Message of Tolerance in Little Tokyo

Hundreds participate in rally against Islamophobia.

By J.K. YAMAMOTO   Rafu Shiimpo Staff Writer

   “Vigilant Love” was the theme of a solidarity community vigil against violence and Islamophobia held Thursday in Little Tokyo.   A diverse coalition of community groups organized the event in response to rising anti-Muslim sentiment in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino.   The program began with a gathering of about 100 people in the plaza of the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center. Some started with Muslim prayers or incense offerings.   Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Islamic Shura Council of  Southern California, offered a short prayer for peace: “Give us the resolve to stand together in the midst of trials  and tribulations of today … Instill our hearts with love and empty our  hearts and other hearts from harboring hate for other people … Keep our children and grandchildren safe in a time when everyone is looking over their shoulder with fear.”   Gilda Velez of SEIU noted that of the 14 people killed in San Bernardino, 10 were members of her union, the majority of those wounded were also members, and many more were traumatized by the experience. She also reported that at a vigil held on Monday, she met local Muslim leaders who are gathering resources and donations for the victims’ families and the survivors.   “We need to stand together with San Bernardino because San Bernardino could be any of our communities … The only way that we can defeat terrorism and hate is by the people being united,” Velez said.   She added that one of the victims, Shannon Johnson, commuted to San Bernardino from Koreatown every day and “died a hero” because he shielded a co-worker from the bullets.   Offering condolences to the families of those killed in recent attacks, Rinban Noriaki Ito of Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple said, “We condemn violence that is ever growing, but we should also acknowledge that the cycle of ongoing violence and retaliation leads only to more violence and hatred.”   Noting that when the Earth is seen from space, no national boundaries are visible, Ito talked about the Buddhist concept of interconnectedness. “Even though we lead separate and distinct lives, even though there are differences in ethnicity, religion and culture, in reality we are all part of life with a capital ‘L.’ That includes not only humans but all living things. It is our attachment to our ego and our ignorance that prevents us from seeing that reality.    “The differences should in fact be enjoyed, but in reality so often those differences lead to fear and eventually to building up walls to divide rather than to unite. Today we are here to bring us together, to make us realize that we have a responsibility to care not only for our families and our inner circle of friends, but to care for all people and all living things … We show our love and our support to our friends in the Islamic community.”   Rabbi Aryeh Cohen, a professor at American Jewish University, said, “We are commanded to reach out to each other, to stand strongly together and to say we do not build the world in the image of God by denigrating other people. The beautiful mosaic of God’s people cannot be contained within the parameters of one liturgical tradition, of one set of religious symbols … God is reflected in all the facets of belief which are expressed by all the religious traditions … We come here tonight to say that we will meet hatred with love.   “We will forgo the false security of scapegoating some Americans … We remember what happened when  after Pearl Harbor we let our fear get the better of us and we forgot that Japanese Americans were our brothers and sisters and we sent them to concentration camps … While American troops were fighting Hitler’s Nazi ideology of anti-Semitic genocide in Europe, Father (Charles Edward) Coughlin was preaching anti-Semitism in America …   “We will not let this new wave of intolerance, bigotry, racism and Islamophobia stand … We must actively seek peace, we must know each other, visiting  each other’s temples, mosques, churches, synagogues, gurdwaras … We must talk to each other. We must rid our communities of hatred.”   Rev. Mark Nakagawa of Centenary United Methodist Church said he has been working with Syed for years as members of a Christian-Muslim consultative group that meets every month. “It is out of that relationship that Shakeel and I have found commonalities and work together with all of you to bring peace and justice.”   