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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. jack

    all this study and research will not take the world anywhere better....the muslims would not change.....they had been,,,are and always would remain extremists...the only difference between a moderate and an extremist muslim is that the moderate is just waiting for the right time and the opportunity...he is just more smarter then the extremist but he harbours the same ideology and hate for non-muslims.I can tell from my experience...I have many muslim friends and when you talk about the extremists they just say ohh u know what "US should not have gone into Iraq,Afghanistan...US should not back Israel blah blah blha...but they never once condemn the violence that their fellow muslim brother do in the name of God....If God had a way of coming out and speak to the mankind I m sure the first thing he would do is disown ISLAM as a religion and tell what happens to these preachers when they rot in hell! seriously they are disgusting and a blot on mankind...the world would be so much better without them!

    June 11, 2010 at 5:59 pm |
    • Nick

      ARE YOU SURE YOUR NAME IS NOT JACK ASS?

      June 11, 2010 at 6:55 pm |
  2. michael Quinn

    Shame on you. You are not worthy to call Americans.... looser

    June 11, 2010 at 5:58 pm |
  3. Doug NYC

    PLEASE READ THE ISLAMIC HOLY BOOKS, and
    THEN try to discuss the "bad image" Muslims have in America.

    The ISLAMIC HADITHS tell CLEARLY that Mohammed was
    FIFTY-ONE YEARS OLD when he married a SIX YEAR OLD GIRL.
    Mohammed was a CHILD MOLESTER.

    He was also a MASS MURDERER, a quality actually
    ENCOURAGED and ADMIRED in him.
    Sickening.

    Gee, I wonder why Muslims have a bad image?
    Maybe it's because they worship a a
    CHILD MOLESTING MASS MURDERER.

    Some of them even KILL for the worship of Mohammed!

    Why don't they talk about their "bad image" at MOSQUE on Friday,
    with all the OTHER PEDOPHILE WORSHIPPERS?

    June 11, 2010 at 5:56 pm |
    • Nick

      before you start spreading lies regarding the prophet perhaps you should dig into your own religion. there are countless facts regarding Jewish and Christian leaders, priests etc being pedophileS. In fact its happening every day here in AMERICA. AND ITS 2010 YOU FOOL !!!!

      June 11, 2010 at 6:54 pm |
    • wvgiant

      come on, nick.... you are talking about specific religious individuals that are abusing people, not about the almighty mohammed that created the basis of this faith. I am not religious at all, I personally think all religions are silly and come from a time of ignorance about the reality of the universe and these religions were created to explain things that everyone was too ignorant to understand. Personally, I think anyone that believes in any religion is too afraid to look at reality. But! Jesus wasn't a mass murderer pedophile like mohammed..... give me a break!

      June 11, 2010 at 9:19 pm |
    • Frank Rizzo

      Well-stated Doug.
      If there was no Islam on Earth, the world would be a MUCH BETTER and MUCH SAFER place.
      What contributions have we as a world gotten from MUSLIMS anyway? Cricket? IED's? Suicide vests? Camels? Shoe-bombers?

      June 11, 2010 at 9:20 pm |
    • Ashik

      Correction, her age was not 6, she was 9 when prophet married her. Please read below to understand why Prophet married her.
      Prophet Mohammed married for the first time when he was 25 years old, The first woman he married "Khadijah" was 40 Years old, already married twice before him and had children. He stayed married to her alone for 25 Years until she died, He stayed single after her death for two years in grief and mourning over her death. He was then 52 years old.
      From 52 till 60, he married several times for politcal and social reasons.
      After two years of living single, he married "Sawdah", an 80 year old widow in order to honor her becuase she was the first widow in Islam. NOT AN ACT OF A LUSTFUL MAN after a long period of single life.
      So the conclusion we can extract from the above is
      1- Mohammed the man married Khadijah
      2- Mohammed the Prophet married rest of his wives
      BUT was Mohammad the only prophet to have multipe wives? NO, Polygamy was norm at the times of Ibrahim, Dawood, Solayman all known in the bible to have been polygamists.

      "Aaishah" was 9 years old when Prophet married her. Aaishah, was the most knowldegeable person when it comes to the daily life of the Mulsim and how it should go as was lived by the prophet himself. But how come he married her when she was only nine years old? First: The desert climate asnwers to that. In such environment Girls reached menstruation very young. Not only in Arabia, but also in Roma and persia, girls were married that young. Second: To spread the culture through eyewitnesses with all the details known only to intimate people. Aaishah, being so young, was able to tell all those details to the Muslims for more than 42 years. She had seen and learned so much from him. Her young age was a great advantage in this respect. She could tell what the Prophet used to do or say in all aspects of life, so that people do and say the same in the same situations.

