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. Maria

    HEY – MM, why would I want to look at Islam, for guidance when we have Christianity in America, Christians also prohibit alcohol, and tells us to love one another, and not to kill, commit adultery, or steal. And we don't force our religion into anyone. Islam, if you are not one of them they will kill you. Sorry but Islam is the last religion in the world that I would take as an example for a nation. It may be that they have less crime, divorces etc, etc, but when it comes to divorce woman have $00.00 rights. We in America are not orphans of God, we know who our God, so we don’t need Islam here as guidance.

    June 15, 2010 at 3:34 pm |
  2. Wolvie

    Free will yes and the ability to repent when you've done wrong and ask for his forgiveness. You choose to ask he'll forgive you. Don't repent and just like our courts here you loose your free will.

    June 15, 2010 at 3:33 pm |
  3. Be Loud of Peace - Silence is NOT acceptable.

    When the U.S. Muslim community sounds out LOUD and CLEAR, without equivocation, and immediately against all forms of terrorism, including all aggressive religious intolerance for human rights, women's right, children, equal protection under the law, the respect for other religions to coexist, the right to free speech, and the ability to separate church from state, IF THEY FINALLY DO THAT AND LOUDLY, then we will begin to feel comfortable that they are truly embracing American ideals and here to join us, not to oppose, defy, or undermine what we hold dear.

    June 15, 2010 at 3:31 pm |
  4. ryan

    seem like 800 trillion years would be long enough huh?

    June 15, 2010 at 3:29 pm |
  5. ryan

    and isn't forever a long time to be punished for maybe 50 or 60 year life.

    June 15, 2010 at 3:26 pm |
  6. ryan

    god gives you free will, then punishes you if you don't act the way he wants? and were does your free will go when your sent to hell?

    June 15, 2010 at 3:24 pm |
  7. ryan

    and i don't think any of you guys are bad people. i just don't like your beliefs.

    June 15, 2010 at 3:21 pm |
  8. meme

    when I see a christian church in mecca, I may trust Islam.

    June 15, 2010 at 3:19 pm |
  9. Wolvie

    ryan your starting to slur your typing. God gave us free will. How YOU CHOOSE to live your life gets you either heaven or hell. The key here is we can CHOOSE heaven or hell.

    "Earlier post"
    I'm still waiting on a hundred

    June 15, 2010 at 3:17 pm |
  10. ryan

    and don't talk about free will because god takes that a way big time when he sends you to hell. i bet you anything that if you asked anyone in hell would they rather have just never existed at all, everyone one of them would say yes. god knows that, and creates them anyway. that makes him evil.

    June 15, 2010 at 3:17 pm |
  11. Scientology Rules

    No, I have not. But ever since I started eating Chocolate Cheerios, I feel like there is an Alien growing in my stomach.

    June 15, 2010 at 3:13 pm |
  12. Wolvie

    LOL Oooga. I like your train of thought.

    June 15, 2010 at 3:13 pm |
  13. ryan

    i keep hearing what sweetheart the christain god is but he invited the worst place imaginable, hell. god know everything thats going to happen, so he knew from the start that the vast majority of people that he created, that he loves so so much, were going to end up in hell. that makes him evil. worst the hitler. atleast hitler just burnt you once. thats not going enough for god, he does it for eternity. i know people are going to say " but he's god". yea that just makes him strong, a badass, a bullies, it doesn't make him ethical. it makes him evil. if theres a god, surely he not so petty, and destructive, heartless.

    June 15, 2010 at 3:12 pm |
    • Ben Cooper

      Great thinking, Ryan! So you're saying people should be able to do whatever they want, say whatever they want and, on the last day, everyone should go to heaven because God loves us? That everyone gets a free pass no matter what? By your wonderful logic, Hitler should be in heaven. Your comments are puerile and show a marked immaturity and appreciation of what God and Christ expect of us in exchange for the gift of life given us. But you angry as you speak of punishment for those He rejects when He has every right to reject someone whether you like it or not. You're like a robot judging his inventor...the tail wagging the dog kind of thing. Old, tired arguments that have no merit except with me-first audiences. Like Howie.

      June 15, 2010 at 6:18 pm |
  14. Oooga Boooga

    I like to chant OOOGA BOOOGAH over and over. That is my religion and everything seems to work out fine. My wife thinks I'm koo koo. Hey "Scientology Rules" : Have you ever seen the Aliens? That is AWESOME

    June 15, 2010 at 3:08 pm |
  15. Scientology Rules

    Yes, but in Alien years 13.7 billion years equates to 3.6 nano earth-seconds

    June 15, 2010 at 3:04 pm |
  16. ryan

    yea but some of stuff in scientology that concerns xeno was supposed to happen like 50 trillion years ago. only problem is that the universe is only 13.7 billion years old.

    June 15, 2010 at 2:58 pm |
  17. Wolvie

    Here is the challenge. Show me 100 devoted muslims that are against the 9/11 attacks and ALL other attacks. Show me just a hundred of them that denounce what the extremists are doing. According to thier quran. Maybe just maybe I'll find it in my heart to have a little faith that they can be trusted. Till I see that HUNDRED, I have no use for them anywhere!!!!

    June 15, 2010 at 2:57 pm |
  18. Scientology Rules

    Scientology is the best because we believe in Aliens... Aliens really rule us.

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

    and yes muslims are extremely obtuse about these world wide problems with part of their culture.

    June 15, 2010 at 2:17 pm |
  20. thethinman

    First, both books are some of the best fiction I have read. Both sides are killing over something they cannot prove exists! Bible has been rewritten many times to increase church power. Mohammed was a conquer, victors always get to write what they want.

    June 15, 2010 at 2:16 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.