Following my previous post on putting the Aga Khan’s speech at Brown in a historical context, I want to spend some time on his discussion of technology and human interaction. Rather than speaking only to the Nizari Ismaili community, or to concerns that affect only Nizari Ismailis, he is addressing a larger human concern. If, as the Qur’an states, the Prophet Muhammad was sent as a mercy to all mankind, than it is only logical that his descendants and the inheritors of his spiritual authority should continue to speak and work for the betterment of humanity, not just the segment that agrees with them.
In his initial remarks, the Aga Khan is fairly light-hearted in his approach to participatory media. He says, “If you were a student at Brown 18 years ago, you would not have had any Facebook friends and you wouldn’t be following anyone on Twitter. And, even more sadly perhaps, no one would be following you!” Of course, the comment alludes to a deeper concern with social media, the social comparison effect may actually make us more unhappy when we use social media, especially if we are chasing follower counts and number of friends.
However, the Imam becomes more explicit about the dangers of information silos, where we have more information, but less knowledge. We do not know what we do not wish to know about. These information bubbles cause us to drift away from one another; the Imam makes the distinction between higher connectivity and more connection. The two do not necessarily travel together, and may offer an inverse relationship, as we seek screen time with humans, instead of face time with humans.
The result is a knowledge gap that further drives us apart. Diane Moore, in talking about religious illiteracy, makes the case that information gaps in the study of religion have resulted in unnecessary conflict. Perhaps more devastating is that the knowledge gap can generate empathy gaps. These empathy gaps are in a reinforcing cycle with centrifugal forces that seek to tear us apart from one another. As we drift from each other, we fail to understand each other, and we drift from each other. Eventually, from looking at each other, we begin to look at the Other. We no longer recognize own selves in the eyes looking back at us.
The issue, according to the Imam, is not diversity. He says, “diversity itself should be a source of enrichment. The problem comes when diverse elements spin off on their own, when the bonds that connect us across our diversities begin to weaken.” In this context, and with the comments relating to social media, one hears the echoes of a theology of “I and Thou.” It is, as I believe I argued in my previous piece, a recognition that goes back to Imam Ali that we are deeply connected to one another. That we must think in terms of compassion, justice, and fairness. We are commanded to know one another (49:13) because we come from one soul (4:1). What relationships do is help us to uncover God’s majesty. To diminish one another not only diminishes ourselves, but says that we have no interest in the Divine.
The Imam continues:
It is in that spirit that we can nurture bonds of confidence across different peoples and unique individuals, welcoming the growing diversity of our world, even in matters of faith, as a gift of the Divine. Difference, in this context, can become an opportunity – not a threat – a blessing rather than a burden.
To engage with diversity as a blessing means that we must be confident in who we are and what we believe. As we build shells around ourselves to figure how to respond to diversity, the shell becomes a pretty prison, and the passages for poking our head out become smaller. Eventually, we will starve to death because we want to be protected. We prioritize our bodies over our souls, and seek comfort, instead of passionate discomfort that moves us to new ways of thinking and being.
So, the question is: how do we move to being confident when we are being pulled apart, and that’s a question I’d like to hear about from fellow Contributing Scholars and others reading this blog. I want ideas of how we can be faithfully confident and build with each other. Clearly many of the blog posts here deal with that question, but there is also the perspective of teaching this idea, and moving our communities with us.