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Page last updated at 10:04 GMT, Thursday, 26 March 2009

'Hello America, I'm a British Muslim'

Imran Ahmad breakfast in diner

When British businessman Imran Ahmad was made redundant in January, instead of hitting the Job Centre he decided to arrange a one-man speaking tour of the United States to spread his message of peace and Muslim moderateness.

"Do you think the American drone raids in Afghanistan, in which women and children are killed, are actually obstructing the movement for an Islamic reformation?"

"What can be done about the alienation of young Muslim men in the UK?"

"Did you learn English in England?"

I've had an interesting range of questions at my speaking events in the US, but thankfully there have been some laughs with the audience too.

But first things first: what am I doing with a rented hybrid car on a 12,000-mile, 40-city speaking tour of America?

Barack Obama
Imran Ahmad decided to take Mr Obama at his word

I'd always been grateful that Britain, the land of my upbringing, had remained remarkably tolerant of Muslims despite the shock of the 7 July bombings and continuing provocation from some extremist elements. I think there's still a good general understanding in the UK that the actions of a few do not represent all Muslims.

But I wasn't sure the same could be said for the United States - a country where I'd lived for five years and for which I'd always had great affection.

There had been a dreadful incident on New Year's Day this year in which nine Muslims - all US citizens, including three young children - had been removed from a domestic flight because two of them had been overheard discussing where was the safest place to sit on an aeroplane.

The FBI had been called in, the "suspects" questioned and the airline had initially refused to rebook them even after they were released without charge.

My own experience of the US had been formed in the years immediately before 9/11, when I'd lived there. Religion and ethnicity had never been an issue. Contrast this with the years since the 2001 attacks, when, on each visit, I'd been detained for "secondary" questioning at immigration control… sometimes for hours.

I don't blame them for this, given the circumstances. But it still had made me sad.

'Mutual respect'

Then, in January, I'd been made redundant after many years as a programme manager in the UK. Given the current economic situation, it didn't feel like a good time to be job-hunting.

Imran Ahmed
If this is Washington, it must be Tuesday...

Then one evening, I was reclining in my sofa, watching President Obama's inauguration speech, and heard his mention of a new era of "mutual respect" between America and the Muslim world.

Suddenly the penny dropped. I thought: "I can do that."

My book, Unimagined - a Muslim Boy Meets the West, had been released in the US last autumn, and I'd received a few e-mails from readers suggesting I come and speak in their church should I ever find myself in America.

As a trustee of British Muslims for Secular Democracy, I am committed to a positive relationship between the Muslim and Western worlds. I became excited by the thought of a US speaking tour.

That evening, I sat down in my study, pulled out a map of the US, and began plotting a course 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, and back to the Windy City.

I began contacting various organisations on the route, asking if I could speak at their venues. Within days, I'd had my first acceptances and the proposed plan quickly became a reality.

Of course, I'd had moments of doubt. Should I be doing this when I really needed to find a job?

But with President Obama's rhetoric in my sails, my goal, to re-humanise the relationship between America and the Muslim world; to counter the unthinking tribalism which results in polarisation, dehumanisation and demonisation, seemed too important.

Questioned by police

But then, on my day of departure, two things happened which caused me to think twice.

Imran Ahmed speaking
Mr Ahmad is eight dates into his 40-date tour

An Iranian-born film-maker had been interviewing me about the trip, in my car whilst I was driving. A few minutes after getting home, there had been a knock on the door. Two police officers were investigating a report of two Middle Eastern men suspiciously filming in the town centre.

They were extremely polite, even apologetic, and once I'd explained what was going on, they left without a fuss. I don't make any judgment here - it's right that people should be vigilant.

Then, upon my arrival at Chicago O'Hare airport, I wasn't detained for secondary screening. The immigration officer, a pretty Hispanic woman, looked at my passport ("Cute picture!"), stamped it and wished me well.

I was relieved and surprised.

Now, I'm eight dates into my tour. It is tiring, but the audiences are giving me the energy to keep going. They have been, without exception, warm and receptive. Even people I meet outside the events (generally hotel and restaurant staff) have been delighted to hear I am a writer from England on a speaking tour around America on the subject of relations with the Muslim world.

