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Muslims as Ordinary People: What's the Angle?

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When I was growing up in London in the 60s, 70s and 80s, my perception of Muslims was that we were really boring people -- we just prayed a lot, didn't drink, didn't go to parties (well, we didn't get invited to the really good parties), and we weren't supposed to have sex until we got married (which didn't matter too much, because our food was really good). We made the Amish look like swingers.

In those days, there was no real issue of "Islam and the West." The "problem" at that time was the God-less Communists. I was very happy to see the Muslim world, especially Pakistan (my now-horribly-embarrassing-country-of-origin), working closely with America to drive the God-less Communists out of Afghanistan. America supplied those wonderful Stinger missiles, and it was always a thrill to see on television the brave Mujahedeen taking shots at Russian helicopter gunships.

I was on the same side as James Bond and the Six Million Dollar Man (which seems really cheap now), and very happy with that. In fact, reading the original James Bond novels by Ian Fleming, I discovered that I matched his physical description almost perfectly (it's true - just check it). James Bond was the ultimate establishment figure, and if I was just like him (apart from the vodka, cigarettes and women), then I belonged. From an early age -- despite being a boring Muslim from embarrassing Pakistan -- I had decided that I was going to belong, rather than wallow in self-segregation and resentment like many from my 'home' country. And British society -- slowly, reluctantly at first, but ultimately with a new-found sense of optimism, social justice and inclusion -- eventually accepted me as belonging. The casual, normal racism of the 60s had become unacceptable by the 90s. Racism has been driven into the recesses of society. Few now would have the audacity to openly reveal their racism. (There is a major exception to this. It did not seem to occur to the social engineers that brown people could also be racist.)

Then a couple of unexpected things happened.

First, the God-less Communists became Capitalists, and joined the West. Nowadays Russian billionaires come to London, live in lavish homes, and buy our soccer teams. They are no longer the Other.

Then something else happened: 9/11, a day of insanity and terror, courage and compassion. But out of the dust and the rubble, a new Other began to emerge ... and it was me. It was not unexpected that some people in America would be outraged at Muslims for this awful act. We should not be surprised at the abuse and vitriol being hurled around the Internet. It's what people do when they are hurt, angry, and afraid of something they don't understand.

I watched in despair as the world descended into an insane, hate-filled "lazy tribalism" driven by certain dark forces because it suited their agendas. How they wanted to present everything as black and white, good and evil, us and them. "America is waging war on Islam and wants to oppress and kill Muslims." "All Muslims are crazy hate-filled terrorists." Everything so simple. A homogenous Other you can hate without moral ambiguities. But could it be that the Other isn't a unified group that has one opinion, one motive, and one set of values? Could it be that the Other is human like us, has a valid point of view, and may even be "right" sometimes?

When people chant "Death to Amreeka!" which America do they mean? The America that intervened to save the Bosnian Muslims from total genocide? The America that is the first to assist whenever there's a catastrophe anywhere in the world? The America that yearns to help the oppressed in Darfur and the countries of the Arab Spring, but can no longer bear the consequence of so-called Muslim countries accusing it of waging a Western imperialist war on Islam?

It's also tragic to see rampant Islamophobia being propagated within America today. Some unscrupulous political and media elements are using the tried and trusted McCarthyist formula of stoking up fear against a sinister, incomprehensible Other (homogenized into a singular entity) to further their own ends.

The post-9/11 world became an ugly landscape of tribalism, dehumanization and hatred - but the impact on me personally was more benign.

I had heard stories of Muslims arriving in America and being detained for hours by Homeland Security. I worked for General Electric and I came to America (from London) frequently on business. But nothing happened to me until October 2002. It was my 77th arrival into the United States, I came into Atlanta, and, for the first time ever, I was sent to "Secondary" -- a depressing room with chairs occupied by huddled masses looking apprehensive. There was a new process for certain profiles of alien, and this involved brand new equipment: digital cameras, retina scanners, fingerprint scanners. I was assigned a blonde Homeland Security officer to take me through the process, but she had never used the equipment before, so another officer (a man) came over to show her how to use it. But then she wandered off -- which was unfortunate because I thought she was rather attractive (it may have been the uniform, the gun, and the handcuffs). I underwent this secondary screening on virtually every arrival for about five years. The process also involved an extensive list of questions. How tall are you? Where were your parents born? What did you study at university? (Chemistry, fortunately, not Nuclear Physics.) There was one question for which I could not bear to tell the precise truth. Weight? I would take off a modest 20 percent.

This process was always conducted politely and respectfully by the Homeland Security officers. But it was an inconvenience, bruised my ego, and hurt my James Bond self-image. Still, it was a small price to pay in the aftermath of 9/11.

I knew that I could write a book to re-humanize Muslims and the West to each other, detailing the complexity of both "sides." So I wrote "Unimagined -- a Muslim boy meets the West," (now published in the US as "The Perfect Gentleman") describing my experience of growing up in two worlds, and the hypocrisy and humanity I witnessed everywhere. All the major British publishers rejected the book, because I did not have a miserable childhood, I was not abused as a child, I did not become a terrorist or even an Islamist -- so who would be interested in my story?

Eventually, an editor was found (with a small publisher) who liked the manuscript, and the book was published, to enormous acclaim. "Unimagined" was selected in the "best books of the year" lists of three major newspapers, and is being treated as English literature at school and university level. I have spoken at literary festivals all over the world and received many warm e-mails and letters from readers who enjoyed the book. And this despite it not being miserable and having nothing to do with terrorism.

It took another five years to get to US publication, again because of this issue of "what's the angle?" But eventually I found a wonderful editor in New York who liked the narrative, and "The Perfect Gentleman" is being published in April 2012. And just to reinforce the message, I am conducting a 50-city speaking tour of the mainland United States, at a wide spectrum of venues. It will be interesting to see if America on the ground is really as portrayed by the media. And whether I will be sent to Secondary on arrival.

Full details of Imran Ahmad's 50-city US speaking tour (mid-April to mid-June) are on www.perfect-gent.com

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