Nakagawa read a statement from the National Japanese American United Methodist Caucus, which expressed support for “our Syrian refugee brothers and sisters as well as with refugee brothers and sisters from around the globe. The Japanese American experience is an experience that includes exile and homelessness. We know the damage that is caused by mass hysteria … As Christians, our heritage includes biblical stories of God’s people being an exiled people from the time of Moses in the Old Testament to the time of Jesus and the Apostle Paul in the New Testament …   “We call all people, especially in this country, to extend hospitality to refugees from all nations who seek to come upon our shores. With the exception of native peoples, all of us descend from people who were once strangers from another land but now citizens and residents of this land.  In the plight of the Syrian refugees we see our stories in their unfolding saga taking place right before our very eyes. We are called to do no less than to welcome them in the spirit of hospitality and love which defines this season.”   Jyotswaroop Kaur, education director of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, expressed condolences to those affected by the San Bernardino shootings and offered a Sikh children’s prayer that promises “the presence of the divine love all around you and yours.”   “We all have a responsibility to speak up when something isn’t fair,” said Muffy Sunde, a member of the Freedom Socialist Party, who attended the event. “This is completely wrong. We should open our borders to any refugees of war.” In reference to the ongoing civil war in Syria, she added, “The U.S. created this  problem, so they can pay to resolve the problem.”   Participants went on a solidarity walk through Japanese Village Plaza to the Japanese American National Museum, carrying a banner and singing “We Shall Overcome,” accompanied on guitar by Nancy Gohata and Phil Shigekuni. Syed urged everyone to hold hands with a stranger and “make a new friend this evening.”   “Holy Ground for JAs”   Outside JANM, the number of participants swelled to about 350. They were welcomed by the museum’s president and CEO, Greg Kimura, who said, “It is so gratifying to see so many people who have come out tonight … as a community of many, many faiths and people of every stripe, every color, every background to gather together in unity to resist the temptation that happens in times of national crisis for people to turn on the most vulnerable in their community.”   He pointed out that the rally was being held in front of the former Nishi Hongwanji building, “where Japanese Americans from Los Angeles were lined up and put on buses and taken away for the duration of the war, first to the horse stalls of Santa Anita Race Track and then behind the barbed wire of concentration camps further east … We truly are standing on holy ground for Japanese Americans …   “We memorialize those terrible events … by acknowledging the suffering that they endured … to honor  them by making sure that similar mass injustices based on race, color, religion, ethnic background never ever happen again.”   Citing recent “anti-Islamic, anti-Syrian, anti-refugee, anti-immigrant rhetoric” from public figures, Kimura said the purpose of the rally was to uphold “values that we hold deeply as Americans, standing against discrimination, standing against prejudice, standing for equal justice under law, standing for human rights and human dignity.”    Kathy Masaoka of Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress said in a solidarity statement, “With calls by politicians to ban Syrian refugees from entering this country, we see our country’s failure to fulfill its humanitarian responsibility to provide a sanctuary … We condemn how media outlets have capitalized on these horrific attacks by reacting to the Syrian refugee crisis with overwhelming fear, Islamophobia, and a lack of compassion for the men, women and children fleeing for their lives.   “Political officials, such as the Roanoke mayor in Virginia, even went as far as to exemplify the unjust incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II as a precedent for creating similar camps for the Syrian refugees.   “This Islamophobia and racism impacts all of us, but especially the American Muslim, Sikh, South Asian and Arab American communities, who are again being harassed and abused just as they were after 9/11. After the attacks on the Twin Towers in 2001, over 300 Japanese Americans gathered in Little Tokyo … to show support for all the victims and to highlight the need to resist the fear driven by hysteria.   “Now with the attacks in Paris and more recently in San Bernardino, there is a need for us to come together again. We did not know each other in 2001, but since then we have built a relationship across communities based on friendship and understanding.”   Other speakers included traci ishigo, program coordinator for JACL Pacific Southwest District; Sahar Pirzada, youth development manager at CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations) Los Angeles; Haroon Manjlai, public affairs coordinator for CAIR-LA; Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council; traci kato-kiriyama, director and cofounder of Tuesday Night Project; and Sean Miura, producer and lead curator of Tuesday Night Café.   The vigil concluded with participants forming a human peace symbol.