What Interfaith Leadership Looks Like Online
May 1, 2020
Our lives are increasingly being lived online; with our interactions with other human beings mediated by an ever-expanding array of digital platforms and communication tools. For religious and spiritual people who believe in interfaith solidarity and cooperation, this technology offers great promise – but also peril. As society plunges into the waters of the Internet, too few interfaith leaders have been taught how to swim well. Unfortunately, we are too often thrashing about, while more destructive forces appear to be winning the race.
Fortunately, on April 30th, three outstanding Interfaith leaders with digital savvy joined Rev. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush for a conversation about how Interfaith Leadership can be exercised online. Amanda Quraishi, Rabbi Joshua Stanton, and Dr. Simran Jeet Singh each shared their distinct, yet intersecting approaches to online Interfaith Leadership. Over the course of the Webinar the panelist covered essential elements of online interfaith leadership including: how to use technology to increase knowledge about faith traditions, careful use of digital meetings spaces for meaningful discussions, the spiritual discipline of interfaith leadership online, and the cost and the reward of showing solidarity across religious difference.
An overarching principle shared by each of the panelists was to remember that each person we encounter online is a human being. Even when we disagree, interfaith leaders are called to attempt to understand each person and treat them with dignity, even when they come to us in pixelated forms.
“When the synagogue in Philadelphia was attacked, we saw people just kind of… women flooding to the Salaam Shalom Facebook group and really taking solace with one another. The exchanges that people were having were so meaningful and so profound. And in some ways, it’s doing what traditional, off-line sacred spaces and religious spaces have done for years, which is create a place where people can go and share these very important, sometimes tragic, sometimes beautiful things in their lives. Only, it’s being done in a digital way and it’s being done across very different lines. To me, that’s the promise of working online in a leadership role and in a role especially around faith and spirituality, is how are we building out the Internet in ways that we can facilitate these very, very human needs and very human exchanges in new and interesting ways.”
“In many traditions, the notion of the pause, bechira point in Hebrew we would say, a point in which we have to choose. Pausing just long enough online to formulate a response to something or generate an initial line of conversation that is better than it otherwise could be is worth everything. It’s not to say I’m perfect, I’m highly imperfect in my responses. But in the moments when I am able to follow the sacred mindfulness practice of giving myself just one more breath between receiving a signal and responding to it, those tend to be really sacred moments that don’t necessarily happen with other Jewish people, but create a spark of the sacred between myself and someone else online.”
“You can really easily get sucked in to this idea of, the way to post, the way to get the most followers is to get the most attention and the way to get the most attention is to be the most outrageous. And in some senses, the kind of work and the kinds of things we care about is outrageous and it’s appropriate for us to be outraged. But in other senses, you start doing that and if you get lost in the game of trying to build a platform without any sort of compass of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it — and it’s happened to me, too — you just get sucked into the toxicity. And you start playing that game and all of a sudden, you’re not advancing a particular mission. You’re not doing what you care about.”
American Civic Life
>> REV. PAUL RAUSHENBUSH: Hello, everyone. Welcome to this webinar on Interfaith Leadership Online. And today, we are going to be practicing what we are talking about. We have amazing panelists here who are going to help us think through what Interfaith Leadership online looks like. We also welcome all of you. You represent a rainbow of traditions. You represent a vast diversity of age and interest. You come from higher education, religious communities, all across. We welcome all of you. This is going to be an important conversation. Hopefully, we will all learn something from one another. We will all grow in our own Interfaith Leadership and recognize the specific nature of Interfaith Leadership as practiced online. And hopefully, you will walk away equipped with resources and ways to exercise that in this moment when we really need that kind of leadership, perhaps more than ever.
I just want to recognize that we are not going to have an open chat today, because there are so many people here. But we do encourage you to submit questions in the Q&A box below. We will be getting to questions at about, let’s see, I’m in Eastern standard Time, I’m in New York. So, about 1:35 my time, but that varies, wherever you are. We look forward to having a robust conversation. We want to do a special thank you to Carrie, who is going to be doing closed captioning for us. This is another way that we can guarantee that all people are equally able to access and appreciate this conversation. Tomorrow, we will be sending you all a link to this webinar, and there will be a story up on Interfaith America which is launched on our platform at IFYC.org and that will include the entire transcript. So, thank you very much for joining us.
I want to start by welcoming the panelists who are with me today. You all will be seeing their biographies in the… biographies… bios, I guess, is what we call them, in the chat box. But I want to name their important accomplishments. I’m going to start with Rabbi Joshua Stanton, who is an amazing Rabbi, media savvy, has been in the digital space for as long as I can remember. He serves as the Rabbi at East End Temple. He also is a Senior Fellow at CLAL, and it goes on and on and on. He’s been an Interfaith leader for as long as I can remember, as well as an important voice within the Jewish community.
Amanda Quraishi is a digital strategist who lives in Austin, Texas — shout-out! She’s the Digital and Social Media Director at the Texas Association of School Boards and she is also the Founder and Director of something I’m really interested in, which is the Institute for Digital Civic Culture, which is a training program designed to elevate online culture and empower leadership in digital spaces. I encourage all of you to check them out for possible ways to move forward in your own online interfaith leadership. Q, as she goes by in her Twitter handle, has been involved with interfaith engagement locally and nationally and is especially a leader in Muslim-Jewish relations.
