Muslims and the Metaverse: Can Second Life Improve US-Islamic Relations?
One day in Second Life, Eureka Dejavu met a Muslim woman lingering in an SL-based synagogue, and wondered why she was there. "She had wanted to attend services at a synagogue all of her life but feared prosecution or upsetting other people," Eureka tells me. The members of the virtual synagogue conducted the entire Jewish prayer service, and through the safety and anonymity of her avatar, the Muslim woman was able to experience it first hand. "[S]he now understands what takes place." A lauded investigative journalist in real life, it was a vocation-altering moment for Eureka.
In a sense, it's an event that'll be transported to the Middle East next weekend, at the US-Islamic World Forum in Doha, Qatar. Now the CEO of metaverse development company Dancing Ink Productions, Eureka and her Chief Global Strategist Schmilsson Nilsson are putting together a mixed reality event for Doha that will include a Sufi rockstar and a guy who makes sure Jack Bauer blows up terrorists real good, among others. The rockstar is Salman Ahmad, Jack Bauer's demi-urge is 24 producer Howard Gordon, in an SL event "to foster the development of a new global culture in the Imagination Age through virtual worlds," as Nilsson puts it. In real life the former director of USC's Center on Public Diplomacy (real life bio here) Schmilsson has long been an advocate of online worlds as a resource for fostering international understanding.
But can an event like this really improve US-Muslim relations, staged as it is at a conference sponsored by The Brookings Institute, an American think tank, held in the already US-friendly Qatar (home to CENTCOM's forward-operating base)?
"We don't just view it as an exercise intended for the audience in Doha," Nilsson tells me. They're planning to convert the event into machinima programming that'll go online afterward, he says, and in any case, are seeing bridges built even in the event's planning.
"In preparation for Doha," he tells me, "[Eureka] and I have been researching Muslim areas of Second Life (we have also been studying other platforms as well) and we encountered two Muslim men at IslamOnline.net's sim, where participants can take a virtual hajj to Mecca. We offered them both friendship in the beginning and they both declined. A very tense conversation ensued, during which one of them misunderstood Rita's question about 'ijtihad,' an aspect of Islam that encourages independent thought, as a question about jihad. When we realized this, she suggested that they scroll up through the chat [log] to see what in fact had been said, and sure enough, the man apologized." They offered friendship again, and this time the Muslims accepted. (Read more about their encounter on the virtual hajj here.)
"Would these men have felt comfortable having this conversation in the physical world, especially with a woman involved?" says Nilsson. "How often do complete strangers stop each other on the street to talk about their cultural differences? And when these conversations go awry, as they often do, there is no chat in real life to go back and see what went wrong."
It's incidents like that make them think worlds like Second Life can curb real world extremism. "Part of the reason why extremism is given a chance to flourish," Nilsson argues, "is because culture clashes have been festering in the absence of a way for individuals to form transcendent communities-- meaning, beyond the scope of the socio-economic, geopolitical and cultural lattice into which each person is born. Virtual worlds provide that opportunity. If I live in New York, Baghdad, Beijing, etc. but also consider myself a resident of a virtual community that contains people from all around the world, then I not only have to adapt to the reality of my existence in the physical world, but to the formation of new civic customs that are not reliant on physical limitations or lingering habits."
Follow their journey to Doha on Eureka Dejavu's blog. (Images courtesy of the site.)