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Muslim exhibit is part of Heart Mountain's mission

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The negative reaction by some to a new exhibit at the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center near Cody shows precisely why it is needed.

“Esse Quam Videri,” which means “to be rather than to seem,” features self-portraits of Muslim-Americans in everyday life. It recently opened at the center and will be on display through Sept. 18.

Not everyone is happy about the exhibit. Eric Muller, a Heart Mountain board member and a law professor at the University of North Carolina, said comments against the display have generally fallen into three categories: people who accuse the center of promoting religion, specifically Islam; those who somehow think it diminishes the “sacredness” of the site; and those who think it is inappropriate while our nation is fighting a war in Afghanistan.

The center is located at the site of a World War II Japanese-American internment camp. It serves as an excellent reminder of the anti-Japanese hysteria in our country after the attack on Pearl Harbor, even against U.S. citizens of Japanese descent. More than 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry were forcibly removed from the West Coast and relocated to 10 internment camps, including 10,000 at Heart Mountain.

Leslie Maslak of Cody recently questioned the new exhibit in a letter published in The Billings Gazette. “What in the world does a Muslim exhibit have to do with the Japanese-Americans’ internment?” she asked.

Maslak added, “Is this a ‘comparison’ to how we mistreat the ‘peace-loving’ Muslims? Whatever the reason, this exhibit does not belong at the Heart Mountain Relocation Camp.”

Many other area residents apparently agree. An online poll by The Powell Tribune showed that through July 27, 55.9 percent of 1,101 respondents agreed with the center’s decision to host the exhibit, while 44.1 percent disagreed.

But part of the interpretive center’s mission is to encourage visitors to learn from history so past mistakes can avoid being repeated. The Muslim exhibit is the first in a series that will focus on prejudice, stereotyping and religious, racial and ethnic profiling.

Shirley Ann Higuchi, chairwoman of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation’s board of directors and the daughter of Heart Mountain internees, explained why the exhibit is perfectly in keeping with the story told by the center.

Higuchi said even 70 years after the internment camps were opened, “We are still sometimes misled by the power of false stereotypes to express mistrust and intolerance toward fellow Americans simply because they resemble an enemy.”

“This exhibit takes a thoughtful look at the diversity and challenges of real Muslim-Americans today, and we hope it will prompt visitors to reflect on possible parallels between perceptions of Japanese-Americans after the attack on Pearl Harbor then and Muslim-Americans now,” Higuchi said.

Muller noted, “Some people have very strong feelings about the Muslims’ religion, about what the tenets are and what Muslims believe. That’s not really what we are trying to do here.”

The purpose of this post-9/11 exhibit, he added, is to allow people to reflect on their own views and understanding about who American Muslims are and come of their own conclusions.

Muller said staff and volunteers at Heart Mountain view the interpretive center as “sacred ground.” As part of that belief, he said, “We’re also interested in spurring thought and discussion and being leaders in helping our society think through the legacy and meaning of this historical episode, for now and the future.”

The people who devoted years of work to make the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center a reality should be proud of their efforts to share what happened at the internment camps with the rest of the world. A very important part of their work is helping to create an environment in which no one is subjected to such treatment based upon prejudice and stereotyping.

The Muslim-American photo exhibit is at the very heart of that vital message.

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