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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. pathguy

    why aren't muslims more vocal about their opposition to terrorism? we don't hear their concern about women's rights? their silence about violence is not reassuring

    June 11, 2010 at 6:27 pm |
    • Contrarian

      What level of "vocal" qualifies as vocal?

      June 11, 2010 at 6:32 pm |
    • Nick

      HAVE YOU CONSIDERED THE FACT THAT THE JEWISH CONTROLLED US MEDIA DOESNT WANT TO PUBLISH THOSE LETTERS CONDEMNING IT.???? HAVE YOU?

      June 11, 2010 at 7:07 pm |
    • Yaser

      I am a Muslim. I hate terrorism. I hate people who are related to, perform, or love terror or terrorism. ("Mulsim" or "Non-Muslim") I hope this is sufficient and i wish that main-stream media would choose to cover more topics about Muslims denouncing terrorism rather than the few terrorists who support it.

      June 11, 2010 at 7:26 pm |
    • wvgiant

      jewish controlled media aside, does the muslim community rally for demonstrations? big, notable demonstrations? like at the capital? surely that would make news somewhere, there are media outlets not controlled by jews

      June 11, 2010 at 9:57 pm |
  2. birdhouse1964@yahoo.com

    Watch this.

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RxFzFIDbKpg&w=640&h=360]

    June 11, 2010 at 6:27 pm |
    • Gatortarian

      That guy is spot on.

      June 11, 2010 at 6:36 pm |
    • BIG J

      Interesting. I like that he didn't argue this "as a christian".

      June 11, 2010 at 6:47 pm |
    • wvgiant

      that is spot on..... thank you for posting that. I totally agree with everything that he said, muslims want to dominate the world with their brutal, intolerant and dehumanizing faith where women are inferior to men, smiling at us while loathing us in their hearts.

      June 11, 2010 at 9:54 pm |
    • Abd al-Latif

      "Good citizens in public, not-so-good citizens in private." "This is quite common." This is exactly the same thing that the Nazis said about the Jews. They said that the Jews act like your friends in public, but in private they are conspiring against your interests. Beliefs like that eventually justified the Holocaust. No, sir, I don't think you can say that Nabeel is a "bad citizen" who was happy about terrorist attacks, just because of a photoshopped picture! Utterly absurd. Did you bother to ASK Nabeel what he thinks about the 9/11 attacks? Did you bother to ASK him whether he's actually against this country? Just ridiculous, nonsense, garbage.

      June 12, 2010 at 1:41 pm |
  3. Maryanne

    J Gilmer: it is stupid people like you that make this country look bad and ignorant. I bet you don't even know anyone that comes from a different cultural background do you?

    June 11, 2010 at 6:24 pm |
    • J gilmer

      Maryanne: Good job jump back and call me stupid. Just what I was saying.. I am more than willing and have gone out of my way to welcome my Muslim neighbors, only to get a very cold shoulder. I've been around the world and experienced many different cultures and I must say, Islam has done nothing to assure me they really want to or even denounce extremist.

      June 11, 2010 at 6:47 pm |
  4. James

    This is just another CNN "puff piece"...very politically correct and predictable. I wish the Muslim-American community would spend as much time condeming their extremist bretheren as they do complaining about not being treated fairly.

    June 11, 2010 at 6:23 pm |
  5. ABBEY ROAD

    wow, the level of ignorance in some of these comments.
    Pointing fingers, categorizing, blaming, and segregating are some of this countrys favorite things to do.
    I mean honestly you could pin point/ single out any religion, race, creed etc. and make negative statements and focus on the negative acts comminted by the few bad apples.
    Get over it America..You are a "melting pot". Why waste your time criticising the ingredients? Your no better than the men, woman, and children your rubbing elbows with in everyday life.

