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    How a Muslim boy went to meet Americans


    by guest on 12th June, 2009 at 10:17 am    

    This is a guest article by author Imran Ahmad

    I have always felt that Britain has remained remarkably tolerant despite the shock of the July 7th terrorist attacks in London, and the continuing provocation from some elements. But I wasn’t sure the same was the case for the United States.

    For example there was a dreadful incident on this year’s New Year’s Day when nine Muslims – including three young children, and all US citizens – were removed from a domestic flight because two of them were overheard discussing where was the safest place to sit on an airplane.

    A few weeks later, I was reclining on my sofa, watching President Obama’s inauguration speech in January – in which he mentioned a new era of ‘mutual respect’ between America and the Muslim world. I thought: ‘I can do that!’

    That evening I pulled out a map of the United States and visualised how I would do a speaking tour by road. I had already been receiving e-mails from US readers of my book, Unimagined – a Muslim boy meets the West, suggesting that I could speak at their churches.

    So I plotted a course around the entire mainland US, starting in Chicago and working clockwise around the major population centres: the East Coast, the Carolinas, Florida, the Deep South, Texas, Kansas, Colorado, the deserts, up the entire West Coast, across the mid-West, back to Chicago. It looked like 40 cities over 50 days – around 12,000 miles in all.

    I had commitments at the Perth Writers Festival in Australia, and to address the English Literature students at Stirling University (where my book is now on the core reading list), so the earliest I could start the US tour was 16th March, and it would continue into early May. I proceeded on that basis, creating a provisional plan and contacting various organisations on the route, asking if I could speak at their venues. The proposed plan quickly became a reality. These were to be public events and my hosts at each location worked on the local publicity.

    My aim was to re-humanise the relationship between America and the Muslim world, to counter the unthinking tribalism which results in polarisation, dehumanisation and demonisation. I didn’t expect to achieve this single-handedly, but I believed that I could make a difference.

    Something extraordinary happened on the morning of my departure from London. An Iranian-born film-maker was interviewing me in my car whilst I was driving. A few minutes after we reached my house, there was a knock on the door. Two police officers had turned up to investigate a report of two (Middle Eastern) men suspiciously filming in the town centre. The officers were extremely polite and, once I explained what was going on, left without any fuss.

    On a mission
    In the end, I drove 13,934 miles across the United States in a hybrid car, and had 41 scheduled speaking events.

    I told everyone whom I engaged in conversation that I was a Muslim writer on a speaking tour of the entire US. I never had a negative response, but rather expressions of what a ‘cool’ thing this was to do.

    My busiest day was in Washington. An early morning interview at the BBC Washington studio was followed by a meeting with a Muslim man who formerly worked for the Bush Administration and was leaving later that day to take a group of evangelical Christians to Syria on a familiarisation tour. Then I had an extended television studio interview with Voice of America.

    In the afternoon, I had a meeting at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. My extremely positive discussion with one of their Pakistan-Afghanistan experts had only one point of contention. I proposed that civilian casualties from US drone attacks in Pakistan were too high a price for the successful elimination of ‘high value’ Al-Qaeda targets, because they made it difficult for progressive, apparently pro-Western groups to maintain a credible position. She asserted that the presence of US troops on the ground in Pakistan would result in less civilian casualties, but was politically unacceptable, and therefore the drones were the most viable option. By the time I had to give my talk that evening, at the Washington Ethical Society, I was exhausted.

    Overwhelmingly, my audiences were friendly and supportive. The problem, I realised, was that the people I really needed to reach were not the ones coming to my talks. My host in Memphis, the Director of Religious Education at the First Unitarian Church, told me that she had taken the children to experience different places of worship.

    At the Baptist church, the minister, in his sermon, had said, “There are three groups who are all going straight to Hell: Gays, murderers and Moslems.” This minister and his congregation are really the kind of people I needed to meet, but they would never come to a talk by a Muslim delivered in a Unitarian church.

    A PhD rocket scientist who works for NASA took me to lunch in LA and gave me her opinion of the problem: Americans are gravitating into segregated communities where people are all the same – politically, socially, religiously, economically – and so they never encounter the challenges to their thinking, and subsequent personal development, which come from experiencing diversity.

