Ever the faithful Muslims (and non-Muslims), the participants in Amir Ahmad's conference on May 31, "The Future of Islam in the Age of New Media," were optimistic and excited to see what effect Facebook and Twitter will have on Islam and Muslims. Surprisingly not the first of its kind, the conference featured 60 speakers who spoke for a minute each about what they thought the future of Islam in a digital age would look like.
Reflecting the Prophet's hadith (or saying) that hoping for good is an act of worship, most of the participants, ranging from active Twitterers to internationally known authors, listed the numerous benefits of social media for Muslims. If I got a dollar for every time the words "democratization," "viewpoints," "platforms," "landscape" and "interfaith" were used, I'd be able to pay an entire month of New York city rent. Add "Arab" and "spring" to that, and I'd probably be able to afford food, too.
And the speakers were fairly accurate. What social media has shown us so far, from the semi-success of the Arab Spring and the breaking of the news of Osama bin Laden's death by another active Twitterer, is that it has the potential to be revolutionary (literally). It doesn't just create physical revolutions. It can inspire revolutions in the way people see Muslims and non-Muslims who live in Muslim-majority countries. Interpretations are abundant, women have a voice, Islam is compatible with any time and any place, virtual communities are formed. As one participant, Amina Waheed, said, "We will no longer be frightened burqa-clad women that need to be saved, but rather independent voices of truth and justice who are doing the saving; we're not angry bearded men getting our butts kicked by Arnold Schwarzenegger, we're talented artists and piss-your-pants funny comedians."
The goal of social media is to connect us to those with whom we cannot physically communicate. I can't call Lupe Fiasco and ask him about his political views, but I can follow him on Twitter. Everyone says this is an excellent learning opportunity because you can learn from those who have a different perspective than you. But how often does this actually happen? When we are forming our own personal virtual communities, how often do we include those who we disagree with? How often do Israelis and Palestinians follow each other on Twitter or friend each other on Facebook? Or Jon Stewart fans and Tea Partiers? Or the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote?
This concern was shared by Ahmad, the conference organizer. Ahmad used to be "a bit of a crazy fundamentalist" (his words), but his perspectives were changed through blogging. "The overall trend is that people talk to people who they agree with. There's not much interaction between the Salafis, the Sufis, the Shi'as," he said. "When it comes to actually reaching out, you already have the technology, you just need someone with the will and curiosity."
Social media is only as revolutionary as we make it. We must interact with people we wouldn't normally speak to in person. We must, as Zaki Hasan, a participant in the conference, said, look at each other as people we don't know rather than as ideologies we have to conquer. We must use our apps and statuses and tweets to teach others about ourselves. A cheerful heart is good medicine and I am optimistic that we will be able to use this opportunity to learn about our respective "others."
To start you off, here are some interfaith-friendly Twitterers you might not be already following.