Reflections on the 9th Doha International Conference on Interfaith Dialogue

This was the ninth in a series of meetings that bring together leading ecclesial and theological leaders from the Abrahamic faiths for a period of interaction and network-building.  I must begin my saying that I wholeheartedly endorse and support this project.  I could not have been more impressed with the commitment of these speakers to a future of understanding and of moderate, even liberal values in relation to religion and moral and political culture.  Anything I say here is intended to help pursue the project at the center of the ninth meeting: understanding how digital and social media might be implicated in interfaith relations and issues.

The theme of this meeting was clearly motivated by the experience of the “Arab Spring” and the demonstrations in Iran in prior years.  Discourse about this, and particularly about the situation in Egypt, dominated the meeting.  The input from Egypt was particularly interesting, stimulating, and fascinating.  It is clear that a new day has dawned for many in the region. All expect a bumpy road ahead, but something important has changed, in their view.

There were several things in the background of these conversations that conditioned the discourse in significant ways.  The first was that the dominant voices in the room were ecclesial or theological or both.  Thus, the paradigms, categories of conversation, and issues, reflected their concerns.  The second was the pervasive and determinative effect of demographics. The question of digital and social media is—almost by definition—a generational discourse. This was, simply, not the digital generation, or really anywhere near it.  Speaker after speaker, and person after person I spoke with around the edges, would say something like, “…I really don’t know much about social media—so I asked my kids….”

It was fascinating to realize that this one of the things the three faiths had the most in common—at least in this context—was their approach to accounting for digital media. All chose to look at the digital in similar ways, focusing on the morality and ethics of these media in a clearly instrumentalist frame, something I address in more detail in the following “myths.”  There was also a gender cast to some of the presentations and—particularly—the questions and responses from the floor.  Simply put, women among the presenters and questioners seemed to have more generative ideas about the digital and social media and about the processes of social change for which they would be relevant.

So, there was a dominant framing to the discourse.  This is a limiting factor in that, for those in the non-social/digital media “generations” and cohorts, what they know is what they read in the press about what digital and social media are and how they work.  And the press have their own ways of interpreting these things. So, what is generally known of digital and social media are the negative and lurid things about which we can have moral panics, or in the case of the Arab Spring, things we want to celebrate.  What happens is that moral leaders such as those speaking at Doha can say only the most generic things about these media, applying generic notions of the good and right and just to uses of the digital and social media that they know only second-hand.  And typically, these are generic ideas that are assumed to apply to all of digital media when they are only relevant to specific uses and cases and not beyond.

I was not invited to give a formal presentation.  At the risk of hubris, I thought this was a bit of a loss as I was the one person present who had actually done some research on religion and digital media.  Instead, I engaged in many conversations and interventions “around the edges.”   I met many fine people, did some valuable networking, and learned a lot.  Tellingly, perhaps, many of the most interesting conversations I had were with younger participants, most of whom “got it” in ways many (but not all) of the formal presentations did not.  In fairness, in fact, I should stipulate that a few of the main speakers spoke with some sophistication about digital media.  They were the notable exceptions.

It is important to focus on the larger picture because of what it tells us about the challenges that established religious authorities face in coming to terms with the substantial changes that contemporary forms of media and mediation are bringing about.  In the main, in the plenary presentations, I heard three separate and distinct discourses related to interfaith dialogue and digital media: 1) Discussions of ethics and ethical principles; 2) Discussions of the processes and practices of dialogue; and 3) Discussions focused on technologies.  These three discourses must be brought together if progress is to be made in understanding the role of digital media in religious understanding.  It can’t just be about dialogue, it must also contemplate ethics and digital media. It can’t just be about ethics, it must take account of digital media and the challenges of dialogue, and of course, it can’t just be about media technologies, it must also be about how to bring ethically-informed and ethically-relevant dialogue to bear in and through these media.

With this project in mind, I present ten “myths” about religion and digital/social media I heard at Doha along with a brief discussion of each.

Myth one: that the social media are equivalent to the journalism of the “legacy” media.  Speaker after speaker talked about social and digital media as though they were just a new iteration of earlier media.  The difference with social media was thought to be that they could simply be somehow deployed instrumentally in the service of dialogue.  The idea seemed to be that since they are interactive and networked, we could extend a presumed instrumentalism (that is actually not typical of journalism, either) to these media, replacing journalistic framing with an aspired deployment in a kind of enforced interactivity.

Myth two: it is possible to “assign” a responsibility to the social media.  Several speakers talked of the expectations we might have of media in relation to dialogue and understanding.  It is laudable—even vital—that social media and digital media be brought into this project. The problem is that it was never possible for moral authority to make journalism do its bidding.  Religion resists such expectations.  But at least with the legacy media, it might be possible for channels to be directed or controlled.  This is much less technically possible with digital media.  But, more than that, digital media practice absolutely resists the ideal of control or direction.

