Virtual Islam: Peace, Love, and Some Understanding?

In these times of rockets and bombs exploding in Israel and the Gaza Strip, Islamophobia alive and well in the homeland, an uptick in anti-Semitism in Europe, a lively Rapture Index, and the economy still in a shambles, it may be worth your while to step away from these realities and enter conversations that haven’t yet gotten as much attention and support as they may deserve.

Dozens in Egypt, Morocco, Italy, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, France, and the United States gather to protest the recent attacks in the Gaza Strip; American University in Cairo launches a Virtual Newsroom with James Glassman, the US Undersecretary of State of Public Diplomacy, in conversation with eight Egyptian political bloggers who covered the 2008 US presidential campaign; people from around the world join in a pilgrimage to Mecca and witness a burning synagogue depicting Kristallnacht. These are some of the gatherings and events that Josh Fouts, Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and Chief Global Strategist of Dancing Ink Productions, says are “example[s] of the rich, textured opportunity that 3D immersive spaces like Second Life offer for people to express their concerns about present day issues.”

After a year of exploring digital Islamic communities, Joshua S. Fouts and Rita J. King, Senior Fellows at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, produced a report which concludes: “engaging with people in virtual worlds who self-identify as Muslim can be part of a broader public diplomacy strategy to foster inclusive perspectives on religion, society, and coexistence.”

Fouts and King’s Understanding Islam through Virtual Worlds project had a pretty bold prospectus:

[To] see what they could learn about Islam—not by inviting particular people with particular perspectives into Second Life, but rather to follow the trail of what was already happening culturally in the space that might yield new insight about Islam.

On January 29, Fouts and King will present their findings at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in New York City. “Our findings are a trilogy consisting of policy recommendations for the Obama administration; a broadcast quality ‘machinima’ mini-documentary; and a graphic book (written in the style of a graphic novel),” Fouts noted in an e-mail interview, during which we had the opportunity to talk extensively about the project:

Tell me more about how you approached your project, what you hoped to find, and how you intend to move forward?

My collaborator, Rita J. King (an investigative journalist), and I approached this project journalistically with open minds, asking questions and listening. Our hope was to find people who were using 3D immersive spaces in innovative, authentic and creative ways that would give insight into how intercultural dialogue helps understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims. We already had a sense that people were using these spaces to build lasting relationships with people around the world. But we did not anticipate the scope or depth of Islamic or Islamic-oriented communities in Second Life.

We documented our findings in three ways in hopes that we would make it as accessible to as many audiences as possible. We have written a formal public diplomacy policy recommendation report for the Obama administration.

Describe Second Life and how it functions?

Second Life, currently one of the largest virtual worlds, is host to nearly 16 million ‘residents,’ who span more than 100 countries. It is a 3D, immersive space accessible in real time via the internet by people around the world.

In contrast to a game, which has explicit rules and goals, Second Life is open to the players to create whatever they want it to be. In this virtual space, players create ‘avatars’ (or 3D representations of themselves), build houses, clothes, and relationships, and essentially conduct ‘second’ lives. This provides increased opportunities for engagement with the players who visit them, the communities they build, and the spaces they inhabit.

Who are you communicating with in this project?

The audience for the research project is threefold: 1. Foreign policy-makers and practitioners who need to better understand how technology is reshaping the landscape of how and where they practice cultural outreach and messaging; 2. Corporations, NGOs and nonprofits who want to better understand the culture of virtual worlds; and 3. Ordinary people who want insight into the changing face of internet communities.

The people we interviewed for the report are a cross-section of virtual world residents balanced across, gender, race, and ethnicity. We met people from England, the United States, Libya, France, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, the Netherlands, Germany, Chile, Turkey, Brazil, the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Qatar, Portugal, Canada, Mexico, the Russian province of north Ossetia, Indonesia, South Africa, Morocco, Japan, Israel, Jordan, Italy, and Spain. They took us into their virtual communities, houses, and mosques, invited us to fatwas, took us on a virtual Hajj to Mecca, and discussed their perceptions of extremism, integration, creative collaboration, and cultural values.

Is the pool of participants limited by: a) Those who have access to computers, and/or b) Those with the skills to enter your virtual communities?

Absolutely. But access to the internet has expanded exponentially. And people who are marginalized often seek alternative venues to augment their voices. The internet provides that opportunity. Human innovation seeks outlets for their voices whether they have access to that technological outlet at home or at a cybercafe. Just as shortwave radio was a lifeline to people in information-starved societies in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, so now is the Internet a new venue for the voice of the marginalized or oppressed.

Our project was an effort to understand and chronicle what was going on in virtual world communities. There are now millions of people around the world who are part of them. The Gartner Research firm predicted in April 2007 that 80% of all internet users will have an avatar version of themselves by 2011.

How does the so-called “common” man or woman participate? Or is that not a concern?

I’m not sure what you mean by “common.” If by common you mean middle class, I think almost everyone we met falls into that category. The jobs and vocations of the people we met in Second Life crossed the gamut of professions: Web site news editors, librarians, architects, stay-at-home moms, teachers, lawyers, college students, journalists, writers, counselors, clerics, bloggers. The new economy—or the one that is transforming into a new economy as we are all witnessing—is redefining “common.”

Against the backdrop of the repeated failed efforts by the Bush administration at public diplomacy, where does your work fit in?

Many of the criticisms of the Bush administration’s public diplomacy efforts, particularly with regard to the Middle East was that the U.S. didn’t spend enough time listening to the concerns of people in the region. The fact is, the U.S. is in the living rooms of people around the world more so than we are in theirs. Even the War in Iraq seems distant and not as much of a reality in the U.S. as much as it is in the Middle East.

Our work was a bona fide listening effort. We went into communities in Second Life that either self-identified as Muslim or were self-declared efforts to better understand Islam, and we asked people about their stories. In the end, this project was about storytelling. What people are doing is building new narratives to find ways to coexist. That said, we are not Pollyannas, and Second Life is not a utopia. We encountered numerous situations where tense, impassioned dialogue occurred. But the virtual nature of the space provided an opportunity for people to find new ways to work through differences. [Editor’s note: For more on this, see Fouts’ essay, “A Virtual Pilgrimage to Mecca.”]

How did religious differences come into play?

Religious differences are at the heart of most of what we are doing. People are using virtual worlds as a way to understand and express their religious identity. In our documentary and written reports on “Understanding Islam through Virtual Worlds” [see interview video, below], we chronicle, among others, the story of a young Syrian woman who has built a mosque in Second Life around which a thriving community has developed, and a Methodist Texas lawyer and mother who heads an experimental community attempting to live under Islamic democratic law as it might have been in the 13th Century.

I am assuming here that there are few members of Hamas, Hezbollah, or radical Jewish groups involved in this project. Correct me if I’m wrong.

While we did not focus on those communities specifically, we did encounter them. Second Life, with all its sixteen million-plus registered users (less than 20% of whom are from the United States), captures a microcosm of humanity in all its diversity.

How can this work get done without government intervention?

I think there is tremendous opportunity for individuals, NGOs, and nonprofits to practice citizen diplomacy, such as the communities we found in Second Life, which consist of people actively and creatively trying to find ways to express themselves authentically in an effort to, in the case of those who self-identify as Muslim, help non-Muslims understand them and, in the case of non-Muslims to gain a more balanced insight into the people who are members of Islamic societies and communities.