Monday, November 07, 2011




By Anna Koulouris

More than 240 clergymen, scientists, politicians and scholars from 60
countries met on October 24th at the ninth annual Doha International
Conference on Interfaith Dialogue sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign
Affairs, the Doha International Center Interfaith Dialogue and Qatar

The three-day event, held at the Sheraton Hotel in Doha, focused on social
media's growing presence and effect on inter-religious dialogue.
In the wake of the Arab Spring, the conference sought to evaluate social
media's role in the revolutions and raise the question of whether such
communication technology could have a positive role in interfaith relations.

"It's a must to discuss this," said DICID chairman Ibrahim Saleh Al-Naimi in
an opening address referencing developments in the Middle East since the
beginning of this year. "There is a lot of communication and not enough
dialogue," he said.

Qatar's Minister of Justice, H.E. Mr. Hassan bin Abdulla Al Ghanim,
mentioned the importance of amplifying the positive aspects of social media
and minimizing the negative.

"Without tolerance of the other, it can be a method of hatred," said Al

Archimandrite Makarios, representative of the Jerusalem Patriarchate and
priest of St. Isaac and St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Doha attended
the conference, along with Deacon Dmitry Safonov from the Moscow

"This is not just about co-existence, it's about symbiosis, which is much
more," said Fr. Makarios. "It's the fruit of this dialogue that we're
recognized by the State and live next to the citizens of Qatar."

In the eyes of the Orthodox Church, the focus of the interfaith dialogue is
for the people of not only Qatar, but the entire region, to be closer and
know more about each other. It's not only for the sake of knowledge of the
other, but to cultivate symbiosis with those from different religious and
national backgrounds, said Fr. Makarios.

In addition to Orthodox clerical representation there were lay people from
Serbia, Romania and the United States present at the conference.

Workshops taught by experts in the field were offered for beginner and
intermediate levels of proficiency in social media use throughout the
conference. Meanwhile, main themes of discussion included social media's
history and development, positive and negative consequences, impacts on
religious and local communities, and steps needed to create regulations
within a framework of ethics.

Some addressed the implications of globalization on inter-religious
dialogue, of which social media is an unequivocal part.

"The consequences of globalization are yet to be calculated," said Rabbi
Henry Sobel of Brazil. Globalization doesn't foster true fellowship,
although it can facilitate dialogue, he said, suggesting that nothing can
replace a face-to-face encounter.

Dr. Aisha Al-Tayiab agreed with the panels that in-person contact is
irreplaceable. "If people aren't brought up to respect others, they won't
develop the proper ideas and behaviors later on," she said. But she was less
critical of the role social media can play when it's used for positive
social and political change.

As a Tunisian, she watched the impact of especially Facebook, on the youth
of her country as they collectively pressured their president Zine
al-Abidine Ben Ali to flee.

"I come from a country that experienced quantum leaps," she said.
"Facebook in the first days of revolution was so important; it was a control

As the Tunisian example, along with many others has shown, young people have
been most empowered by developments in social networking.

Hundreds of millions of young users are joining social media sites in a
fraction of the time it's ever taken to mobilize mass groups of people in
the past, and they upload years worth of content each day.

With secular movements on the rise in parts of the world, one concern was
where religious conversation can fit into the picture.

"The computer uses up a lot of productive time, especially from the youth,"
said Bishop Sebouh Sarkisian from Iran.

He said that it was a duty of the churches, temples and mosques to teach
morality and proper use of technology to the young people who will in turn
make good use of the tools at their disposal and reach out to one another in

Whereas young people might have an advantage in making use of the
technology, it was suggested that the older generation can offer the wisdom
and knowledge of the faiths that seem to lose their centralized authority in
the virtual world of the Internet.

"Any communication between persons of differing religious points of view is
sometimes described as dialogue - it's not," said Dr. Edward Kessler from
the United Kingdom. "Once a message is posted online, control is lost and
someone else may interpret what you're tying to achieve as something else."

A widely recognized problem with social media was its capability to create
wedges between people. Several clergy members suggested that reaching out to
others with love, as the Abrahamic traditions prescribe, generates more
love, and that social media offers a unique chance to demonstrate love and
kindness on a global scale.

"It's not just a communication tool, it's a connection tool," said Professor
William Vendley from the US. "The truly beautiful lies vested in the ugly."

Several panelists gave examples of how their small grass-roots efforts
reached a global scale due to the megaphone effect of social media.
These projects, whether for charity or to combat stereotypes, transcended
national and cultural borders.

"We speak of the Arab World, but in reality today - Arab community, European
community, African community, Asia, US - we are inextricably bound," said
Jesse Jackson, African-American civil rights leader and Baptist minister.
"We are one world."

Reflecting on the past decade, Jackson labeled the transformation in the
Arab world as a "bottom-up desire for change," which was facilitated by
social media. "Social media is serving to empower, inform and organize
individuals and generated a feeling that change is real, can happen, and can
be sustained."

In the concluding session, final remarks were given by H.E. Abdel Rahman
Mohammad Hassan Suwar Al-Dahab, former president of Sudan, Bishop Camillo
Ballin of Italy, Professor Faruk Caklovica of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and
Rabbi Herschel Gluck of the United Kingdom.

All participants of the conference were invited to attend dinner and tours
of Doha's Souq Waqif, Museum of Islamic Art, and cultural quarter Katara,
where the Tribeca Film Festival will continue through the last week of


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