I have always wanted to drive around the US, but had imagined this would be something I would do nearing retirement - otherwise, how would I have the time? To be doing it now with purpose is even better.

And I can look for a new job when I get back.

Below is a selection of your comments.

What a wonderful story. I sincerely hope that this is the start of a movement away from confrontation toward mutual respect and tolerance. How about some programmes along these lines on the BBC?
Gary Stewart, Uckfield UK

It's interesting, according to the itinerary on his website, Mr Ahmed isn't speaking at any Jewish organisations. Is this because he wasn't invited, didn't contact them, or was he worried about how he would be perceived if he did? Obviously this is a constituency that needs to be reached in the US as well.
Alejandro Sol, London, UK

"Two police officers were investigating a report of two Middle Eastern men suspiciously filming in the town centre... I don't make any judgment here - it's right that people should be vigilant." They made judgment on you though. Just the fact that you looked Middle Eastern and had a camera was enough for someone to call the police. How accepted do you actually think you are in this community?
Tabs, London

Love this! What an open-hearted, brave, positive thing to do. From all us Muslims out there who regularly cringe when we read about what's being done in our name in the news, thank you. This is a breath of fresh air.
Farrah Jarral, London

Al-salaam 'alaykum. May God reward you for your efforts to illuminate the darkness of ignorance and put into proper perspective the sensationalist stories broadcast by some sections of the media. However, we human beings are God's stewards on this planet, and it is our responsibility to take the greatest possible care of the resources that He has given us. Therefore, I should feel happier if you travelled around the United States by TRAIN instead of by car, thus promoting the use of public transport and helping in the reduction of the carbon footprint. Please think about it. With salaam and best wishes.
Sylvia Juliette Hunt, Wester Ross, Scotland

This speaking tour is a great idea. Do you plan any dates in Charleston, SC?
Greg Brown, Charleston, South Carolina, USA

Is this guy trying to make a point because I have obviously missed it. Has he been nominated as a Muslim ambassador? No. So he should get back to the UK and get a job.
Paul Mayer, Leigh on Sea, Essex

When I hear stories like this it makes me cringe. Why does Mr Ahmed think it's necessary for him to go round and explain who he is? Is this a plug for his book? I guess there's money to be made in being a professional Muslim nowadays and saying all the right things to soothe a predominantly ignorant audience. It doesn't answer the important issues because people don't want to hear. Also, what I find objectionable is this incessant use of the prefix "moderate" as if by default everyone else is an extremist.
Bilal Patel, London, UK

It would be best if his talks were given to audiences in Iran, Saudi Arabia or Pakistan explaining to them how the US and Britain do not want to be at war with Islamic terrorists and seek to tell them the West is not against them. After all, all the terrorists concerned are Muslims attacking America and the west not the other way around.
Rob, Northwich, UK

As a Northern Irish man who grew up during the troubles in Northern Ireland i can relate to Imran's thinking. During the 70's, 80's and 90's Irish people were treated very badly in the rest of the UK and around the world once it was learned where you were from. For example my wife and i where in a small grocery shop in North London, we were discussing what to buy and within 5 mins two police officers arrived and questioned us about what we were doing. The shopkeeper had overheard our accents and thought we were planting a bomb! Rather the discussing the choice of our dinner for that night!
Richard Hayes, Bangor, Northern Ireland

"As a trustee of British Muslims for Secular Democracy." Aren't you pretty much preaching to the converted? I mean, we're mostly not Muslim, but we're almost all for secular democracy. You should be doing your tour in the new no-go for non-Muslim areas of England.
Nate, Portland USA

It would be interesting to read some excerpts from Mr. Ahmed's speaking engagements. And also to know how US audiences are responding to his tour and their concerns about this issue. As a Muslim who returned to the US a month ago after five years of absence, I have had some limited conversations with folks here. However, unlike Mr. Ahmed's experience, I have always (since 911) been singled out for extra scrutiny by the US airline authorities. They call it random, but is it really random when it occurs every single time? It's a distasteful, racist, unacceptable, and insulting profiling.
Selim Hassan, Dallas, Texas, USA

One must not forget 9/11 when over 3,000 people were killed and there was no backlash in the USA where majority of the population is Christian. Just imagine what would have happened to minority Christians in a majority Muslim populated nation? Anon, Washington DC

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