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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. Umme Omar

    * The majority of Non Muslims that I know with are nice people. So Stephen Douglas, Ben Cooper and all those people who come here to bash Islam can actually have a field day because as practicing Muslim, I stay away from such discussions. I have not read Bible or old or new testament, I can't say anything about them but Quran and my Prophet (SAW) has commanded us to not heave insults to other people's beliefs and opinions. The Muslims do not have to impose Sharia in USA, because the USA constitution is all about Shariah, equalty of men and women,and protection of their rights. Just stop wasting your time and get some life

    June 15, 2010 at 12:22 am |
  2. Umme Omar

    Hi theresa, thank you so much for trying to help me, a law abiding, peace loving, medrate Muslim who practices her religion and also loves her country, USA. I came here until last week but now after reading these hateful messages, I thought its better to quit before I run out of patience. The majority of non people that I know in my neighborhood, at work place, at my children's schools, their pediatricians , my doctors, mu husband's doctors are all very nice people like you. I am not going to give up on USA. The people who come here to post hateful messages against Islam do not represent USA. We Muslims avoid coming to this place because these messages don't really help our cause. So don't worry about us, we are not coming here anymore

    June 15, 2010 at 12:06 am |
    • theresa

      Gary, that is DISGUSTING. It is behavior unbecoming to an American or any other decent person.

      June 15, 2010 at 12:52 am |
  3. theresa

    I'm not done yet.

    If you are concerned about the status of women in a culture, you can say so. If women, of any culture, are being hurt in this country, you can do something about it: you can call the police. You can offer to help. You can speak out. You can write – with civility and respect. You can make it clear that you disapprove. What you CAN'T do is call someone a vulgar name. That's unAmerican. That's something to be ashamed of.

    Of the hundreds of people with whom I interact, I can think of only one person who would even dream of thinking, much less saying, what you just said. I do not respect that person, and I'm relieved to know that he is a tiny minority.

    I want the Muslims reading this to know that this is not what the United States is about. The United States is about plurality, tolerance, freedom, respect, honor, and responsibility, built on a solid foundation of education about other cultures and our own. It is about being proud that you belong to a country where people will fight to preserve our precious liberties, will fight to defend the downtrodden, will give everybody a fair chance to pursue happiness, as they define it.

    I am deeply angry. You are giving my country, the country where I was born, the country I believe in and actually fought to come home to, a bad name. You are not contributing to the strength of our country; you are helping to destroy it. Even if your ignorant arrogance were not to endanger our national safety, you are destroying the quality of our lives in this country, by polluting it with your hatred and moral sloth.

    June 14, 2010 at 11:17 pm |
  4. theresa

    A person is no better than the names he or she calls other people.

    That was just about the ugliest little bit of racism I've seen lately: no logic, just pure spite.

    Most of the moderate Muslim voices on this discussion have gone away. Comments such as yours have alienated them, perhaps made them feel like it's hopeless to even try and be good Americans. If I were a Muslim reading this page, I might decide to become a radical Muslim, since its clear that even moderate Islam isn't tolerated. If they have to choose between being the victims of your vicious attacks, all the while being afraid of the same extremists we are all afraid of, you can hardly be surprised if some give up and go to the other side.

    Try being a good American: practice tolerance, get educated, stand up for the Constitution, and stop smearing entire groups of people with horrific (and surprisingly meaningless) names.

    June 14, 2010 at 10:40 pm |
  5. Tiger

    Give muslims save freedome in America, that Muslims have given to Americans in Saudi Arabia.
    They need to be told that such freedom is a two way highway.
    They need to taught tolerance.

    June 14, 2010 at 10:02 pm |
    • theresa

      If we don't give Muslims freedom in the United States (within the confines of the law!) our freedom isn't worth anything. When some people in a country are free and others aren't, you have a very ugly situation, which cannot truly be called freedom for anyone.

      June 14, 2010 at 10:34 pm |
  6. Just a regular Joe

    Rehan – If more people in the Muslim communities would "step up" like you and publicly condemn Islamic extremism and terrorist barbaric actions, then perhaps someday things could get back to "normal". Someday... hopefully with American Muslims just becoming another one of our diverse group of peoples and religions that make up "the great mixing pot" of what we know as American society. Until then, however, things will not likely change too soon. Welcome to America, Rehan... like you – we are all blessed to be here. Spread the word amongst your fellow American Muslims... they (like the rest of us Americans) must stand up and be heard against Islamic extremism and terrorism. This is not the time to be silent about this.

