Monday in the Mosque with Matthew

imageAs part of the new all-American cult I’ve joined, Young Leaders UK, I’ve taken part in two slightly surreal events. One was gate crashing a Hackathon at the Economist HQ in Canary Wharf on Saturday, where coders were designing programs to promote sustainable fishing. I basically sat their eating gummies and feeling inadequate until I took to the podium to chat plastic electronics, solar cells and women in science. Turns out I know more than them about solar cells, but less about tuna, so it’s all okay in the end. I wasn’t lucky/ young enough to make the audience with Obama, but I did make the list for Monday in the mosque with Matthew Barzun. The mosque is in Regent’s Park, a mere stone’s throw from Barzun’s palace, a 5,000 capacity ornate gold domed temple in the heart of London. It’s mesmerising inside, from the serenity of the main hall (where no shoes are allowed) to the comforting smell of Indian cooking and polite, unjudging grounds keepers.

Barzun is talking in the library, where he’s going to do his whole pitch without a microphone. He “doesn’t need to be subtle… (he’s) American”. When Barzun started his tenure as American ambassador he was a first time diplomat, and turned to his pal Obama for advice. Obama told him to “listen”. Since then (well, since Barzun worked out what Barack meant), Barzun’s done almost 150 of these gigs, young-people led focus groups questioning and cataloguing our opinions of America in 2016. This is an interesting audience, part YLUKers and part London state schools. I event get to meet the legendary girls of Mulberry School in Tower Hamlets who hosted Michelle Obama in 2015. The day starts really well: we use clickers to answer questions like:

  • Have you been to America?
  • Would you go again?
  • Would you go to America to live / work / study?
  • If you need emergency medical treatment, where would you go?

Unsurprisingly, 84 % of people would prefer emergency healthcare in the UK. Barzun says this is better than in Scotland, where 100 % wanted to be treated there. He’s noticed changes in our political concerns: there’s been a steady increase of young unrest about the UK in the EU over the past year, but we’re mainly worried about the Middle East and ISIS. Of our opinion on America, Barzun wants to know:

  • What do you think the US government cares about? (Security = 63 %)
  • What do American people think is most important? (Freedom = 70 %)
  • Are the USA: Too involved in other people’s problems (52 %), not doing enough (33 %) or getting it right (14 %)?
  • Are the UK: Too involved in other people’s problems (30 %), not doing enough (48 %) or getting it right (22 %)?

imageBarzun’s people (let’s call them Barzun’s boys, although they’re largely smartly dressed American women with snappy first names) have decked our chairs with cards asking us to describe our frustrations and concerns with America, alongside something that brings us hope. Whilst the majority of the audience make their way to five o’clock prayers, we start to formulate our lists. It turns out the young crowd have a lot of concerns, from theology, compulsory religious studies and policy on the middle east to healthcare in the third world, sexual education and birth control. We’re worried about North Carolina and the oppression of minority groups, imagethe brutality and misconduct of the police and the public stance on climate change. We don’t want there to be drone strikes, we want more transparency on counter terrorism and no one understands US gun laws. The budding enthusiasts are interested in the relationship between the global and US economy and we’re pretty impressed by the US attitude toward philanthropy.

What we’re most confused by is one puffy-haired red-faced man, who goes by the name Donald Trump. It’s quite clear that Barzun’s not Trump’s biggest fan, but after Trump’s latest tirade, “did y’all catch the bit about letting Muslims in to America?”, he feels he needs to say something. He then attempts to explain American politics to us with a very friendly looking Gaussian distribution, but honestly it makes it even harder to understand. There are nearly 300,000,000 people in America, of which only 3,000,000 (1 %) watch the most popular, crazy tory news channel Fox News. Other than having lots of 0s in, that means that even if Trump dominates US media it’s not changing the minds of 99 % of Americans. On peace in the Middle East he points out that during Obama’s tenure America’s signed a nuclear agreement with Iran, sorted a lot of stuff out with Cuba: he wants to help with the Israel/ Palestine situation too. Barzun talks us through the specifics of the American constitution to explain the self-imposed restrictions American’s have already set: whilst you can “bear arms”, you aren’t allowed to have tanks or rocket-propelled grenades. Barzun’s ever the optimist: the UK went to war with America and burnt down the White House, but now we’re the “best of friends”.

It was a shame we didn’t have time to chat about what inspires and excites us about America. There’s New York, there’s the golden coast, there’s the fact that all of our good musicians only feel creative in the sunlight of California, there’s the American Dream, there’s Obama. We have got a pretty bloody good piece of USA in the UK with Barzun though.

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