x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Call for greater online cultural dialogue

Governments should support online networking websites to encourage greater communication between the West and the Islamic world, a report says.

ABU DHABI // Governments should support online networking websites to encourage greater communication between the West and the Islamic world, a report says. The document, Digital Diplomacy: Understanding Islam through Virtual Worlds, was produced by the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, a New York-based think-tank.

Researchers spent a year online interviewing web users across the world, including in the UAE, and published the report partly on Second Life, a virtual world website. It concludes: "The internet and virtual worlds can and should be used for outreach efforts to the Middle East and beyond. A global village requires digital diplomacy." The report argues that community websites such as Facebook, Twitter and MySpace can help people glimpse into other people's lives, ask questions and feed their own curiosity about other cultures they would not ordinarily have contact with. Second Life, where people create a virtual world and live through so-called avatars, or characters, gives non-Muslims the best chance to learn about Islam, it says.

The co-author of the report, Rita King, met a Muslim woman on Second Life while visiting a virtual synagogue. "This was me, meeting? another person, a Muslim woman, alive, at that moment, at some particular latitude and longitude in the physical world, while our digital avatars stood among the flickering wicks and flames of virtual candles." On a virtual tour of the Middle East, Ms King said Muslims "took us into their virtual communities, houses and mosques, invited us to fatwas, took us on a virtual haj to Mecca, and discussed their perceptions of extremism, integration, creative collaboration and cultural values.

"We discussed the economy, war, peace, religion, politics, women's rights, civil rights, justice, ethics, terrorism and social evolution. "Just as the Obama campaign engaged community movements, government must understand that foreign policy, public diplomacy and strategic communication are no longer determined solely by engagement with traditional elites in the 'physical' world." One of the contributors to the report was a 21-year-old Syrian woman living in the UAE, and who appears on Second Life as an avatar named Muslima Questi. Her real name is not given.

Muslima Questi built a mosque, the Ummah of Noor, in the virtual world and is now seen as a source of information to those curious about Islam on the website. An online community has since been assembled around Muslima Questi and those writing the report attended a conference she hosted on Muslim rape victims, alongside avatars from Syria, Spain, Australia, the UAE and the US. "I came to Second Life to meet other religions, to seek out a different view of the world," she said. "Islam was the best choice for me. My goal is to display as much as I can for the others if they're interested."

The call to employ Second Life as a means of sharing information comes a month after the network was used to stage protests over the Israeli attacks on Gaza. While Israel went on a public relations offensive, hosting a "citizen press conference" and establishing its own YouTube video-sharing account, photographs taken by Gazans were displayed in protests held on the website. rhughes@thenational.ae