Myth three: the Internet is neutral. It is a technology with no inherent values, conditions, or framings—an empty vessel, ready to be deployed for good or ill.  For some theological voices, it was described as a gift from God, destined to be deployed for good if used in ways consistent with faith.  For those more focused on moral issues, this idea of neutrality supported a focus on evil and virtue in relation to larger questions of politics and purpose.

Myth four: dialogue happens offline, with online activity ideally only supporting it.  This functioned, I think, to reserve authority over dialogue to an expert discourse such as that represented in dialogue projects such as at Doha.  Dialogue was thought of as something hermetic.  It has its own normativity, its own purposes and its own outcomes, significant in particular and defined contexts and put to particular and defined purposes.  As contradictory as it sounds, it was hard for these voices to conceive of online interactivity as having the capacity to be a context of dialogue, or even authentic interaction.  This was not, of course, all about authority.  There was also the widely-shared assumption that it is the physical encounter that is essential, and that that physical encounter, along with its motivations, subjectivities, and conditions, pre-dates the digital, and can expect certain things from the digital encounter.

Myth Five:  That the Arab Spring was “caused” by the digital media/that the Arab Spring was not “caused” by the digital media.  While many pointed out that we can explain this phenomenon best as a complex of causes, with digital media playing a role, there were still frequent references to its role on the one hand and attempts to discount it in a “straw man” argument on the other.

Myth Six:  Dialogue must have rules.  This derived, I think, from the long-standing tenure of conversations (at Doha and elsewhere) about dialogue.  Dialogue about dialogue necessarily involves a great deal of rumination on the nature of the process.  There are of course expert literatures (in a number of fields) that are relevant to this discourse and that help reinforce the idea that one of the keys to successful dialogue is “doing it right.”  What this fails to conceive is that there might be contexts of dialogue—now made possible by the cross-national and cross-cultural capacities of digital media—that might be taking place outside the legitimating capacities of expert systems.

Myth Seven: That there is—or should be—one unitary context of dialogue…at least that a normative model of dialogue should be determinative and broadly felt.  For most such voices, something approximating the Habermasian public sphere seemed to be what they had in mind, with all of its problems and contradictions in tact.  There was no sense that a set of such spheres might be involved, separately constituted through the abilities of contemporary cultures to constitute their own bases and boundaries through emerging processes and practices of communication.

Myth Eight: And this one is from the most prominent American Christian leader, Jesse Jackson: “…Social media can keep us connected but not directed….”  He was merely articulating an idea that is behind a number of the myths, that these media are at best neutral, that they have no particular role in forming and shaping practice, meaning, or function.  There is much reason to think that, in fact, social media can and do “direct,” in that they encourage unique practices and sensibilities that have senses of trajectory or momentum. For example, the subjectivity of interactivity implicit in digital practice carries both the capacity for connection and the implication that an ethic of connection and dialogue is at least implicated, and that connection and dialogue must be about something.  It is not an empty instrument waiting to be filled by normative content from “somewhere else.”

Myth Nine: Social media divide, not unite.  There was a great deal of concern about how digital and social media seem to be about small, focused, and perhaps solipsistic networks and senses of community.  They were widely said to be individualistic, self-absorbed, and atomistic.  This assumption—instantiated by second-hand senses of what these media do—overlooks the possibility that such supposedly narrow discursive communities might at the same time be deep, rich, and engaged, and that they might serve to form wider interactive networks among themselves, and that they might even broaden their effectivity by attracting new communities based on their refined and focused articulations and interactions.

Myth Ten: That social networking and social media don’t convey “primary religious narratives.”  This is of a piece with myth four, that the real, normative formations and meaning-makings take place offline, and that the online is merely ancillary or otherwise is instrumentally related to the real stuff taking place elsewhere.

One thing all of these myths have in common is their tendency to evaluate the role of social media in discontinuity and instrumentally, rather than in continuity with lived life IRL.  It is thus seemed necessary, conceptually, to think of them as “neutral” in some way, as I have said.

The problem is that these media are not neutral.  Mohammed Bouazizi, the Tunisian “martyr” whose act of desperation launched the Arab Spring, was salient in part because he represented the shared narrative of the aspirations and frustrations of a generation.  Youth throughout the world could identify with his story and the frustration represented by his act, and the way the story was disseminated: in their media, instantaneously and globally and obviously beyond the control of settled authority.  This complex gave the story legitimacy and explanatory power.  There are necessary affordances to these media. They resist control and determination and authority.  They instantiate the social sanction of exposure and opprobrium (the central function of journalism) but they do so in ways that engage sensibilities and sentiments in new and powerful and determinative ways.

The digital and social media represent real capacities to engage and articulate the project of interfaith understanding and dialogue.  They must be part of this project, in fact.  But a lot of conceptual and practical work remains to bring the digital and social media together with what has been learned through the disciplines and processes of interfaith dialogue.  The Doha conference was a start but only a start.

Nidhal Guessoum also attended, and posted a reflection on Huffington Post.   Worth a look.