The United States was founded on ideals of diversity and the constitution of the United States was framed to protect religious beliefs, most importantly, to recognize the individual differences and principle of religious freedom.
In the last week of January 2017, the newly elected President of the United States, Donald Trump, shattered the ideals of diversity and the principle of religious freedom and signed his first Muslim ban. This executive order banned entry into the United States of nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries (Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syrian, Sudan, and Yemen) and banned the entry of all refugees. Three years later, on 31 January 2020 Donald Trump expanded the Muslim Ban by adding six countries to the list: Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, Nigeria, Sudan, and Tanzania.
In 2017, the whole of America went into shock. The protest against the trampling of the First Amendment of the US Constitution went underway by both US Muslims and Non-Muslims alike.
On Monday, February 13, 2017, Actor/Activist George Takei of popular TV series Star Trek, brought five large boxes of a petition signed by more than 317,000 Americans, opposing the first Muslim ban during an event at Los Angeles City Hall. Eric Garcetti, Mayor of Los Angeles and Salaam Al-Marayati, President of Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) also joined Takei at the event – #Never Again: Standing with American Muslims. George Takei, famous for his role as Hikaru Sulu on “Star Trek” felt he needed to stand with Muslims because of what happened to Japanese-Americans in the US during the World War II.
“We are standing in solidarity with the Muslim community,” Takei said. “Never again must this happen again in the United States. I remember the tall sentry towers with the machine guns pointed down at us,” Takei recalled.
Takei was one of about 120,000 Japanese Americans who were taken from their homes to one of the 10 internment camps located across the US during World War II. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order #9066, ordering all Japanese-Americans to evacuate the West Coast.
Takei handed over the boxes to Salaam Al-Marayati, to be taken to Washington DC and presented to members of Congress by the Muslim Public Affairs Council. Takei hopes it will also be presented to President Donald Trump.
I approached George Takei after the event and thanked him and told him that on the first day in Los Angeles, 55 years ago, I was told by the University’s International Students Adviser not to go to Tijuana or become a friend of Black Muslims. George asked me, “Why?” I said, “Because, he wanted me not to get in trouble with the immigration authorities.” Many people eager to talk to George ended our conversation by taking away his attention from me. A Japanese photographer took my picture with George Takei, and two days later emailed it to me.
Later, I started reminiscing about my early days in the United States. George Takei is saying, “#Never Again: Standing With American Muslims,” during February, the month celebrated every year as Black History Month in these United States. 55 years ago, I was told not to become a friend of a Black Muslim. A strange question came to my mind: Was I, a Muslim, banned from associating with Black Muslims in the 1960’s US?
My arrival in September 1962, neither as an immigrant, nor as a refugee or one who was seeking political asylum, but as a student seeking an engineering degree, had a profound effect on me for the next four years. On the very first day in Los Angeles, I went straight to the Foreign Students Adviser’s Office. He welcomed me and talked about engineering courses, books, college campus, student housing, and immigration requirements. One cautionary statement he made that startled and scared the daylight out of me. It also made me fearful and nervous. He said, “Don’t go to Tijuana, the Mexican border city, south of San Diego, and don’t become friendly with Black Muslims.”
The first thought that came to my mind was about being deported back to India. The advisor did not elaborate or provide an explanation for his warning. Almost 45 years later in 2007, I learned the truth about his statement. In April 1962 scores of policemen went to the Nation of Islam mosque in Los Angeles and wounded seven unarmed Muslims, leaving one paralyzed and another dead. There was tension in Los Angles in 1962 and the debate was continuing about whether it was a racially motivated assault, justifiable homicide, police brutality, or government repression. It seems the Adviser did not want me to get tangled in the web of prevailing racial situation and tension in Los Angeles and end up in trouble with the immigration authorities.
During the college days I avoided meeting and/or talking to African-Americans. Yet, one day, I really got a jolt, when I was greeted by a young African-American man in full suit with the Islamic greeting of ‘Salaam Alaykum’ on Market Street in downtown Inglewood. I became more inquisitive about Black Muslims, but still was scared to talk to any African-American.
During college days I took an evening part time job where I met a middle aged Greek worker, who used to call me in his most beautiful voice Jakhouf. I had earlier told him my last name Yacoob is Jacob. He used to talk about the forthcoming bout between Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston. He told me that Sonny Liston, the world heavyweight champion, had beaten Floyd Patterson by a first-round knockout in September 1962. “Jakhouf, Sonny Liston is going to kill that kid.” On February 24, 1964, he disappeared during working hours to listen to the bout between Clay and Liston on radio.
After the fight, he came to me and expressed his astonishment about Cassius Clay winning the fight and felt sorry for Sonny Liston. Being a young man, I was in favor of Cassius Clay winning the fight. I never met Cassius Clay, who later became a Muslim and that made me happy. Yet, I did not have any African-American friends. Later in life, I met Muhammad Ali only once in California in Hawthorne city Plaza.
