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. Jon

    I read the Quran for myself and was amazed.

    June 20, 2010 at 8:24 am |
    • Offthepink

      Me, too. That crap was a scary manual of warfare tactics, validation of murder, treachery and deceit toward non-muslims (people, "infidels" aren't just people who've offended the muslims. An infidel is ANY and EVERYBODY who is not a muslim. It means "unbeliever" and if you don't believe, you are the enemy and are to be killed). I wish overly-pc idiots would open their damn eyes. Muslims will lie to non-muslims about their religion all day long, because according to the Qu'ran, it's okay to lie to non-muslims. Allah praises that, the Qu'ran says so. Get a clue, people.

      June 28, 2010 at 3:37 pm |
  2. Tensai13

    Islam is a pernicious, life sucking religion that must never find root in American soil as it has in countries such as Britain, Germany, and France to their great regret. All religions are harmful delusional diseases but just like virulent contagious viruses some are far worse than others. No Allah, know peace.

    June 20, 2010 at 7:35 am |
  3. mike003

    All good things are attributed to islam in this world and bad to infidels...

    June 18, 2010 at 1:07 pm |
  4. Islam

    I have never seen so many ignorant, embarrassing posts in my whole life. Welcome to America I guess amirite?

    June 18, 2010 at 11:14 am |
    • Juliett

      The only embarrassing thing here are people like u that prove my point over and over again. Lets put down America even though this country was gracious enough to take us in after our fanatical devotion to our sick "religion" has made our own countries so violence filled that they are unlivable, lets place the blame elsewhere instead of on the fact that we have brought this dislike from others on ourselves by openly flaunting our mistreatment of our women in countries that abolished slavery and human inequality a long time ago, lets cover up for terrorists that plan on killing innocent Americans, lets hide them out in our communities then whine about why we are being "watched" by authorities, and most of all lets expect everyone to conform to us and our ways, lets use freedom of religion to harass everybody and sue people, lets take terrible advantage of the American constitution and shove it into the American peoples faces. Lets cause all kinds of problems in every county that accepts us in especially America. U don't slink into a country that gives you amnesty ( a bunch of free things that American citizens can't even get for their families) and then act like that country OWES YOU more. You conform, you fit in, you follow the rules like everyone else is expected to and you pitch in to make the country a better place as a whole. I do not see any Muslim communities doing ANY of these things. I personalty don't think any of you rude, women-abusing, selfish, sick, fanatics should be welcome here in the 1st place after all the harm you have caused us. I think we should be targeting and deporting you instead of the mostly peaceful and hardworking Mexicans.

      June 21, 2010 at 8:34 am |
  5. Jim

    Only Islam has offical "representatives" advising people to kill others and spouting hate speech at every turn today. Go and live among them and you will find a people isolated from thought and philosphy outside of the narrow scope of Islam. A people convinced of the superiroity of thier chosen reledgion over all others and willing to use foce to bring to pass Islamic Law. Who else burns cars in the streets and kills people over cartoons? Who else says that an entire race has no right to live. Who else has flown aircraft into office buildings in the name of peace and God? Who else has women strap bombs to thier boides and kill people they don't even know? Islam is a philosphy of hatred and killing, always was and still is.

    June 17, 2010 at 3:57 pm |
    • Juliett

      U are so right on the nose with this one. These Muslims are getting their asses kissed so badly by our government that I am starting to think that we are no longer America. Our government gives these people handouts in the name of amnesty using our hard earned taxes, while Americans are going hungry and losing their homes and jobs! ANd what do they do to show that it's appreciated? They constantly bad mouth America, they refuse to conform to our companies dress codes and codes of conduct then sue these poor companies for religious discrimination because they are so high and mighty that they shouldn't have to follow the same rules as everyone else that is hired there, they band together in their "communities" and harbor dangerous people and protect people they know are breaking the law then cry about how they are being profiled and "watched" by the police, they are allowed to open schools and community centers that are Muslim only and given funds from our tax money to do it but because they are the all mighty Muslims in America this is not considered to be discrimination? and now the ultimate slap in the face to Americans by our leaders...Allowing these sick, women enslaving, cultists to build a mosque practically over the very area where they slaughtered innocent Americans in the name of that same so called religion that they want to practice there???? They never found some of the bodies and the government wants to let them place a mosque OVER them?? Talk about disrespecting the dead!!! And if these Muslims had any sense of decency or respect for America they would not have even suggested such a disgusting and horribly demeaning thing as to build a mosque there of all places. It's bad enough that they are placing their mosques on every street corner practically to spread their sickness and their abusive and murderous ways, ( many of their beliefs and practices alone are suppose to be illegal here in the U.S.A. and if an American was caught doing some of these things they would be arrested and prosecuted but the American government seems to feel the need to keep it's face as far up Islams rear as it can get for some reason and the fact that the victims and their poor families are being disrespected in this way and it is being allowed is proof of that! ANd dont forget all the effort being put into getting the Mexicans out, and from what I have personally seen, the Mexicans are for the most part peaceful, hard working, and appreciative to be here in America ( real dangerous people there Government) , but nobody seems to be trying very hard to get these Muslims out even through all the bombing and hijacking plans that have been foiled here on American soil and all the uprising and problems they are causing. What are you people on capital hill thinking??? Bottom line is this is just plain wrong how American citizens are taking it up the rump in favor of these Muslims and our government should really be worrying more about feeding, housing, getting jobs for, and protecting their own citizens and stop wasting so much effort, cash , and American lives on these sick people that dont even appreciate it.