    June 14, 2010 at 9:38 pm |
  7. ryan

    jesus changed everything?

    Matthew 10
    10:34 Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. (10:34-36)
    I came not to send peace, but a sword. ... A man's foes shall be they of his own household."
    Is Jesus peaceful?

    10:35 For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.
    10:36 And a man's foes shall be they of his own household.
    10:37 He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.

    "If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple." (Luke 14:26)

    If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you."
    John 15:1-7

    June 14, 2010 at 9:35 pm |
    • HeReigns

      Yes, He did change everything. The context is missing though.

      32 “Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven. 33 But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven.

      and after...

      38 And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. 39 He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it.

      Jesus isn't calling for followers to be violent against one's family. The sword is called "truth," it divides from that which is false. Opinions and beliefs can divide, often they divide families...some aren't on speaking terms. Sometimes families are angry when their loved one follows Jesus. He is up-front about the dedication He is asking for.

      Also, Jesus isn't talking about political peace. I treasure the "peace beyond all understanding" that Jesus has brought into my heart. Is every day easy? No, but I have peace knowing that God answers my prayers (He didn't always.) I enjoy the peace in my home when once there was strife on many levels....and no one had to move out to achieve it. 🙂

      June 15, 2010 at 1:23 am |
  8. sanethinker

    Silence is deafening, the inhospitable territory of Pak-Afghan border is crucible, with testing of extreme ideology and finally implanted around the world. Check most of the terror network and its activity, they all point to this border area. The ISI (Pak intelligence), Pak army and mullahs are responsible for maintaining this ideal condition with critical funding from various charity through hawala network, US money laundered or siphoned off, also incl. drug money.

    June 14, 2010 at 9:35 pm |
  9. ryan

    Matthew 5
    5:17 Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.

    The beast and the false prophet are cast alive into a lake of fire. The rest of us the unchosen will be killed with the sword of Jesus. “An all the fowls were filled with their flesh.” Revelations 19:20-21

    (Revelations 19) (when jesus comes back to earth)
    “And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he doth judge and make war”, “His eyes were as a flame of fire”, clothed in a vesture dipped in blood“, and “out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron: and he treadeth the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God.”"

    Matthew 15
    (pharisess are mad that jesus's disciples don't wash theirs hands, jesus tells them they have no room to talk becauase they don't kill there disobedient children)

    15:1 Then came to Jesus scribes and Pharisees, which were of Jerusalem, saying,
    15:2 Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they wash not their hands when they eat bread.
    15:3 But he answered and said unto them, Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition?
    15:4 For God commanded, saying, Honour thy father and mother: and, He that curseth father or mother, let him die the death

    June 14, 2010 at 9:34 pm |
    • HeReigns

      Matthew 5:17 – This is Jesus rejecting the Pharisee accusation that He was cancelling out the law. Jesus is actually the completion of the law, and he offers that covering to His followers.
      1) Being sinless, He obeyed the law perfectly and taught it’s correct meaning. 2) He fulfills all the OT prophecies 3) the salvation He offers meets all the requirements of the law.

      This parallels the misconception that the NT cancels out the OT. The NT is a continuation and fulfillment of what began in the OT, it’s not a do-over.

      The Book of Revelations is intense. The worst wars and plagues ever seen will rage upon the earth…at some unknown point in the future. Between now and then even in the midst of the war and tribulation, there will be many opportunities to choose salvation. Those that choose to oppose God to the end will face the consequences. All through the OT and NT we are reminded that we always have a choice to be reconciled to God. Verses 19:20-21 are not describing hapless victims.

      June 15, 2010 at 3:25 am |
    • HeReigns

      Matthew 15 cross references to Mark 7
      The Pharisees had constructed ritualistic ways of washing hands, and various objects they held….not for germs. Jesus’ point was to show the superiority of God’s over man-made tradition, and the difference between ceremonial and true moral defilement.

      He was also bringing attention to the fact that God wants his people to honor their parents. If you read following verses, we learn that the Pharisees had allowed a dishonest method of moving/hiding assets. For example an adult child would “dedicate” their possessions to God to avoid helping family financially, and eventually use the money for themselves. This behavior kept people from honoring parents by not taking care of them in the twilight years.