    June 11, 2010 at 6:22 pm |
  6. J gilmer

    Muslims have done nothing to assure main stream Americans that thay have done everything they could to stop the nuts. Plain and simple, Americans don't trust you. Work harder to reach out and become a member of our society

    June 11, 2010 at 6:15 pm |
    • Nick

      UMM LETS SEE I KNOW TONS OF MUSLIMS THAT WRITE LETTERS CONDEMNING THE TERRORISTS. AND YOU KNOW HOW MANY GET PUBLISHED. Z E R O. DO YOU UNDERSTAND THAT NUMBER 0.0.0 THE US jEWISH MEDIA DOESNT WANT YOU TO KNOW THE TRUTH. THE US MEDIA IS 95 % OWNED BY JEWS. LOOK IT UP. WAKE UP MAN.

      June 11, 2010 at 7:05 pm |
  7. Maryanne

    I'm not a religious person but I believe in god. I actually prefer non religion churches. I also think the a lot of "religious" people think they are the ones who know the right way and yet judge others for not believing what they believe in and so on. That is mainly why religion in general is too ridiculous for me. With that said I also don't think that just because a group of people does something terrible it must mean that whole group is guilty. Anyone with common sense knows that's kind of absurd. I happen to have friends who are muslim and that does not mean they are terrorists! When is America going to stop judging everyone else and take a good look at themselves?If you're being hateful does that mean you're also a terrorist or belong to the KKK Klan? Do you see how stupid that sounds?

    June 11, 2010 at 6:15 pm |
    • wvgiant

      but I bet your muslim friends would want to convert you to islam if they could. they may or may not say it, but that is the goal of islam, to dominate the world and impose sharia law and customs on everyone, whether they openly say so or not. if you read the koran it's pretty evident that it's only peaceful if you are a muslim. if not, watch out, because they will put you to the sword. read= 0 tolerance for other people. this is not just some muslim's views, it's in their textbook.

      June 11, 2010 at 9:41 pm |
    • MeganColorado

      Maryanne, you are incredibly naiive. Read the Koran, the playbook on how to be a good Muslim. Then read the New Testament, the playbook on how to be a good Christian, and tell me if you see a difference. The rules are not at all the same. One looks surprisingly a lot like what you might see in a KKK playbook; the other truly does preach peace.

      June 14, 2010 at 12:02 pm |
  8. Brandon

    first of all, Islam is not a race so lets drop the whole racism thing. Second I challenge all of you to count all the people who murdered others in the name of Christianity in the last lets say 30 yrs. Now I want you to count how many people have murdered in the name of Islam. There is obviously a fundimental flaw in Islam that needs to be fixed.

    June 11, 2010 at 6:13 pm |
    • Contrarian

      Right, the same flaw that magically dissappeared from Christianity. Let's not forget, Christianity has no small part in the persecution of Jews in world history...all the way up to 1945.

      June 11, 2010 at 6:33 pm |
    • Nick

      DOES IT REALLY MATTER WHY PEOPLE KILL? AMERICA IS THE MURDER CAPITAL OF THE WORLD AND ITS NOT IN THE HANDS OF MUSLIMS. WAKE UP MAN. THE ONLY REASON WHY MUSLIMS DO WHAT THEY DO IS BECAUSE OF THE EVIL WEST THAT WANTS TO DICTATE HOW THEY SHOULD LIVE. BEFORE WE STARTED MEDDLING IN THEIR AFFAIRS THERE WAS NO 9/11 OR ANYTHING CLOSE. WAKE UP AMERICA. WE PROVOKE IT ALL. SURE LETS SEND ANOTHER BILLION DOLLARS TO ISRAEL TO KILL MORE PALESTINIANS--GET MY POINT !!!!!

      June 11, 2010 at 7:02 pm |
    • Brandon

      Exactly what I expected, lame arguments. First Nick, I am not even sure what you are trying to argue, just looks like a misguided rant to me. and Contrarian, that magical "disappearance" is called progression. Islam may want to try it. Explain this Jewish persecution to me a little more I must have totally missed that one.

      June 12, 2010 at 12:20 am |
  9. edthelionheart

    I think muslim will stay moderate as long as they are under population control. If there are more than 5% mulism population in a country, then muslim will start showing their true color like in any muslim country (intolerance towards other who don't share the same belief). So, I don't think muslim believe in co-existence with other religion since their true agenda is a global domination. Does Islam teaches give the right check when someone slap your left cheek? No, Islam teaches retribution of 10 times folds if non-muslim ever offend or hurt a muslim. It's in the Quran. What a muslim father will do if his daughter says she converts to other religion? He would not say "I love your anyway", but disown her for betrayal or even kill her in the name of Islam.

