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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. Sterling

    It would be nice if we lived in an "ideal" world and all muslims were of one peaceful mind. That being said, we are NOT in a perfect world. I challenge Franklin Martin, and all others proclaiming the muslim religion as being peaceful to go alone and unannounced to Gaza, Pakistan, Iran or other such countries and stand in a bazaar and proclaim their allegiance to the USA and see what happens to them.
    The recent news of the taliban executing a 7 year old "spy" points out the peacefulness and goodness of islam. I've yet to see a protest by any American MUSLIMS (or any muslims world-wide) against this tragedy... and, I'm sure there won't be any.
    Until the muslim community rises up and actively speaks out against the hatred by many in the muslim world against anyone that thinks different than the Quoran, there will be problems with them in America.

    June 11, 2010 at 5:02 pm |
  2. JesusisLord

    Any human being who rejects the Risen Son of God will be rejected in the next life. Jesus will accept any sinner and forgive any sin, but it's up to you to approach humbly approach Him, ready to repent of your sinful life and willing to follow Him for the rest of your lives. Should you decline His gracious offer, however, He'll banish you to hell, where you'll spend eternity being tortured by Satan. Islam is Satanic deception, meant to keep you from meeting your only Savior.

    June 11, 2010 at 5:02 pm |
    • theresa

      Boy, this God isn't cuddly either! Tortured in hell? For an eternity? By God's own enemy? Just for not being able to believe in him? Nice guy . . .

      June 12, 2010 at 9:35 pm |
  3. Dante

    This is the kind of article people read 10 years ago and thought "Wow, it's good to know that I was really misinformed about these wonderful Muslims who are really being persecuted by the mean old xenophobic Americans...thank you Mr. Enlightened Cosmopolitan Student Being Tutored by a Not Really Radical Agenda Bearing Muslim-First Professor". Those days are gone. And all the P.R. spinning & look-the-other-way BigMedia complicitness is not going to change it back. Muslims (yes, I know there are exceptions...) simply don't fit in here. They never will. They are better off migrating to more "moderate" (there's a relative term for you) Islamic nations like Turkey. They will always be Muslim-First, and their culture is so radically different they are audacious (and arrogant) enough to ask America to conform to them, rather than the other way around. 9/11 and the availability of the Internet and alternative avenues of gathering information, bypassing the BigMedia (whose ranks are filled with naive individuals like the author of this article) have made it far more difficult for Muslims to push their radical (and true) agenda they way they did in the 80's and 90's in Western Europe.

    June 11, 2010 at 5:01 pm |
  4. Just saying

    This is a well written article and it makes some important points. a) That not all Muslims are terrorists b) That even we Americans are as diverese, different and similar in our thinking and way of life. But that said, you have made a very simple assumption that if we somehow assimilate and at the same time provide Muslims the freedom to practise their religion we will end home grown terrorism. But I think that is a very simplistic assumption. Lets move away from the United States and consider the example of Britain between 1940's-1990.During this period, Britain witnessed a huge flow of both Pakistani Muslims and Indian Hindus/Sikhs with a similar cultural and economic ( mostly lower-middle class) background. Today the Hindu's happen to be the largest ethnic minority in Britain but also hold some of the most powerful positions in the area of politics, business, education, medicine etc. Actually the richest Britain is now of Hindu origin and the British rich list has many Hindu/Sikh members. They have successfully integrated into the British society and are as much British as they are Hindu's or Indians. Unfortunately, that has not been the case of Muslims in Britain. They have not only been unable to integrate but as everyone knows young Muslims from Pakistan born in Britain were involved in the terrorist attack there. SO my question to the author is, if two religion with same cultural and economic background coming to Britain, during the same period, have such diverse results, then the only variable that seems to be making a difference in the outcome seems to be religion. Maybe just maybe, this has something to do with the religion. Not only do the scriptures of Hindu advocate tolerance, peace and justice but several of it's rulers and leaders ( even beyond Gandhi) have practised it and set a standard. Can we say that about the Muslims, its religion and the practises of it's leaders? If we need answers that can solve problems then it is time we start to ask uncomfortable questions. As the Hindu's believe it might lead us to the path of truth and in turn peace!

