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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. PW

    I disagree that "American negative perceptions of Islam” as the greatest threat to the Muslim world." The biggest threat to the Muslim world is the constant fighting and tribal one-upmanship that the male dominated culture has practiced for 1300 years. If they would stop trying to be the strongest horse, they could organize and have a decent life and culture.

    Instead, the macho-based culture has caused the most damaging perceptions to continue. How typical for the "Arabs" to blame others for their woes–they seldom look to themselves as the source of their own misery.

    June 11, 2010 at 4:47 pm |
  2. Unknown

    None should be persecuted for what they believe in, only what they do

    June 11, 2010 at 4:44 pm |
  3. Lee

    "Discovering America over the past few years has made me appreciate the inclusive vision of the Founding Fathers."

    Something tells me those founding fathers would have had a different vision if they had seen Jihad in their lives. A world where a 7 year old boy is hung for being a spy or a 13 year old girl is stoned for killing her rapist. Islam is not just a religion it is a form of government and a brutal government at that. Our founding fathers were visionaries against oppressive governments which islam is.

    June 11, 2010 at 4:44 pm |
  4. ETM

    All fundamentalist religious belief, from any religion, is nonsensical and potentially dangerous. In the the United States, fanatical fundamentalist Christians are a much bigger problem than Muslims because they corrupt out politics and our educational system with rigid, doctrinal notions inconsistent with democracy and personal freedom.
    Take on the tens of millions of the religious right in this country and worry less about American Muslims, who, for the most part, are good citizens who are not telling every American how to live.

    June 11, 2010 at 4:44 pm |
    • SwissGuard

      Im' afraid you have no idea what your talking about. give me one example of "Christian extremeists" corrupting politics, education, or do anything else?

      June 11, 2010 at 4:55 pm |
    • SwissGuard

      And another thing. I suppose your definition of "a good citizen" would also encompass calling people like the fort Hood shooter major Hassan good citizens??

      June 11, 2010 at 4:58 pm |
    • Mark B.

      What are you talking about? One religion stresses tolerance and forgiveness and "the Golden Rule" even giving one's life for his brothe while the other promotes murder, torture, slavery, and the annihalation of an entire nation. The blind ought not try to point the way.

      June 11, 2010 at 6:19 pm |
  5. Colin

    Christianity, Islam, it's no different. Sure, you have less Christians these days strapping bombs to their chests, but you still have them fire bombing abortion clinics, killing doctors, protesting soldier's funerals, etc. It's all madness.

    Then there's us Atheists, standing on the sidelines, "praying" for reason to return to the world. Maybe we should find a nice bunker till the Holy War is over, then come out and reclaim the planet... /sigh

    June 11, 2010 at 4:42 pm |
  6. Michael, Chapel HIll

    Frankie,
    Why is Islam hijacking a peaceful country like India, where Hinudism & Islam co-existed for centuries, thoug the Muslims were invaders. Do Muslims tolerate other minoirity relegions in Muslim countres worldwide? Even in a modern democracy like Turkey Islamists have taken over administration, & Christians & Jews are slowly being hated. Tolerance is not a one way street. There is enough evidence for knowledgeable people to be afraid of the rise of Islamists worldwide, including US, of being runover, politicaly, militarly,& demographically.

