Virtual exchanges connect continents to fight Islamophobia and anti-Western sentiment

by Rafael Tyszblat
06 October 2014
Cairo - From the Boston Marathon bombing, to the Boko Haram kidnappings of schoolgirls, and now the “Islamic State” organization (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant [ISIL]), horrible crimes are being committed by people claiming to act in the name of Islam. With frequent headlines focused on these events, it is not surprising to witness a rise of Islamophobia in the West. This sentiment has spread as well on social media between youth from the so-called West and youth from Muslim majority countries, whose conversations often end up calling the other a fascist.

However, there are some individuals who are trying something different, harnessing the potential of our increased interconnectedness to promote an alternative to the confrontations taking place online. This alternative, which is based on direct, constructive dialogue among diverse youth on hot topics, is essential if we want to empower young people to talk about issues that concern them without systematically clashing.

One initiative worth highlighting is Soliya, a nonprofit organization that uses online exchanges to improve inter-cultural understanding between youth in Western countries and predominantly Muslim countries. Soliya’s Connect Program encourages tolerance and respect between societies in order to fight anti-Western sentiment as well as Islamophobia. Every semester, 500 students engage online to learn about one another.

Sophie, an online participant from France, was convinced that women who wear the veil are oppressed and intolerant. Maryam from Tunisia was happy to take the opportunity to tell her story about how wearing the veil was her own choice to respect the value of humility, even against her family’s wishes, and that she respects the traditions and beliefs of others’ religions. After the discussion, Sophie felt that she knew more about Maryam and better understood her religion. Both women are still in touch, discussing a variety of topics to better clarify each other’s religion and traditions so they can help prevent inflammatory comments on social media and so the new generation won’t connect Islam to terrorism.

Aya is another young participant from Egypt in the Connect Program. She is a devout Muslim, proud of her identity, and not afraid to criticize what she called "Western arrogance." These were all things that Jason, an American participant, found quite frustrating. In his mind, there was nothing to be proud of in Islam, a religion that, according to him, advocates for violence against non-Muslims. It took weeks of facilitated dialogue for them to explore why they held those views about each other’s values. Jason explained the focus of mainstream media he watches: terrorism, anti-Christian acts in the Middle East, and anti-West discourse from some Muslim leaders. In a conversation on media literacy later in the program, they both understood how the mainstream media tends to show only a part of reality. Yes, terrorism and intolerance exist in some parts of the Muslim world, as in many other societies in the Western world. However, these extreme ideologies are certainly not representative of a religion of 1.5 billion souls. Jason’s preconceived ideas were completely shattered when Aya told the group how she was part of a movement that struggled to prevent intimidation against the Coptic minority in Egypt. Their dialogue also allowed Jason to talk about his country, removing Aya’s focus on US foreign policy and calling her attention to the long history of the American peace movement. Exploring the origins of perception and telling a personal story enabled these two individuals to realize that they were not so different after all.

Young people have a lot to say, and yet few people do listen and engage them respectfully. It is easy to believe that it is impossible to talk constructively and respectfully about sensitive topics, such as the consequences of immigration on Western societies or the impact of Islamophobic statements on Muslims. Yet offering a space for constructive online dialogue is a must. Promoting and providing youth with non-violent means of engaging with people with whom they disagree is not just a feel-good project. It is critical if we want the next generation to stop amplifying conflicts and start acting for peace.


*Rafael Tyszblat is a senior officer for Program Design and facilitator at Soliya. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 6 October 2014,
Copyright permission is granted for publication.
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