On Sunday, Jan. 29, a last-minute protest organized by opponents of President Trump’s ban on travel from seven majority-Muslim countries drew about a thousand people to the steps of the Arkansas Capitol. It was a large crowd for Little Rock and an especially impressive turnout considering many of those present had just assembled twice in the past week — a rally for reproductive rights had taken place at the Capitol the previous day and the Women’s March for Arkansas a week before that. But while those actions were driven by anxiety over what the new president might do, this one was fueled by outrage over what he actually did with his newfound authority.
In December 2015, in the wake of the mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., by a self-radicalized married couple with sympathies to the so-called Islamic State, Trump the candidate promised supporters he would bar all Muslims from entering the United States. (One of the pair was an American-born citizen; the other was from Pakistan.) A little over a year later, on Jan. 27, Trump the commander-in-chief signed an order that kept citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries — Syria, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Libya and Yemen — from traveling to the U.S. for 90 days. The order also suspended refugee admissions from any country for 120 days — except for refugees from suffering, war-ravaged Syria, who were banned indefinitely. The language in the order was so broad, and so legally porous, that even lawful permanent residents of the U.S. (that is, green card holders) from the seven targeted nations were initially barred from re-entry. Chaos erupted at international airports across the U.S. as the order went into effect, receding only when the ban was halted by a temporary restraining order from U.S. District Judge James Robart of Seattle on Feb. 3. The Trump administration appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which last week declined to stay Robart’s restraining order; the case is ongoing.
Amid the turmoil, Arkansas has felt even further removed from national politics than usual. Because Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport receives only domestic flights, Little Rock saw no dramatic moments like those at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City, where protests spontaneously erupted outside the terminal at which customs officials detained incoming travelers. However, to the thousands of Muslims who call Arkansas home, Trump’s travel ban is anything but distant: It has upended hopes of reunifying families, disrupted travel plans and sent a wave of fear and uncertainty through the Muslim-American community, even with the order temporarily blocked.
Rasha Alzahabi, 31, is a lawyer and natural-born U.S. citizen whose parents immigrated to Michigan from Damascus, Syria, in the 1980s. Her husband, a cardiologist at Little Rock’s John L. McClellan Memorial Veterans Hospital and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, came to the U.S. from Aleppo in 2001 and is now an American citizen as well. They have lived in Arkansas for over three years and are raising four children in Little Rock.
“My father- and mother-in-law live with us; they’re Syrian citizens,” Alzahabi said. “They’re legal permanent residents here, but, as you know, the executive order was so sweeping that it included denying legal permanent residents entry to the United States.” Although the White House later backtracked and said the order should not be interpreted to mean green card holders were barred, the Trump administration did not change the language of the order itself. Should a court allow the travel ban to be revived, then whom exactly it affects could change with a whim of the president. That means Alzahabi’s in-laws could potentially find themselves locked out of their adopted country if they travel overseas to visit family. “With what’s going on in Syria, they haven’t been able to visit in some time, but they have traveled to see my brother- and sister-in-law in other countries. My brother-in-law lives in Saudi Arabia. They were able to see my sister-in-law — who does live in Syria — in Lebanon last year.” Now, she said, “Frankly, we’re not comfortable with them traveling, given what’s been going on, because we’re concerned they may not be allowed re-entry to the United States, which is their home now. We really don’t know what’s going to happen. If legal permanent residents were being blocked from their own homes, then anything is possible.”
Meanwhile, her brother-in-law’s hopes of one day joining the family in the U.S. are diminishing. American immigration policy contains a “family preference system” that allows siblings of citizens to seek a green card, but it’s not easy to get in the door — and the Trump administration wants to make it harder. Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican who has allied himself closely with Trump, recently introduced legislation in Congress that would eliminate adult siblings of U.S. citizens from the family preference system altogether.
“There’s a long line for brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens as it stands — 12 or 13 years,” Alzahabi said. “But [Syrian] brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens were one group that the Obama administration had identified as maybe getting priority in being able to settle in the United States as refugees, and my brother-in-law had applied for that program. He was just in the very preliminary steps of meeting with the United Nations folks [to seek refugee status] when this executive order was handed down. It doesn’t seem likely that that’s going to go anywhere.” If reinstated, the travel ban would also prevent him from taking a trip to visit his family in Arkansas: “He’s obtained a visitor visa to the U.S. on a number of occasions and came and visited us here. The way it’s going, it doesn’t seem like he’d be able to get a visa anytime soon.”