    I did get some hostile attendees. In Iowa, three men sitting together in the audience refused to smile, no matter how much everyone else laughed. Their questions later included “Are you saying that we should re-humanise Bin Laden?”

    Someone told me later that this group had organised a speaking event for an Arab woman who had converted to Christianity, and they had advised the local police that she was in danger from terrorists. The police laid on a visible presence at her talk, with flashing lights on patrol cars, but this was pure theatrics, to create some excitement.

    It seems that some people are desperate to keep us all in a polarised state.

    ———
    Imran Ahmad is the author of Unimagined. More info: www.unimagined.org



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    11 Comments below   |   Add your own

    1. cjcjc — on 12th June, 2009 at 3:19 pm  

      I’ve just ordered the book on Amazon.

    2. A Councillor Writes — on 12th June, 2009 at 3:40 pm  

      It’s been on my Amazon wish list for a couple of weeks which is what I use to track what I’m going to buy.

    3. David T — on 12th June, 2009 at 4:50 pm  

      That is really really nice. Ordered the book.

    4. David T — on 12th June, 2009 at 4:52 pm  

      Except his name is Imran AhmAd

    5. hms nerd — on 12th June, 2009 at 5:54 pm  

      The experience in Iowa was unfortunate. Assuming Bin Laden could ever stand as an acceptable metonym for Muslims is a fallacy that’s probably beyond repair. Humanizing human beings (in this case Muslims) is something that shouldn’t have to be done; but, it’s the best response to the de-humanizing images many Americans carry about with us due to mediated experience of the Islamic world as one of constant, bewildering strife and conflict. In a country where hate crimes are on the decline (see: http://www.newsy.com/videos/is_hate_on_the_rise) it’s a ’safe’ type of prejudice rooted in the actions of a few extremists…and thus, seemingly legitimate, skeptical and prudent. The book sounds great, and the tour was most likely quite the adventure. Would love to hear more about the latter.

    6. Vikrant — on 12th June, 2009 at 5:54 pm  

      My host in Memphis, the Director of Religious Education at the First Unitarian Church, told me that she had taken the children to experience different places of worship.

      At the Baptist church, the minister, in his sermon, had said, “There are three groups who are all going straight to Hell: Gays, murderers and Moslems.”

      Well you’d expect that in Tennessee. Your experience in the US depends a lot on where you are. I’ve been racially abused only once in the US, in a South Carolina karaoke bar..

    7. Vikrant — on 12th June, 2009 at 5:56 pm  

      In Iowa, three men sitting together in the audience refused to smile, no matter how much everyone else laughed. Their questions later included “Are you saying that we should re-humanise Bin Laden?”

      Many of the rural midwestern states are practically a part of the South. You cant blame them though, living amongst soybean fields and cornfields does that you.

    8. Imran Ahmad — on 12th June, 2009 at 6:25 pm  

      Thank you for your insightful comments.

      The entire US tour blog is on http://www.unimagined.org

      Regards,

      Imran

    9. Edward A. Dean — on 13th June, 2009 at 3:19 pm  

      I am an American born Arab Muslim and my family and community have been here for over one hundred years! I am amazed that Americans never knew we existed. It’s as if we were a dandelion phenomena that just popped up out of the ground. Generations have served proudly from the first world war on.It still amazes me that we are considered a recent event here in the U.S.
      I detail many of my own experiences in my latest book called “The Wine Thief.” available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
      Ed Dean
      auburnprototype@yahoo.com

    10. damon — on 13th June, 2009 at 3:39 pm  

      Was it that there were no sizeable muslim communities to make their impact in the way that all the other immigrant communities did?
      Where was there a noticeable Muslim presence in the early 20th century? Or were muslims written out of the national narrative (as it were) in a way that Blacks were (but Jews weren’t)?

    11. blah — on 13th June, 2009 at 5:08 pm  

      At the Baptist church, the minister, in his sermon, had said, “There are three groups who are all going straight to Hell: Gays, murderers and Moslems.”

      Given that Islam is the only non-Christian religion which makes belief in the veracity of Jesus (pbuh) and absolute condition of membership (ie you cant be a Muslim unless you belive in Jesus (as a prophet) Id say the other non-Christians are in much deeper do do



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