    June 11, 2010 at 4:41 pm |
  7. StevenS

    Prejustice? The truth is that not all muslims are terrorists, but almost all terrorist are muslims – and we can do nothing to change it. All the talks that we should be kind to them and in result they will change is a complete BS. It was like USSR – if the West would try to please the communist, the evil of communism would never disappear – just time showed that it is not the best and let to collapse of communist regime. So, just time can solve it. Also the main problem is in Islam itself – this religion is in extermism time now and only when muslims understand that extremism does not help them to be part of the world community and part of the progress, then they will change. Compare it to catolicism of the middle ages – the extremism was everywhere – attempts to convert everyone to christianity with a help of force, witch hunts etc. Now it is completely different. The Islam now is a catolicism of middle ages. They try to convert as many as possible to islam, they kill members of other religions, etc. So, stop making West to be gulity – there should be no guilt here. The West should stand by it's values – stop being afraid to keep our values and religion – say that you are christian etc. Because when muslims see that they can push "Christmas tree" out of tradition (in trying to separate religion from the coutry) and making even president congratulates people with not a "Christmas" but with "Holidays". It is only damaging and show weekness. Muslims would never buy it – see how they use our democracy to promote " their" values. You cannot make a joke about their god, but they not allowing you to express your religion in their coutries. They push you everywhere. Let me say, I can understand that they want to build new mosque in downtowm of Manhattan, but why at Ground Zero???? Did you ever ask this question? I am going to tell you why – because it is to use your democracy in their favor – to make a slap to all people killed by muslims!

    June 11, 2010 at 4:41 pm |
    • Thomas

      Absolute Truth. Why Americans are so naive?

      June 11, 2010 at 5:03 pm |
  8. walleye

    Alan wrote that "Islamic militants have hijacked their faith–" . Arlene agrees and adds, “But will you agree that militants in Christianity and Judaism have done the same thing?” Both these statements are true. We must stand fast by the founding fathers rules regarding separation of church and state. Unfortunately we seem to be merging the two with resulting problems. I also believe a lot of information which is posted on the internet (where many of us get their views) is distorted but believable and believed by many. We should do our homework and research information before making uninformed decisions and forming biased ideas.

    June 11, 2010 at 4:41 pm |
  9. Whats the Real Truth

    Americans are distrustful of Muslims who remained silent after 911. Where was the outrage? Silence is affirmation - if you don't speak out again the terrorists then you are thru association, a terrorist.

    June 11, 2010 at 4:40 pm |
    • Kearns

      Too bad that's not true, no matter how many times it's repeated.

      June 11, 2010 at 9:40 pm |
  10. Bblove

    haji haji haji!!!

    June 11, 2010 at 4:40 pm |
  11. Leigh - Seattle

    ANY religion, when taken to the extremes is very dangerous !
    I believe in God, Jesus and all the heavenly spirits helping us live good lives – but I don't believe in ORGANIZED religion, for that has started every war (practically) that we have ever had.
    I listen to my heart and try to live a good life, I won't listen to some man who is "sanctioned" by God to tell me how to live it.
    Pure rubbish !

    June 11, 2010 at 4:39 pm |
  12. dan

    The main and enduring problem with Islam is the same one that plagued Christianity...the belief that if you aren't a believer you are an infidel and someone not quite as good or worthy as a Muslim. In this sense it is racist, Islam and Christianity are the only world religions that have adopted an imperial posture...either join us or rot in hell. All will come to know the word of Allah, either by the book or by the sword, the saying goes. Until Muslim leaders reject this imperialist ideal there will be friction with non Muslims.

    June 11, 2010 at 4:39 pm |
  13. A Thinker

    The writer has responded precisely as his Mulsim handlers wanted him to.
    They wanted him to question who we are as Americans, as opposed to questioning who these muslims are.

    The only salient question and the one never addressed in the article is this: What are "american" muslims doing to stop the terrorism that their religion openly fosters and supports both spiritually and materially?"

    Sadly, this young, admittedly sheltered and apparently easily led writer chose instead asked Americans what it means to be Americans vis-a-vis Islam.

    Shame on him

    June 11, 2010 at 4:36 pm |
    • Michael

      Right on!

      June 11, 2010 at 4:58 pm |
    • MeganColorado

      Excellent comment. Everyone should read this.

      June 14, 2010 at 12:10 pm |
  14. Roger

    Radical Muslims arcross the world appear to depict themselves as only interested in world domination and intolerance. This is what makes a lot of people uneasy with respect to Islam.

