Author Archives: frankiemartin

Journey into America at the National Cathedral: A Testament to the Interfaith Vision of the Founding Fathers

by Frankie Martin: On June 10, the Washington National Cathedral hosted an extraordinary event. The Episcopal Bishop of Washington, the Rt. Rev. John Bryson Chane, launched the new book Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam by Akbar Ahmed, which is published this month by the Brookings Institution Press.

Participating in a roundtable discussion in the Cathedral’s gothic library was a powerful assortment people in different fields, including a priest from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, a top Jewish interfaith leader, a representative from the Turkish Embassy, and prominent Washington journalists including the London Times Washington Bureau Chief, Christina Lamb, and Sally Quinn, the co-moderator of the Washington Post‘s On Faith. Also attending was one of President Obama’s liaisons to America’s Muslim community, several American Muslim journalists, a member of the Rumi Forum, and representatives from the FBI and Department of Homeland Security.

They had all come together to hear the results of a two-year project in which Professor Ahmed, American University’s Chair of Islamic Studies, and a team of researchers including myself, went on a grueling journey to 75 US cities and 100 mosques to study Islam in America and its relationship to American identity. The diverse attendees wanted to understand the important issue of Islam in America, discover ways to better build bridges between members of different faiths, and seek solutions to problems like homegrown terrorism.

Speaking about the book, Bishop Chane described it as an remarkable work on Islam in America and also American history, which everyone should read “not once, but twice.” The Rev. Dr. Carol Flett, the Cathedral’s Interfaith Programs Coordinator said she “learned so much about America” from the book and in a glowing review on the Cathedral’s website wrote that “the book will open your eyes and hearts into the lives of Muslim Americans.”

I was especially proud that Journey into America was launched at the National Cathedral because I grew up in the Episcopal Church. Reaching out to members of other faiths has always been extremely important to me and I was inspired on our journey to find Muslims and non-Muslims making great strides in interfaith dialogue at a time of great tension and misunderstanding.

We learned of church members surrounding mosques to protect them after 9/11 and met a rabbi in Los Angeles who prays with Muslims to reinforce the notion that they are worshipping the same God. The Jewish vice mayor of Chicago, Berny Stone, named a street in the city after Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, and said that he actually has more support among local Muslims than Jews. In Omaha, we met members of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities who have assembled in an organization called Tri-Faith to build a synagogue, church, and mosque on the same property. And in the small town of Columbia, Tennessee, we heard the inspiring story of a Presbyterian pastor who gave the town’s tiny Muslim community the keys to his church to pray in after Christian white supremacists firebombed their mosque. The destruction of the mosque was a reminder of what can occur when people of different faiths and cultures fail to reach out to one another.

For the Founding Fathers, interfaith dialogue and pluralism was the very definition of what it meant to be American. That a book on Islam in America by a world-renowned Pakistani anthropologist could be launched at the National Cathedral by Washington’s Episcopal Bishop is a testament to this vision.

For me, the setting and theme of the event was both familiar and inspiring. It was in the same Cathedral where Professor Ahmed, joined by the Bishop and Senior Rabbi Bruce Lustig of the Washington Hebrew Congregation, had first announced his plans to study US-Muslim relations and I had committed to joining him. I was pleased to see that the project had concluded in that same atmosphere of support, understanding, and hope.

Muslim man imprisoned during rescue of Katrina victims

Our trip to New Orleans gave us the opportunity to visit a unique American city and to speak to survivors of one of the country’s worst natural disasters, Hurricane Katrina. We heard some great stories of hope from Muslim New Orleanians who provided food and water to those, like Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian-American, who heroically saved people using their personal boats. But it was also from Zeitoun that we heard a different kind of Hurricane Katrina story that left me aghast and ashamed.


After a day of rescuing people from the crushing floodwaters, including an old woman, Zeitoun, who owns a construction business, returned to his home. Because of his house’s high stilts, he was spared the most devastating of the flood waters. His wife, Kathy, had fled with their family but he had remained in New Orleans. He was in his house with a Syrian friend and a white American client. A boat appeared carrying a group of men in military fatigues with machine guns. Zeitoun isn’t sure if the men were actual military personnel or employees of a company like Blackwater, which was also active in New Orleans at the time.