    June 11, 2010 at 5:01 pm |
  5. b_upton

    The best solution to all these problems is to 1) Move away from all Religious leanings. It creates hate and division. 2) Judge individuals on their own merits not on the merits of someone who happens to share a cultural or genetic heritage. Talking about people as 'Muslims' or 'Christians' is just as pointless as discussing them as 'Black-haired people do this that or the other'. See people as they are not as a group. and 3) Do away with all religious leanings. I say this twice because religion is choking us on the bile on of it's sinful hatefulnes.

    June 11, 2010 at 5:01 pm |
  6. Fair and Friendly

    We Americans do indeed owe the peaceful people and nations of Islam the level of honor and respect we would ask for ourselves. However, I emphasize "peaceful". Nations that declare war on other nations and use terror to draw to itself attention and power, and by doing so exclaim that those who do not agree with them have no right to exist and will be killed unless they submit, have no right to exist. They are as much a threat to the world as a cancerous growth would be to your lung, breast, brain or prostrate. They must be removed at all costs. The longer you wait, the more good untainted flesh will have to be destroyed. You know this is true.

    June 11, 2010 at 5:01 pm |
  7. Leo

    And so the 400 pound man screams, "I'M NOT FAT! Look at the 600 pound man over there!"

    *rolls eyes*

    June 11, 2010 at 5:00 pm |
  8. PK

    George Bush has killed 700,00 Iraqis

    Aren't almost all the killings in Iraq the suicide bombers and other bombers that are all Muslims??? Maybe Bush led to the destabilization of the country but it is still the Muslims doing the killing there for the most part.

    June 11, 2010 at 5:00 pm |
  9. ETM

    Ash, there are moderate and even liberal Muslims all over the world. Consider that most Western Muslims do not even wear the traditional religious garb. But apparently you would not recognize them unless they wore signs saying "Moderate Muslim who opposes terrorism" on their chests.

    June 11, 2010 at 4:59 pm |
  10. Charles Ekakabor

    Welcoming Muslims is what the Europeans did, look at where it got them. In the U.K, they cannot even have anti terrorist protests any more because they have been cowered into submission. Let Muslims practice their religion, but, any American Muslim must accept separation of Mosque and State and if they want their children to wear Hijabs, perhaps, they should emigrate somewhere else.

    June 11, 2010 at 4:59 pm |
    • Leo

      So Muslim children can't wear their own religious symbols because of separation of church and state? Does that also mean that nuns can't wear their habits, priests can't wear their little white collars, Christians can't wear cross jewelery, and Jews can't wear yarmulkes?

      Do you have ANY idea what separation of church and state means? It means you get to wear whatever religious symbol you want, and practice whatever faith you want, and the government can NEITHER support your faith or prevent you from practicing it. You can't use tax money to fund your church, but the government won't tell you that you can't have a church. The government will not FORCE you to wear a cross necklace, but they will not prevent you from wearing it either. THAT is separation of church and state.

      Seriously, get a clue.

      June 11, 2010 at 5:04 pm |
    • be real

      @leo

      and what do u say about muslim women refusing to take off hijabs for Driver license photo..
      In India, they refuse to take them off even when they go to vote or board planes..so u dont whether its a woman or terrorist underneath the burqa..

      June 11, 2010 at 5:43 pm |
  11. Ash

    You only have to look at South Asia to understand how Muslims have virtually destroyed every Hindu, Buddhist and Jain temple of worship in their path over the last 1200 years and buiilt Mosques over them. And still continuing.. Taliban destroyed a 1000 year old Bamiyan structures a few years ago! Let me see a big new church or a Hindu temple being built in the Middle East/pakistan and then I will agree Muslims deserve rights here in US. Every Muslim I have ever met in US, including my neighbors, have complained that they are not getting treated right here in US, but these same people can't name a SINGLE instance where Islam has treated other religions right anywhere in the world! You get treated based on how you treat others! Why do practising Hindus, Jews or Buddhists in US never complain about US? Simply because they understand what living in harmony with other religions and cultures is and they love it here!

    June 11, 2010 at 4:56 pm |
    • Stan

      Ash – You are right. I tell the same thing to folks who don't know the real threat of Islam.

