DOHA, Qatar — Hundreds of Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders from over 50 countries gathered in Qatar’s capital city this week to discuss the intersection of social media and religion at the 9th Doha Conference of Inter-faith Dialogue, a three-day affair which concluded on Wednesday.
[Photos from Doha Inter-Faith Conference]
I was bestowed the honor of attending by Dr. Ibrahim Bin Saleh Al-Naimi who chaired the proceedings, which featured open dialogue and lectures delivered by prominent rabbis, priests, preachers, clerics and scholars of the three Abrahamic religions.
Opinions ranged from the cautious to the ebullient, with some skeptical of social media’s ability to foster erudite discourse and others excited about its potential to mobilize the faithful.
It was made clear that social media was not a replacement for meaningful dialogue but simply an enabling technology and, although an undeniably powerful tool, it also represented a double-edged sword.
Several speakers stressed that social media, standalone, was a morally-neutral mechanism whose ethical value was determined by the motives of its user. It played an integral role in organizing the liberating protests of the Arab Spring, for example, but it has also been used to propagate hate speech against people of faith.
Reverend Jesse Jackson pointed out how the Arab Spring revolutions have spurred a fundamental shift in how we “connect and communicate, educate and organize”. Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and Smartphones are now the primary tools shaping new democratic movements. However, he also feared technology had outrun social progress and emphasized that Facebook was not an adequate substitute for face-to-face dialogue.
Austrian professor Hans Kochler posited that social media was “necessary but not sufficient” for political emancipation. Kochler argued that the euphoria surrounding social media was unjustified and, with respect to inter-faith initiatives, considered it better suited for advocacy than dialogue.
Although technology has made distance seem irrelevant, according to Rabbi Henry Sobel from Brazil, it has not served as a panacea to society’s ills. The key to tearing down barriers between the faiths and promoting universal brotherhood was authentic dialogue, which is difficult to accomplish online.
UK Archbishop Patrick Kelly underlined the difference between “reaction” and “response”, warning of the perils inherent in instant communication without context. Knee-jerk messaging within a vacuum is dangerous, especially if one fails to appreciate the historical, ethnic, political, cultural and religious complexities that accompany any issue of import.
Professor Scott Alexander was concerned about activist reductionism — pushing for action before building trust. Alexander also described social media as a one-sided “disembodied mode of communication” and warned of “the tendency to communicate only some parts of one’s interior world, the risk of constructing a false image of oneself, which can become a form of self-indulgence”.
Rabbi Marc Gopin offered a more positive take. With 2,000 friends on Facebook, Gopin said he engages in inter-religious dialogue on a daily basis and has witnessed the tool unite people around causes that never would have come together otherwise.
Many agreed that social media was certainly no fad. Facebook, for example, has over 800 million active users with more than 50% of them logging on each day. Yet social trust is a prerequisite for productive dialogue and building trust takes time and patience — a process and mindset antithetical to social media’s culture of instant gratification.
The structure of facebook and similar social media confines tend to cultivate debate via talking points and abrasive snippets — an environment that doesn’t lend itself well to the type of heartfelt exchange required for legitimate inter-faith exploring and discovery.
Engaging in “deep dialogue”, as one scholar put it, is different than offering opinions. Deep dialogue is about asking questions with a sincere interest in understanding the other person’s mind, heart and soul.
Underlying the nominal topic was a consistent call for richer and more frequent inter-religious dialogue in and of itself, regardless the medium employed. Such dialogue can bridge many of the gaps, real or fancied, between these three monotheistic “revealed” faiths — religions I have come to learn have more in common at depth than they do on the surface.
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