      June 19, 2010 at 11:34 am |
  6. Richard Evans

    You know what scares me is sooo many good people on this earth, each believing in their own way of religion. But then there are the radical war mongers that will take words from the Holy Books out of context and us them to influence the ignorant to cause tremoil and hatred causing deciet, lies, greed,lust, death to many innocent babies, children and women and men. All a usless waste of God's creation, a gift we were given but we only like to destroy what we do not understand!!!

    June 17, 2010 at 12:14 am |
  7. Angie

    I understand your concerns but Christians have always been just as extreme. There are still wars going on between Catholics and protestants in Ireland...we validated slavery using the bible, we killed off entire native American tribes because of Christianity, the crusades and the Spanish Inquisition was all due to Christianity. It's not the religion that is extreme, it is certain people. I know Muslims from both Africa and the middle east and they are at war with each other because the Muslims in Africa do not agree with the Jihad...why is this?

    June 16, 2010 at 9:02 pm |
  8. Sophia

    Are you an Indigenous American?

    June 16, 2010 at 5:38 am |
  9. OhWakeUp

    And now for all you kinder, gentler Americans who see our Muslim "brothers" in such a warm and fuzzy light, here is the TV guide listing for your community:

    8:00 – Wheel of Terror
    8:30 – The Price is Right if Osama Says it's Right
    9:00 – Children are Forbidden from Saying the Darndest Things
    9:30 – Taliban's Wackiest Public Execution Bloopers
    10:00 – Buffy the Yankee Imperialist Dog Slayer

    Speaking of dogs...when's the last time you saw a Muslim family at the local pet adoption event, either volunteering or taking a homeless pet into their hearts??? Don't trust anyone who doesn't love animals.

    June 16, 2010 at 1:34 am |
    • Erin

      Dear Sir, thankyou, thankyou, what you said is very right

      i just wanted to let you know

      June 16, 2010 at 7:21 pm |
  10. Crazy folks

    Every decade in America there has been a group of people who are on the pitty potty proclaiming discrimination. I am so tired of reading articles of what I should do for people coming to this country. 1.) No I do not want to read the Koran any more than you are going to sit down and read the bible to understand me? 2.) No I do not support any illegal alien who has come to this country and expects that I should pay their medical bills and support their children. 3.) No I do not support people coming to this country who cannot call themselves just Americans. 4.) No I do not care if your child does not learn if they cannot learn English. 5.) No I do not agree with being gay but as an American you have the right to live in this country free – just quit bashing me with it in the media, movies, shows – remember you are a minority. 6.) No I do not think that any religion is free from its hateful history. 7.) No I do not think I should pay for the faults of our forefathers and slavery that was 100 years ago. 8.) No I do not think the pants on the ground are any less offensive than the traditional muslim clothes. 9.) No I do not think that Brittney Spears or any of the other Hollywood players are a role model to my son. In the end if you do not like America, its laws, Its language, its ability to support cultures – religions – freedoms - please just go home – I will pay for your ticket! Quit expecting us to pay for everything, quit expecting us to be understanding when you are not, quit execting us to turn the other cheek – when you cannot, quit blaming everyone for everything. Get off your freaking pitty potty like every new group has had to do to – gain respect of the average American person by working hard, loving your family – helping your neighbors.

