Dr. Ahmed discusses the reception he received from Atlanta's Muslim community.

The diverse Muslim community in Atlanta reflects the spirit embodied by President Obama, that a new page of inclusiveness has been turned in American history, an Islamic scholar said during a recent GlobalAtlanta interview.

The Georgia capital was the 50th out of 60 cities Akbar Ahmed is visiting as part of his “Journey Into America,” a yearlong trip to study attitudes about Islam throughout the U.S.

He and a team of assistants are conducting research, interviews and films to assess how Muslims feel about their life in the U.S. and how America’s lofty ideals of pluralism and cultural acceptance are holding up in the post-9/11 era.

Dr. Ahmed, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United Kingdom, is on sabbatical from his position as Ibn Khaldun chair of Islamic Studies at American University.  The findings from his study will be compiled in a book and documentary film.

On his first trip to Atlanta, Dr. Ahmed said he found a global city living up to the billing that internationally known corporate symbols like CNN and Coca-Cola represent.

What impressed him most were not tall buildings or economic vitality, however.  It was the welcoming and diverse nature of the city’s Muslim community. 

About 40 Muslims from around the metro area gathered for a dinner welcoming the team, he said.

“I saw African-Americans, Bosnians, Turks, Pakistanis, Caucasians, women, men, young and old at that dinner,” he said.  “[They were] very warm, very welcoming, very keen to talk to us about Atlanta and show us around.”

The gathering and his subsequent research here underscored a notion that he said many in America don’t understand, that the Muslim world is not a monolithic ethnographic bloc.

Dr. Ahmed and his team were told that about 40 mosques exist in and around metro Atlanta and learned that about half of the Muslim community in the area is African-American.

“Atlanta in that sense to me really offers hope of a vibrant, diverse United States of America which in a sense President Obama represents – the whole inauguration and the sense of joy and sense of festivity that a new page has been started in American history,” he said.

One of the team’s Georgia stops epitomizes this idea. 

Dr. Ahmed and his team spent inauguration day on Sapelo Island, a barrier island off the Georgia coast.  They interviewed a 10th-generation descendant of a Muslim who was taken from his West African homeland and brought to America on a slave ship.

“Here we are spending inauguration not in Washington D.C. where I come from but on a tiny island which you haven’t heard of … with a descendant of slaves when a man with a Muslim father is being sworn in as president,” Dr. Ahmed said.

But the idea of inclusiveness hasn’t necessarily translated into widespread understanding.  While Muslims often tell Dr. Ahmed that the U.S. is “the best place in the world for a Muslim to live,” they also experience isolation.

“There is a definite misunderstanding and distortion of Islam today in the United States of America” that has widened the gap between Muslims and non-Muslims since 9/11, Dr. Ahmed said.

Closing this gap is crucial to American interests.  A quarter of the world will be Muslim by mid-century, the U.S. has two wars in Muslim lands and more than half of the countries critical to U.S. foreign policy are Muslim states, he said.

“Don’t you think every American needs to understand Islam?” he asked.

Dr. Ahmed and his team are currently in Washington compiling data from their tour throughout the South. 

Among other destinations, their Atlanta trip included a visit to a Bosnian mosque located down a dirt road in Snellville, an Atlanta suburb.

Follow Dr. Ahmed and his team on their trip blog: www.journeyintoamerica.wordpress.com.

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...