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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. Ben Cooper

    Don't you love it? Here we are stuck with a religion created by a false prophet who essentially re-stated Jewish biblical and gospel writings (yes, that's right, boys and girls), passing them off as his own! His own! Isn't that incredible? I mean, what a fraud. But! What he added was. mysteriously and magically, that HE was God's prophet and, if you don't buy into my legitimacy, you are an infidel and should be killed! THAT"S what defines Islam today...CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY...a religion of promised murder and the lowlifes that act on the command of this "peace-loving prophet" that would slit your throat given half a chance if you stood up and challenged this phony. NO ONE cares about what else Mohammed plagerized and sold to ignorant uneducated people more than a thousand years ago. (Say, how many freebies do you think Mohammed took in while living off the largess of others? Sort of like a Dark Ages Bill Clinton.). Did the guy ever earn an honest buck in his life?)

    Jesus flatly stated there would be false prophets after Him. And - tada! - along comes Mohammed claiming he is even greater than Christ. Well, screw him.

    June 12, 2010 at 12:48 pm |
  2. OmegaMann

    Opinion: Muslim 'Americans' should all be deported.

    June 12, 2010 at 12:37 pm |
  3. romansmk

    Islam is incompatible with Democracy, period. It is Political and an all encompassing social structure that has no room for any other system. It is a threat to the rest of the world and it should be recognized as such. The Sheiks are funding intolerance globally and yet the apologists never stop trying to tell us that the religion is peaceful and that Muslims are peaceful. There is a slogan on the side of police cars where I live, DEEDS SPEAK. If we were to apply this as standard in judging the Islamic world then there would be very little argument that this is a hideous cancer and retrograde belief system that should be relegated to the trash bin of history. Quickly look at the world and look for conflicts and you will immediately identify Islam as a participant. Is this some aberration? No.

    June 12, 2010 at 12:26 pm |
    • theresa

      Christianity is every bit as incompatible with Democracy. The history of Christianity is replete with church states, and there are movements today that intend to make Christianity – and obedience to its rules – the religion of our country.

      June 12, 2010 at 4:56 pm |
    • ApeHanger

      The discussion is about Islam, not Christianity. Most Christians are not seeking to kill those who don't share their religious beliefs.

      June 14, 2010 at 10:11 am |
    • theresa

      Christians most certainly HAVE killed those who don't share their beliefs – including other kinds of Christians.

      This is completely relevant. You can't understand the subtleties of another religious culture if you don't know the entirety of your own.

      Our history and their present are very much alike.

      June 14, 2010 at 7:39 pm |
    • Paul

      Notice how Theresa gives us no specifics as to this vast Christian conspiracy. Tell us Theresa, where is this happening?

      June 15, 2010 at 5:51 pm |
  4. James L.

    Some really want to stick it to Americans don't they. Just think how the proud Muslim terrorists will boast, 'we destroyed the symbols of the west and built a mosque in it's place'. This is a little over the edge. I will back off if all those friendly Muslims will first blow up Mecca, then they can try to convince us their new mosque is - what?

    June 12, 2010 at 12:24 pm |
  5. flycatcher

    Why are you questioning Americans having American ideals, it is the Muslim Immigrants who refuse to assimilate prefering instead to keep there Muslim ways even while living here in an open free society. They still punish their woman, children and maintain their ridiculous Muslim ways instead of becoming true Americans. Until they chose to become full Americans they are not welcome in my book. You either join in American society or you remain outside of it.

    June 12, 2010 at 12:00 pm |
    • theresa

      Which American society would that be? Will we all be forced to watch MTV, buy from Victoria's Secret, drive faster than the speed limit, and really care about what Lindsey Lohan is up to?

      June 12, 2010 at 4:51 pm |
  6. ApeHanger

    Islam = Extremism
    Islam = Theocracy
    Islam = Medieval Ignorance
    Islam = Death and Destruction of "Infidels"

    Islam has no place in any country where secular law is the rule. You are now dismissed from my Islamic studies class. Pop quiz tomorrow morning morning.

    June 12, 2010 at 11:44 am |
    • Sophia

      Wow, how long did that take you.

      June 15, 2010 at 6:04 am |
  7. Towering_Pine

    Joe – whether they are Arab, African, Spanish or Chinese it doesn't negate the fact that source Muslim's ideology is found in the Quran. This doctrine – when fully applied strips people of their rights.