      June 13, 2010 at 1:47 am |
  4. Rob

    Come on people. This isn't a religion it is a Hypocritical World Wide Terrorist Organization that lives in the dark ages. Any one that thinks this is a peaceful religion is Severely Misled. Give me a break and open your eyes to the Travesties this organization under the disguise of Allah the most merciful has caused this planet... Friggin joke

    June 11, 2010 at 5:55 pm |
  5. Surthurfurd

    This is an excellent article. What it means to be an American is best shown in this article, the ability to perpetually seek personal and cultural growth. There is no characteristic that better defines us than this.

    June 11, 2010 at 5:51 pm |
  6. EasyGoing

    Where to start? Yes, there are a lot of religions in America and many different beliefs concerning all sorts of ideas. However, the last I checked not one of these groups crashed planes into buildings filled with innocent people and then danced as news of the attack was broadcast. Oh, and then there is the call for Americas death and chants of Death to America. So why are you surprised when Americans want nothing to do with you? Why are you surprised when Americans want islam and muslims out of America. Killing 3000 innocent people and vowing death to America will have that effect.

    June 11, 2010 at 5:50 pm |
  7. Seville

    Under Islam 50% of humanity is a slave of the other half. There is no way to change this as there is no way to change anything written in the Quran. I've never heard a muslim clearly state that men and women are equal, hence no polygamy no forced marriages, same right to travel, to inherit etc. How can the right to oppress others be supported or allowed in any free country? Aren't Human Rights above any religious principles?

    June 11, 2010 at 5:50 pm |
  8. caleb

    the founding fathers weren't tolerant...they were slave holding white men- god bless america

    June 11, 2010 at 5:49 pm |
    • Gary

      dont forget native indian massacurring ,gun slinging ,rebels from England..

      June 11, 2010 at 5:54 pm |
    • Gatortarian

      So we should bring back slavery? Some Muslims do still have slaves after all. Nice argument.

      June 11, 2010 at 6:18 pm |
  9. OK_Overknowledge

    YOU should study your history Joseph! Study your history about Crusades, about the torture the Jewish people were in during Christian Rule. The Roman Catholic Church stated that to war against the "Infidels" was an act of Christian penance. If a believer was killed during a crusade, he would bypass purgatory, and be taken directly to heaven. Christians’ were forced to go to war for the sake of the Pope! WOW, SEEMS like history repeats itself...just with a different religion and a different Religious leaders “So called” Islamic Imams! Learn about how the Jews and Muslims were treated when the Christians overtook Jerusalem during the Crusades! Learn about Salauddin, Learn about King Richard.

    Learn about the Golden Age of Jewish Culture in Spain, which lasted from around 700 AD to 1492. An Era where Jewish cuslture was at its prime in the AD era. An era where Muslims and Jews and Christians co-existed as peacefully as possible and accomplished GREAT things in Art, Science, you name it! This era came to an end during the Age of Christian Spain when the Edict of Expulsion was issued by the Catholic Monarchs Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. During this era, ALL Jews and Muslims were forced to convert or die!
    The Jews were NOT persecuted in the hands of Muslims for over a thousand years. Lets reflect this to now: Many people living today have witnessed and even were part sort of acts of intolerance The Nazi regime and the massacre of Jews happened in the lives of most grandparents or parents, the Segregation and cruelty against Blacks in America happened in our lives and our parents, now: the Terrorist acts by so-called Muslims happening now! Its like guys! You all got along fine! What the heck went wrong?!?!
    Now in this Era, So called Muslims are promoting evil in the world by hurting the innocent distorting the words by Quoting Hadiths Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim which were written 200 yrs AFTER Mohammad and the revelation of the Quran.
    If anyone believes that one Religion tops another is wrongfully mistaken. It is not the teachings of Jesus, Moses, Mohammad, Confucius, or any other pious person that causes such evil and hatred, it is you that creates this because humans, as you can see from this forum and throughout history LOVE to hate! Read the Bible, read the Quran, read the Tanak ( the Old Testament which includes the Torah) all in their entirety. Read the Baghavad Gita, Teachings of Confucious! After you created a solid foundation, then consider hating another person....it will not happen because in order for these religions to have reached such vasteness....evil was abolished. ALSO: People would then focus on the similarities rather than the differences.
    Now I get why people are so evil, pople are just lazy to learn the reality of things but instead only require a glimpse to make a hasteful and potentially deadly decision : But no onese will go study the roots of anything.