    June 11, 2010 at 6:12 pm |
    • unknown1

      could not agree more with you! tooo Bad some ignorant ppl still think there are good muslims and bad muslims.

      June 11, 2010 at 6:22 pm |
    • tuskegee

      "I think muslim will stay moderate as long as they are under population control. If there are more than 5% mulism population in a country, then muslim will start showing their true color like in any muslim country (intolerance towards other who don't share the same belief). "

      starting to sound a little bit like eugenics, which is very "American" after all.

      June 11, 2010 at 7:13 pm |
  10. Salam Seba

    Note...our founding fathers did not have to deal with Suicide Bombers. Had they, their perspectives on Islam might have been strikingly opposite.

    June 11, 2010 at 6:12 pm |
  11. Ed

    Islam is not America's enemy. Ignorance about Islam is...
    When you are ignorant about a group of people, you fear them. And when you fear a group of people you stop seeing them as people. And when you stop seeing them as people, it becomes very easy to fight and kill them. Muslims know two America's: one through the lens of a movie camera which speaks of a fantasy world where everything is cool and one through the images of war and death. It's time for real Americans and real Muslims to recognize one another for their humanity that unites them. They will both be amazed at how fundamentally human they all are.

    June 11, 2010 at 6:12 pm |
    • Darth Vader

      islam is an enemy to all free thinking people.

      June 11, 2010 at 6:15 pm |
  12. NorCalMojo

    If muslims want to improve their reputation, they should turn in the militants before they do any damage.

    We've heard this song too many times before. All it does is make muslims seem two-faced.

    The Fort Hood shooter was pretty vocal about his views. The people at his mosque saw it coming, but they kept their mouths shut. His fellow worshippers did more damage to the reputation of Islam than the shooter himself. America can accept a lone wolf going crazy, but when his hate is nurtured by hist community, we take notice. If people refuse to police their own, they can't complain when others do it for them. If America sees muslims actively trying to fix the problem in their community, our perceptions will change. Right now we don't. We see PR.

    Lip service doesn't cut it anymore.

    June 11, 2010 at 6:12 pm |
  13. Time To Reset

    We need a world guided by intellect and reason, not by delusional deity worship. For this reason, the universe has decided that your planet must be reset. We are sorry for any inconvenience this may cause.

    June 11, 2010 at 6:10 pm |
    • Contrarian

      Unfortunately, deity worship is kind of hard-wired into this species.

      June 11, 2010 at 6:35 pm |
  14. David

    You don't have to be Muslim. Change religions. It is a big lie anyway that Muhammad pulled out of thin air.

    June 11, 2010 at 6:09 pm |
  15. jeff

    All religions must die if people our to continue to live.

    June 11, 2010 at 6:08 pm |
    • pathguy

      agree. simple and true

      June 11, 2010 at 6:30 pm |
  16. Reagan

    Muslims have many violent believers. Christians are really no better. Look at the message boards on CNN alone to see the hate posted by Christians. Before the Christians cast judgments on the evil Muslims, take a look at your own religion. You try just as much as Muslims do to write Christianity law. Both your religions are guilty of murder. Your hands are just as bloody as Muslims.

    June 11, 2010 at 6:07 pm |
    • Paul

      WHERE?!?!?! Where is Christianity killing people today? 1000 years ago? Maybe. We are not talking about the Old Testament (Judea, c.890AD) We are talking about 2010. Tell me ONE instance where a suicide bomber killed someone in the name of Jesus....And Tim McVeigh was an atheist, BTW.

      June 11, 2010 at 6:16 pm |
    • NorCalMojo

      If you live in the 16th century, this might true. If you live in the 21st, it's idiocy.

      June 11, 2010 at 6:20 pm |
    • pathguy

      religion is the root of all evil

      June 11, 2010 at 6:31 pm |
    • Contrarian

      Comparing Christianity to Islam misses the point. It's like comparing Catholicism to the Westboro Baptists Church in Kansas.

