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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. ryan

    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

    jesus is saying right their to follow the rules of the old testimant

    June 15, 2010 at 2:14 pm |
    • Wolvie

      Perhaps you should read the rest of Mathew 15
      passage from 15:4 'Honor your father and mother'[a] and 'Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.'[b]
      then 15:95 But you say that if a man says to his father or mother, 'Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is a gift devoted to God,' 6he is not to 'honor his father[c]' with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. 7You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:
      8" 'These people honor me with their lips,
      but their hearts are far from me.
      9They worship me in vain;
      their teachings are but rules taught by men.
      Read and understand God nor Jesus preach of killing anyone. You will be judged in heaven not here on earth. Remeber to turn the other cheek. But after 3k plus on 9/11. Personally I'M OUT OF CHEEKS.

      June 15, 2010 at 2:51 pm |
  2. ryan

    jesus

    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..

    June 15, 2010 at 2:09 pm |
  3. ryan

    jesus

    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.

    June 15, 2010 at 2:09 pm |
  4. Agnostic

    All of the posts that itemize why Islam is dangerous and hypocritical have very valid observations. I see none of the Muslims acknowledging that these concerns have merit and are real. All that I hear from Muslims is, trust us and we are peaceful, while the historical record is very much the contrary. Of course, if you are Muslim you do not feel threatened by Islam because you are not a target. All you have to do is keep quiet and let the terrorists do your dirty work of converting the world by sword and blood letting. At this rate there will be no meeting of minds and we will be engaged in a war for many of years to come. Either the rule of reason will eventually win or the tyranny of Islam will prevail, no middle ground. Islam is inviting a terrible reckoning that, I believe, will lead to a nuclear war. Iran, Al Qaieda, or Pakistan will be the first to use nukes and then all bets are off on the fury that will fall on the world of Islam. However, Muslims are comfortable with their bigoted practices and will continue with their game plan of world hegemony. Americans are getting tired Islam's dictatorship in the countries they rule and the lack of human rights. Islam, your day is coming and it will not be pretty. It is too bad Muslims are such a flock of dumb sheep incapable of thinking for themselves. Many good people among them will be led to the slaughter by their radical imams, ayatollahs, and foolish fatwahs they blindly follow without challenge.

    June 15, 2010 at 2:07 pm |
    • Umme Omar

      Somebody answered your question already, I will just copy and paste here
      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 | Report abuse | Reply

      June 15, 2010 at 3:20 pm |
  5. ryan

    whats funny is that probably 99 percent of christains and a very high number of muslims would say of course you don't follow those rules, their crazy. most people take certain parts of the bible or koran, and let that guide them. but in that way, we as humanity are allready defining our own morality system. these religions have helped us as much as their going to. its time for a new evolution in human thought, one that favors truth over all otheir things.

    June 15, 2010 at 2:06 pm |
  6. the truth sets you free

    ryan..

    Christianity is based on the teachings of Jesus Christ, not the Old Testament you mentioned.

    If you're really honest to yourself and want to compare Christianity to Islam, compare Jesus to Muhammad.

    Who said "love your enemy"? Who said "kill the infidels"?

    You will see easily who was the man of peace and who was the man of hate and violence.

    June 15, 2010 at 2:03 pm |
    • ryan

      jesus doesn't seem very nice in revelation

      June 15, 2010 at 2:28 pm |
    • ryan

      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.

      June 15, 2010 at 2:30 pm |
  7. ryan

    bibles view on non-believers. koran says bad stuff but so does the bible.

    You must kill those who worship another god. Exodus 22:20

    Kill any friends or family that worship a god that is different than your own. Deuteronomy 13:6-10

    Kill all the inhabitants of any city where you find people that worship differently than you. Deuteronomy 13:12-16

    Kill everyone who has religious views that are different than your own. Deuteronomy 17:2-7

    Kill anyone who refuses to listen to a priest. Deuteronomy 17:12-13

    Kill any false prophets. Deuteronomy 18:20

    June 15, 2010 at 1:58 pm |
  8. ryan

    but america is a place for everyone. and let everyone remember that.

    June 15, 2010 at 1:50 pm |
  9. ryan

    we'll a portion of the found fathers were deist and would certainly have been atheist today. franklin was a deist (believe in a god, but one that didn't meddle in human affairs. jefferson spent the second half of his life rewritting the bible, taking out all the magic parts. and madison was very hostile towards religion.

    June 15, 2010 at 1:49 pm |
  10. Howie

    The only true Americans are ATHEISTS! All religion is evil as it leads to extremism and a desire to 'convert' (read as destroy) the non-believer. The founding fathers almost got it right, instead of simple separation of church and state, they should have clearly stated that there is no place for religion in the modern world. There is no god but man. Man is the all and the end. Praise humanity!

    June 15, 2010 at 1:41 pm |
    • Ben Cooper

      Brilliant statement, Howie. How about this one instead? All Americans like ice cream! That makes more sense, don't you agree? I guess we won't be seeing you win the Pulitzer prize any time soon.

      June 15, 2010 at 5:59 pm |
  11. mark mach

    shoot 'em

    June 15, 2010 at 1:34 pm |
  12. ryan

    and if you think their out of context, scroll up and ive got some of them in full.

    June 15, 2010 at 1:29 pm |
  13. ryan

    thats all from the bible if i didn't make that clear enough

    June 15, 2010 at 1:27 pm |
    • Ben Cooper

      Hey, genius!

