When British businessman Imran Ahmad was made redundant he decided to arrange a one-man speaking tour of the US to spread his message of peace and Muslim moderateness. How did it go?
I've just returned from my two month "re-humanisation" tour of the US, in which I drove 13,934 miles in a hybrid car and had 41 scheduled speaking events.
It was an overwhelmingly positive experience, with many surprises. Despite driving this enormous distance I didn't experience any kind of road rage incident or have any encounter with a police car, even in the Deep South.
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.
Twice I ran out of gas, due I maintain to a faulty fuel warning light in the vehicle. Once was in rural South Carolina, in an area of modest houses, open fields and pick-up trucks, where I felt somewhat uncomfortable.
Mr Ahmad's car broke down twice on his tour
With trepidation I went to the door of the nearest house. The retired white couple were extremely friendly and hospitable. Even when I answered the dreaded are-you-a-Mozzzlem question I detected only curiosity rather than hostility. I think that stereotypical assumptions on both sides were broken by this encounter.
In Washington, I had an enlightening meeting with a Muslim man of Republican affiliation, who formerly worked for the Bush administration. He was leaving later that day to take a group of evangelical Christians to Syria on a "familiarisation tour". It's good to note that many people are engaging in "re-humanisation" work.
Later, 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 in the Muslim world to maintain a credible position.
She asserted 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 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 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.
Mr Ahmad had time for some sightseeing
Amongst the people I was encountering, I could detect a sense of euphoria at the election of Obama. But in the media there seemed to be a constant stream of people lining up to attack him. Even Dick Cheney kept appearing on the television and radio, giving his highly critical opinion of Obama's performance to date, which he said made America "less safe".
A PhD rocket scientist who works for NASA took me to lunch in LA and gave me her opinion of the problem. She said Americans are polarising into segregated communities where people are all the same - politically, socially, religiously, economically. They never encounter challenges to their thinking and subsequent personal development which come from experiencing diversity. The democratic process is not achieving consensus.
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 this group had organised a speaking event for an Arab woman who had converted to Christianity and they had advised the local police she was in danger from terrorists. The police laid on a highly 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.
Below is a selection of your comments.
Thank goodness for multiculturalism. Britain would be a much worse place without its wide cultural diversity.
Sam Jordan, Sheffield
Very courageous effort and valuable experiences for most sides.
Khris, York, UK
The polarisation into segregated communities that the NASA scientist mentioned, is unfortunately being facilitated by the internet, which makes it possible to minimize one's exposure to all information which doesn't confirm one's own world view.
Mr Henderson, Teddington UK
All I am going to say that Mr Imran is purely seeking attention by travelling the States. Since he lost his job such effort is just a show piece and their is no solid grounds to what he is trying to achieve. Being a fellow Muslim, my views are that combined all-Muslim collaboration is required to spread word of unity and peace - not a one man show.
Abbas Ashraf, Dubai, U.A.E