On September 11, 2001, I was working in Amsterdam as a Head-hunter. That particular autumn day unfolded much like any other until in the early afternoon someone burst in from the corridor saying "something's happened in New York, - it's on TV". I ran down to the canteen to see what was happening and joined millions around the planet watching in total amazement as first one and then the other colossal building came crashing to the ground.
In the days that followed it was clear that this event would change the world. America had suffered an unprecedented terrorist attack and the air was filled with expectations of war. Within hours of the event, Bin Laden was named as the likely perpetrator and the great new enemy was Islamic extremism.
At the time I was living in Vlaardingen, an old fishing town an hour south of Amsterdam on the Maas River. In the aftermath of 9-11, a group of us organised a peace parade through the streets; we were hoping to do something positive to counter the rising tide of fear and mistrust in our multicultural city. We got a good turn out that day, -we even had a fire-truck. On the steps of the town-hall I gave a welcome speech in broken Dutch which caused a few chuckles before the Mayor elevated the event with a beautiful speech about the unity of the human family. He referenced the famous image of the "earth rise" from the moon landing in 1969 and called on his citizens to show goodwill to people of all cultures.
Things have changed greatly since that day ten years ago. In the 2011 Dutch elections, the far- right, anti-jihadist Politician Geert Wilders received his biggest majority in the sleepy town of Vlaardingen. Here lies the microcosm of the macrocosm that played out in towns and cities across the western world. Wilders and others like him in Europe sailed into power on the winds of anti-Islamic sentiment, fuelled by well-crafted stereotypes of Muslims as terrorist with an agenda for world domination. People's natural concerns about immigration, the economy, fear of the unknown and the giddy-rate-of-change in society were fanned into full-blown fear and loathing by politicians who knew how to get elected and a mass-media that knew how to sell papers and glue eyeballs to screens.
Nothing can take away from the horror and evil of the 9-11 attacks and the awful loss of life that day in New York. Yet certain elements in society were willing to capitalise on the fear that was generated in order to further their own agendas. In the last decade the popular media and the opportunistic politics-of-exclusion have fed their audience on a diet of misinformation and half-truths concerning the Islamic religion and the 1.5 billion people who follow it. This has lead to an aptly named "vicious circle" of ignorance, suspicion and contempt.
How does one end such a cycle? How willing are we really to go and find things out for ourselves, to seek first-hand information and personal experience in place of merely believing what we're told?
When my friends and family in Australia heard that we were offering a new cultural immersion program called Muslim for a Month, half of them cracked the same joke -"will we be learning how to make bombs"? The download of mental associations and memes was complete, the man in the street's opinion was clear, - Muslims were terrorists and out to get us.
The guests who do the 10-day Muslim for a Month immersion experience do come out of it with altered perspectives. Spending time with Muslim families and learning about their religion is a powerful way to break down prejudice and to correct distorted ideas and misconceptions. The program allows people to learn from and question Islamic experts and to witness first-hand the dedication committed Muslims have to their faith and to the world. It is a living, breathing encounter with the vibrancy of Turkish Islam and guests and hosts alike testify that it has left them transformed and inspired. There really is no substitute for actual experience.
The idea of Muslim for a Month developed from our earlier program Monk for a Month, which was an immersion into Buddhism on the Thai-Burma border. These programs have nothing to do with changing religion and everything to do with promoting inter-cultural connections, interfaith experience and spiritual literacy. Muslim for a Month was set up in Istanbul, Turkey after we had been referred to local activists in that country, by of all people - a Catholic priest. We were to find our new Muslim hosts in Turkey as dedicated to peace and inter-cultural dialogue as anyone we'd ever met.
Much has been made of the spiritual vacuum that pervades western culture at this moment in our history. Another feature of this last decade which surely has some roots in 9-11 has been the rise of "new atheism". All religion is seen as a virus to be cured, a disease which clouds rational thinking and threatens society. While this line of thinking has had substantial air-time during the first decade of the 21st century, many thinking people remain deeply convinced that religion and spirituality have an important and positive role to play for the future. I suggest that the enemy is not religion in itself but rather the closed-mindedness, fear and pride of fundamentalism in all of its guises.
Fundamentalism is rooted in an interpretation of certain texts, traditions or methods as infallible - containing "the whole truth and nothing but the truth". In today's pluralistic world such circumscribed thinking needs to be grown out of, like a child's shoes that no longer fit. Be it Christian, Muslim, atheist or otherwise, any view that claims a monopoly on truth is now a part of the problem. This is not to say that people who see the world this way are all "bad people", mostly they believe that what they are doing is good. They suffer instead from faulty thinking, the kind of thinking that has you want to convert everyone to your religion, even the kind of corrupted thinking that has you murderously flying a plane into a crowded building crying "God is great".
In this jet-age age of information technology, there is little excuse for failing to explore world-views and perspectives other than our own cultural heritage and acquired beliefs. While it is easy to demonize what we don't understand, the more mature approach, the one that leads to peace, is to seek to understand, to come to know and possibly even appreciate that which is "other". This is not necessarily to abandon one's own beliefs or to wholly adopt another's, but if done with sound intention and sincerity it can become a creative engagement which has the potential to bring transformation and growth for everyone involved.
The hope is that only an enlarged cosmic perspective, one big enough to harmonise advancing scientific knowledge with a plurality of religious perspectives, faiths and philosophies will satisfy tomorrow's thinking men and women. It will be those courageous souls willing to go beyond their own personal and cultural bubbles of limited perception and who dare to walk in the shoes of others that will help to diffuse the bombs of intolerance and lead us further along the path of increasing peace and enlightenment. Blood Foundation and our partners aim to be a part of this process.
Ben can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org