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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. John Spurlock

    Islam is about as true a religon as Nazisim. In fact, the two bear many similarities. First a twisting of other, established religions to suit the needs of a limited ethnic group. Second, a fanatical hatred of not only Jews, but of any on they deem "inferior", which coincidentially means everyone who doesn't believe, live and look like they do. Third, they both believe in using force to get what they want, and that the lives of others are expendable if they stand in the way of their goals. Fourth, and finally, they both believe in world domination, the Nazi's wanted to take over the world and eliminate all who they didn't like, and so do the Muslims.

    2 ideaologies, both based on hate and intolerence. Frankly, they make the KKK look like the ACLU!

    One other thing they have in common, they both disgust me!

    June 11, 2010 at 5:37 pm |
    • WX4SNO

      right on John! That's exactly what I've been saying...just as the Nazi's were the threat during the mid-20th century, Islam is the threat here in the 21st century. I don't trust them, and frankly if people cared about this country, everyone would see how they want to destroy what it was built upon...our founding fathers would be ashamed of how we've became so lax about things...we're not doing enough to protect our citizens and our way of life. Until we decide to wake up in this country and do something about the moral and social attacks, we'll keep putting up with all this...

      June 11, 2010 at 5:54 pm |
  2. JFH

    it is wrong to generalize about any group. To say muslims have not condemned terrorism and act of violence is not the truth. Muslim groups always condemn terrorism and imams all over the world do it all the time. To say muslims want sharia law is also not the truth, only 3 muslims coutries use sharia law, which makes 90% of the muslim coutries secular. Muslims in general have conservative life style and values but not fundamental or radical. only tiny number of muslims have radical and extreme beliefs. Most muslims do not agree and often condemn the extremists. Muslims coutries are the first target for these groups, and the vast majority of their victims are muslims and not non-muslims. Muslims in America are hard working, honest, freedom loving people, who want to live in peace and contribute to the greatness of this country, I know many muslims and everyone I know fits that description. I know of no muslim who hates America and want to engage in violence. It is wrong to paint all muslims with one paint brush. get to know a muslim and judge for yourself and you will be surprised!!

    June 11, 2010 at 5:36 pm |
    • Dante

      Was this the canned-response to be handed out to Infidels you picked up at the local Mosque? You are wasting your time with this jingoistic nonsense nowadays. People are not going to buy this "peace-loving Muslim" pablum anymore. The genie is out of the bottle and there's no putting him back with these p.r. release, boilerplate, fantasy filled canned speeches.

      June 11, 2010 at 5:53 pm |
    • MeganColorado

      To JFH: Have to agree with Dante here. Please read the Koran and explain exactly how many verses need to be omitted before you can be called a “moderate Muslim.” And while you are at it, could you please define an “extremists.” After reading the Koran, the definition of an “extremists” would be the individual who simply follows the teachings of the Koran. You obviously haven’t taken the time to read the Koran. If you had, you would never, ever post this naive comment. Simply put, the New Testament teaches its followers how to be a “good” Christian, and the Koran teaches its followers how to be a good “Muslim.” Read both and see if you can see the difference.

      June 14, 2010 at 3:51 pm |
  3. Myoho Mod

    The big 3 from the middle east will be the death of humanity. All three should be taxed out of existance

    June 11, 2010 at 5:29 pm |
  4. am

    All the religions found in the world, they have roots going back thousands of years. They were rooted and developed according to conditions, needs, thinking and at certain point environment at those times. As, conditions changed, needs changed, people changed, their thinking changed. but the religoins they are the same. We are still following those old rules(which became religion eventually). Every religion needs reform. Some to lesser extent and some needs more drastic ones. We just need to remember that we as a human beings have bigger challenges than just fight among each other over how to dress, how to pray or what to eat at what time etc. Just imagine how much time, energy and human lives are saved by just not fighting over these issues and we can focus more on issues like GW, carbon emission, deforestation(the list goes on and on...)

    June 11, 2010 at 5:28 pm |
  5. Jon

    Unfortunately there are radicals on both sides, but we have to consider some facts here. The United States was attacked by muslim terrorists on 9/11 and thousands of innocent people were killed. Our leaders have not moved to protect our borders, terrorists can easily walk accross the Mexican border into the United States. We are well aware there are terrorists cells here in the United States now just waiting for the right time to attack again. Citizens of this country cannot trust muslims for many reasons since we are at war with muslim countries. I don't know about you, but if I had a muslim living near me I would naturally be a little concerned. We cannot read minds, we can only count on our law enforcement community to do their jobs. What are we supposed to do? Just wait around until one of these terrorists decides to set off a bomb in one of our cities? I know, speaking for myself, I do not hate all muslims. I hate the ones with the intent to kill Americans. How do we find out which ones they are?