    June 11, 2010 at 5:48 pm |
    • Paul

      your argument is basically this: 800 years ago Christians were bad so we're all the same today! WAKEUP! NO Christian today (And NO, NOT Timothy McVeigh) kills in the name of Jesus. EVERY...SINGLE...DAY people across the world are being killed in the name of the 'prophet' of this 7th century death cult. And no muslim leader, (emir, sheik, imam, premier, prime minister, et al.) stands up to decry the 'highjacking' of the 'religion of peace'. They support and sponsor these killings because it furthers their dominant agenda, that is, to spread Islam throughout the world and make allah's religion superior over all others. And to the poster that said it is not fair to paint all members of an ideology with one broad brush, would you so defend Nazis?

      June 11, 2010 at 6:09 pm |
    • Rob

      This is year 2010 not 1197.

      June 11, 2010 at 6:11 pm |
    • Gatortarian

      Nicely written and accurate. The problem is that we are dealing with now, and that means the Muslims.

      June 11, 2010 at 6:12 pm |
  10. Jesse

    The only peaceful religion in this world is Buddhism and Hinduism..All others preach Violence!

    June 11, 2010 at 5:47 pm |
    • Ligaya

      You havent heard or seen in the news about Hindu mobs in India burning Christian churches? raping Catholic nuns? beating and killing Christians? Though there is also a long time conflict between Hindus and Muslims in India.

      June 11, 2010 at 6:53 pm |
  11. Apeman

    Ash sounds like you're the hater and will probably end up as your name....asshes...

    June 11, 2010 at 5:45 pm |
  12. AGuest9

    Sorry, it's very difficult to look at a religion that was involved with the extermination of 3,000 lives in this country in one day with any objective point of view.

    June 11, 2010 at 5:45 pm |
  13. Apeman

    Does anyone know of a Anti-Islam movement in the US that I could join?

    June 11, 2010 at 5:44 pm |
  14. Unknown

    What about Canadian Muslims?

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

    KUDOS for this article and a big go to hell to the haters.

    June 11, 2010 at 5:43 pm |
    • Dante

      Umm....sorry to bug you, but I think you dropped your MuslimFirst agenda over there; yeah that's it...right next to your Sharia Manual.

      June 11, 2010 at 5:58 pm |
    • Ando R

      Dante need a hug.

      June 11, 2010 at 6:44 pm |
  16. MeterNYC

    This is the most awful writing I think I have ever read on CNN. It reads like a naive high-schooler's Sociology essay.

    June 11, 2010 at 5:43 pm |
    • Ando R

      Completely agree! It drags a lot and I am pretty sure it could be reduced to about 3 paragraphs.

      June 11, 2010 at 6:27 pm |
  17. Chuck

    Why is it that Muslim religion is respected in public schools and Christianity is not. Required head scarfs, shawls, etc. are tolerated but prayer is not. Eliminate all facets of religion across the board. If this is not to the liking of Muslims, they should attend a private school. The double standard of bending over backwards for the aggressive, oppressive religion of Islam (Eastern Europe, Spain, Jerusalem, etc.) is getting old.

    June 11, 2010 at 5:42 pm |
  18. Fred from Canada

    I totally agree with you – NORTH AMERICA has to wake up and react now. KICK THEM OUT !

    June 11, 2010 at 5:42 pm |
    • AmeriCanadian

      I concur. Islam is the enemy of free speech, women's rights, gay rights, secular governments, sanity, modern societies etc. Hence, it is OUR ENEMY. I will not, as a woman, cover my head or my body if I do not want to. I will not allow any man to control me. I will NOT allow Sharia Law in my country!

      June 11, 2010 at 8:43 pm |
  19. AreyouSerious

    Once WWII had reached its second year, white people around the world decried fascism and the theories of racial superiority associated with a few white extremists who reached power. Muslims have not reacted the same nine years after the World Trade Center was brought down. Most Muslims certainly don't support Osama Bin Laden and Al Queda, but they are not his or its most vocal critics. I thought it was a universal concept that a traitor is worse than an enemy.

    June 11, 2010 at 5:39 pm |
  20. Apeman

    ETM...don't you need to go pray or something. Frankie, looks like you ready to leave one freakshow for another.

    June 11, 2010 at 5:38 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.