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Muslim in America: a 'voyage of discovery'

  • Story Highlights
  • Scholar Akbar Ahmed and his young team explore Muslim identity in America
  • A woman who wears Islamic attire to monitor reactions is surprised in Arab, Alabama
  • There are 1.4 billion Muslims in the world and 7 million in America, Ahmed estimates
  • Understanding Islam in a post-9/11 world is more important than ever, scholar says
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By Jessica Ravitz
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Hailey Woldt put on the traditional black abaya, expecting the worst.

Sheikh Salahadin Wazir discusses his Muslim community after Friday afternoon prayers in Clarkston, Georgia.

Hailey Woldt, in a traditional Muslim head scarf, studied how people react to her garb in Arab, Alabama.

The last time she'd worn the Muslim dress that, with a head scarf, covered everything but her face, hands and feet, she was in Miami International Airport, where the stares were many and the security check thorough.

This time, she was in a small town called Arab. Arab, Alabama, no less.

"I expected people to say, 'What is this terrorist doing here? We don't want your kind here,' " said Woldt, a 22-year-old blue-eyed Catholic, recalling her anticipation before stepping into a local barbecue joint. "I thought I wouldn't even be served."

Instead, Woldt's experiment in social anthropology opened her own eyes. Apart from the initial glances reserved for any outsider who might venture through a small-town restaurant's doors, her experience was a pleasant one.

On her way to the bathroom, Woldt said, "One woman's jaw dropped, but then she smiled at me. ... That little smile just makes you feel so much better."

This unexpected experience has just been one of Woldt's takeaway moments on her current journey. She is one in a team of five mostly 20-something Americans, led by an esteemed Muslim scholar, who are crisscrossing the nation on an anthropological mission. Their purpose: to discuss American identity, Muslim identity, and find out how well this country upholds its ideals in a post-September 11 world. Meet the team members »

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Leading this six-month charge, which began in the fall, is Akbar Ahmed, the Islamic studies chairman at American University in Washington. His drive to do this was beyond academic.

"As a social scientist ... as a Muslim, it was almost my moral duty ... to be involved in some way in the exercise of talking about, explaining, debating [and] discussing Islam," explained Ahmed, 65, who took a year's sabbatical to focus his energies. "After 9/11, Islam became the most talked-about, controversial, debated, hated and, really, mystified religion in America. I just couldn't sit it out."

So Ahmed devised the project that's been dubbed Journey into America. This "voyage of discovery," as he called it, is an offshoot of a 2006 endeavor that took him, and a few of those traveling with him now (including Woldt), into the Muslim world abroad. That initial trip involving visits to mosques, madrassas (religious schools) and private homes from Syria to Indonesia became the basis of Ahmed's book, "Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization."

He said during the recent Atlanta, Georgia, leg of the journey that although the trip abroad helped answer many questions about how Americans are viewed overseas, it failed to paint a complete picture.

"These questions Americans were asking [about Muslims] could not be answered without Americans looking at themselves ... and looking at Muslims in the context of their own culture and society," the professor explained. The group needed "to talk to Muslims and examine what they knew about American culture, American society and how they actually adjusted or assimilated or integrated -- or not -- into larger American society."

To that end, the team has hung out with a black Muslim rapper in Buffalo, New York; met with Latino Muslims in Miami, Florida; and swapped stories with refugees, dotting the country, from places as diverse as Bosnia, Afghanistan and Somalia. Photo See photos from their journey »

They've withstood the winds at Ellis Island in New York and on the shores of Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts, walked the neon-splattered streets of Las Vegas, Nevada, and navigated the country roads of the South.

Along the way, they've weighed in with academics, other religious leaders, law enforcement officials and activists. Many of the group's meetings and visits are chronicled in their blog.

The importance of this work became apparent to Frankie Martin years ago.

The 25-year-old Episcopalian, whose father works for the government, was living in Kenya when U.S. embassies in East Africa were bombed in August 1998, killing hundreds and highlighting the threat of al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.

"I remember coming back to the U.S. and talking about these issues [relations between Islam and the West], and people were just blank," he said. Then, September 11 rocked the United States, and he entered college at American University "wanting to know why this is happening and what could be done about it.... I wanted to learn more about the Muslim world, understand the religion of Islam and improve relations."

Part of the process involves pushing themselves to stand where they've never stood before.

At October's Muslim Day parade in New York, Craig Considine, 23, threw himself into the middle of protesters to witness and film a volley of venomous words. Among them were insults against Prophet Mohammed, which prompted heated rhetoric from both sides, as people hurled taunts at each other.

The young filmmaker said he didn't feel a thing until he walked away, turned his camera off and allowed himself to think.

"Both sides, the protesters and the responders, were all Americans and completely failed to see eye-to-eye," he explained. "I was just very disappointed. ... I don't think I've ever seen hatred like that in my whole life."

Jonathan Hayden, who's worked for Ahmed for nearly five years, pointed out that even the less heated moments can be enlightening.

He told the story of answering a tear-filled question posed by a Midwestern woman who admitted that she'd never met a Muslim.

" 'Do they love their children?' " Hayden, 30, remembered her asking. "We were able to tell her that, yes, they love their children. ... But the fact that she asked that question told us so much."

The group's central goal is to highlight the need to understand Islam, something they hope to further accomplish through a book Ahmed will write and a documentary they hope to produce.

"The Muslim world population is 1.4 billion people. By the middle of the century, one out of four people will be Muslim. ... [There are] 57 Muslim countries today. Think of the number," Ahmed said. "America -- as a superpower, as a world leader -- needs to be able to interact in a positive way with one-fourth of the world's population."

He estimated that there are 7 million Muslims and counting in the United States today. And their dreams and hopes, Ahmed and the others are convinced, aren't any different from those of their neighbors.

Sheikh Salahadin Wazir, who had dinner with the group and invited its members to his Atlanta-area mosque for Friday afternoon prayers, praised the project.

"It's important to hear what Muslims are all about from a Muslim perspective. We are law-abiding citizens. We are professionals," said Wazir, as he stood outside Masjid Al-Momineen in Clarkston, Georgia. "A lot of our children are going to school, getting a higher education, and the future is bright."

For Madeeha Hameed, 21, being part of this project has been especially personal. The senior at the College of William & Mary in Virginia, who took last semester off to travel as much as she could but has since gone back to school, moved to northern Virginia from Pakistan right before high school -- and right before the September 11 attacks.


"It was very difficult for me. ... You know how high school is," she said. "I did not want to be known as a Muslim or a Pakistani, because I just wanted to fit in. I had a lot of anger toward my identity."

Reading Ahmed's books, getting the opportunity to tag along on this current journey, "definitely helped me embrace my identity" and helped her to appreciate all that surrounds her, she said. "There are so many aspects of this country, and of Islam, that I wasn't aware of."

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