Kurashige: The Islamic Center and the “Pearl Harbor” Analogy

Scott Kurashige writes in a guest editorial for Informed Comment:

In May 2007, George W. Bush welcomed Queen Elizabeth II to the White House, hosting a ceremony attended by 7,000 guests followed by the first white-tie state dinner of his presidency. If we abide by the twisted logic of some “Ground Zero mosque” opponents, we must now view this affair as controversial, explosive, and offensive.

With Bush and the Republicans in charge, our government honored the monarch of a nation that once invaded America and destroyed much of our capital city. When Bush remarked that the UK had “written many of the greatest chapters in the history of human freedom” he neglected to point out that British invaders had burned down the White House itself—with the First Lady inside of it.

The enemy forces also torched the Senate. House, Treasury, and Library of Congress. The result was a still unprecedented occupation of Washington, DC by a foreign power.

Try as I might, I cannot find any evidence that Newt Gingrich, Charles Krauthammer, or the other self-appointed guardians of our national honor and dignity did anything to stop Bush from letting the royal family set foot on the hallowed ground the British once savagely desecrated. (Bush the Father also invited the queen to the White House in 1991.)

Do they not consider our government’s most cherished structures, our highest symbols of freedom and democracy, to be sacred spaces worthy of their patriotic protection? What message are they sending to the descendants of the 20,000 Americans whose lives were lost (as a direct result of combat or an indirect result of disease) to the War of 1812?

This contradiction speaks volumes to the use and abuse of historical analogy in the service of contemporary political debate. Gingrich and Krauthammer have been two of the most prominent opponents of the proposed Islamic center two blocks from the former site of the World Trade Center. Both have drawn parallels to the suffering of the Holocaust and the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

In the former case, the atrocities are directly attributable to the “Nazis”—leaders of a distinct fascist group that rose to power with Hitler and whose contemporary allegiants are rightly viewed as extremists. Thus, as Gingrich argues, “Nazis don’t have the right to put up a sign next to the holocaust museum in Washingtion.”

There is, however, no parallel term in American discourse for the latter case. Gingrich didn’t say “the Taisei Yokusankai, a fascist grouping which took control of Japan in the lead up to World War II, has no right establish a monument at Pearl Harbor.” He said, “we would never accept the Japanese putting up a site next to Pearl Harbor.”

In his view, we affix permanent blame for the attack to “the Japanese”—a term which blurs the distinction between people, “race,” and nation.

While we can forgive the British royal family for the tyranny of its ancestors, Americans can seemingly never forget that “the ‘Japanese‘ attacked Pearl Harbor.” This is despite the fact that Japan has been one of America’s most vital and trusted allies for over six decades, that its entire system of government was designed by American overseers, and that its constitution is unique in the world in its dedication to pacifism.

In large measure, as historian John Dower has argued, this attitude reflects the racial discourse of World War II. While the U.S. always believed there were “good Germans” who could be allied against “the Nazis,” the Pacific Theater enemy was routinely labeled “the Japs” and “the Nips”—a savage race marked for extermination because its treachery was part of its blood.

Domestically, the U.S. government upheld the notion that “a Jap is a Jap” as it forced both immigrants and American-born citizens of Japanese ancestry into internment camps. Many politicians argued that the most highly assimilated Japanese Americans professing the greatest loyalty to America posed the gravest danger because they were best positioned to launch a “sneak attack” or a “second Pearl Harbor.” Mass public suspicion of Japanese Americans ran so deep that even babies in orphanages were held behind barbed wires.

It took the actions of the U.S. military itself to begin to cut down the “race war” discourse, which played into imperial Japan’s efforts to rally all of Asia against American white supremacy. Reversing its policy of excluding Japanese Americans from the military, the U.S. inducted Japanese American soldiers to serve in both Europe and Asia. Only by going against popular racist sentiment did the military wind up with the Nisei soldiers who became the backbone of the war’s most decorated American unit.