The men approached Zeitoun and asked him if he needed any help or food supplies. Zeitoun refused, saying that he had everything under control. Then they took a closer look at him. “What are you doing here?” they asked. “This is my home,” Zeitoun replied. Six men then jumped into his home from their boat, and waving their guns at him asked to see his ID. He produced it and the men yelled “get in the boat!” waving their machine guns in his face. They refused to say why he was being taken. Zeitoun asked if he could at least go back inside and get a piece of paper on which he had written his wife’s number. “If you step inside,” said one of the gun toting men, “I’ll shoot you.” He was forced on the boat and watched his house slip further away in the distance.  

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West African Hospitality in Memphis

dscn1405This week Jonathan, Craig and I visited Masjid Attaqwa in Memphis and interviewed the Imam, Baba Deme after Friday prayers. The masjid is predominately attended by Muslims from West African countries like Senegal and Mauritania. During our conversation, the Imam, who is a Senegalese American, spoke of his appreciation of our project and the need for Muslims and non-Muslims to understand each other in the United States. He said relations between Muslims and non-Muslims were very good in Memphis.

Communal eating

Following our talk the imam and his associates treated us to a delicious West African meal. There were two entrees served with rice; an okra dish and a beef dish with a peanut sauce. The Imam and his associates including the elder Bou Bou Diallo sat around the table and ate with their hands, encouraging us to do so. I decided to put down my fork and fully engage, drawing heaps of laughter from the group as more and more rice and sauce was heaped on my plate.

dscn14141After lunch the general secretary of the mosque, Abou Falle, presented us with kola nuts, and announced that it was a tradition in West Africa to give them to honored guests. The Imam showed me how to crack it open and I bit into the bitter nut as the group watched intently. After a brief facial contortion I recovered, but not before some more laughs were had. We thanked the group for the nuts and departed.

I had come to Memphis with so many fond memories of Southern hospility encountered in previous stops through the south. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy West African hospitality as well.

Frankie Martin

Mormons and Muslims

We got off to a great start in scenic Utah, meeting Mormon missionaries in training at the Missionary Training School and then going on to Brigham Young University, a school owned by Jesus Christ Church of Latter Day Saints where Dr. Ahmed lectured. We were driven around Salt Lake and Provo by Elder Banks-who used to be a “seventy,” a top leadership position in the LDS Church. His wife, Susan, also accompanied us and was very hospitable.

At the MTC we met a Mandarin language class of about 10 missionaries in training. Each year 50,000 Mormon missionaries go out in to the world to share their religion and engage in humanitarian assistance. I tried out some broken Mandarin on the missionaries and they replied in perfect accents-these were dedicated, driven students. The students-all dressed in meticulous dark suits and short haircuts were confident and excited about their missions. Some were from European countries like Switzerland, underscoring the global vision of the LDS Church.

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Interview with Noam Chomsky

In Boston, we had the honor of interviewing Professor Noam Chomsky, the “world’s top intellectual” according to the New York Times. I was extremely excited to meet him because I had studied his work in school and admired his courage for speaking his convictions on the global stage.


As I tried to find his office in a perplexing MIT building that appeared as though the fabric of reality had collapsed in on itself, I flashed back to a philosophy class I had taken at American University. The class, “Greatest Minds of the 20th Century” had spent a week on Chomsky’s work. This time we were not in his office to discuss linguistics or his groundbreaking refutation of B.F. Skinner’s work on behavioral psychology (although I did spy two of Skinner’s books on the shelf in Chomsky’s office) but American identity.

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200 Somali Meatpackers fired for demanding time to pray

Recently while staying in Omaha, Nebraska we read that 200 Somali workers were fired from their jobs at a meatpacking plant in the town of Grand Island, Nebraska run by the JBS Swift Meat Co. The workers had demanded and were refused time to pray and break their fast at sun down during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Somalis had also been fired in a similar fashion at other Swift plants in Colorado and Texas. Having written about Somalia in the past and interviewed Somalis in Kenya for the “Journey into Islam” project, I was curious to see how Somalis were getting on in the US and concerned about these mass firings occurring in the Midwest.


