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June 11th, 2010
03:59 AM ET

My Take: New portrait of Muslim America shows community on edge

Editor's Note: Frankie Martin is Ibn Khaldun Chair Research Fellow at American University's School of International Service and is a contributor to the new book Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam.

By Frankie Martin, Special to CNN

As I got off the plane in St. Louis in September 2008, I didn’t realize I was beginning a journey that would change my life.

On that day, I–along with several researchers working with Professor Akbar Ahmed, American University’s Chair of Islamic Studies–began a grueling project aimed at studying America’s Muslim population and its relationship to American identity. Now, nearly two years, 75 cities and 100 mosques later, Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam, will be published by the Brookings Institution Press this month.

In addition to providing unprecedented insight into America’s Muslim community, it also led me to look at my own country, the United States, in a different way.

I had taken Professor Ahmed’s class on improving relations between Islam and the West as an underclassman shortly after the US invaded Iraq in 2003 and had traveled across the Muslim world with him for the book Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization, listening to Muslim voices in countries including Jordan, Pakistan, and India.

On that trip, during which Muslims in eight countries cited “American negative perceptions of Islam” as the greatest threat to the Muslim world, I was ready for anything and eager to learn. After all, I had spent the second half of my life living and traveling widely around the world, from Kenya to China, and studying foreign lands in my international relations courses.

America was a different matter. This, I thought, was a country that I knew. Yet although I lived in the Baltimore suburbs until I was a teenager and went to college in Washington, DC, like many Americans I was familiar with only a few states, and had never experienced entire regions like the South.

Assisting a world-renowned anthropologist on a De Tocqueville-esque quest would change this. Like that earlier foreign traveler, Professor Ahmed saw his endeavor as a tribute to a nation that had welcomed him so warmly in crafting a study which would examine both the strengths of America and the parts that could be strengthened.

Within a few hours on our first day—which took us to Somali refugees in a St. Louis housing project—I realized I was experiencing something unique. Though I’m a Christian, I was seeing the country through Muslim eyes, including those of my professor.

But this was only part of the story. In order to see how Muslims were fitting into America—and what it meant to fit in—we would need to talk to Americans from all backgrounds and religions. Assisting us would be data from the roughly two thousand surveys we distributed in the field as well as countless conversations on our travels.

Over the next long months, we saw the ravages of inner city Detroit and the mansions of Palm Beach, Florida; the serene, impoverished Hopi Indian reservation in Arizona and a Silicon Valley “hackers conference” with scientists talking of settlements on the Moon and Mars. We spoke at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, spent an afternoon with Mennonites in Texas, were welcomed by the Mormon leadership in Salt Lake City, and visited coal miners in the West Virginia wilderness.

The diversity of people and beliefs was striking and inspiring. And, for the first time, I saw the fall colors in New England, the Grand Canyon, and a Hawaiian sunset.

We found the Muslim community to be hospitable and patriotic, as they often said that America was the best place to be a Muslim because of religious freedom. But the community is on edge, divided and facing a leadership crisis—contributing to the “homegrown terrorist” phenomenon—and reeling from post-9/11 hatred and prejudice.

I was shocked to see the challenges American Muslims are facing, from kids beaten up and called terrorists at school to people incarcerated without charge and subjected to inhuman treatment and mosques being firebombed. A Muslim community that feels accepted as true Americans and is encouraged to enter the mainstream will be the best defense against homegrown terrorism.

Witnessing the challenges facing the Muslim community led me to ask a question I never had before: what does it mean to be American? Although we met Americans who had a different idea of the country (one official at a Church of Christ chapter in Austin named “pluralism” as the greatest threat to America and the Founding Fathers as the source of this threat) for me, the team, and my professor, being American means embracing the ideals of the Founding Fathers, which include pluralism, rule of law, and civil liberties.

Today, feelings against Islam are running high, with a prominent radio host recently expressing his hope that the proposed New York mosque near Ground Zero would be blown up. Every week seems to bring a new controversy, from the high emotions of the mosque debate to last month’s discussion about the current Miss USA, a Lebanese immigrant, who was slammed as a Hezbollah agent because her surname was said to be shared by people linked to the organization.

In this environment, I was inspired during countless hours of research into American history to see how clear the Founding Fathers were on the subject of Islam in America. Thomas Jefferson learned Arabic using his Quran and hosted the first presidential iftaar during Ramadan, John Adams named Prophet Muhammad as one of the world’s “sober inquirers after truth” alongside Socrates and Confucius, and Benjamin Franklin, who cited the Prophet as a model of compassion, wrote of his hope that the head cleric of Istanbul would preach Islam to Americans from a Philadelphia pulpit, so passionate was his belief in religious freedom.

Today, America faces a crisis of identity. One focal point at the core of the debate is Islam, which some Americans see as a monolithic threat seeking the takeover of the country. They are fearful and suspicious of the Muslims in their midst. For many of these citizens, being a good American—and, for some, a good Christian—means opposing and fighting Islam.

