Frankie Martin, MPhil student in the Department of Social Anthropology will speak tonight at the showing of a documentary Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam. He reflects on his own experiences of interacting with Muslim communities around the world.

Muslims of every background and religious interpretation told us that they were proud to be American and frequently cited the USA as the "best place in the world to be Muslim" because of religious freedom that was not possible in many Muslim countries.

Frankie Martin

The bombing of the Boston Marathon in the USA, the reported foiling of a train bombing plot in Canada, and reports in the UK about terror cells in places such as Birmingham, have once again highlighted the threat of ‘homegrown terrorism’.

These cases come amid continuing public scepticism about Islam and its place in western societies. Polls show that the gap between Muslims and non-Muslims that opened after 9/11 has grown wider. In 2011, for example, nearly half of Americans surveyed believed that Islamic and American values were incompatible. The situation was not much different in the UK, where the previous year, a poll showed that over half of the British public associated Islam with extremism while nearly 70 per cent believed it encouraged the oppression of women. Similar sentiments can also be seen in polls conducted in other European countries such as Germany where over one third of Germans polled in 2010 indicated they would prefer "a Germany without Islam."

Such figures are concerning given the fact that around 1.5 billion people, or one-fourth of humanity, are Muslim, there are millions of Muslims living in western countries, there are 57 Muslim states, and western countries are involved in, and have close relations with, many of them. It is thus imperative that a more informed understanding of Islam and the complexity and reality of Muslim society is promoted.

So how is the gap between Muslims and non-Muslims to be closed, and terrorism curtailed? Some of the work I have been involved in on this subject may provide some answers.

I have been in a unique position with which to view relations between Muslims and non-Muslims and the Islamic world and the west. As an undergraduate studying history at American University in Washington DC, I took an elective class entitled “The World of Islam” with Professor Akbar Ahmed, a renowned anthropologist, Islamic scholar, and diplomat who had served as Pakistan’s high commissioner to the UK. Inspired by his work and approach, I took several more classes and eventually was able to join him as a research assistant on three major projects. It also began my journey towards social anthropology, which has led me to Cambridge to pursue graduate studies in the discipline.

Our most recent project, 'The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam', will be published this month in the UK. It examines the impact of the war on terrorism on 40 Muslim tribal societies including in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and across North Africa. While a link between terrorism and Islam is often made, as reflected in the polls cited above, we found that this is a faulty assumption. The book argues that terrorism has nothing to do with Islam but largely stems from a breakdown in relations between central governments and Muslim tribal societies on their peripheries fighting to preserve their autonomy. After 9/11 the United States, in pursuit of terrorists and using technologies like the drone, became embroiled in these often centuries-old local conflicts. In order to stabilise these regions and end the suffering of the people there, the US and western powers involved must gain a better understanding of local culture and history and the relationship between the centre and periphery.

My first experience studying Muslim societies, however, which had a huge impact on my life, came as a researcher for Professor Ahmed’s book Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization (2007). The book involved travel as part of a team across the Muslim world to measure global Muslim attitudes. "We think Americans don't care about us,” they said, “thank you for listening." We were treated very hospitably, and enjoyed delicious food and good company. I realised my presence was challenging common views of Americans shaped by the media. I was the first American many people had ever met. 

While I frequently heard criticism of aspects of US foreign policy such as the Iraq war, the issue of perception came up most often. In fact, in each of the eight Muslim countries where our team distributed questionnaires, "negative perceptions of Islam in the USA and the west" was cited most commonly as the greatest threat to the Muslim world.

The frequency with which people discussed the USA in our conversations led to a follow-up study on Muslims in America and the relationship between Islam and American identity. Over a period of one year Professor Ahmed and our team travelled to 75 US cities and 100 mosques, which resulted in the book Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam (2010), and an accompanying documentary film. The project allowed me to see my own country through the eyes of its Muslim population.

In the USA we were again welcomed warmly and hospitably into Muslim homes and communities across the country. Muslims of every conceivable ethnic background and religious interpretation told us that they were proud to be American and frequently cited the USA as the "best place in the world to be Muslim" because of religious freedom that was not possible in many Muslim countries. We found numerous positive initiatives in which Muslims, Jews, and Christians were in dialogue with one another as friends. Yet many Muslims feared that their religion made them a target for hostility. Indeed, I visited mosques that had been fire-bombed and interviewed many people who had faced discrimination and intimidation.

The challenges and tensions experienced by American Muslims were most starkly demonstrated to us in a meeting in a Pakistani Shia mosque in Brooklyn, New York. There, a ten-year old boy, speaking accent-less American English, described being constantly beaten up at school and called a terrorist. It then emerged that his mother, while visiting Pakistan, had been blown up in a bus by the Taliban. We wondered how this boy would make sense of what was happening to him, especially as he entered his teenage years.

When I saw reports about the Boston bombers, I immediately flashed back to that boy. The younger of the two Chechen brothers, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, arrived in the USA when he was around the same age and also spoke without an accent. It seemed likely that he too was caught between cultures. Tamerlan, the elder brother, admitted that he had no American friends and could not understand Americans. The indiscriminate violence the brothers perpetrated was a clear indication that they could not resolve this tension and lashed out in hatred at their adopted country.

Our projects conclude that the most effective defence against homegrown terrorism is a Muslim community with effective leadership that feels secure and fully part of the nation. The community will then have a close and positive relationship with law enforcement and will be able to participate fully in all aspects of social and civic life.

In order for this to happen, we found, there must be knowledge of Islam and Muslims and the wide variety of backgrounds and religious interpretations contained within the community. Likewise, the Muslim community must have knowledge of the dominant culture, customs, and heritage of the society it is a part of, which will facilitate dialogue and enable people to build on what is common between them.

I believe that social anthropology, with its emphasis on fieldwork, observation and interpretation, can provide some of the tools needed to facilitate understanding between the west and the world of Islam, which is one of the most pressing challenges facing all of us. As I have plunged into fascinating and rich anthropological theory and ethnographies since enrolling at Cambridge last autumn, I feel privileged to be able to study in a department with such an esteemed faculty and illustrious history. I intend to employ these tools in the future as I continue to pursue knowledge and scholarship in the interest of fostering communication and comprehension.

The documentary Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam will be shown in the Department of Social Anthropology seminar room on Tuesday, 7 May at 5pm. It will be followed by a roundtable discussion involving Frankie Martin who helped to produce the film. The event is sponsored by the Cambridge University Social Anthropology Society. All welcome.

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