Had the populist mob carried the day, Japanese Americans would have endured even more than continued internment and a ban on military service. Some political leaders portrayed the American-born Japanese as the product of a 50-year plot by Japan to attack American from within. They called for stripping them of birthright citizenship and even shipping them all off to Japan. Fortunately, this was not carried out even at the height of wartime hysteria.

If the madness surrounding the rapidly degenerating debate over the “Ground Zero mosque” must serve as another one of those “teachable moments,” let it serve to expose the contradictions that rest at the heart of our national identity and history.

We can go back to the “race war” logic of the Pacific War and see ourselves in a clash of civilizations with Islam. But in doing so, we allow our greatest fears and prejudices to triumph over our most democratic ideals and Constitutional rights. We blur the distinction between the 9/11 attackers and an Islamic organization that is a longtime member in good standing of the Lower Manhattan neighborhood and dedicated to promoting interfaith harmony. We stereotype Muslims in America as an inscrutable and untrustworthy group, so that law-abiding behavior and peaceful intentions are less relevant than the future possibility (as Krauthammer suggests) that the Islamic center could one day harbor proponents of terrorism. And we commit ourselves to strategies that are divisive and self-defeating.

Or, as we wrestle with global economic, political, and environmental crises, we can view our struggle to build a democratic, multiethnic society as a pillar of strength that positions us to build harmonious relations with the international community. Just as Japanese Americans died on December 7, Muslim Americans died on September 11. Just as Japanese Americans played a crucial role fighting fascism during World War II, Muslim Americans are integral part of our community and our struggles for peace and justice.

Finally, as we memorialize the World Trade Center, let us not forget that its chief designer was a Japanese American, Minoru Yamasaki, whose international renown as an architect and advocate for world peace symbolized a new spirit of tolerance being born out of the tragedies of war.

Scott Kurashige is Associate Professor in American Culture and History at the University of Michigan and Director of American Culture’s program in Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies

17 Responses

  1. I agree with everything you’ve stated. It’s sad really that so many Americans are so racist. You know when the AMERICAN Japanese were in concentration camps; German P.O.W.”s walked freely around Gettysburg during the day. The prisoners then waited on the corner for the MP’s to pick them up every evening around 5.
    God forbid if you’re Islam or Hispanic American nowadays. Cause your not the right religion or color.

  2. Thanks to Professor Cole for sharing my post. I just want to clarify one point, so that there is no confusion. As a both a U.S. historian and U.S. citizen, I certainly believe we should remember Pearl Harbor, 9/11, along with the burning of Washington during the War of 1812. But we should be precise as to how we remember these events. We rightfully judge the British by our decades of friendship rather than our bloody wars with them. While no mainstream politician discusses our prior antagonism with the British without simultaneously acknowledging our contemporary alliance, the same rule does not apply when some politicians or other figures invoke the memory of Pearl Harbor. We should make clear that a specific grouping of fascist leaders in Japan made the decision to go to war with the US seven decades ago, and we should avoid blanket statements such as “the Japanese” bombed Pearl Harbor which make it all too easy for the “race war” logic to perpetuate itself in the present and future. We need to use the same precision when we draw the lessons of 9/11.

  3. On the burning of government buildings in Washington, in the war of 1812-14, the history we learn in Canada is that this was retaliation for the Sacking of York (now Toronto, Ontario) by the Americans, when public buildings were also burned:
    link to en.wikipedia.org
    Perhaps also relevant to those times is that substantial portions of Ontario were then settled by ‘United Empire Loyalists’ (also called Tory Refugees in American discourse), people with memories of loosing their homes in property in the US.

    It makes an interesting analogy if one wants to pursue the history more deeply.

  4. .
    Professor,
    you are and American icon, and this site is an Institution.
    God bless you.
    .

  5. The 1812 war is not the best analogy.
    It was the United States that declared war on Great Britain.
    Taking Washington and burning the White House was both “payback” and a “lesson”.

