I'm going to stay quiet and not say something," Honda said in an interview this week. "We have to show people that as Americans, we're not going to put up with this kind of nonsense."
Although the youngest who were interned are in their late 60s, Japanese Americans remember what it means to be targeted during wartime because of their nationality.
After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered that all ethnic Japanese along the Pacific Coast be sent to one of 10 isolated internment camps in seven states. Of those imprisoned, 62 percent were second- or third-generation Japanese Americans born in the United States. Most lost their property to the government.
In 1988, Congress approved legislation that apologized and distributed $1.6 billion in reparations, blaming the roundup on "race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership."
It was the memory of the camps that led the Japanese to reach out to their Muslim counterparts, said Kathy Masaoka, a high school teacher who co-chairs the Los Angeles chapter of Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress.
"It dawned on us that this is really something that could escalate among Muslims, the same things our parents faced," she said. "They were being scapegoated."
What followed was a candlelight vigil in Los Angeles's Little Tokyo and the "Bridging Communities" program, aimed at educating Muslim and Japanese high school students on diversity. Last year, 40 students participated in five seminars, sharing stories of challenges they face related to race, religion and ethnicity.
"They see clearly that they have similar experiences," said Affad Shaikh, civil rights manager for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "Even though the target group of the discrimination is different, the purpose of that harassment is the same."
In Sacramento, CAIR and the Japanese American Citizens League sponsor an annual 350-mile bus trip to the Manzanar internment camp. More than 10,000 Japanese were interned there, an ordeal recounted in "Farewell to Manzanar," the well-known 1983 memoir by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston.
"When we met with the former internees, they told us how they coped," said Elkarra, president of CAIR's Sacramento Valley chapter. "The challenges they faced were a lot more difficult than anything we faced."
Although the alliance between the two groups is rooted on the West Coast, it has also been on display in Washington, where the Japanese American Citizens League is headquartered. The league has worked with Arab American groups about racial profiling, meeting with the Department of Justice to urge officials not to detain people on the basis of race or religion, said Floyd Mori, the league's national executive director.
As King's congressional hearings have drawn near, Japanese American groups have condemned him. Last week, Mori co-authored a commentary with Deepa Iyer, executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together, that said the hearings "will do nothing but perpetuate an atmosphere of alienation, suspicion and fear."
Mori plans to send a staff member to the hearing. Honda, too, will be monitoring it, although he has not asked to testify and has not spoken with King about his concerns.
"We just feel very strongly that it does kind of point back to the time when just because we were of Japanese ancestry, people looked upon us with hate and terror," Mori said. "This kind of hearing simply flames that kind of fire today."