    Notice as you yourself say,
    "Islamic ideology, is based on equitable service for love of God and humanity. American culture is a culture of freedom to indulge in the pursuit of a life in comfort and security"

    Muslim ideology completely contradicts American ideology. American ideology is an ideology of freedom. If we choose not to follow God, then we have the freedom to do so.

    June 12, 2010 at 11:42 am |
  8. cardog

    The fact is I do not hate or dislike Islam. The fact is Islam hates or at least dislikes christainity. Ever since 9/11 I have not heard any Islamic group publicly denounce these hate groups that have sprung up in the name of Islam. I've seen dancing in the streets around Arab capitols whenever something bad happens to America. Words coming from a few leaders or even common folk that happen to be muslim, does little good when your muslim brothers are continuing to slaughter even other muslim in the name of Allah???? Sorry, but I keep a wary eye on people who talk a good game, say little or nothing, when all the while it appears that you silently support your fanatical muslims.

    June 12, 2010 at 11:34 am |
  9. joe

    I find the re-occurring theme that happens when you have passion and ignorance, you get a lot of sensational statements that are mostly fiction instead of fact. I am an 30 year old African American man who became Muslim when I was 15 years old after losing my father and grandfather. Understanding my American history being African American has evolved from being a child of parents and grandparents who were oppressed and suffered at the hands of blatant discrimination, racism and prejudice. For America to nominate a Black President, sends a message that race relations is on the road to a better future. Islam, is a complete system of living for people who love God, who want to uphold justice, and serve humanity, a system that bring every color of varying statuses into one society.
    Islamic ideology, is based on equitable service for love of God and humanity. American culture is a culture of freedom to indulge in the pursuit of a life in comfort and security. Everyone who speaks the bad of (perceived) and the legitimate bad that is perpetrated by people who are wrongly guided, doesn't know Islam and the peace and righteous judgment it brings to a person who seeks a better conscious and better standing with their Lord. Islam Christianity Judaism are all monotheist faiths, even with the manufactured ideology of the "trinity", Christianity's message was reverence in one God.

    One could argue similarities in Muslims relationships with America, the same way African American's have relationship with America in this country. Blacks were once extremely discriminated against, as Mexicans are discriminated against, as Muslims are discriminated against. Time will be the only deciding factor to prove if the relationships in this country gets better, which I believe it will.

    When you think of a muslim you think a arab person with a turban? Try this. Watch any t.v. show and think that when they get off of working that they go home and say I bear witness there is no God but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God.
    Try thinking of the grocery person, the salesperson at the mall, the math teacher, the landscaper. Because that is the reality, Islam is the second largest religion in the world. And it only 25% of the worlds Muslims are Arab.

    June 12, 2010 at 11:31 am |
  10. joboo

    Frankie Martin, like many weak minded individuals before him, took the Muslim point of viev of being the victim,when nothing could be farther from the truth. Muslims, just like everyone else, choose to come to America, they were not forced here. If I choose to leave the US and live in another country isn't it my responsibility to attemp to fit into their way of life and not play a victim because they won't fit into mine.
    The ONE THING Muslims most Muslims will never do, especially those who cry about how they are not being treated unfairly, is make any attemp to see any other point of view. Ask any Muslim in the US who is complaining about life here if they will support a church being built in Saudia Arabia and they will give you a thousand excuses why it can't be done. They will tell you this in the kindest, most gentle voice, but they will NEVER change their mind. They are so used to playing the victim card that they have lost any since of objectivity.

    June 12, 2010 at 11:20 am |
  11. jonathan

    We're at war! Whether we like it or not, we are at war; not with a specific country but with a real threat. I must admit that we have through mistakes agitated the issue further. Which may not be all that bad , considering. The hatred has been hidden there under the surface for many years. I remember the Iran Crisis of 1979. That was the official beginning, and the "Death To America " daily chants from the Iranian students of the revolution, In Iran. At that time we just wanted our people back, as I remember and alive. Then there was the bombing of American marines in Lebanon in the mid eighties. Little by little this thing has escalated; So we have arrived at 9/11. We have awakened but we have no idea how to fight this thing; because we don't know what it is , or what it means to be in war with an idea...A hostile idea. because the more you fight it the greater it becomes, as more moderate Muslims are activated by offense.. with a pool of 1.6 billion....the war is eternal. How then do you put out such a fire? Much water....

