SOUTH CAROLINA -- More than a decade has passed since 9/11, but the stain put on the American perception of Islam by that tragic event has not faded. The crime of a few fanatic Islamists still shape the image of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims. Quite a few Americans, in other words, suspect that all Muslims hate America.
However, a closer examination at the Muslim community in the United States reveals a different reality. And while that insight can come from various public surveys conducted over the years, my personal one comes from direct experience of these days: I am on a 20-day book tour, which covers 11 American cities and includes two dozen talks, and which gives me a lot of food for thought.
A part of my tour is organized by the Atlanta-based Istanbul Center, a dynamic institution created by Turkish immigrants to the United States. Its young director Mustafa Sahin, a pious Muslim who did his Ph.D. in Florida, is a far cry from anti-American Turks in his homeland who believe that almost all Turkish troubles stem from "American imperialism." Dr. Sahin rather keeps reminding that Turkey, in late 40s, had its transition from single party dictatorship to a multi-party democracy thanks to the encouragement by none other than President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Yet what really seems to be popular among religious Turkish-Americans like Dr. Sahin is not America's foreign policy but its democracy: Here, they find a level of religious freedom that in Turkey they could only dream of.
One such Turkish Muslim is a 31-year-old doctoral candidate living here in Greenville, who preferred to remain anonymous out concerns about the Turkish academic establishment. (So I will just call him Mr. M.) He is an observant Muslim who prays five times a day, fasts for 30 days throughout the Ramadan, and has never tasted alcohol. Over dinner, he tells me how positively he is surprised by the religious tolerance in America. "This is a pre-dominantly Christian country, but everybody respects my Muslim practices," he says. "At school, I can do my prayers anywhere and anytime I want."
When Mr. M tells me where he is coming from, I can see why he is so thrilled with all this. He had his undergraduate and graduate degrees in Izmir's Aegean University, which has been a stronghold of Kemalism, the ultra-secular ideology created in the name of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey's authoritarian founder. The professors there were not just secular, Mr. M explains, but also passionately secularist. In other words, they detested religion and religious people.
Hence Mr. M and his observant friends friends had a very time in the Aegean University, where students were simply not allowed to observe their religious practices. "We had found an empty room in the basement in which we began to do our daily prayers," he says, "but soon the administration locked the door." Then he and his friends began to go to a nearby mosque, by jumping over the wall of the campus. (In Turkey, some universities are like prisons; you can't get in or out without papers.) "But soon the administration noticed this and they raised the wall so high that we could not jump over."
In the holy month Ramadan, Mr. M adds, his professors checked whether students fasted, and encouraged them not to. "A professor or his assistant who would normally not even talk to you would come and invite you to lunch," he recalls. The ones who proved to be fasting would be discriminated against. "Secular students were always favored and promoted."
Mr. M also told me that things have changed for the better in Turkey gradually under the AKP government, but the United States is still better. "The most beautiful thing about America," he advised me, right before the final handshake, "is freedom."
In other words, America, which has been a safe heaven for persecuted believers since the Mayflower, keeps up with its heritage by welcoming Muslim believers as well. It just should not give into the fear-mongering of a handful of anti-Islamic propagandists, who represent not the best of America, but the worst of the hateful oppression from which some of the newly Americanized Muslims have just fled.
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