  6. As much as I enjoy the sentiment expressed, having the Queen visit a property is not quite the same as building a building adjacent to it. The analogy would be more apt if it were along the lines of the Queen building a palace next to the White House that her ancestor burned and, I think, “patriotic Americans” would raise a stink about that.

    That being said, I believe that even having this discussion about the misnamed “Ground Zero Mosque” dishonors this nation, in precisely the same way that the discussion regarding torture did. The outcome doesn’t really matter; the mere fact that we are willing to have then discussion is a rank disgrace.

  7. There is one huge detail that should be mentioned. The burning of Washington DC was done in response to the American burning and looting of York (now Toronto). It was a tit-for-tat reaction.

    One *can* argue that 911 was a response to American policy crimes abroad. That if reining death from the skies by Americans upon the Islamic world is okay, then turnabout is fair play. That Moslem warriors can rein death upon Americans from the skies. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

    This is not a game we should be playing. Makes me wonder if there are actually any adults in charge.

    • I think that my response to that argument would be along the lines of:

      “If it’s not okay for them to make war on us in a way that not only shows total contempt for the safety, or innocence, of civilians but also targets non-military infrastructure then what makes it acceptable for us to do it?”

      But generally speaking I agree, that the “if it’s okay for them to do it then it’s okay for us to do it” argument is flawed and self-defeating. A certain way to give up the moral high ground, and give legitimacy to the actions of the other side.

  8. Yes, but…the propensity for hysteria in current America, including the bigotry exemplified by the current “Ground Zero mosque” furor, is a problem that won’t be muted by pure analysis, no matter how sound. It’s a symptom of deep political and social malaise, the dark side side of Amerca’s exceptionalist posture: we’re god’s country, which welcomes all comers until we’re frightened, in which case we fear all: Hispanics from Mexico, Islam in any form, etc. What’s needed to mute the hysteria, aside from more promising signs of economic recovery, itself an (unreasonable but real) entitlement in god’s promised land, is stronger leadership.

    Bloomberg provided it quite impressively, Obama alas not. His waffling–I support their right but not their exercise of it, is a sad example of a president who, via vague moral postures, dissipates his supporters’ enthusiasm as much as he fails to quell the panic tendencies that hum near the surface of most Americans’ world view.

    Finally, Pearl Harbor was then, the Islamic fears are now. And the war of 1812 is ancient history in the ahistorical view that pervades America. Query: if a Pearl Harbor-like attack took place on American soil today, say by the Chinese, would public sentiment be any more capable of distinguishing between China and its racially linked American citizens than was America’s incarceration of Japanese-Americans in 1941? I’m afraid not, though perhaps the evolution of constitutional law since then might offer a feared minority a bit more legal protection.

  9. [...] While we can forgive the British royal family for the tyranny of its ancestors, Americans can seemingly never forget that “the ‘Japanese‘ attacked Pearl Harbor.” This is despite the fact that Japan has been one of America’s most vital and trusted allies for over six decades, that its entire system of government was designed by American overseers, and that its constitution is unique in the world in its dedication to pacifism.” link to juancole.com… [...]

  10. It occurs to me that I don’t actually believe that Americans would be opposed to the Japanese putting up a site a short distance away from Pearl Harbour. Not if “Japanese” meant Americans of Japanese descent, nor a Japanese lobby group, nor even the Japanese government. Certainly not if the stated purpose of the building was to foster cross-cultural exchanges and to encourage mutual toleration.

    Realistically I doubt that it would have been tolerated immediately after the second world war, after all we continued to brutalise the Germans for some time after their surrender and they at least looked like us and shared a similar cultural background. But that’s another problem with whole analogy situation, World War had a clear beginning and an ending even the those dates differed by country. This “War on Terror” has been described as a “long war” and it has no end in sight, not only is that likely to make total rapprochement a long way off but it virtually guarantees that relations between us and our perceived enemies will continue to deteriorate for the foreseeable future.

