We live in an era of simultaneity, in which an upload to YouTube from the United States can spark a lethal riot minutes later in Libya—and a Syrian rebel video posted from Aleppo can impact negotiations over the future of the country in Geneva. These sudden twists and turns in the Arab world occur uncoordinated, spontaneously. Too often, the outcome has been to provoke anger and incite violence. But is it possible to organize constructive online exchanges that bridge gaps rather than sow chaos, and serve the cause of understanding between societies in conflict?
Among the people who have been thinking long and hard about this question are friends and admirers of the late J. Christopher Stevens, an American diplomat who died in Libya on September 11, 2012 but lived his life as if there had been no September 11, 2001. Stevens was the rare emissary who served unimpeded by today’s security constraints which have made American embassies into military garrisons sealed off from the population that hosts them. He was constantly out in the field—befriending locals from all walks of life, communicating with them in Arabic, always aiming to listen at least as much as he spoke. He embodied the best of American values for people who had never been to the United States, extending a message of peace, and building stronger relations between Washington and the countries where he served, one relationship at a time. As a Moroccan, I feel especially vested in Stevens’ prolific career and especially saddened by his untimely death, because he studied Arabic in my country: I think his close feelings toward Morocco were the first emotional bond he forged with any Arab country, and I know that that affinity was a force for good in numerous Arab countries where he served from then on. The tragic irony of Stevens’ life is that while he braved anti-American hostilities to engage Libyan citizens face-to-face, the circumstances that led to his death included an anti-Islamic video, uploaded to YouTube by cowards who managed to impact a foreign society without setting foot on its soil.
The J. Christopher Stevens Virtual Exchange Initiative aims to begin to rectify this injustice by turning online, transnational interactions into a force for good. Stevens’ family support this U.S. Government-led effort to bring together governments, private sector leaders, and non-profit groups across the globe to foster human development and mutual understanding via online video discussions. These discussions would be structured in such a way as to maximize the psychological and practical benefits to those who participate in them: Teachers and mentors would cull together groups of young people to participate in the dialogues, facilitated via online video conferencing. The dialogues would not be one-off experiences for the participants but rather a series of recurring sessions, enabling relationships to be built and nurtured over the course of weeks. Arabs who cannot afford to travel overseas could participate in educational programs remotely. The programs would be tailored to the needs of local economies and job markets, enabling them to acquire new skills with immediate, practical applications. And the people who participate in such online discussions, spanning national boundaries and oceans, would also span the religious, sectarian, and ethnic rainbow: Arab Muslims would teach Arab and non-Arab Christians and Jews to understand who they really are, rather than accept anti-Muslim stereotypes passively. The Muslims in turn would also encounter non-Muslim communities—in many cases, for the first time—and have the opportunity to face up to the slandering and vilification of those communities which have been a mainstay of the Arab world’s education and media for generations. The Initiative has set the ambitious coal of engaging one million American and Arab youth in a “Virtual Exchange” experience by 2020, then expanding the purview to other parts of the world.
Given that Ambassador Stevens cut his teeth as a student of the Arabic language in Morocco, it was fitting and appropriate that the first non-American donor to the Stevens Virtual Exchange Initiative was king, Mohammed VI, who pledged $5 million. Moroccans naturally gravitate to such efforts, because Morocco as a monarchy and as a society wants to be an arsenal of interfaith tolerance and cross-cultural understanding. The tradition of striving toward this end goes back to the grandfather of the present king, the later Sultan Mohammed VI, who stood up to the French Vichy occupiers of his country during the Second World War in refusing to surrender his Jewish population—then 256,000 strong—to the Nazis for extermination. Although only a tiny portion of the Jewish community remain in Morocco today, the educational system in Morocco celebrates their historic contribution to the Moroccan social fabric, and seeks to nurture ties with the Moroccan Jewish diaspora, whether in Israel and the United States or anywhere around the world. Old synagogues have been rededicated, and North African religious hymns in Hebrew are heard at the country’s annual sacred music festivals. Morocco is also the only Arab country where the voice of a Jewish broadcaster in Arabic is heard each week on national radio. The present king’s father, Hasan II, famously remarked, “When a Moroccan Jew emigrates, we don’t lose a citizen; we gain an ambassador.” Something about this remark makes me feel that Hasan II, like his son, would have been a staunch supporter of the Stevens Initiative.
On a personal note, I am looking forward to enrolling my children in the Stevens initiative from our home in Casablanca. As a Muslim, I chose to send my children to a local school in which Jews and Muslims study together, in Hebrew as well as Arabic. Steeped in an understanding and appreciation of the other, they grow up valuing people as individuals, accepting and loving them for their communal identities too. We are lucky in Morocco to have a cultural milieu in which such people-to-people engagements are possible face-to-face. In nearby countries engulfed by killing, chaos, and sectarian strife, such efforts are unfeasible at the present time. I hope and pray that the Stevens Initiative will go a long way in changing this dynamic.
Ahmed Charai is publisher of the Moroccan weekly news magazine L'Observateur; chairman and CEO of MED Radio national network; and chairman of the daily newspaper Al-Ahdath al-Maghrebiya. In the United States, he sits on the board of directors of the Atlantic Council and the board of trustees of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, as well as the boards of trustees of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and the board of directors of search for Common Ground. He is a member of The National Interest's Advisory Council.
Image: Flickr/Alan Levine. CC BY-SA 2.0.