    June 11, 2010 at 5:26 pm |
  6. Renwick

    I , too, am saddened that I no longer feel forgiving and tolerant towards this sect. I was in the airport last week and there was an Islamic looking individual, complete with head gear, working for the TSA, scanning bags. It gave me quite a turn. If they want to be accepted, then get rid of the religious garb. Not just this faith, but others, too. No one wants to know what you are, so I see it as advertising...look at me...see what faith i am. Frankly, I don't give a damn.

    June 11, 2010 at 5:23 pm |
    • Fred from Canada

      I would have wrote a complaint letter to the airlines explaining their customer service agent personalised her uniform via her headgear and you felt it was not right. In the name of ISLAM they can do anything and violate everything. We must stop sitting around and saying nothing. Refused to be served by anyone wearing their headscarfs – lodge a formal complaint! Do you think youd see a "born again christian" being allowed to wear a huge cross around her neck over her uniform? The airlines would not say something concerning their dress code via a cross? Then why is it acceptable and permitted for them to openly defy our culture. We MUST RISE UP and not tolerate them anymore.

      June 11, 2010 at 5:52 pm |
  7. Gatortarian

    One question Frankie , could a woman have traveled with you to all those Muslim countries and be treated the same as you were?

    Didn't think so.

    June 11, 2010 at 5:23 pm |
  8. Apeman

    I just don't understand how anyone with common sense who tries to defend the ignorant religion of Islam.

    June 11, 2010 at 5:22 pm |
    • ETM

      And Christianity is not "ignorant"? You don't think its fairy tales are as unreal as Islam's?

      June 11, 2010 at 5:24 pm |
  9. GodIsLove

    God is Love.

    June 11, 2010 at 5:20 pm |
  10. Doug

    I'm not a muslim. I am in the military and I have worked with and I have respect for muslims,christians, athiests and jews and other religions. I think most Americans have nothing against Muslims but against the radicalized people who seek to subjugate all other people and religions to their archaic interpretation of Islam. The ones that profess their love of bin Laden and his kind that are in America need to leave. If you don't like America, leave. If you're a citizen who hates America, renounce your citizenship and leave. It's that simple. You don't have to be here. This country was founded on religious freedoms and they should be respected as should diversity.

    June 11, 2010 at 5:17 pm |
  11. Kay

    Until more Muslim leaders speak out against suicide bombings and attacks on innocent people, other cultures will regard Muslims with some uneasiness.

    June 11, 2010 at 5:16 pm |
  12. Cynical Randy

    Yeah...Jefferson, eh? Well, did Muslims crash anything into his home at Monticello??

    June 11, 2010 at 5:14 pm |
  13. Romeo

    I am a 1st generation, Syrian christian, born in the US, proud of it and thankful for it. My family and others from the same region in Syria left for financial and religious freedom. My grandmother would tell me stories from her childhood of how christians were harassed at best and killed worst, with little to no intervention from the so called "authorities". Many times, I have traveled back to the native land of my family and although Syria is a very secular country, most of the time I could feel the non spoken animosity towards non muslims and especially Americans.

    June 11, 2010 at 5:14 pm |
  14. ETM

    Over just the last century, the West has killed and victimized more Muslims than the other way around. You Muslim haters should learn a little history. Try reason, or you are no better than the most fanatical Muslim or adherent of any other religion. And understand that Islam is protected to the same extent as any other religion in this country.

    June 11, 2010 at 5:13 pm |
    • Joesph

      Don't froget the 1 million Christan Armeains that were murdered by the muslims.

      June 11, 2010 at 5:27 pm |
  15. Unknown

    There are extremist Christians in the US (Fred Phelps), its religion that causes these extremist views

    June 11, 2010 at 5:13 pm |
    • Paul

      yes. good point. Fred Phelps (who, while disgusting, has committed exactly zero acts of physical violence and is thouroughly renounced by all right-thinking Americans, both religious and secular) vs. the Muslim terrorists that have killed tens of thousands since 9/11. Your logic is breathtakingly awesome.

      June 11, 2010 at 7:23 pm |
  16. Trisha - San Diego

    In 1988, my daughter was in 6th grade. Every June her school had an end of the year picnic in the early evening on the playground grass. One of her classmates asked me to take her since her parents would not be coming. I had known this child for years. I knew her mom wore a head scarf but, in those days, that meant nothing to me. I happily agreed. However, my daughter's friend called me up in tears to tell me her parents would not let her go. I was a girl scout leader, soccer coach and class room volunteer. Not someone you would normally worry about your child being with, especially at a school function.
    Years later, after 9-11, I saw this young woman on a LA TV station, She is a spokesperson for a Muslim group. She was just as beautiful, articulate and intelligent as I would have expected her to be. And she too wore a head scarf. It was in that moment that I realized that her parents' refusal to allow her to attend that picnic was, perhaps, more than over-protectiveness. Perhaps it was a rejection of even such an unthreatening social interaction outside their community. How do we invite them "to enter the mainstream" when even the girl scout leader is viewed as a potential source of moral pollution?
    My heart ached for that little girl so many years ago. It still does.