      June 11, 2010 at 4:59 pm |
    • Unknown

      Spain once had Jews, Muslims, and Christians living in peace before the Inquisition by Christians

      June 11, 2010 at 4:59 pm |
  12. Rob H.

    I wouldn't mind having muslims friends if 9/11 had not happened. Years before 9/11 I worked for a pakistani who's rich family came to study and visit the USA as they pleased, never, not once I heard them say anything better than the US was the Devil. That came from the young and old, males and females. And I must admit, I was treated very well and with respect.

    June 11, 2010 at 4:55 pm |
  13. Bobby Brady

    Nice article Frankie...I think you need to take some more advanced classes in sociology and multiculturalism before you begin to preach your stale media to everyone.
    Maybe your next field trip with the good professor should be to see how muslims in Yemen are destroying their entire country based on their religion....I doubt we will see you anywhere dangerous anytime soon though. Cake boy...

    June 11, 2010 at 4:54 pm |
  14. yeahyeah

    Your So Full of it..Why don't you go to Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and other Muslim coutries and see how
    tolerant they are of Christians...Oh that's right They are NOT!!!

    June 11, 2010 at 4:52 pm |
    • Neal Kelley

      I have... more then once.. and i am still alive.. not a scratch on me.. can you explain that?

      June 11, 2010 at 5:01 pm |
    • Neal Kelley

      Your hatred is fueled by our fear!!!!

      June 11, 2010 at 5:02 pm |
    • be real

      @neal kelly

      take ur wife or girl friend without a BURQA next time to saudi arabia and then talk about scratches...

      I'm from India, where we have seen them grow from 3% to 12% and its worse than just fear..

      and our Gandhi thought that our fears are baseless..wish he was alive to see them in ACTIOn now..

      June 11, 2010 at 5:29 pm |
    • rs1201

      How about a Jew in Saudi Arabia or any other arab country? Dubai would not even allow a Jewish athlete enter their country for the purpose of competing in international games. Arab countries are the worst offenders of civil rights and human rights and yet they're very quick to scream "injustice and discrimnation" when they find themselves in Western countries who are less than welcoming to them. Muslims in America should thank their lucky stars for being in as free a country as the USA is. With all that freedom, many amongst them seek to kill us and at times succeed in the most heinous of manners.
      So, stop trying to assuage Muslims. They should be on their knees asking for the world's forgiveness for all the pain and devastation they have inflicted on innocent men, women, and children.

      June 12, 2010 at 7:06 am |
  15. DRB

    When was the last time you saw a Jew, Christian, Catholic, Buddhist, Agnostic, atheist, etc..., strap on a bomb and blow up not only themselves, but others as well.

    Current teachings of Islam talk about jihad against enemies. Enemies to a Muslim are anyone that is not a Muslim. The Koran doesn't make a separation between the Militants and the Peaceful Followers of Islam.

    Everyone not a follower of Mohammed should be very wary of those that are. When they stop making headlines by terrorizing the rest of us, I'll be more open. Until then, I'd prefer Muslims not be my neighbor.

    June 11, 2010 at 4:52 pm |
    • Neal Kelley

      Christians.. well Jim Jones.. killed many people with poison Kool Aid. The Klu Klux Klan brand themselves as a Christian organization. The JDL.. ( Jewish Defense League has been involved in terrorist activities before. Shootings.. Bombings ). There are plenty of sources to site from.. Goodle them yourself and see... Look up Christian Terrorist.. and see for yourself.. before giving such a self righteous answer.

      June 11, 2010 at 4:58 pm |
  16. Neal Kelley

    I would like to say.. that religion is really defined by the person's belief. During the African Slave trade it was a widely held belief that slavery was sanctioned by God. Many Pastor found passages that was used to justify such inhuman treatment. This is not to say that Christianity is bad. It is the people that twist the beliefs into something bad. Islam and Muslims are not different. They have people that are motivated by greed and power that twist Islam into a tool that is used to justify inhuman treatment. That is not to say Islam is bad. There are good Muslims that respects the basic human rights of all people, Muslim or not. So when a person says that Islam is a bad religion or Muslims are evil. Or Muslims that say the same, remember you are looking in the face of a hypocrite.

