02 Nov 2010
In recent years, new media and communication technologies have played a critical role in emergency and conflict situations, helping the world to monitor crises and organize humanitarian responses. Tools such as Ushahidi have been particularly remarkable in this regard, as evidenced both during the Kenyan election violence and the Haitian earthquake. Yet, why must the power of ICTs in conflict-management and peace-building remain limited to the arena of crisis mapping? Can new media be productive in rebuilding a sense of history, trust, and connection, which is often destroyed in the aftermath of conflict?
At Meedan, we have been using new media to facilitate cross-cultural understanding between the Arab world and the US, in the fields of news-sharing, inter-faith dialogue, and online education. We feel that conversation across linguistic and cultural boundaries on diverse issues is essential for challenging stereotypes and building mutual respect, thus helping to create peace and deter future conflict.
I am now working with Meedan to apply this insight to individual countries and conflict areas, where years of political, regional, and religious tension has disrupted people’s capacities for cross-cultural understanding and tolerance. Particularly in South Asian regions like Kashmir, the social fabric has been torn apart as a result of sustained political repression, violence and surveillance. Sectarian or ethnic distinctions have turned into stark divisions, and distrust and disunity have come to dominate local inter-personal relations. Yet, people valiantly struggle to defend their rights and come together as a community. In the process, local actors have often attempted to bridge social divides through a recourse to common cultural traditions, including poetry, art, and music.
The use of new media can help to amplify this process of cultural activism and renewal, by widening the audience that is reached both in-region and in the larger global community. Cultural practices also do not have to be stuck in a creator-receiver relationship. Through new media, citizens can themselves be engaged in diverse creative forms of story-telling, which can also serve as a basis for sparking discussion and fostering new intellectual and activist communities.
One form of this story-telling is citizen journalism. Initiatives such as groundviews.org and nawaat.org provide strong examples of progressive citizen communities that are able to produce, share, and discuss ground realities in Sri Lanka and Tunisia respectively. But citizen journalism does not exhaust the terrain of citizen dialogue. I strongly believe that we need to move from the task of reporting to the necessity of relating. And this is a process that has to emerge from, and be integrated with on-the-ground networks and social dynamics, instead of being limited to the online realm.
How do we learn to actually understand and empathize with the multiple, overlapping social identities that people inhabit instead of thinking in terms of “us” vs. “them”? What are the conceptual and technical frameworks that can facilitate this process of relating? And how can this process help to move society away from conflict and exploitation, towards peace, acceptance, and post-conflict reconciliation? These are the big questions that we are excitedly exploring at Meedan.