It is difficult to estimate how many people in Arkansas are affected by the travel ban, but as Alzahabi’s example illustrates, its shadow stretches well beyond those individuals directly denied entry to the U.S. Arkansas is home to Syrians, Yemenis, Iranians and Iraqis, most of whom are concentrated in Central and Northwest Arkansas and many of whom work in medical fields. There are not significant numbers of people from Somalia, Sudan or Libya living in the state, although there is a sizable community of Somalis and Sudanese just across the state line from Benton County in the southwestern Missouri town of Noel, drawn to the region by jobs in the poultry industry.
Soon after the order was implemented, University of Arkansas Chancellor Joseph Steinmetz issued a statement saying the Fayetteville campus included “well over 100 people from these affected countries [who] currently hold visas to study, visit and work in the U.S.” The university told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Jan. 31 that two Iranian students visiting family back home were prevented from returning to the UA and resuming their studies. (Mohsen Dadashi, the president of the university’s Iranian Student Association, said the two students were able to get back to Arkansas in the past week, thanks to the travel ban’s being halted.) A spokesman for the University of Arkansas at Little Rock said there were 55 students at the school from the seven countries listed in the executive order. The Arkansas State University system said three students and two faculty members were from countries listed in the order, and the University of Central Arkansas said it had two students from the affected countries.
Alzahabi said the climate created by the executive order also affects Muslims whose families are not from one of the seven countries. “The executive order does say other countries may be added to the list,” she noted. “I know other members of our community, people who are permanent residents, who have canceled travel plans because … they are worried that their country will be added to the list and they won’t be able to come back home. Everybody is concerned, even if they’re not from those seven countries. You could say everyone is impacted, because … everybody felt that it was a Muslim ban.”
Trump insisted that his executive order “is not a Muslim ban, as the media is falsely reporting. This is not about religion — this is about terror and keeping our country safe. There are over 40 different countries worldwide that are majority Muslim that are not affected by this order.” Yet Trump’s previous statements undermine that claim. Alzahabi said the courts likely must confront the question of whether the ban is an intentional effort to discriminate on the basis of religion.
The 9th Circuit, Alzahabi noted, “didn’t get too much into the establishment clause stuff, about religion, but it did kind of touch upon the fact that you can look beyond the language of the order in deciding whether there was a discriminatory effect. The president did say that he wanted a Muslim ban during his campaign. … Rudy Giuliani, who worked with him on his campaign, came out and said Trump approached him and said, ‘What’s a legal way to do a Muslim ban?’ So even though the language [in the executive order] doesn’t talk about Muslims, and not all Muslims in the entire universe are banned … you can still look beyond the language of the order. … If the whole point was to ban Muslims from entering, that would be unconstitutional.”
Dr. Mahmoud Hassanein is the imam at the Islamic Center of Little Rock, where Alzahabi is a member. Before taking the post at the ICLR a year and a half ago, Hassanein was an assistant professor of Islamic studies in English at Al-Azhar University in Cairo. He received his Ph.D. in comparative religions at Durham University in the United Kingdom.
“People have a lot of concerns … because they don’t know what’s going on,” he said. “I’m Egyptian. Egypt is not among the countries that are in the ban. … But people say, ‘Who knows, maybe Egypt could be added?’ Maybe Pakistan — nobody knows. In such a situation, you can find rumors everywhere.” Because of the uncertainty, some members of his congregation are even avoiding domestic flights, he said, despite his efforts to assuage their worst fears. “I personally believe in the American values, and I believe that America will remain American — welcoming all people regardless of their faith or their color or these things. … But some people are getting their luggage, their things packed, they say, ‘OK, we’re going to leave anytime.’ So many people, they don’t feel comfortable.
“What I’m trying to tell people is that we support this country. We love it. And we’re going to do our best to keep it strong and united. I have so many very strong relations with churches — with Christian, Jewish friends. … I think things will be OK.”
In the past few weeks, Hassanein said, the ICLR has received a steady stream of emails and flowers and cards from non-Muslims expressing friendship and solidarity. In a wall-mounted box prominently displayed in the prayer area of the mosque, the imam has mounted some of these well-wishes for congregants and visitors alike to see: evidence that tolerance across faiths and cultures can prevail. “As an American and a Christian, know that you are loved and supported by so many in our community,” reads one.
“We are so sorry that you and your family are facing an atmosphere of hate and discrimination,” another says. “My family will stand with you and support you. You do not deserve to be treated badly. You are our neighbors and friends, and we value your contributions to the Little Rock community.”
