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What I Learned About America from Visiting 100 Mosques

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Over the last two years I have been on an extraordinary journey. As a member of a research team accompanying American University's Chair of Islamic Studies, Akbar Ahmed, I have visited over 75 US cities and 100 mosques for the book Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam, which is published this month by the Brookings Institution Press. During our fieldwork, I learned a great deal about America's Muslim community, the religion they practice, and their various cultures. But what surprised me the most was what I learned about America.

Growing up in this country, I rarely thought about what it meant to be American. It was only in my time abroad that I began to ponder this question, first living in Kenya during high school and then as a college student traveling with Professor Ahmed on a project that visited eight Muslim countries and culminated in the 2007 book Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization. Those I met on the trip in places like Jordan and Pakistan were often coming across an American for the first time. I was hit with a torrent of anti-American sentiment that left me reeling.

At first, I was tempted to think that there was little I or anyone could do about the fury I encountered. The America described to me seemed a dark fortress at home and a warmongering nation abroad, bent on exploitation and terror. Yet upon listening and showing the people I met respect, I was able to add some nuance to my earlier assessment as they welcomed me into their homes and places of worship. Yes, it turned out, they were furious, but they were furious in part because they felt betrayed. They used to have something, they said, which had been ripped away after 9/11: a belief in the ideals of America. People of every background and religious interpretation told me how much they appreciated these ideals and commonly said they were the same as those found in Islam.

Walking with Professor Ahmed near his childhood home in Karachi, I was fascinated to hear how he idolized America and people like John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. growing up. When Jackie Kennedy visited Lahore in 1962, he told me, thousands of cheering Pakistanis lined the streets, throwing flowers at her open car. Her visit to the tribal areas elicited the same response. Now, a few feet from where we were standing, a suicide bomber had blown himself up the previous week, killing an American diplomat. Broken glass littered the ground around us. The good will had all but evaporated.

So what happened? Our journey through America would yield some answers.

The first thing that struck me about American Muslims was their patriotism. Muslims throughout the land spoke of their love for America and frequently cited it as the best place to be a Muslim.

Yet the community is on edge, often paranoid and living in fear of Americans around them, sentiments commonly reciprocated by the Americans themselves. Although we met many compassionate Americans of all religious and cultural backgrounds who welcomed Muslims and were working towards a true pluralistic society, many also saw Islam as an insidious monolithic threat attempting a takeover of the United States. The nineteen terrorists on 9/11 had triggered a deep-seeded fear in Americans, who lashed out at any real or imagined danger.

Like those overseas, Muslims in America were acutely aware of the results of this fear and suspicion. They spoke of a gap between what they understood to be American ideals and what they had experienced.

Traveling across America we saw mosques that had been firebombed and visited Muslim American citizens who had disappeared into prisons and were held without charge in hellish conditions. We met young Muslim children who are beaten up at school and called terrorists, constantly asking their parents, "Why us?" when the police burst into their homes in the middle of the night or airline security officers give their family more scrutiny than others. While parents commonly urged patience, the explanations given by the children for their predicament were filled with anti-Semitism and talk of an American crusade against Islam. These sentiments are jarring enough when spoken in a rural madrassa in India, but positively chilling when uttered matter-of-factly by 10-year-old boys in sweatpants speaking perfect American English.

Meeting Americans who said that Muslims should not be a part of this country -- and witnessing what the community is going through -- got me thinking about what America means to me.

Studying the writings of the Founding Fathers, my gloom turned to pride. I was inspired to see what these extraordinary men wrote about Islam and the inclusive vision they had for the nation. John Adams cited the Prophet Muhammad as one of the world's great truth-seekers alongside Confucius and Socrates; Thomas Jefferson learned Arabic using his Quran and hosted the first presidential iftaar during Ramadan; and Benjamin Franklin expressed his hope that the head cleric of Istanbul would preach Islam to Americans from a pulpit Franklin himself had funded, so passionate was his belief in religious freedom. In fashioning a nation of law and civil liberties, the Founding Fathers wanted to make America a haven for the oppressed and "begin the world over again," in the words of Thomas Paine.

It is this America, the true America, that inspires American Muslims to speak of their patriotism or millions upon millions of Muslims overseas to look to the US for justice, wisdom, and hope. They do not think much of the America that sees Muslims as a dangerous foreign "other" at home and finds it necessary to torture terror suspects. And many feel hatred for the America that has contributed to the deaths of 80,000 Somalis in the pursuit of three Al Qaeda suspects, for example, or the deaths of one million Iraqis in pursuit of no Al Qaeda suspects and weapons that never existed. Muslims at home and abroad are aware that Guantanamo Bay remains open, the Patriot Act has been extended, and the practice of indefinite detention and rendition continues.

Nearly every time I turn on the television, someone is asking what can be done to win over Muslims and defeat terrorism. The answer is simple. We should start acting like Americans.

Around the Web

Islam in the United States - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream - Pew ...

America at a Crossroads . America's Muslims | PBS

Muslim Americans Exemplify Diversity, Potential

Poll shows U.S. views on Muslim-Americans - U.S. news- msnbc.com

Poll: Muslim Americans Still Struggling for Acceptance - TIME