    June 11, 2010 at 4:52 pm |
    • be real

      but christians fixed themselves, like they banned slavery, accepted equal rights etc..

      I dont see any light at the end of tunnel for muslims..

      if they ever achieve "tolerance" i'm sure they'll be given their due credit..

      muslims are lagging behind atleast by 300 years..

      June 11, 2010 at 4:57 pm |
    • Neal Kelley

      talk to other muslims.. interact... go to there functions.. and you will see.. how your views are founded in fear..

      June 11, 2010 at 5:00 pm |
    • wvgiant

      you are missing out the part of the koran that demands violence against non-muslims that refuse to convert. what other faith's text says the same? fact is, islam is a violent faith and you only need to read the koran to see the truth in that. by not speaking out, protesting, making waves, the moderate muslims are basically telling the rest of us that they are apathetic towards violent extremism. with respect, i don't think you are looking at the big picture and the truth of what the faith really stands for. they want to take over the world with their barbarous views and ridiculous rules.

      June 11, 2010 at 6:49 pm |
  17. wildman

    right on.

    June 11, 2010 at 4:51 pm |
  18. rob

    Until muslims publicly condemn the terrorist acts done by other muslims these fears and predjudices will remain. There is no difference in this than the beliefs about illegal immigrants or trouble in minority communities. The claims that certain groups are honest hard working people means nothing unless you are will to condemn and try to stop the opposite behaviour.

    June 11, 2010 at 4:50 pm |
    • SwissGuard

      Your definitly right there. But the problem is, the only ones that ARE speaking up are the ones who agree with it.

      June 11, 2010 at 4:52 pm |
  19. Ash

    This is a silly premise.. Where are the moderate Muslims? Why do those seemingly queit muslims in our communities turn into terrorists? Why is it the first opportunity Muslims get, they will turn every one else to Islam as they have done for centuries. Come to India and see the Hindus(yes, the majority Hindus!) terrorized in every neighborhood by Muslims! We have to blame Saudi Arabia for all the evil stemming from Islam. And who is biggest supporter of Saudis? America?

    I see no moderate voices of Islam anywhere in the world. Muslims complain about the anti-Islam sentiment, but the first chance they get they will turn a country into a Islamic state! The world is being too naive about Islam! Grow up! Go to Middle East, Pakistan and most Islamic countries and see what freedoms non-muslims are allowed there. Then decide what is fair for us Christians, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists to do with Islam and Muslims.. Turkey was one giood secular Muslim country and that too is now on the path of an Islamic theocracy. To all those Muslims that hate itb here in US, why stay here, let them simply go back to their wonderful Muslim lands!

    June 11, 2010 at 4:49 pm |
    • Unknown

      We have Christians in the US that want do away with separation of church and state, funny they want religion to be mingled in with politics like Iran

      June 11, 2010 at 4:52 pm |
    • savjic

      Well said,christians are told to love thy fellow man!! If a christian is smited he is told by his God'turn the other cheek! Islam teaches if your nieghbor does not willingly convert,he should be converted by the sword! Muslims say we make THEM nervous!!!! They should try our side of things,like sitting next to a muslim on an airplain! Now THAT'S nervous!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      June 12, 2010 at 10:58 pm |
  20. The Real Truth

    Has there ever been more pandering to a single group of people then to American Muslim? We are forced to say their views are valid as they shoot up our army bases, plan attacks on our military bases and attempt to set off bombs in the heart New York? All the while with the same breath threatening people with death for depicting one of their prophets in a cartoon show.

    The common response is always :Oh those Muslims are extremists:. Really? I don't care. They follow the same bible that you follow and sit in the same pews at church. Its a shadow Jihad and they get to use the extreme PC BS that our country has adopted to hide behind.

    Let a single southern baptist cut the head off of a 7 year old boy for being a spy and lets see how fast a call to shut down all baptist churches comes down the pike. Let a bunch of radical baptists blow up one of the shining examples of engineering in this country, kill 3000 plus people and then try to raise a church on that spot.

    It simply would be shouted down.

    But apparently naming your soldiers in your holy war as "extremists" shields you from all persecution if you are muslim.

    June 11, 2010 at 4:49 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.