The ICLR holds open houses every Friday afternoon to welcome visitors. “We receive delegates, groups from churches, Temple B’Nai Israel … so I would say we’ve gotten very good feedback,” Hassanein said. “I was invited just yesterday evening by the Second Presbyterian Church to deliver a lecture there … so a lot of people now are interested to know what Islam is, which might be something good.” He was especially heartened by the show of support at the rally at the state Capitol after the travel ban was first announced. “The most amazing thing about the rally was that the majority of the people were not Muslims,” he said.
Alzahabi said she was also encouraged by the turnout at the Jan. 28 rally, and hoped for greater contact between Muslims and others. “I think that people who have interacted with Muslims will have a more positive view of Muslims, as opposed to people who don’t know any Muslims and all they’re getting is what they see in the media. You almost can’t blame them for having an anti-Muslim sentiment.”
Her own experience with encountering prejudice has been fairly minor, she said. “There’s been isolated incidents where someone might make a comment … but overall, I think most Americans are not racist and they’re not bigots,” Alzahabi said. “I’ve worked in the legal field, and oftentimes I was the only Muslim woman attorney I knew. I wear this scarf, and I’ve appeared in courtrooms in Wisconsin, and I worked in Indiana, and I never felt that being a Muslim held me back or that anybody bothered me. Sometimes it’s hard to tell — you might get passed over by one employee because you are a minority, but there are others that want more diversity and may recruit you because you are a minority. So I think it’s a mixed bag, and I always look at the positive side of things. … There are incidents where you see racism and discrimination rear its ugly head … but I have faith in the American people that hopefully we’re going to overcome this and see past that kind of hateful and divisive rhetoric.”
Nonetheless, the fact remains that Americans are anxious about the threat of terrorism and many conflate Muslims in general with violence committed by some in the name of Islam — something that most Muslim-Americans fiercely condemn. “No religion allows for the taking of life … people of all religions commit evil acts,” Alzahabi said. “Islam is a lot more similar to Christianity and Judaism than most of the American population realizes. It comes from that same tradition — we believe in Jesus as a prophet [and] the Ten Commandments. … And it’s unfortunate that we even have to go there and make that clear, but because of this rhetoric and what people see on the news, they’ve come to believe that there’s a holy war, when that’s not the case at all. I think it’s simply politicians using that to push their agendas forward.”
Yet paranoid rhetoric against Islam finds fertile ground in much of Arkansas. Last week, the state House of Representatives approved a bill by Rep. Brandt Smith (R-Jonesboro) that seeks to declare “American laws for American courts” and is motivated by the supposed threat of Sharia — the canonical law of Islam — creeping into the American judicial system. Although Smith could give no examples of Sharia being used in an Arkansas court, he said his bill was necessary as a preemptive measure considering demographic changes in the U.S.
Some immigrants “tend to group in small enclaves and they feel comfortable among their own people,” Smith warned the House Judiciary committee on Feb. 2. “What happens is there will be some elder, some leader arise out of the group who says, ‘We’re here, but we’re still going to run our lives based on law from our originating country,’ and that puts some people who wanted freedom at risk of running afoul against their own people group after they arrive in our country.”
Hassanein testified against the bill at the time, given that it seemed motivated by hostility toward Islam. But, he told the Times, it will have no real effect if it becomes statute. “I don’t think it will at all … because if a Muslim is here in America, he should abide by American laws. The word ‘Sharia’ has been misinterpreted in so many ways.” Despite the enthusiasm among some Republican legislators for indulging Islamophobic symbolism, the imam’s sentiments are backed up by Republican Governor Hutchinson, who said last week that the anti-Sharia bill was unnecessary. “I’m searching for a reason for that legislation. I’ve been in courts, I’ve litigated all over the country and here in Arkansas, and I just have not identified that as a problem,” Hutchinson told a reporter when asked about HB 1041. (The measure is now awaiting consideration by the state Senate.)
Hassanein said, “What people need to do is know what Islam is and who are Muslims. Muslims are not violent people or looking for violence. On the contrary, the word ‘Islam’ itself, it means ‘peace.’ ” He referenced the Jan. 29 terrorist attack at a mosque in Quebec City, Canada, in which a French-Canadian student killed six people at prayer and critically wounded five more; that atrocity should not be blamed on Christians or Christianity, he emphasized. “Evil is everywhere,” the imam said. “I love my Christian friends … and I read the Bible and I know the verses, and nothing there calls for violence. So if someone is committing a crime, it’s unfair to refer to his religion. He’s an evil person; leave the religion aside.”
He asked the Times to end this article with a single sentence: “The Muslims here love this country, love Americans, and they are working day and night for the well-being, the progress, the development of America in general.”