APC in Qatar for an interfaith dialogue on social networking

By Dafne Sabanes Plou
Publisher: APCNews     Buenos Aires, 02 November 2011

Can Christians, Muslims and Jews talk on current topics of their own religions using blogs, Facebook or Twitter? How can they avoid aggressive messages in forums or the unwanted uploading of images in their Facebook spaces that disrespect their beliefs? What about fundamentalist groups that exist in each of these religions?

These and many other topics were addressed by the 245 participants of the 9th Conference on Interreligious Dialogue which took place in Doha, Qatar, from October 24 to 26 2011.

Since the beginning of twenty-first century, the Doha International Center for Interreligious Dialogue (DICID), with support from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the University of Qatar, organises these annual conferences where Christians, Muslims and Jews find one of the few opportunities for dialogue at the international level where they can discuss hot topics and share their testimonies and reflections about their religious faith when living in a world that does not save conflicts of all kinds. A world that also requires religious leaders to foster attitudes and speak words that encourage coexistence, mutual respect and work for peace between people professing different faiths.

This year’s theme was “Social networks and interreligious dialogue: A new relationship.” The three days of debate and discussion on various panels showed that, indeed, Christians, Muslims and Jews are using the tools offered online social networks for their internal debates, to strengthen the relationship with their faithful and to open contact with members of other religious groups, both with the leadership and with the average believer who is active in the practice of his or her faith.

Archbishop of Canterbury tweeted during the London riots

In societies where religious disputes and conflicts are difficult to resolve, it is relevant to use social networks to bring calm messages and words in favor of coexistence and mutual respect. One participant reported that it had been very important form him to follow the tweets of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Chief Rabbi and Muslim leaders in Britain to get their opinion and receive words of guidance and encouragement in favour of coexistence and the peaceful resolution of conflicts when there were riots on the streets of London last August.

Hate speech online

And things are not simple. There are times when forums and Facebook or Twitter sites receive aggressive messages of hate, some including pictures or cartoons that are disrespectful to religious symbols or the major holy figures.

These attacks are always condemned and denounced and it is important for participants in these spaces to be aware that these messages are usually sent by anonymous people who hide behind a false identity just to upset others and j play with violence. Religious leaders believe that they should not let these irruptions ruin the dialogue that had been initiated, but show that people can continue working together for mutual respect without fear.

Gathering of religious progressives

The academics, priests, bishops, pastors, rabbis and Muslim religious leaders in Doha were men and women who are progressive in their thinking and acting. They work with people on the ground and understand their daily struggles and know about their problems and hopes. They firmly believe in dialogue to resolve conflicts and are willing to make calls for peace and to live free of fundamentalisms creating spaces to encourage coexistence between people of different races, cultures and religions.

In analysing the role that social networks can play to strengthen this way of living one’s faith and religious identity, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a US leader of peace movements who participated in this 9th Conference, said in his presentation: “We must use social networks to communicate hope, not hysteria. Words of healing, not hurt nor hateful. Social media does not create values, but creates opportunities. Therefore, social media becomes a tool to raise awareness of our values ​​and reflect our priorities … But we cannot depend on Twitter or web pages or Facebook to take us forward. These networks allow us to know more, but our conscience and our concern for our fellow men and women are the ones that compel us to act. “

Representing APC at this conference, I felt that there are challenges and responsibilities in the role organisations like ours play in the internet rights debate. Freedom of expression, of opinion and association are fundamental rights to create a framework in internet that enables and encourages interfaith dialogue initiatives for believers from different religions who wish to work together for a world of mutual understanding and peace.

Dafne Sabanes Plou is a journalist and long-time coordinator of the Latin American network of the APC women’s programme .

Photo by Dafne Sabanes Plou