My journey has led me to conclude the opposite. Being a good American means welcoming Muslims as the Founding Fathers did and following their guidelines on matters of law and security as laid out in the Constitution. As for Christianity, the attitude of the Founding Fathers was shaped by Christian thinkers like John Locke, who declared that the true Christian’s duty was to “practice charity, meekness, and good-will in general towards all mankind, even to those that are not Christians.”

Giving us hope for the future was data from our surveys, which showed that over ninety percent of Americans would vote for a Muslim for public office, and the similarly high percentage of people who are open to Muslims living in and being a part of this nation.

Some, however, inserted “if” clauses, indicating they believed Muslims could be American only if they followed narrowly defined rules, such as ceasing to identify as “Muslim” in favor of an exclusive “American” identity. The Founding Fathers set no such qualifications for “Americanness.”

Discovering America over the past few years has made me appreciate the inclusive vision of the Founding Fathers. Having traveled abroad, I know that their ideals also inspire people around the world, especially in Muslim countries. I can now say I am American with an awareness and pride I never had before.

With all of the challenges facing the country, perhaps the most important thing we can do as Americans is to consider who we really are. For me, being American means assuming and implementing the Founding Fathers’ vision of tolerance and religious freedom. The rediscovery of that vision has reaffirmed my belief in the promise of America.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frankie Martin.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Islam

soundoff (826 Responses)
  1. vinod

    I have to say something to the Muslim world, please read the Bible also, and analyse both Bible and Quran. You can see 95% similarities in the contents. Don’t blindly swallow the Muslim religious scholar’s words. Throw your prejudice and open your mind and think about this seriously.

    September 15, 2010 at 9:13 am |
  2. TruthTeller

    I am an ex Muslim convert and I'm going to tell it like it is: Islam is a violent, savage, misogynist political ideology, a hierarchy with Muslims on top always. Don't listen to apparently "nice", polite Muslims who try to lull you to sleep with pretty words. They either don't know much about their own belief system or they are simply lying, so you'll let down your guard. Look at what the Muslims are doing in Europe: gang rapes of non-Muslim women, fatwas (death threats) whenever they feel insulted, taking up most of the welfare system with multiple wives and big families, crazy protests which include signs suggesting "Behead those who insult Islam". Muhammed and his men raided and robbed their neighbors, torturing, murdering and raping the non-Muslims. Have you ever read the Koran? Even by the third page, this "noble" book tells husbands to "beat" or "scourge" their wives if the men "fear rebellion" from the women. The so-called "radical" Muslims are, in fact, devout Muslims following Muhammed's example in making war on all "infidels"....anyone who is not a Muslim. Everyone who is dreaming of a peaceful life with lots of Muslims around....WAKE UP!

    August 11, 2010 at 10:50 am |
  3. Alaric

    There are so many falsehoods out there that are simply accepted as fact by the ignorant. For example, the misconception that Islam keeps women down and that Muslim women are 2nd-class citizens. The truth is that Muslims in general have great respect for women, this is proven by the fact that they regularly elect females to lead them at the highest level.

    FACT: A female in a predominantly Muslim county has a much greater chance of being elected to the top political office (prime minister or president) than a female in the United States.

    This is evidenced by:

    Pakistan (169 Million population) became an Islamic Republic in 1956, in that time they have twice (non-consecutively) elected a female Prime Minister: Benazir Bhutto

    Bangladesh (162 Million) became a country in 1949, in that time they have already elected two female prime ministers! Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina.

    The Republic of Turkey was established in 1923, in 1993 they too elected a female prime minister: Tansu Ciller

    Indonesia (234 Million population) became a country in 1949, in less than 60 years they have already elected a female president: Megawati Sukarnoputri.

    In over 200 years of American democracy we have not elected a single female president. Ask any career minded woman in the US about the Glass Ceiling... we like to tell women that they can do anything, but the reality is that our society only lets them get so far. We are supposed to be the most enlightened democracy on earth... why in 200+ years have we not even had a single viable candidate in a general election? It seems Muslim countries only take 50 years or so to get around to it.

    I challenge anyone to make an alternate interpretation of these facts, my contention is that by voting for a woman to become prime minister or president a person is making a de facto statement that they respect that person and trust them to run their country. I.E. male chauvanists don't vote for women and male chauvanist cultures/ societies don't elect women to the highest office in the land.

    These are four out of five of the world's most populous Muslim-majority countries, MOST of the Muslims worldwide... 637 million people live in the countries I named, that's 60%+ of the 1B Muslims in the world. What some are doing is holding up a very small percentage and making wildly untrue generalizations about the whole.

