Communications and Society Program

Virtual Pilgrimage To Mecca

Building Dialogue with Avatar Advocates
By Joshua S. Fouts (with Rita J. King)

"We are interested in understanding Islam," Rita King said in the form of her Second Life avatar, Eureka Dejavu, a statuesque, olive-skinned female with long, flowing chestnut tresses and an exquisite business suit.  My avatar, Schmilsson Nilsson, a green-skinned, seven-foot tall male with iridescent goggles and multi-colored dreadlocks had just donned his simple, white Hajj garments (called ihram).

"U cannot understand Islam,” said Ingush, a youngish white male avatar in jeans and a button down shirt.  We stood there chatting in a "virtual realm,” three real people out there somewhere in the real world, as a fourth avatar, a male named Said, approached ... "U need to believe."

At the site of IslamOnline.net's replica of Mecca on the path to the Hajj in the virtual world of Second Life, Rita J. King and I had just met two avatars, Ingush (who told us he was from the volatile North Caucasus region in the physical world) and Said (who said he lives in the United States and has an "Arabic root").

"Believe in what, specifically?" Rita asked him. The answer: One God. "Is it possible," Rita asked, "to believe in one God and not be Muslim?" Ingush, who told us he was a Sunni Muslim, said no.

Said said that understanding is the first step toward belief. He asked what it was we wanted to understand about Islam.

We were doing preliminary research for "Understanding Islam through Virtual Worlds," a project funded by a recent grant from the Richard Lounsbery Foundation, as Senior Fellows at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. At the suggestion of some colleagues in Qatar, Rita and I were visiting a 3-D replica of Mecca built by Cairo-based IslamOnline.net in the Virtual World of Second Life.

We got more than what we came for.

AN OFFER OF FRIENDSHIP DECLINED

"What I am trying to learn is, how can we begin the process of creating a better understanding between
cultures?" Rita asked.

Rita and I offered Ingush and Said friendship. In Second Life an avatar can offer friendship to anyone. When a friendship offer is accepted, it allows each Second Life party to see when the other is online just as in a traditional 2-D web chatroom; when someone signs in, the other person is notified. When a potential friend declines the offer, the person on the other end knows immediately and suffers the sting of rejection with a bold message on the screen: "Your offer for friendship was declined."

In this case, we both felt the sting instantly as we offered friendship. Both Ingush and Said turned us both down.

Visitors to the Mecca site click on a green duffel bag just outside the entrance. With one click the duffel bag fills your Second Life inventory with all the accessories you need for the hajj, including a complete ihram, scissors, Qur'an holder, and stone thrower.  As Rita and I were chatting with Ingush and Said we were instant messaging each other privately. "What is the stone-thrower for?" she asked. I Googled the meaning and learned that it was the ritual practice of "emulating Ibrahim, Isma'il and Hajar who were each tempted by Iblis (Satan) to ... sacrifice Isma'il. Each drove Iblis off with stones."

Though she had clicked the hajj gear in her inventory in an attempt to wear her ihram, it had never “rezzed,” the Second Life colloquialism for an item has not yet become visible on the screen.  Or, in this case, it was not visible on Eureka Dejavu's body. Eureka Dejavu stood there on the virtual path to Mecca with her head uncovered.

Rita explained to me what was going on and wondered if they were interpreting her attire to mean that she was choosing to ignore their cultural tradition or, worse yet, ignorant that the tradition even existed. Despite Rita's best attempt at showing respect for their cultural mores they had know way of knowing what she was trying to do.

IJTIHAD MISTAKEN FOR JIHAD

Ingush asked if we were Muslims and we told him about our mission.

Rita had just completed reading The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim's Call for Reform in Her Faith, by Irshad Manji. She explained that what she really wanted was to understand the concept of "ijtihad," which she interpreted, after reading the book, as a form of critical thought: individual soul-searching.

Rita asked Ingush and Said about the role of ijtihad in the lives of a modern Muslims. Unfortunately the language and culture barrier acted against her with Ingush, who mistakenly read the question as one about jihad, not ijtihad. He thought she was being hostile, and the tension was palpable. Rita could have logged out of Second Life at any time and ended the conversation. Same with Ingush. But they both stayed in-world to resolve the conflict.

The semantic skirmish between them cleared up however when Rita asked Ingush to scroll up and read what she had written in the chat text. At this, we once again offered Ingush and Said friendship. Significantly, this time they both accepted. The experience left us wondering how many battles are triggered by misunderstood words, real or imagined.

The exchange between Ingush and Said would be as unlikely to have happened in the physical world as it would be for two male and female, non-Muslim Americans to walk up to two strangers outside Mecca and ask them about itjihad. In fact, one could safely say it could never have happened. The societal regulations and barriers we place around interactions in the physical world often inhibit the opportunity to talk to strangers, to be vulnerable, to ask burning questions, to expose oneself to criticism. The real and perceived risks are too high.

Because virtual worlds eliminate the vulnerability of physical interaction, it becomes possible for a woman from New York and a Sunni Muslim from a volatile region in the Caucasus to not only misunderstand each other, but also to move beyond the confusion toward the first inklings of mutual trust.

Joshua S. Fouts is Chief Global Strategist of Dancing Ink Productions (www.eurekadejavu.com), a virtual world consulting firm. Rita J. King is CEO and Creative Director.

SECOND LIVES

A virtual world is a three dimensional, immersive space accessible in real time by people around the world. In the case of Second Life, for example, it is specifically not a game with explicit rules and goals. In Second Life there are no rules.

In this virtual space, players create "avatars" (or 3-D representations of themselves), build houses, clothes, and relationships and essentially conduct “second” lives. This provides increased opportunities for engagement with the people who visit them, the communities they build, and the spaces they inhabit.

Second Life is inherently global – with almost 16 million registered users, less than 20% of whom are from the United States. People in Second Life communicate using a mixture of text and voice, including devices which simultaneously translate text in nearly a dozen languages.

-J. Fouts

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