Sunday, May 15, 2005

The non-digital divide

When the subject of "rivers of blood" came up, I had a feeling this wasn't going to be the usual light Skype chat with a stranger.

When I'm sitting at my PC to just browse, and don't have any work to do, I turn on Skype's "Skype Me" mode to indicate that I'm available for chatting. Within a few minutes, I was added to a conference call with some Lithuanian teenagers. They wanted to talk basketball, so they added a random American to the mix. None of them had any problem speaking English, naturally. Unfortunately, they spoke much more fluently about basketball than I could, so I dropped out after about 10 minutes.

The next call was from a graduate student in Morocco. The conversation turned to Iraq. Seeing that I was also Irish, he tried to compare the conflict in Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan with Northern Ireland. The conflict is about religion, he says. Just as Protestants and Catholics are battling for survival in Northern Ireland, the wars in the Middle East are about Christians trying to destroy Islam or convert Muslims to Christianity. It won't end until every river runs with blood, he says.

I pause. Where to start? Well, let's start with something I do know: The conflict in Northern Ireland has nothing to do with religion. The people saying that are those who want the conflict to continue, because they benefit from the chaos. Thugs on both sides profit from protection rackets. The politicians gain power through fear and hatred, rather than on doing difficult jobs well, such as running schools or getting the rubbish picked up on time. Pretending that the Northern Ireland conflict has anything to do with religion serves only to prolong it and keeps both sides from talking.

I said I don't expect him to believe me right away, but I do hope that something of what I say stays in his heart somewhere. The West, outside of a lunatic fringe, doesn't want to destroy Islam. The conflicts aren't about religion, even in Palestine. And I know just enough about Islam to know that car bombing civilians isn't Islamic, so I doubt the other side is much motivated by religion either. Islam is a thin veneer of respectability on their grab for power.

We ended the conversation with agreement on some basic points: The U.S. could have approached Sept. 11 more effectively. I believe Americans could have skipped Iraq and poured the same amount of money into rebuilding Afghanistan, for example, while he believed the U.S. shouldn't have attacked anyone. He also promised to send me some articles he's written on the conflict, so that I can "edit" them. Hmm... I said I couldn't promise anything, but I'll certainly read them. I haven't seen anything yet.

The chance to have conversations with a random Muslims probably won't convince more of my family and friends to use Skype (count so far: zero), but it probably should. The world would be a slightly better place if more of these meetings happened.

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[Updated May 16 at 20:38 to fix a typo.]