      Amazing clwere in conflict.Permanently overruled them. In other words, there is to be no killing. Jesus spoke for God on earth. And no one has or will replace His words. Including that fraudulent false prophet Mohammed who stole Jewish literature, repackaged it to suit himself and sold it to a bunch of ignorant uneducated people that swallowed his plagiarism, hook, lilne and sinker.
      aim. Forgetting about Christ, are we? Gee, I recall Jesus saying to those that were about to stone a woman for adultery, 'let he who is free of sin cast the first stone.' Now, this may come as a big surprise to you, but what Jesus said OVERRULED what the bible said if the words

      June 15, 2010 at 5:29 pm |
  14. ryan

    Kill any friends or family that worship a god that is different than your own. Deuteronomy 13:6-10

    Kill all the inhabitants of any city where you find people that worship differently than you. Deuteronomy 13:12-16

    Kill everyone who has religious views that are different than your own. Deuteronomy 17:2-7

    Kill anyone who refuses to listen to a priest. Deuteronomy 17:12-13

    Kill any false prophets. Deuteronomy 18:20

    the koran has lines just like that. luckily we've learned not really listen to our religions in the west.

    June 15, 2010 at 1:23 pm |
  15. the truth sets you free

    Muslims are not the problem. Islam is!!

    Muslims are the patients. Islam is the disease!!

    Stop wasting your and our time by talking about Muslims.
    Talk about Islam, the Koran and Muhammad, instead!
    And you will see the truth of how hateful this ideology is.

    June 15, 2010 at 1:20 pm |
  16. Coder

    Seems to me the problem is religion. They're all bad. Most violence in the world stems from religion. When you spen too much time believing in something that's not reality you go nuts.

    June 15, 2010 at 1:16 pm |
  17. PSK

    Now you spent (wasted?) two years visiting 75 cities and 100 mosques 'studying' Islam, perhaps now you should visit same 75 cities but this time visit 100 temples each of buddhists and hindus and see how they compare with islam and find out why they are not perceived as terrorists by Americans. If Islam is truly a peaceful religion why is it necessary for its followers to claim in every second breath that it is a peaceful religion? WOnt people perceive it as such? Have you ever heard a buddhist claim that his is a peaceful religion? But it is perceived by everyone as such. WHy?

    Why should there be 57 muslim countries? How many Jewish (one may be), hindu (0), christian (1?) , and budhhist (0) countries are there in the world? In these islamic countries do minorites have any rights? Has any american muslim ever raised his voice against inhuman treatment of minorities in these countries? But ofcourse, they never do because they believe that Islam being 'peaceful' religion it is incapable of any such ill treatment.

    Unless muslims give up terror as means of acheiving their ends, they will always be pereceived as terrorists. They have to change their behaviour first and stop crying ISLAM IS IN DANGER at every opportunity they get.

    June 15, 2010 at 1:09 pm |
  18. ryan

    hello HeReigns. you sound like a nice guy. thats why it seems strange to me that you would tell someone how bad verbal abuse is, then on the same page say that the billions of muslims. jews. hindos, and atheist are not" hapless victims", but deserve to be murdered and cast into eternal hell fire when the end times come. no matter if they were the nice guy in the world. that dichotomy gets down to the marrow of what i don't like about religion.

    June 15, 2010 at 12:53 pm |
    • HeReigns

      Hi Ryan,
      I could see how on the surface it would seem strange. What makes you think I'm a guy? 🙂

      Check out Matthew 5:21-26
      William Barclay, in his commentary on these verses, writes:
      What Jesus is saying here is this: "In the old days men condemned murder; and truly murder is forever wrong. But I tell you that not only are a man's outward actions under judgment; his inmost thoughts are also under the scrutiny and the judgment of God. Long-lasting anger is bad; contemptuous speaking is worse, and the careless or malicious talk which destroys a man's good name is worst of all." The man who is the slave of anger, the man who speaks in the accent of contempt, the man who destroys another's good name, may never have committed a murder in action, but he is a murderer at heart.

      As far your concerns about the outcome of Revelations: God desires that every single person be reconciled to Him. He has provided a means for that for every single person on earth. He also gave us all FREE CHOICE. Each individual is responsible for their own decision, and sometimes bad consequences happen for the choices we make, even for “nice” people.
      Being nice doesn’t earn us a driver’s license, social security card, or passport….certain requirements must be met. That is not being unkind, that is truth, from a loving perspective.

      I can’t claim to know the details of the all people that will stand with God, but I’m willing to guess that there will be plenty of ex-athiests, and ex-whatever-belief-you-can-think of in the Book of Life.

      June 15, 2010 at 7:12 pm |
  19. JJ

    A goal of many Muslim activists is to impose Islam and religious law on all of us. There are many people trying to do this through peaceful means, along with the small percentage trying to blow us up. That is something Americans can't let happen. Muslim people aren't evil but this movement towards an international caliphate is, if you're an American.

    June 15, 2010 at 12:25 pm |
  20. Tony L

    Islam in not a Monolithic Faith. It has different interpretations of Koran by different sects. There are extremists and very moderates among the believers. Most of the Muslims are very moderate but some Sunnis are very extreme in their beliefs and interpretations, example Taliban or Wahhabism. This is no different then all other major Religions of the world. Due to mostly uneducated and poor nations the political forces in Muslim nations take advantage of religious ignorance and spread hate among the populations against other religions and the west.

    June 15, 2010 at 12:10 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.