Joshua Fouts

Digital Diplomacy: Understanding Islam through Virtual Worlds

In June 2009, President Obama delivered a speech in Egypt in which he made a call to “create a new online network, so a young person in Kansas can communicate instantly with a young person in Cairo.” More recently, Anne-Marie Slaughter, head of policy planning at the State Department offered that, “our diplomats are going to need to have skills that are closer to community organizing than traditional reporting and analysis. New connecting technologies will be vital tools in this kind of diplomacy.”

In February 2008, Rita J. King and Joshua S. Fouts both senior fellows at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs set out on a yearlong quest funded by the Richard Lounsbery Foundation to explore the potential of virtual worlds for cultural dialogue — especially the potential of these spaces to enhance and augment the cultural outreach efforts done by the US State Department (also known as “public diplomacy”). The project, called “Digital Diplomacy: Understanding Islam through Virtual Worlds” took them across four continents in the physical world and myriad communities and cultures in virtual worlds. The documentary above tells a portion of the story. Policy recommendations and a graphic book were also produced as a part of the study.

The idea for Understanding Islam through Virtual Worlds project was hatched with a very specific idea in mind: How could people learn about other cultures in an authentic, experiential space — specifically, how could we learn about cultures that self-identified as Muslim? We chose the virtual world of Second Life for many reasons, among them that it is the best international platform — more than 70% of its users are from outside the United States. Our goal was to to see what we could learn about Islam — not by inviting particular people with particular perspectives into Second Life, but rather to follow the trail of what was already happening culturally in the space that might yield new insight about Islam.

Digital Diplomacy: Understanding Islam through Virtual Worlds” revealed a number of important paradigm shifts, one especially, that cultural and societal leaders are manifesting and creating powerful communities outside traditional physical venues — foreign service officers and others in the work of intercultural dialogue profession, need to be prepared to engage those communities where they live — whether their homes are digital or physical.

The Understanding Islam through Virtual Worlds project produced the following findings:

Fouts and King also reported their journey real time on their blog, DIP’s Dispatches from the Imagination Age, on which they continue to tell the story of the evolution of a new global culture and society.

On September 8 at the O’Reilly Gov 2.0 Expo, Rita J. King will be discussing “Digital Diplomacy: Understanding Islam through Virtual Worlds” as part of the Government as Peacekeeper section.