The Imagination Age and Digital Diplomacy

Second Life is a virtual world that users can enter from anywhere, create an avatar, and build communities with others. In “Understanding Islam Through Virtual Worlds,” a short documentary that follows dialogues about Islam happening in Second Life, hosts Rita J. King and Joshua S. Fouts enter a mosque, take the Hajj, and even visit the online office of a real-life charity. Below is a video of the documentary or you can watch it here in high definition.

Fouts and King feel that the project’s main goal is to tell the story of Islamic virtual realms and give people the chance to share their message with a larger audience. On their blog, Fouts says:

We had many tense discussions with Muslims and non-Muslims alike in virtual space around issues such as Islamic Law and Rape, perceptions about the evolution of the Muslim Brotherhood, free speech, women’s issues, the conflict in Gaza and the war in Iraq. Many Muslims are fed up with violence and virtual worlds offer a new opportunity, especially for people who live within oppressive regimes, to reach out and discuss these issues and even begin to seek creative solutions.

Indeed, there are many issues that the video does not cover and cannot possibly discuss in under ten minutes of footage. While in Mesopotamia, we meet a young woman from Syria, called Muslimah Questi, who built the Ummah of Moor Mosque. Muslimah Questi also held a conference on Muslim rape victims in Second Life with avatars from Australia, United Arab Emirates, Spain, and the US as well. This, however, isn’t included in the documentary and demonstrates the trouble with having virtual dialogues. How can the rest of the world, those who are not logged into Second Life or do not have access to the internet, hear their stories?

Digital Diplomacy Report (via Dancing Ink Productions)

Digital Diplomacy Report (via Dancing Ink Productions)

The “Understanding Islam Through Virtual Worlds” project seems to jump to another question altogether: Could online understanding be translated into real-world policies and official diplomatic ties? Fouts and King say the goal is to share the stories from the virtual world and that the contribution of this project is a new strategy for developing diplomatic ties with the Muslim world. They have in fact started the conversation by outlining some policy recommendations in an official report.

In “Digital Diplomacy: Understanding Islam in Virtual Worlds,” the central lesson for policymakers is to be nimble and adapt to the bottom-up way information is circulated on the Internet. Instead of sending a message to the world, they should tell a story and interact instead. Concrete suggestions include virtual exchange programs for diplomats.

Second Life user and documentary interviewee Rose Springvale expresses support of digital diplomatic efforts. She says that the world in Second Life is the one we should be living in as a global society today. Her point that a more inclusive mindset, with more imaginative ways of relating with others, would be an improvement is well taken but it would be a mistake not to balance the experience with some honest reflection about its differences from the actual world.

Reaching out to the Muslim world is an important issue that President Obama has promised to tackle during his presidency and this project does present some innovative solutions. On the other hand, as Op-ed columnist for The Nation Muhammad Ayish points out, the original question of whether virtual relationships will lead to political answers remains unanswered. He says:

as the experience of the past five decades suggests, the battle for hearts and minds in [the Middle East] region can never be solely won through innovative communication techniques and captivating rhetoric, but rather through a closer alignment between mass-mediated discourse and official policy orientations. I believe the translation of Mr Obama’s overtures to Muslim nations into sound policies more than the development of Second-Life-style experiences, could furnish the solid foundations for successful public diplomacy.

Second Life could be a measure of social progress and indicator of what is to come. I do wonder though whether it makes sense to assume that the virtual culture in Second Life is better for developing relationships than working through differences in relationships that embrace the plurality of traditions that exist, for better or for worse, in the world today. Moreover, the issues of internet access, global interconnection, and language translation are obstacles for such programs to overcome before they can become political success stories.

As Noah Feldman proposes in this TED talk, religion and politics are technologies just as virtual worlds are. In a profound sense, they are both tools for interpreting the way people view the world and how people act within society. As such, there’s no way to represent any of these realms with one image. Looking at religion, politics, and digital worlds separately is presents an overly simplistic picture.

Similarly, the modern era can be described in many ways. It is called the imagination, digital, and even the Obama era. Whatever name we choose as a collective will reflect the world we want to live in and how we want to organize the story for future generations to tell. The makers of “Understanding Islam Through Virtual Worlds” deserve a lot of credit and respect the bold choice to look at Islam from a new, spontaneous approach. I also have to question the purpose of highlighting the virtual world and uprooting Islam from its real-life interpretations if the goal is a new, inclusive global culture and a modern view of the sacred.

How about framing the sacred in terms of the age of pluralism instead of the imagination age? It may not answer what Islam is in any final sense but it might help showcase its diversity. Also, pluralism may help us cope with another dilemma: How can diplomacy act upon the advances of online dialogue and promote tolerant, helpful, and progressive technologies?

Do you think that digital dialogue is also political? Are you on Second Life? Share your online experiences and opinions with Inside Islam: Dialogues and Debates below or email us with your thoughts.

2 thoughts on “The Imagination Age and Digital Diplomacy

  1. As’salamu Alaikum, I watched twice and tried to decide my reaction. I can appreciate the concept of introducing Islam to those who may never have had a chance to learn of our faith. Al7amdulillah, my concern is that the “anonimity aspect” will be a portal to discussions and interaction that is not of Islam or followings of the Sunnah. Yes, this happens anyway on the net daily…however, it doesn’t make it correct.

    My concern is that the whole “virtual” concept while extremely popular, will lend to the removal of human connection. Islam is a religion in which connection to the ummah is vital and highly encouraged. Yes, the digital age is an exciting creation and invites others to that which otherwise they may never experience…but, no amount of virtual community can ever replace the reality and beauty that is Islam.

    Lastly, while I can understand the basis of the virtual age, it is still the creation of the inventors own mind…to be made perfect if desired, or void of all that is not deemed important. Islam is not a concept, it is a Muslims life and daily existence.

    Wa’Alaikum As’salam.

  2. I’m glad you left that comment because I’ve been re-thinking this post and going back and forth as you said. My issues with the virtual world of Second Life is that while the good intentions are there, the reform efforts are inauthentic, how would said American person know how to begin to plan for social change or say what it is or when it will happen within Islam? Individual Muslims say how this happens, or sometimes wish for large scale change in which case they create a movement built upon their reality.

    Perhaps then, the virtual age is much more unifying than it seems, and shapes and molds the attitudes of users in similar ways to the outside world. How is that social change? I believe we can shape and mold technologies. Who better to do so than those people who live in such realities already? I think the main thing is that we see the tools and problems and discrepancies online as reclaiming who we are, and take responsible action but know and rather than outright change in the world without first reforming the way we think, and then relating to it differently is quite disastrous without ensuring it’s authentic.

    I think we the way we use technology to shape the Internet should be rooted in the way we think about the world. Who does even know about Islam? It’s the fastest growing religion in the world with a global reach that is complexity. So, not only is Islam changing all the time, it’s also increasingly complicated to say what it means.