      Christianity has been developed in the west mostly. And a good portion of the west (Europe and the Americas) benefitted quite immensely from the renaissance, industrial revolution, colonialism, and democratic political evolution. That is what civilized Christianity, it was not as inherently peaceful as it tends to be now. WIthout explaining why Christianity is calm now, and wasn't calm before, you can't simply make apple to oranges comparison with Islam. Most Islamic countries have not benefitted from any of this. They went from essentially 12th C doctrine and were shoved into being colonies, and then subsequently became nation-states that are supposed to become modern and secular. These ideas that make the west so secular did not ferment in Muslim countries.

      In short, there are a lot of reasons why Christianity developed philosophically in the west, but Islam has not. Hence you got your archaic mindsets. YOu cannot expect people to pick up, understand, and respect your way of seeing things just because we've got Twitter and Google. In fact, all the stuff that seems "right" in your world today became so only quite recently.

      The best reminder of the flaws of western civilization is WW II and Nazi Germany. One of the most advanced, educated European nations with a rich history (and contribution) to philosophy, science, humanities, music and much more.... became the nation guilty of systematically slaughtering millions of human beings in an almost cold rational exercise. To me, that sends far more shivers down my back than Osama Bin Laden.

      June 11, 2010 at 6:46 pm |
    • Rob

      This is 2010 not 1197

      June 11, 2010 at 7:24 pm |
  17. Scott

    The public face of Islam in America is quite different from the one that is held in private in their own communities and mosques. Publicly, they espouse peace and tolerance. "We are a religion of peace", they say. Really? Yet privately, they cling stubbornly to the beliefs of the Quran and Shia law and wish "privately" to impose their beliefs on others. If you are a "non-believer" then you are less than human and you deserve to die. They want to do exactly what the Quran teaches them to do. Looking at what is going on the the Middle East should tell you exactly their motives.

    June 11, 2010 at 6:07 pm |
    • unknown1

      well said!

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

      OK SCOTT THE ROCKET SCIENTIST. SO I GUESS THE 50,000 MURDERS THAT TAKE PLACE IN AMERICA EVERY YEAR AT THE HANDS OF NON MUSLIMS ARE WHAT. SAINTS. YOUR AN IDIOT. SCOTT. WE ARE THE AGGRESSORS HERE.

      June 11, 2010 at 6:58 pm |
    • wvgiant

      wow, nick, what a broad generalization.... how many of those 50,000 murders are committed in the name of their "god"?? you are showing your lack of intelligence with that silly statement... life in society as large as ours is complex and there are countless reasons why these murders were committed, you cannot use that argument to bolster your position. come on, give me a break man....

      June 11, 2010 at 9:32 pm |
  18. Darth Vader

    The only true religion is The Force. The ability to kill dozens of people, along with your own dumb @ss using suicide tactics pales in comparison to The Force.

    June 11, 2010 at 6:05 pm |
    • wvgiant

      thanks for the chuckle

      June 11, 2010 at 9:27 pm |
  19. JesseN

    The idea of who Muslims are here in America isn't always correct. The majority of them are very kind and open-minded people and are against the radical extremism. I've got a couple Muslim friends and they always speak out against terrorists, it's just that the media never shows moderate Muslims speaking up, and shows only what the extremists are doing and saying.

    June 11, 2010 at 6:03 pm |
    • unknown1

      yeah right blame it on the media....u either are a muslim or you certainly don't know who your friends are!Ever went to a mosque on a friday and watch your buddies listening to the preachers of hate.....then you would know it all!

      June 11, 2010 at 6:10 pm |
    • Nick

      I THINK JESSE IS THE ONLY ONE ON THIS BOARD THAT HAS A BRAIN !!! YOUR COMMENT IS VERY MUCH APPRECIATED.

      June 11, 2010 at 6:56 pm |
  20. Unknown

    This board has ethnocentrism at its worst

    June 11, 2010 at 6:01 pm |
    • unknown1

      and you know where it all started from.....from a five letter word called ISLAM!

      June 11, 2010 at 6:06 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.