It’s the standard complaint Westerners always lodge whenever an act of Islamic terrorism happens anywhere: Why don’t moderate Muslims do something?
As it turns out, though admittedly without the fanfare of a bomb going off someplace, they are.
From Sunday through Tuesday, some 300 young leaders of religious groups and civil society across the Middle East are meeting in Amman, Jordan, to explore how social media can become an instrument of respectful dialogue among the followers of different faiths.
The gathering is happening under the aegis of an outfit called the “King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue,” which has its headquarters in Vienna, Austria. As the name implies, it’s backed by the ruling dynasty in Saudi Arabia, but it has important partners elsewhere, including the Vatican, which is a “founding observer”.
Spanish Archbishop Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot, who was ordained into the episcopacy by Pope Francis on March 19, and who serves as the number two official at the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, is a board member at the center.
Austria and Spain also have put their weight behind it, with the idea of making sure that the center doesn’t become another vehicle for extending radical Islamic influence in Europe. Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna likewise has lent his support, adding to the perception of high-level Catholic involvement.
The training session on social media is the first of five such events planned by the center, and it brings together young people from Lebanon, Palestine and Syria, as well as Jordan. Subsequent events are planned over the course of the year in Cairo, Egypt; Erbil, Iraq; Tunis, Tunisia; and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.
As is well known, social media was one of the driving forces behind the so-called “Arab Spring,” beginning in Egypt and radiating out from there across the Middle East. The movement has had decidedly mixed results, but it did prove that social media can be a force for change in the region when it’s used with imagination and energy.
“In the Middle East, eight out of ten people use social media every day,” said Fahad Abualnasr, who’s the director of the dialogue center.
“Social media shapes opinions and mindsets across the Middle East,” Abualnasr said. “Extremists use social media to promote stereotypes and misperceptions. Through this training, we want to use the same channels to promote coexistence, and to encourage dialogue.”
Given that youth across the Middle East have already demonstrated an appetite to use new technologies to drive social change, Abualnasr said the idea behind the initiative is to harness that energy to build inter-religious understanding from the bottom up rather than the top down.
“In our experience, young people do not want to be spoken down to or preached to, by teachers or authority figures,” he said.
“This is why we are reaching out to young men and women from the region, who are already active on social media, and who already have an interest in promoting peace and coexistence. We want to give these young people the tools to reach out to their peers, to encourage honest discussions about coexistence and social cohesion,” he said.
Granted, there are legitimate motives for skepticism.
For one thing, aside from the generally dubious record of Saudi Arabia on human rights, it’s well known that jihadist ideology permeates Saudi society as well as important elements of the ruling regime. Certainly Americans will never forget that 15 of the 19 hijackers involved in 9/11 were Saudis, and Saudis also have a track record of using innocent-sounding humanitarian projects to extend Islamist objectives.
For another, it’s not entirely clear that social media is exactly the right arena to promote “respectful dialogue.” Anyone who’s ever been involved in an exchange on Twitter, for example, knows that it’s often a platform for zingers and put-downs rather than anything resembling civil discourse.
That said, it’s disingenuous to insist that moderate Muslims step up to resist the lure of extremism, and then scoff whenever they do.
If the meeting underway in Amman entices even a handful of young people in the Middle East to step up efforts to foster understanding rather than conflict, and gives them some new tools to do so, then it’s a positive development.
According to organizers, promising trainees will be encouraged to become trainers themselves, in order to have a broader impact across their communities.
If there’s one thing we know about social media, it’s this: It’s beyond anyone’s control. Turning Middle Eastern youth loose in that environment to promote understanding and religious freedom could, just maybe, have unimaginable consequences.