    History suggests very strongly that the initial animosity that was first brought to light after the attacks in New York and Washington, which appears to have been growing for the last decade will continue to become much more bitter and more violent the longer respected leaders continue to encourage the idea that Islam, or Arabs, as monolithic entities are the enemy.

    Nor is it a one way street. This conflict has attracted global interest. The rest of the world sees American political leaders conflating Islam with terrorism and demonstrating that they believe that Muslims should be prevented from integrating fully with their culture and contributing to it.

    This does not serve the interests of the United States of America nor the citizens of that generally admirable country.

  11. And this tirade is true because of, what was it again ? There are so many missing elemental data points, and conclusions without any premise, its hard to follow unless your willing to take it on faith. It doesn’t seem to have any spirtual merit.

    • Well gee whiz, Jackie, which tirade are you referring to? And what kind of spirtual merit does it supposed to have if it is to be valid or whatever?

      Just a quick google away is a bunch of stuff on Japanese shrines and temples in, well, maybe a little more distant greater “proximity” to Battleship Row and Hickam Field and such actual Pearl Harbor Never Again Shrines than the said “mosque” is to Our Sacred Former Skyscrapers. Like the one described and set in its scene in this article by, God help us, a Professor of Religion at Illinois Wesleyan University.

      And never forget, Cuba is only 90 miles from our shores. And Guantanamo Bay Naval Base is only ZERO miles from Cuba, well, actually a good part of it is kind of within the boundaries of the Commie Bastion we USED to hate and fear and is now just a pawn in South Florida politics. And it’s not like “we” didn’t set up that Bay of Pigs thing, however it all really went down, etc.

      Which conclusions are unpremised? It’s a good thing always to be willing to hear and learn — I must be missing something, though. Maybe a blackboard, or would it have to be a whiteboard, for a history lesson from the Beckerhead?

      This former lawyer is not hearing anything that rises to the level of “reasonable doubt.”

  12. There is one big difference between this situation and the War of 1812:

    Americans were genuinely hostile to the UK government for many decades after the burning of the White House. But in the late 19th century America became Britain’s junior partner in the capitalist subjugation of the world. Britain was the #1 investor in US industry and railroads. The US was heavily in debt to Britain. Anglo-American businesses, like the White Star Line that owned the Titanic, became common. American corporations benefitted from British global military domination as British industry itself was becoming senile. By 1916, it was obvious ethat if the US was going to enter WW1 at all, it would be on the British side. That war reversed the two countries’ positions as debtor and creditor. It is as if there was a single business class transfering its assets from one host body to the other, until the UK became the servile junior partner it is today.

    But our animus towards Britain after 1812 would have been shorter-lived if we could have seriously claimed to have won that war. Economic interests aside, the one thing the US really hates is not winning. We claim to be generous in victory towards countries like Japan, but we are sore losers everywhere we didn’t get our way, evidenced by our chain of long running economic sanctions around the world.

  13. People in this country don’t seem to realize or at least don’t take into consideration that many American Muslims are white and have been here as long as any other European invader settler. They can’t connect us to terrorism or to Arabs or al Qaida (ahem) and they have no excuse to try and tie in Islam.
    Anyway we all know it was just a platform to remind the hillbillies that the terrorists are not their own leaders. In case they were beginning to forget since the so called war on terror is still going. I wonder how long they think they can use Arabs as their scapegoat. Forever?

  14. The difference between the WTC, Pearl Harbor and the War of 1812 is vast, 140 to 198 years. Time heals most wounds. While Pearl Harbor is fading from living memory, the WTC is a fresh wound for many that has permanently changed the way we live. A generation, maybe two will have to pass before more rational heads will prevail. I think the construction of the “Freedom Tower” on Ground Zero is also a sacrilege. It should have been turned into a Peace park and a monument against religious extremism.

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