    June 11, 2010 at 4:35 pm |
  15. no moonbats

    The traditional method of success in America: hard work and personal freedom.
    The new liberal method to success: become a "victim"....poor, poor Muslims, whine away, join the pity party, the Democratic Party, that is. ...
    Ever wonder why if immigrant groups are so poorly treated here, they all keep coming?

    June 11, 2010 at 4:34 pm |
  16. ETM

    Some fundamentalist Christians also want gays dead. Ever hear of Rev. Fred Phelps and his band of merry believers in Topeka, Kansas?

    June 11, 2010 at 4:34 pm |
    • SwissGuard

      The difference is that, while in Christianity, eventhough that kind of lifestyle is frowned upon, only a few extremeist fringe groups call for extermination of gays. In islam, on the other hand, its is REQUIRED, not just by fringe groups, but by the religon in general.

      June 11, 2010 at 4:50 pm |
  17. Mark

    "A Muslim community that feels accepted as true Americans and is encouraged to enter the mainstream will be the best defense against homegrown terrorism."

    Well, who's having a tough time assimilating? Italians? Chinese? Australians? South Africans? Chileans? How about the Buddhists or the Hindu's ???? the Muslims are having a hard time feeling welcome due to their own behavior and actions – defined by their religion. Islam doesn't allow the separation of Church and State – one of the core founding principals of this country....

    You need to grow up – you followed around your Muslim professor and were brain washed into thinking the problem wasn't in their control. It's completely in their control – every other ethnic and religious group has found a way to assimilate into American culture, except one – Islam. Maybe you noticed on your travels that other groups immigrated, while the Muslims settled. There's a big difference.

    June 11, 2010 at 4:33 pm |
    • sam

      really, muslims did this to them selves? i don't remember doing anything bad or illegal, yet me, and million of muslims in this country, are treated badly bc of the very small minority. it seems ok to bash muslims all you want, but open your mouth about christians and the country goes up in arms, what happened to the first amendment?

      June 11, 2010 at 5:55 pm |
    • John F

      So Italians, Chinese and Irish had no problem with acceptance and assimilation? This is a joke, right? The had one heck of a time finding acceptance and it took more than a century to accomplish this. And the persecution was not just on the personal level. Thousands of Americans of all ages were forced to abandon their homes, businesses, and lives and spend years in concentration camps right here in the U.S. during WWII. And perhaps you should check out the history of NYC during the 19th century while you are at it.

      June 14, 2010 at 11:53 am |
  18. Adam

    Great article. An example of what it means to be an American; to experience people from all walks, admire our differences, and defend our rights to such differences. Tolerance, pluralism, and understanding.

    June 11, 2010 at 4:33 pm |
  19. sam

    I am a gay woman. Islam wants me dead. You bet I find it a negative religion. What else is this evil?

    June 11, 2010 at 4:32 pm |
    • Tsunami

      Christianity wants you dead too, as do a lot of other religions. I don't agree of course, and the majority of my fellow american muslims don't agree either.

      June 11, 2010 at 5:03 pm |
    • HeReigns

      I can't speak for some monolithic "christianity" wants you dead (physically or spirtually) I can tell you I know in my heart that Jesus (Issa) doesn't want that for you or anybody. He died for you so that you have eternal peace. God loves you more than you'll ever know.

      June 12, 2010 at 2:20 am |
    • Ryan

      The problem with most of these comments is the ignorance. Islam does not want you dead because you are a lesbian. This is totally incorrect. That is between you and your God – if you have one.

      June 12, 2010 at 10:31 am |
  20. Dave

    Remove the ancient fairy tale religion of Christianity first.

    June 11, 2010 at 4:32 pm |
    • Frank Rizzo

      Why Dave?
      Are the radical Christians threatening to blow up your country, your plane, your city on a daily basis?
      Have they blown up your subway, your airport, your hotel dozens of times the past decade?

      June 11, 2010 at 9:17 pm |
      • Joamiq

        Really? Your subway, airport, and hotel have been blown up dozens of times in the past decade? Guess you have pretty bad luck, dude.

        June 11, 2010 at 10:19 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.