    June 12, 2010 at 10:50 am |
  12. Towering_Pine

    Moderate Muslims are only those who disregard the teachings of Islam. A self proclaimed Muslim is not a true Muslim if he doesn't believe in the teachings of the Quran spoken by their prophet. It would be like a person calling himself a Christian & not adhereing to the following of Jesus. "Nice Muslims" are only those who choose & pick what they want to follow from the Quran.

    June 12, 2010 at 10:50 am |
    • jonathan

      We have Christian counterparts , they're called nice Christians. We could use a lot more of them...The bible says, "that the communication of thy faith may become effective through the acknowledging of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus. I'm just saying this to show that the sword you used has a double edge...so you have brought nothing to the table..:)

      June 12, 2010 at 10:59 am |
    • theresa

      There's a car across the street with a bumper sticker that says "You can't be pro-choice and Catholic." I know lots of people who are pro-choice and members of the Catholic church.

      I think there's enough diversity in Islam and Christianity that nobody can rightfully say that someone isn't a true Christian or a true Muslim. I've known many kinds Muslims and many kinds of Christians. Most of them are actually really nice people.

      June 12, 2010 at 4:38 pm |
  13. Observer One

    Don't need islam, don't need muslims. islam is not a religion it's a cult. muslims are not human they are animals.
    never trust them and never let your guard down.

    June 12, 2010 at 10:44 am |
    • jonathan

      lets do the world a great big ole fat favor and kill them all...people like you perpetuate the problem. Thanks for your opinion though, It give us an idea of how many sick people there are in the world.. I know there's your kind out there but i just don't want to believe it...You belong in that cave with Osama Bin laden...

      June 12, 2010 at 10:54 am |
    • theresa

      Calling people animals is pure evil.

      June 12, 2010 at 4:33 pm |
  14. john

    I trust people that I know that are muslims – the muslim faith as a whole I do not trust – the inmans are trying to build a one world govenment based on their warped beliefs – I trust the people I know – will never trust the religion.

    June 12, 2010 at 10:37 am |
  15. mirted

    Who funded all this travel all over the US and the world, and why? How were the members of the study chosen? By whom?
    What criteria? Let the readers follow the money as part of your thesis.

    June 12, 2010 at 10:26 am |
  16. Tensai13

    Mankind has yet to learn to live without the crutch of religious belief and to stop existing in a delusional state that prevents him from connecting to Nature and the Universe in a real way. Unless we achieve this evolutionary step, and soon, religion will destroy us all.

    June 12, 2010 at 9:12 am |
    • Thorrsman

      The Atheists have been saying the very same things for a long time. Preach your religion elsewhere.

      June 12, 2010 at 9:31 am |
    • kckaaos

      It is funny how athiest are so out spoken. It is also funny how most athiest return to some religioojn before they die.

      Also, statistically, most athiests who do not change die alone with no family that associates with them.

      June 12, 2010 at 10:41 am |
    • theresa

      Thorrsman, you have no right to dictate what anybody can preach, anywhere. This discussion does not belong to you.

      June 12, 2010 at 6:00 pm |
  17. ABC

    What do you call bombing civilians with nukes and kill at least 200,000 each time in the spot more than 50 years ago and milions are still suffering in the most horrible terrorism act the human being ever commited.
    It's not a self defense. No one said the christianity is the religion of terrorism.
    You can not compared what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki with two building collapsed in downtown Manhattan.

    June 12, 2010 at 8:10 am |
  18. K419

    Professor Akbar Ahmed, good research but you need to find out why the moslem world do not allow any other religion in their society. I am for religious freedom at any corner of the world. You cannot chase other religion out of Middle Eastern countries and expect an open arms in other countries. As an African who grew up among the moslem, I know the mind set of the radical Islamic believer. Look at what is going on in Southern Sudan and Nigeria.
    None of you have ever asked a Moslem brother, sister, or a friend why Christian are not allow to practice their faith in Moslem Countries. Can Christians build any church in Mecca or Medina? What is good for the geese is also good for ganders. Let us be real.

    June 12, 2010 at 5:32 am |
    • ABC

      If Saudi government is dictatorship or if there is no democracy in Egypt or if there are a new suicidal culture in Pakistan, don't blame the religion on this.