After a speech Dr. Ahmed delivered at Omaha’s Creighton University I met Abdi Mohamed, a member the Somali community in Omaha, and we began discussing the controversy at the plant. Abdi, a refugee himself, had recently got US citizenship and had built a life in Omaha. He said he knew some people in Grand Island and graciously offered to take me there because he said he agreed with the mission of our project and the issues Dr. Ahmed had spoke about during the lecture—the need to improve relations between Muslims and non-Muslims.


Early the next day Abdi, Craig, and I set off on the nearly three hour drive across the state of Nebraska. We arrived in Grand Island and Abdi stopped briefly on the side of the street to pick up a Somali worker who we hoped could direct us in town. “Welcome to America!” a woman screamed from across the street. “Get moving!”

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South Side of Chicago

Last week’s trip to Chicago was great—we met lots of interesting people and had the chance to explore the city, complete with its stunning skyscrapers and views of a glittering Lake Michigan. I’ve been coming to Chicago for years because my father is from the city. My grandmother was from a Lithuanian family and my grandfather an Irish family. They settled in a working class neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. My grandfather was a fireman and worked many other odd jobs and my grandmother stayed home to care for their eight children. This was a Catholic, immigrant neighborhood and my father’s best friend next door was Italian. The family lived in the same house from the 1940s until my grandmother moved out in 2000. When I was growing up I used to come to the house for family reunions. I would play catch behind the house in one of Chicago’s famous alleyways. Over the years more and more of the old European Catholics moved out to the suburbs, and more Mexicans began to move in. Continue reading

American Madrassa

Last week we visited the Muslim Community Center Fulltime School in Chicago, Illinois. It was truly an “American Madrassa”, as Madrassa simply means “school” in Arabic.  It was a fascinating glimpse into a side of Muslim life in Chicago I hadn’t seen before. The school was kindergarten through eighth grade and included students from all around the Muslim world.

We saw girls playing basketball in the gym with their scarfs on, and praying in the school mosque. We also visited a class room where an American history teacher was discussing the civil war. These students were conscious of their identities as both Muslims and Americans studying the Quran and reciting the Pledge of Allegence. Habeeb Quadri, the school’s principal, showed us around and told us of his discussions with students attempting to reconcile some of the religious tenants of Islam with American teenage culture. Habeeb gave us a copy of his book on the subject: The War Within our Hearts.

Relations with neighbors in the community could be stressful at times, repeating a pattern we witnessed elsewhere on our journey. But along with the problems—which in this case including people periodically throwing bricks through school windows—there were also touching stories of community members who welcomed the Muslims into their neighborhoods and attempted to forge better relations between ethnic and religious groups.

I was touched by the school’s students and the trials that these young Muslims often have to go through from questions of dating to the image of Islam in the media which puts them on the defensive. The goal of the school, Habeeb explained, was have a school community that would eventually be welcomed as Jewish or Catholic schools are while staying true to its Islamic roots. This, he believed, was the promise of America.  

Frankie Martin

Bosnians in St. Louis: “Right Skin Color, Wrong Religion”?

We got off to a great start in our trip in St. Louis, meeting the former governor Bob Holden, current mayor Francis Slay (pictured above) and members of many different ethnic communities. St Louis has a multitude of communities, from the French Catholics who settled the area in the fur trapping days to the Jews who came in the 19th century. There is an increasing Mexican population and Italians live on “the Hill.” Then there is the predominately African-American area of East St. Louis, which exists as almost its own entity. The first question people usually ask one another in St. Louis is “what high school did you go to?” which immediately places one in a certain economic and cultural context. With all the different enclaves, we wanted to know: are people getting along? Are they talking to each other? Is there communication?

One of the most fascinating communities we visited were the Bosnians—Muslims who immigrated to the United States in the mid 1990s during the war. The Bosnians, like the Somalis we spoke to earlier in the week, were fleeing almost unimaginable suffering in their country and sought escape and solace in a new land. St. Louis has between 50,000 and 70,000 Bosnians, a substantial population. The Bosnians moved into old neighborhoods and opened businesses. They are widely credited by many in St. Louis with vastly improving areas of the city.

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