      As for Matt 15:4, the second quote “He that curseth…” is from Exodus 21:17. Part of the OT was structured as a treaty between God and His people. It outlined the people’s rights under the law; the liberty to exercise mercy is present. If someone did something as dishonorable as curse their parents, those parents had the right to stone them. How many Jewish kids do you think really cursed their parents in OT times ? They wouldn’t dare.

      There are Biblical examples of people who seemed to deserve stoning, but mercy was exercised. Mary told Joseph, during their betrothal (contractually married) that she had become pregnant, before they consummated the marriage. Joseph was within his rights to have her stoned by the village, but he chose to send her away quietly, and is remembered as a righteous man.

      Then there’s the adultress who had bunch of people ready to stone her for her transgression. Jesus was the voice of mercy here, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”

      June 15, 2010 at 4:53 am |
  10. ryan

    the koran and non- believers

    Qur'an (3:56) – "As to those who reject faith, I will punish them with terrible agony in this world and in the Hereafter, nor will they have anyone to help."

    Qur'an (4:89) – "They but wish that ye should reject Faith, as they do, and thus be on the same footing (as they): But take not friends from their ranks until they flee in the way of Allah (From what is forbidden). But if they turn renegades, seize them and slay them wherever ye find them; and (in any case) take no friends or helpers from their ranks."

    Qur'an (8:12) – "I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them"

    Qur'an (9:5) – "So when the sacred months have passed away, then slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them captives and besiege them and lie in wait for them in every ambush, then if they repent and keep up prayer and pay the poor-rate, leave their way free to them."

    Qur'an (9:123) – "O you who believe! fight those of the unbelievers who are near to you and let them find in you hardness."

    Tabari 9:69 "Killing Unbelievers is a small matter to us" The words of Muhammad, prophet of Islam.

    4.89 : They desire that you should disbelieve as they have disbelieved, so that you might be (all) alike; therefore take not from among them friends until they fly (their homes) in Allah's way; but if they turn back, then seize them and kill them wherever you find them, and take not from among them a friend or a helper.

    June 14, 2010 at 9:33 pm |
  11. ryan

    Suppose you hear in one of the towns the LORD your God is giving you that some worthless rabble among you have led their fellow citizens astray by encouraging them to worship foreign gods. In such cases, you must examine the facts carefully. If you find it is true and can prove that such a detestable act has occurred among you, you must attack that town and completely destroy all its inhabitants, as well as all the livestock. Then you must pile all the plunder in the middle of the street and burn it. Put the entire town to the torch as a burnt offering to the LORD your God. That town must remain a ruin forever; it may never be rebuilt. Keep none of the plunder that has been set apart for destruction. Then the LORD will turn from his fierce anger and be merciful to you. He will have compassion on you and make you a great nation, just as he solemnly promised your ancestors. "The LORD your God will be merciful only if you obey him and keep all the commands I am giving you today, doing what is pleasing to him." (Deuteronomy 13:13-19 NLT)

    Suppose there are prophets among you, or those who have dreams about the future, and they promise you signs or miracles, and the predicted signs or miracles take place. If the prophets then say, 'Come, let us worship the gods of foreign nations,' do not listen to them. The LORD your God is testing you to see if you love him with all your heart and soul. Serve only the LORD your God and fear him alone. Obey his commands, listen to his voice, and cling to him. The false prophets or dreamers who try to lead you astray must be put to death, for they encourage rebellion against the LORD your God, who brought you out of slavery in the land of Egypt. Since they try to keep you from following the LORD your God, you must execute them to remove the evil from among you. (Deuteronomy 13:1-5 NLT)

    June 14, 2010 at 9:33 pm |
  12. ryan

    old testamont and non- believers

    if your own full brother, or your son or daughter, or your beloved wife, or you intimate friend, entices you secretly to serve other gods, whom you and your fathers have not known, gods of any other nations, near at hand or far away, from one end of the earth to the other: do not yield to him or listen to him, nor look with pity upon him, to spare or shield him, but kill him. Your hand shall be the first raised to slay him; the rest of the people shall join in with you. You shall stone him to death, because he sought to lead you astray from the Lord, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery. And all Israel, hearing of this, shall fear and never do such evil as this in your midst. (Deuteronomy 13:7-12 NAB)