      June 12, 2010 at 9:27 am |
  19. MuslimAmerican

    I was born and raised in this country....I am as Muslim AND as American as they come. The word Islam means submission....submission to God. Muslims are taught in the Q'uran to be humble people, pray to remember God and achieve peacefulness of spirit, fast during Ramadan to learn self-control, and to practice charity toward others whether Muslim or not. Historical figures from the Muslim world were often known for their noble actions and decency and fostering intercultural exchange and education...but sadly politicoes and power hungry selfish individuals have created a perverted image of the religion and its peoples by purporting that their actions are supported by Islam when in fact they are not. You can't even call it extremist Islam because extreme muslims would be even MORE careful to be humble and noble and charitable, not killing people, preventing education, and acting like miscreants.
    Islam does NOT ask Muslims to kill ANYONE. In fact it is even prohibited for Muslims to be rude or unkind to others and to call them kaffirs. Judgement is left to God and not to human beings. People who walk around and call people infidels and kaffirs are not practicing the BASICS of Islam....not matter what they say.
    Now that being said...there are plenty of people out there who cloak their political and ideological aspirations under the name of Islam when they are not at ALL representative of true Islam, and who take advantage of people who lack education and power....they use fear tactics and prevent people from getting education so they can brainwash their children and use them for their own political aims. It IS a crisis in the Islamic world and one in which we are grappling with how to deal with it.
    Believe it or not, Muslims are extensive victims of these terrorists too....in Afghanistan, in Pakistan's SWAT valley, and elsewhere in the world. A true muslim's nature is to be quiet and humble and avoid involving themselves in gossip or "backbiting"....meaning negative talk about ANYONE....which maybe explains the perceived silence by mainstream muslims. We all are appalled at what we see, but we tend to think of these people as "they're just crazies" and I think most muslims kind of thought that these extremists and political hacks would just somehow go away and only now are we seeing how entrenched they are becoming. We are just as appalled as everyone else at how they are gaining a foothold and threatening to destroy our lives, our countries, and our respect. The problem is mainstream muslims are clueless about how to stop them, we are doing out best to report them to the authorities but sometimes it is not easy even for US to tell and I think perhaps it is going to take a collective effort of all of us together to rid ourselves of this scourge...rather than a "Its us against the Muslim world" approach which only alienates more people, and is contribute to the problem spreading. Lets all get together and have a real discourse....most Muslims are great people and we want to get rid of these crazies just as much as you do.

    June 12, 2010 at 4:56 am |
    • Abd al-Latif

      Jazakum Allahu khairan.

      June 12, 2010 at 2:12 pm |
    • theresa

      and Wa’alaikum Assalam.

      June 12, 2010 at 5:48 pm |
    • Paul

      read "Muslim Mafia". Every source quoted from local police to FBI investigators tell us that the level of cooperation from the Muslim community in rooting out extremists in their midst is exactly zero.

      June 15, 2010 at 5:44 pm |
  20. HeReigns

    Both the Old and New Testaments can be taken seriously.
    Hebrew was the original language here, and we get a pretty good picture of what he was saying here 🙂

    This was Moses speaking to Israel, after they had made it out of Egypt, and were caught partying with/worshipping golden idols. They had royally blown it when Moses was up on the mountain speaking with God.

    These laws and commands were given in response to that particular generation of Israel, but also to give future generations an understanding of our relationship to God. God is perfect, and we can never approach God on our own feeble efforts alone, for example: saying the rosary, 10 acts of service, praying in a certain direction. Jews were fulfilling the law the best they could and sacrificed animals for atonement, as laid out in Deuteronomy, to lessen the blow of sin.

    We as humans WILL break the OT Laws (and many modern day ones too,) no matter how hard we try. We all fall short, and are in need of the savior spoken of in Isaiah, also in the Old Testament.

    Then the New Testament shows us Jesus/Issa who is the savior for all us Law-breakers. His willing sacrifice met the atonement requirements of breaking the law. This is the grace of God's Love. Through that act of pure love, we have to opportunity to be reconciled with God, if we turn away from our mistakes.

    And, if anyone's like me it's on an hour by hour, minute by minute thing, turning away from my wrongs (and wrong thoughts!) and having to surrender to God continually. But it is through Jesus that we are able to approach God, and He hears us. It is through Jesus that we are given an opportunity to be with God for eternity.

    June 12, 2010 at 4:06 am |
    • HeReigns

      For continuity, this was a response in reference to Deuteronomy 13:6-10, which theresa had a question about.The Original post seems to have gone missing.

      June 12, 2010 at 12:06 pm |
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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.