    July 30, 2010 at 7:56 pm |
    • Eric G

      Here is a stat for you........
      100% of Muslims and 100% of Christians believe in something for which they cannot provide any verifiable evidence to prove its existence. Yet, each calls the other ignorant. They are both right.

      July 30, 2010 at 8:14 pm |
  4. scott anderson

    religion is nothing more than fables from long long ago when man did not know anything about the earth and so stories were made up to explain and help man feel better about life. To believe in a man in the sky now is rediculous. Its even more sad that people kill in the name of these fables.

    July 30, 2010 at 7:29 pm |
  5. DC

    I think this may clear it all up. Our constitution enables freedom of religion, tollarance. Islam is more of an ideology than it is a religion. So less conflict here than it appears. An ideogy encompasses political systems, including law and depending on the definition can or is inherantly intollarnt of competing concepts.

    July 30, 2010 at 4:19 pm |
  6. joyparks

    The very idea of a mosque at Ground Zero is a slap in the face to every Americam, regardless of religion. The terrorists didn't attack Christians in America– they attacked America.

    July 30, 2010 at 1:48 pm |
  7. teafor2

    Osama Bin Laden was out to kill our economy! Seems to me he managed to do just that and we stood by and let it happen! Perhaps we deserve what we get!

    July 30, 2010 at 1:26 pm |
  8. Offthepink

    Anyone ever notice that there are no "extremists" in muslim countries, but there are in countries where people of other religions are brought in contact with arab muslims and their male converts of other ethnicities? Kinda tells you what islam's true nature is: peaceful, as long as everyone is a muslim. You convert or you die, just as their great warlord/"prophet" Muhammad told his army's countless victims back in the day. Oppressive subjugation or death is all islam holds for the world's population. i see all these naive caucasian girls in college buying into it because the average american caucasian has no traditions of their own, so they want to adopt the traditions of others. Wait until they find out that their "peaceful" religion won't let them leave without death threats or actual murder.

    June 28, 2010 at 3:31 pm |
  9. Klrichi

    I don't see where Christianity has any right to say that their religion is any less violent than Islam. They have the crusades for pete's sake! They killed millions of innocent people even though their religion states that we shall not kill. All religions have extreme individuals, that doesn't define the individuals of a religion. Being an Oklahoman, I remember that the worst criminal in our state's history was a " good ole country boy". You Christians should realize that you killed so many people because you wanted to save them. How many indians died because you forced your religion upon them. How many gays have died due to your gay-bangs? (don't say you don't do that, I live in Oklahoma I know) How many innocent people does Christianity have to kill before they realize that they are just like every other religion. But they say, " No we aren't bad people, we only spread the true faith to the non-believers." Well maybe if you would allow people to live their lives instead of treating everyone horribly because they are different. I'm an agnostic theist so I've spent my entire life in Oklahoma being completely crapped on by Christians. Every Christian with "bless your heart" was just absolutely terrible to me, treating my like I was retarded because I didn't think like them. All of them looking down on me and saying that I was lost. Well, I'm a college educated person now and I can say to all those good ole country Christians that you are wrong and all you do is hurt everyone else. You are all judgmental and hate everyone who is not like you. That is why you don't get along with other religions. I know many Muslim people that are here in America just trying to better themselves and all you do is hate them because they are not christian. Modern Christianity is built on the fact that they believe that everyone that is not Christian is ignorant and needing of help.

    June 26, 2010 at 11:14 pm |
    • Offthepink

      The crusades were a military DEFENSIVE action against MUSLIMS who were tying to take over the civilized world, genius. Things got a little off-track (since there wasn't much in the way of military discipline then) but routing the muslim invaders was the goal. Muslims have ALWAYS been like this: aggressive towards the rest of the world, intent on forcibly spreading.

      March 30, 2013 at 6:34 pm |
  10. sanethinker

    Wish this is the beginning of end of political (militant) Islam, at best it has contributed to nuisance value and at worst death and destruction among its followers. Like every exclusive totalitarian model it should have its own very limited life of its own. It has busted in its seems and does not seams and collapse it its own contradictions.

    June 21, 2010 at 8:40 am |
  11. sanethinker

    Muslims need to introspect specially the blame game of killing women and kids and no concern for coalition casualty. Why
    this insensitivity for people suffering for other faith due to Islamic terrorism??? Why this double standard??? Why cannot they take care of their affair (coalition would never been their in first place)???

    Why the silent majority (assume 60%) tacitly support or cheer the events across globe and are very quick to turn to
    protest at slight perception of Insult to Islam or support all theories coming from Friday sermon. Looks like they
    do not consider other faith in same light as theirs.

    Looks like their lack of adaptability of 21st century is the cause of such treachery, deceitful and biased approach.

    June 20, 2010 at 11:26 am |
  12. sanethinker

    Islam is mostly in stone age, throwing stone as protest is common across green crescent countries.

    June 20, 2010 at 11:14 am |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.