    June 15, 2010 at 7:51 pm |
  11. crazy but true

    Islam is a peaceful religion: really? Immediate jihad is waged if you doubt it.
    Muhammad is a messenger of God? Satanic fatwa is awarded if you doubt it.
    Islam respect women? We whip them if they doubt it.
    Islam respect other religions? We demolish their temples and deities. There is no deity but allah.
    Islam respect followers of other religions? We kill them they are infidels.
    Muslims are loyal to the country where they live in? We break the country if we are large enough in number. Sometimes we send our sons to liberate our brothers and sometimes invite foreign muslim brothers to liberate us.
    Muslims are suppressed in non-muslim countries? We don't suppress non-muslims, we have cleansed them long ago.
    Muslims don't get jobs? We don't get jobs even we are so learned, even when we are Hafiz (memorized kooran by heart). Even when our children are so intelligent, we keep brainwashing them since their births.
    Muslims integrate with locals? What is the problem if we wear hanging Pyjamas even in Alaska (muslims in arabia were used to wear pyjamas enough above the ankle in order to avoid tearing at the bottom due to friction with the sand) .
    Muslims are hated by others? We don't hate non-muslims, allah hates them.
    Kooran is the words of God? Who dares to doubt it, even if it is full of satanic verses. We have traded our brains with solidarity.
    So many muslims are killed worldwide daily in militant activities? Who cares, we are the fastest growing religion. We produce 20 children per woman; fodder for the canons.
    Muslims are modern and civilized people? Thank to allah, who has given us oil and sharia laws. Having oil we don't need to use our brains (if there is any) to get money for modernisation. And we have provided eternity to our civilization after anchoring it with Sharia.
    Muslims retaliate when they are oppressed? Who says, muslims start a conflict, we have right to hurt others, non-muslims are already guilty of not believing in muhammad.
    World evaluates you by your behavior, not by your name. Please correct your behavior first and be civilized so that world does not need to civilize you with bamboo sticks. It's high time to bring muhammad and islam to justice. Also, in view of the latest developments, it seems that muslims world wide are persona non grata. It is in their interest that they should leave non-muslim countries as soon as possible, otherwise, I can foresee that days are coming soon when muslims will be kicked out from these countries forcibly and bluntly, the way it is happening in many parts of the world.

    June 15, 2010 at 7:30 pm |
  12. Marie

    If Muslims want to be American then the Burka should be ilegal!!!!!!! They come here and still live as if they are in a muslim country, but we do not have sharia law nor will Americans ever concede to that so if they want to be Ammerican then the burka needs to go. France did it, but they have standards America is so worried about being PC.

    June 15, 2010 at 6:46 pm |
  13. Joe in Kalispell

    "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."

    From what I have read Islam has changed since the days of our founding fathers. Every day we see examples of how the religion has been hijacked by extremists funded in part by Saudi Arabia. It seems to be turning into a religion of intolerance. It does leave a person wondering where the loyalties of American Muslim's are.

    June 15, 2010 at 5:37 pm |
  14. perspective

    I was raised a Catholic midwestern American, my husband was raised a Turkish Muslism. We are independent well-educated free thinkers. As scientists, we are working towards solving problems in society, that fight all of us, such as cancer and degenerative diseases.

    People need to move past religion, and see each other as people.

    If people cannot see each other as people anymore, they have lost any true spirituality. It makes me terribly sad.

    June 15, 2010 at 4:17 pm |
  15. relians

    religion- all superstion – is the greatest evil and barrier to peace and understanding in our world. my experience has taught me that anyone who supports a religion is not thinking clearly and not being honest with themselves. the only people who truly believe in their religion, are terrorists.

    June 15, 2010 at 3:53 pm |
  16. Agnostic

    Umme Omar, you and Theresa are very good people and only that the world were as you describe. Do a reality check. You will be swept aside by the forces of evil and will suffer the same fate all of us will when the radicals push the world over the edge and into the abyss. In the world's history there has never been a lack for another Hitler to lead this or that faction into total conflict. This time, those crazy people that write that sort of history are coming out of the Islamic world. Mankind never learns its lessons and religious texts are often the justification used for violence. Religion is used as a cover because the followers are instructed that the "word" can not be questioned, it comes directly from God, Allah, Yaweh, Baal, etc. In truth all of the religious writings are the invention of men who wish to control and manipulate innocent people to their own political ends. Sorry, but that is the truth and good people like you are their pawns to put lipstick and that pig.

    June 15, 2010 at 3:49 pm |
  17. ryan

    nevermind.. i think their some fundemental difference in how we view reality and ethics. wish you all the best wolvie, and everyone else on thise page.

    June 15, 2010 at 3:42 pm |
    • HeReigns

      Dear Ryan,
      Peace be with you.

      1If I speak in the tongues[a] of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames,[b] but have not love, I gain nothing.

      4Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

      8Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. 11When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. 12Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

      13And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

      June 15, 2010 at 7:19 pm |
  18. Wolvie

    your sins or any wrong doing.

    June 15, 2010 at 3:40 pm |
  19. Jason Gardner

    Misunderstood...book of peace...Riddle me this, doesn't the Quran clearly state that it is ok to beat your wife? and does it not also state that the "infidel" should be put to the sword? Show me those equivalents in any other major religions tenants. We distrust Muslims because the very act of being a good Muslim requires a certain amount of hatred towards those who do not believe as you do.

    June 15, 2010 at 3:38 pm |
  20. ryan

    repent for what?

    June 15, 2010 at 3:36 pm |
    • Ben Cooper

      I feel sorry for you. You must be young. Jesus taught us to have faith. Not everything in this universe can be seen.

      June 15, 2010 at 6:25 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.