This is a paper for the Panel on ‘Optimal Use of Social Communication’ by the Revd Donald Reeves, Director of the Soul of Europe.
There are many possibilities for the use of social media in promoting inter-religious dialogue and this paper will describe them.
But first it has to be said clearly and firmly that the foundations for dialogue has to be ‘face to face’. There is no substitute for ‘meeting’.
I am using ‘dialogue’ in 2 different ways:-
First, Dialogue creates a space where trust can grow behind the slogans. Here dialogue means studying, listening ,learning and reading each others holy books. As Trust grows so there needs to be a willingness to be self critical. Conversation and study are distinguished by courage and imagination, and a refusal to retreat from painful issues. Dialogue means listening without judgment. It is not a matter of winning arguments. The fundamental conviction in this practice of dialogue is that in every human life, it is possible to see something of God’s mystery. In every human face I can discover something of God.
Dialogue is a very odd sort of talk; it is a conversation without knowing what the outcomes will be. It is difficult to evaluate because it depends fundamentally on the flourishing of Trust. In this practice, dialogue has no purpose other than itself.
Social media particularly those who are on Facebook, or those who follow on Twitter can eavesdrop on these conversations. Thus communicating this perception of dialogue. Participating directly is something else. As we all know social media provides all sorts of opportunities for deception – so it is said’ you can become anything you like’. Not a basis for dialogue.
Secondly, Dialogue exists to promote those little words with big meanings – Justice and Peace. In this understanding of dialogue there should certainly be identifiable results ,but even here there are difficulties.
The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt were brought about in large part by social media; it called people -particularly vast numbers of young people – on to the streets. The question is what happens after the revolution? Judging by the slogans, it seemed that at last democracy would emerge – once the oppressors had been dealt with. But this has not happened. Peace has not broken out.. I am reminded of the 1960′s ; communes were established particularly in the US where love and peace were proclaimed but then new forms of oppression and manipulation destroyed these hopes.
So why did social media fail at a crucial moment? Because the protestors were not organised. Because they had not had those ‘face to face’ meetings where strategies and plans for after the revolution could be produced.
The organising working principle for moving towards a more just and peaceful world is that of Compassion. Compassion is found in the depths of everyone of the world’s religions. Compassion has to be learnt. And the best way to learn about this is the Charter for Compassion established by leading thinkers across the world from different religions.
Karen Armstrong describes religion as ‘ethical alchemy’- behaving in a way that changes you. The Charter provides a basis for practical and sustained action. Learning Compassion in a world dominated by so much cruelty is difficult,very difficult. Compassion is more demanding than the machismo of some politicians and religious leaders.
In this understanding of dialogue there are great possibilities for social media – once that face to face trust has begun to be experienced. Here the slogan ‘get organised’ is helped by facebook, twitter, video conferencing and much else.
Social media has no built in respect for the gatekeepers of religious organisations. Social media flattens authority. Authority figures – rabbis, priests and imams can be by passed. So as projects as become public, everyone will be able to contribute.
I end these brief remarks by describing a project which will draw on social media once the basis has been established. The Soul of Europe – a small NGO of which I am the Director together with the Soest Forum of Religion and Culture, a German Muslim archive organisation are intending to create across Europe in a dozen cities a living web of those institutions and individuals who are already committed to broadening, strengthening and deepening the foundations of dialogue.
The purpose of such a web will be to interrupt and undermine the growing Islamophobia in Europe. (in the middle east haemorrhaging of Christian minorities is a major problem ). But in Europe dialogue has to address growing Islamophobia. The rhetoric of the Far Right has now moved into the lifeblood of politics , and has strong racist as well as anti Islamic elements. Muslims are increasingly blamed for all of Europe’s problems. In Germany in 2013 we shall bring together people from those dozen cities to launch what could become a movement celebrating the work of those committed to dialogue. At some point we shall announce this on the internet, and use all available means of communicating the birth of this movement and invite participation. BUT ,and it is a large but, the basis of trust through face to face meetings in the 12 cities has to be the foundation. Getting organised is a priority!!