    Suppose a man or woman among you, in one of your towns that the LORD your God is giving you, has done evil in the sight of the LORD your God and has violated the covenant by serving other gods or by worshiping the sun, the moon, or any of the forces of heaven, which I have strictly forbidden. When you hear about it, investigate the matter thoroughly. If it is true that this detestable thing has been done in Israel, then that man or woman must be taken to the gates of the town and stoned to death. (Deuteronomy 17:2-5 NLT)

    June 14, 2010 at 9:32 pm |
  13. sanethinker

    Rehan, you are a very nice person, many such millions are too nice. But what most of us want is to make your voice heard across green crescent and change the military-mullah-extremist-terrorist nexus, and bring peace to this insane world of crazy ideology.

    June 14, 2010 at 9:18 pm |
  14. Rehan

    I'm a Muslim and I'm blessed to live here. I'd do anything for America, this country has given me everything. Americans are the most hospitable and welcoming people in the world. Those who commit acts of violence and claim to be Muslims are a disgrace and I wish there was an easy way to sort them out.

    June 14, 2010 at 9:12 pm |
  15. sanethinker

    They should pick some lead from western nation about secularism, freedom of speech and liberty and manage their affairs in those terms with believers and nonbelievers equally. Only them we can think of them as equal partner or do business in most c o n d u c i v e way.

    Here in US they outwardly hide the suspicion they have for others, they openly display them in their country.

    June 14, 2010 at 9:12 pm |
  16. Just a regular Joe

    Americans typically have short memories in regards to both trivial and political issues, but we have much longer memories in matters regarding things that threaten our country and/or American citizens – as in the events of 9-11 and thereafter. Most Americans vividly remember that nearly all of the international Muslim community and the American based Muslim community did not have the guts or the degree of decency to publicly renounce the terrorist acts of 9-11, as well as other barbaric acts of terrorism – such as beheading of American citizens and soldiers. Words condemning such acts from the Muslim community could have been priceless in saving lives and in restraining their Muslim brothers from continuing as they did... with more and continued barbaric acts, emboldened by the silence of their fellow Muslims. In retrospect, we can say – their silence spoke volumes about their true feelings of America and Americans. Now, based upon their actions and inactions, the Muslim community has to "earn" its way back to the mainstream of American and international societies... if possible. Sadly, their current situation seems to be an "earned" thing. I guess if one wants to be an American, then they need to act like an American.

    June 14, 2010 at 9:01 pm |
  17. J W Morrison

    The West has not seen moderate Muslims rise up to counter their brethren on the extreme side of Islam. I realize that moderate Islam is afraid of the radical side of Islam but unless they make a stand and quell their brothers, the west will have a hard time trusting Islam. After all, Islam says it is tayeb (good) to lie to infidels and of course, we all know that if you are not in Islam you are an infidel.

    June 14, 2010 at 8:55 pm |
  18. theresa

    If some of you are so afraid that some Islamic country is going to try to conquer our country, maybe the best strategy would be to link arms with ALL people who oppose tyranny – and I mean ALL of them, including Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Agnostic, Atheist, Pagan (who did I leave out?) – in short, ALL people who oppose tyranny in this country.

    Of course, that would mean that you'd have to accept these comrades-in-arms as equal members of our nation . . .

    June 14, 2010 at 8:17 pm |
  19. Dante

    Muslims have put themselves in a box, no one else put them there. Since their hidden agendas are widely known now, they will increasingly find themselves more and more unwelcome in Western nations. These are the repercussions of three decades of taking advantage of the generosity of Western nations that gave them the benefit of the doubt and treated them like any other group of immigrants. They decided not to play by the rules like other groups, and then had the audacity to play the victim-card. Sentiment has completely turned against them now, and I don't think they will ever have the kind of carte-blanche they had previously. Scrutiny will only increase, laws limiting them will only tighten. And they have no one to blame but themselves.

    June 14, 2010 at 7:53 pm |
  20. Truthseeker

    Islam is a political movement in disguise of a religion. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. If you read quran then you will see that muslims are promised to go to heaven and non-muslims will burn in hell-fire. Islamic God Allah is so cruel!

    June 14, 2010 at 7:27 pm |
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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.