    June 11, 2010 at 5:09 pm |
  17. ETM

    Apparently, SG, you have no idea of the last 30 years or so of American history, in which the religious right has waged an unrelenting war on secularism, women's rights, gay rights, and education. Consider how they have corrupted the education system in TX now or how they constantly try to feed our kids idiotic ideas like young Creationism. Or the threats and occasional violence against abortion clinics, etc.

    June 11, 2010 at 5:09 pm |
  18. Anne

    My personal experience here in America with avowed Muslims has been admittedly very limited. One casual acquaintance was very nice; one college-age female co-worker literally suddenly disappeared after being kidnapped by her parents and moved across the continent for the "sin" of seriously dating an American, non-Muslim college boy; and one supervisor from Pakistan, who married an American woman to gain U.S. citizenship, made our subordinate jobs an unexaggerated hell with his constant hypocritical preaching ("it is my duty to save you") and his complete inability to deal well with educated, liberal American females. I have studied and loved a wide range of scripture and sacred poetry, but cannot begin to understand the Koran. Like all religions, I think the original person identified with the religion was, in fact, enlightened, but their followers inevitably misunderstand and thus corrupt their teachings. That's why it's important to think for yourself and find God where "He" unquestionably exists: within your own self.

    June 11, 2010 at 5:08 pm |
  19. Ligaya

    I wish that the United States of America will not be like Great Britain for implementing sharia law in this country. No to sharia law. If Muslims live in the US they should follow the American law. If they cant live with that then they have to decide whether to continue living here or go back to a country where sharia law is the rule of land but please dont enforce it to us.

    June 11, 2010 at 5:07 pm |
  20. kathie

    As Jewish Americans will tell you, their synagogues were firebombed (Atlanta and others), they were denied jobs, kids beat up at school and spit on, hung from trees in the south by the KKK, not allowed to check in to hotels, denied admissions to colleges and there were "restricted" neighborhoods that would not sell to them or rent to them. Did the Jews who came to America and experienced discrimination and hatered look at each other and say "Why don't we become terrorists and blow up a building or strap a bomb to ourselves and highjack a plane?"

    NO THEY DID NOT! Instead they kept their heads down, stuck together to help each other, worked hard, made their own colleges and pushed their kids to become PROUD AMERICANS, he kind who saw themselves as part of the American people who happen to be Jewish and go to a synagogue instead of a Church.

    I am sick of Muslims saying they are discriminated against and that BECAUSE Americans are worried about their "true intentions", they have no choice but to create home grown terrorists. BULL!

    Muslims are terrorists because they chose to be. They hate the West, America, Jews, Israel, women, Christians, everything that isn't Islam and follows Sharia law.

    WAKE UP AMERICA. Israel has been dealing with this for 40 years. Now, because America didn't support Israel in the beginning when the PLO and Arafat highjacked planes (they started the whole things in the 70's for those too young to remember) and kidnapped people who were held for YEARS, now America is going to suffer the same as Israel until the Muslims get their way and take over or we stand with Israel and the few countries in Europe who are waking up to the uncomfortable reality that Muslims believe that ANY country with Muslims living in it is a MUSLIM COUNTRY and should follow Sharia law.

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

      You are grossly misinformed and ignorant. I am sorry but people like you are the reason we are here now, please be quiet and let rational people solve our problems.

      Anyone in this country has the right to fight discrimination regardless of their race or religion. Get used to it you racist demagogue wannabe. You see, the true problem with the world is we are forced into believing we must take the good with the bad. We freely let evil people roam the world in any country and spew hatred and pray on fear, yet for some reason good rational people are denounced. It is a screwed up fallacy we live in and in America it is especially true. I can call President Obama a devil, a raghead, but if I sit down and use logic and decide if I like his methods or ideals, I am the bad person. So you see, the main problem here is we have too many ignorant irrational people being led by manipulative evil people. It doesn't help society at all, and as the good rational people know, ignorance is bliss for most of America.

      How about we shut up and leave Muslims here alone and worry about the terrorists in the Middle East and abroad? It seems we are incapable of bypassing fear and poor logic.

      June 11, 2010 at 6:44 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.