After receiving my engineering degree in 1966, I got a job and brought my wife and two children to the United States. Before the arrival of my wife, I started searching for a two-bedroom apartment, seeking help from anybody and everybody to find one. The Human Relations Department of my company informed me about a two-bedroom apartment in Lennox – part of Inglewood city, that had 100% white population. The Watts riots of 1965 that took place in Los Angeles were fresh in the minds of Californians and many cities were looking for diversity.
I went to the given address, showed the company’s letter to Mrs. Ola Pacifico, the land lady, who introduced herself as a Native American. Yes, she was an American Indian. I had a little smirk on my face – an East Indian meeting an American Indian. This was the first time I had met an American Indian; had only seen Native American men in cowboy movies on horseback. Mrs. Ola Pacifico took me to the first-floor apartment and talked with Nancy, the tenant lady. Nancy allowed me to see the apartment. I was surprised to see almost fifteen pairs of big shoes neatly arranged against the walls in one room; the other room was couple’s bedroom. In her house, Mrs. Ola Pacifico told me that Nancy is wife of Leroy Ellis, Los Angeles Lakers basketball player, who has been traded to a team back east and will be leaving by the end of May 1966. I moved in that apartment in June 1966. My encounter with Leroy Ellis’ family got me interested in Lakers basketball team. I had spare time in hand; no college studies, only work and the long wait for my family to arrive from my hometown Hyderabad, in India. I never met Leroy Ellis, but watched him on TV playing games in 1960’s.
My wife and two children, a son and a daughter, arrived in the U.S. on 17 September, 1966. I got involved with the Muslim community and became a member of the Islamic Center of Southern California located at City Terrace Drive in East Los Angeles. There, I met African-American Muslims for the first time.
In 1968 many friends who were living in West Los Angeles and Culver City, decided to rent a one-bedroom apartment for one month to perform evening prayers during Ramadan. The Islamic Center of Southern California was almost 20 miles from West Los Angeles and Culver City, and nobody was ready to travel every night. Renting of an apartment for one month became a reality when one of the managers of the apartment buildings in that area agreed to rent an apartment near the University of California Los Angeles Married Students Quarters for one month. One day, Dr. Salahuddin Bryson, an African American, brought a tall young man and said that he will be sitting in the back and would watch us pray. He added the young man was studying for his Master’s Degree in Islamic Studies at UCLA. In 1969, the Islamic Center of Southern California moved from East Los Angeles to Wilshire District in Los Angeles. In 1970 I saw the same tall young man, who had watched us praying in Ramadan, at the Islamic Center. I was told that his name is Lew Alcindor and he is a basket player at UCLA. Later, he changed his name to Kareem Abdul Jabbar.
With the arrival of new immigrants, Muslims started building new mosques in other parts of Southern California. A new mosque, Masjid-Ul-Islam, was established in the City of Inglewood near the Great Western Forum, home of the Los Angeles Lakers. In the 1980’s Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Jamal Wilkes, the top players of Lakers, visited the Inglewood Mosque many times. I had the privilege of meeting Kareem Abdul Jabbar in that mosque. He came for the Jummah Friday Prayer at the Mosque and twice for the Eid Prayers. Jamal Wilkes started recognizing me by my face. Once I met Jamal in Los Angeles and he greeted me with a Salam and a handshake and said, “How are you doing, my brother?”
Diversity has been and is the hallmark of immigrants in the United States. Diversity is the new majority. People of different backgrounds came for religious freedom, avoiding civil unrest, escaping persecution, fleeing hardships in their own countries. African-Americans were brought here as slaves. Many Europeans came to the US looking for work in its booming economy, and shortly after the two World Wars, European immigrants arrived as refugees.
I love to see diversity in these United States. It has even come to my family. Our older daughter married a Kenyan-Canadian young man; my son, the second child, married a Pakistani-American girl; third child, a son, married a Kenyan-American girl; and youngest daughter, married a Sri Lankan who came to the United States on a political asylum visa. We met the family of our Kenyan-American daughter-in-law through their relatives who came to California as refugees from Uganda.
President Donald Trump signed an executive order during the first week of his presidency barring citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries (Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Sudan, Somalia and Yemen) from entering the United States. He has now, Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, Nigeria, Sudan and Tanzania in that list.
In 1966 I met Mrs. Ola Pacifico. She is a Native American, indigenous person. Her family and her tribe, and all the native tribes have lived in these Americas for centuries. They are indigenous people and the rest of us are immigrants, political asylum seekers and refugees in these United States of America.
[MOHAMMAD YACOOB is a retired industrial engineer and engineering proposals analyst who lives in Los Angeles, California]