The thousands of Muslims who live in the Upstate are like you, said Syrian-born Ali Alkelani.
They work hard. They contribute to the community. They love their families and their faith.
They love America.
Many will take some time this Sunday to enjoy the Super Bowl.
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“We’re all human,” Alkelani said. “I’m a proud U.S. citizen and I’m a proud Syrian, and I’m a proud Muslim, too.”
But it’s a tumultuous time for Greenville’s Islamic community, some local Muslims said. President Donald Trump’s executive order restricting immigration and refugees has sparked greater tension between Muslims and non-Muslims in Greenville and nationwide.
“There is a lot of fear and anxiety in the Muslim community, not understanding why this is happening,” said Akan Malici, a Muslim and Furman University political science professor. “There’s a fear of increasing exclusion and discrimination.”
At the same time, however, there’s been a tremendous outpouring of support for Greenville’s Islamic community, such as last Sunday’s rally for immigrants and refugees at the Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport, Malici said.
About 200 people attended that event.
“The expressions of sympathy and solidarity are unbelievable and very heartwarming and encouraging,” said Malici, an American citizen whose mother was from Turkey and father from Macedonia.
“We have people calling the Greenville mosque and faith leaders reaching out to us in all kinds of ways,” he said. “There is a very good spirit and energy at work here. It’s very beautiful.”
On Saturday, the Islamic Society of Greenville is hosting a 2 p.m. rally, “No Hate, No Fear, No Ban!” at One City Plaza in downtown Greenville. Through a Facebook page invitation, almost 1,000 Upstate residents have pledged to attend or have expressed interest.
“It is really encouraging to see that while some national leaders have given in to fear and intolerance, many local elected officials and leaders are standing up for their neighbors of all faiths and backgrounds by rejecting Islamophobia,” Alkelani said.
On Jan. 27, President Trump signed an executive order that bars Syrian refugees from entering the U.S., bars citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. for 90 days, and suspends all refugee admissions for 120 days.
The executive order, Alkelani said, doesn’t make America safer.
“Instead, it will hand propaganda to our enemies who promote the false narrative of an American war against Islam,” said Alkelani, a mechanical engineer at BMW. “We are giving this narrative to our enemies so they can recruit. We must address the issue of terrorism based on evidence and hard data, not based on faith, race or national origin.”
In the past 40 years, there has been no attack on U.S. soil by a refugee from any of the seven countries affected by the travel ban, Alkelani said.
The executive order touches Alkelani personally. His 73-year-old mother remains in war-torn Syria. She has visited Alkelani in the U.S. four times in the past 16 years, but is now prevented from entering the country by Trump’s executive order, Alkelani said.
Syrian refugees are fleeing their country because they fear for their lives, Alkelani said.
“They are escaping for their own safety,” he said. “They are the victims and we are treating them as if they are the criminals.”
Trump’s executive order has engendered greater suspicion of Muslims, said Leila Aziz, a Clemson University graduate and industrial engineer in Greenville.
“I feel that it has become more OK in America to show hate,” Aziz said. “I think Donald Trump has been a large reason for that. I feel tensions are higher than even after 9/11.”
The travel ban has created a general climate of fear among Muslims, Aziz said.
“Even people who aren’t from those seven countries are worried about traveling outside the country,” said Aziz, who canceled an overseas trip with a cousin after the executive order, even though Aziz was born in the U.S. and is an American citizen.
“The uncertainty is really scary,” she said.
Greater understanding is needed to counter misguided views of Muslims, Malici said.
“People have a false understanding of Muslims, in part, because they do not really know Muslims,” Malici said. “Moreover, people have a false understanding of Muslims because of agenda-driven politicians and a corporate media. Both benefit from fear politics and they have made Muslims and Islam their targets. It is bad not only for Muslims though, but also for our country here as it is moving away from its ideals down the path of de-democratization.”
Aziz, 32, said efforts toward the greater understanding of Muslims would be “my generation’s civil rights movement, but I think it’s an uphill battle.”
Trump’s order also betrays the nation’s tradition of welcoming immigrants who contribute greatly to the American economy, Alkelani said.
“One of the reasons that our country is great is because it is built on immigrants,” Alkelani said. “We’re inviting the talent from all over the world. Had we not allowed immigrants to come to the U.S., we would not have the iPhone now. (Apple CEO) Steve Jobs is the son of an immigrant who is from my hometown, Homs. There is no question that immigrants will contribute to any society. Unfortunately, now, we’re going in the wrong direction.”
The Trump administration has said that the travel ban was needed to give the federal government time for developing procedures for “extreme vetting.”
But Alkelani said such extensive vetting for immigrants already exists. Alkelani himself arrived in the U.S. 16 years ago to earn his master’s and Ph.D. degrees in mechanical engineering in Michigan.
It took him 15 years to be granted citizenship.
“It’s not as if you submit an application and the next day you’re approved,” Alkelani said. “There’s a long vetting process.”
Trump’s executive order also has unfairly stigmatized the Islamic religion.
“There is no religion that is a terrorist religion,” Alkelani said. “We have 2 billion Muslims living on this earth, 25 percent of the population. They are not terrorists. We cannot classify any religion as terrorist. That is wrong.”
Attracted to freedom
Alkelani and his wife, who moved together to Michigan in 2001, had met in her hometown of Aleppo, Syria. Because he planned to study in America, he needed an English tutor. She had majored in English literature.
“We got to know each other, got engaged and married and came here together,” Alkelani said.
The couple had planned to move back to Syria after Alkelani earned his Ph.D. but decided instead to seek citizenship in America.
The attraction was freedom, which Alkelani called “the magnet of America.”
“When we came to America, we saw something that we had not seen before,” he said. “We saw freedom of speech and religion. It was something beautiful that we were missing. This is what we love about the United States. We have a Constitution that guarantees your freedom of speech, your freedom of religion and freedom to assemble, and we saw the people here are very friendly and welcoming.”
Alkelani, his wife and their two children have lived in Greenville for the past 10 years.
“This is the only place we call home now,” Alkelani said.
‘Not going anywhere’
Azar, Malici and Alkelani said there have been some incidents of anti-Muslim hate in the Greenville community: epithets hurled, for instance.
But all three have been touched by the many expressions of support from Upstate residents.
“I had several colleagues at BMW come to me,” Alkelani said. “One person was crying. She said, ‘Ali, you belong here. Don’t go anywhere.’ I said, ‘I’m American. I’m not going anywhere.’ I really appreciated her support. I have many colleagues who say, ‘If you need everything, let us know.’ The Islamic Center has received cards and flowers with a note, ‘We love you. We just want you to know that we support you.’”
Alkelani added, “That’s the America that made us want to stay. This is the right way to handle things, not to have walls and bans.”
Malici said Muslims remain hopeful that tensions over immigration and refugees will subside.
“There’s still much hope and faith this great country will find its way again,” he said. “Much good is coming out of this. We’re holding rallies. There’s much coming together. Muslims want to contribute to this process. They all see this as a great country. That’s why they’re here.”
Malici said the nation would eventually recommit to its fundamental values of tolerance and freedom.
“I hope we get past this but we will have to work toward it,” Malici said. “It’s very important for us to understand that our democracy is not a one-time accomplishment but that it requires continuous work by the citizens toward re-establishing our democracy and our Constitution and its enshrined values. If we stop working on that, it will gradually go away. It’s not an accomplishment, it’s a process. We must keep working. I see us doing that now, in large numbers. I have a lot of faith in that American process.”
Paul Hyde covers education and everything else under the South Carolina sun. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @PaulHyde7.