Simran Jeet Singh is another person who needs almost no introduction, but he is an interfaith writer, activist and scholar. He has taught at universities; he is currently at Union Seminary. He’s an important leader in the Sikh community and in the interfaith community. I also want to give a shout-out for his most recent contribution, which is the children’s book called Fauja Singh Keeps Going: The True Story of the Oldest Person to Run a Marathon, and it’s a children’s book, the first one to center a Sikh story. I want to welcome the panelists and thank you so much for being with all of us and all your time.
I’m going to start with a quick parable story, which I love, which is two fish are swimming along and an older fish comes by and asks them, “How’s the water?” The two younger fish keep swimming along and one of them eventually says, “What the hell is water?” For me now, the Internet has become so ubiquitous, such a part of our lives, the distinction between IRL and URL has faded, and now even more than ever we realize that. Yet, I don’t think those of us in religious leadership and specifically in Interfaith Leadership have done… spend enough time talking about the specific roles and the way that this water works, the way the water has its own ebbs and flows, the way it can be life-giving and dangerous. That is a metaphor I’d like you to start with. I’m going to give you a few quotes that I think are important. One of the founders of Google, Eric Schmidt, said, “The Internet is the first thing humanity has built that humanity doesn’t understand.” There is a lot that we’re still learning about the Internet. There’s a lot of ways that things are evolving in ways that could not have been anticipated. They’re happening very fast. It’s important for those us who yearn for a civil society that is just, that treats every person with dignity, that we begin to try to understand it and recognize the potency of where we are dealing with and where we are.
This has all happened incredibly fast. The World Wide Web as we know it now is about 25 years old. It’s very young technology and that has transformed our society, some people say, like the Gutenberg Bible. But it’s not like that. It’s actually the Gutenberg Bible on steroids, because you can put things out as well as put things in. Some of our social media places that feels so solid, like Facebook, is only 16 years old. Twitter is 14 years old. These are very new technologies. Kevin Kelly, who is the founder of Wired magazine, says “as far as the Internet goes, nothing has happened yet.” And yet we all know so much has happened, and so much is happening because of the Internet.
There are so many examples of beauty that happens on the Internet, beautiful Internet interfaith connections that can happen. But there is also so much violence that can be fostered there and, I just want to…the way I talk about it is it’s a blessing and a curse. The more that we know, the more that we study it, the more that we learn the techniques that can help us, we can turn it into a blessing. That is what today’s webinar is dedicated to, is to making the Internet a blessing for more people and for this world.
I asked our panelists to come up with a scenario, specific scenarios when they saw Interfaith Leadership at work or Interfaith Leadership not at work. There’s plenty of examples in both good and bad and we can learn from all of it. That’s the way I want to start – specific scenarios that can teach us some…get us into the learning of what Interfaith Leadership can look like.
I want to start with you, Dr. Singh. Can you start us off?
>> DR. SIMRAN JEET SINGH: Sure, no problem. For me, the question is one that, it’s the kind of question where you hear it and a bunch of stories flood into your mind. There’s so many examples for me. I was reflecting on it last night, actually. I thought…I thought back to the moment when I realized how powerful it could be, personally, where it was personally affected me. That’s the example I want to share, today.
My younger brother was the first to play NCAA basketball with a turban, so the first Sikh player to play in the NCAA and a lot of challenges come with that, as it is. Add to that that he was playing in Texas and his…the conference was the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference, so he is traveling all over the South. All the ugly stuff you can imagine, that was part of his experience and our experience as a family.
A few years after he finished college, this meme went viral online and it was a photo of him in his uniform and it said, “No one wants to guard Mohammed, because he’s too explosive.” We saw it, I don’t know how much people are…follow these meme accounts, but I follow World Star Hip-Hop, that’s where I saw it and this is like one of the larger platforms on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, everything. All of a sudden, it comes out and it’s everywhere. We didn’t know how to react. This is my brother, so it’s super personal. But it’s also about our community and how we are portrayed. It’s also deeply rooted in Islamophobia. All these scary, messy things and it all feels wrong.
When you are in a situation like that, and we have been before, you do what you can. But you usually can’t do all that much, right? How are you going to counteract something that World Star Hip-Hop or whoever else puts out there where they have much more platform and much more followers and much more power than you do?
Then, this really remarkable thing happened. One of Darsh’s best friends from college, a devout Christian, Greg Worthington, he posted on Facebook and all he said was…I will share with you a little bit of what he says. But he opens up with, “Let me tell you why this isn’t funny. I know this guy. His name is not Mohammed. He is not Arab. He’s Punjabi.” And he goes on “His name is Darsh Singh, he is born and raised here” and he goes on and tells his story. It’s nothing but a 400 word caption, it’s nothing profound, it’s not like he spent a day or two writing it. I talked to Greg and it took him an hour. But he wrote this response and his response – Greg’s response, that went viral in a way that no one really expected.
Within a few days, it had about 25,000 likes and 10,000 shares. All of a sudden, in a situation where we weren’t able to speak for ourselves at the same level, like a friend of ours who had nothing at stake, really, was able to do that just by speaking up.
I want to close by sharing his quote that he gave in this piece on NBC. This story was viral so it was all over the news and on TV and that sort of thing. Greg gave this quote at the end that really, when I was talking to him spoke to the power of what he did. He says “Since receiving kind messages from Sikhs and others and reading what people have said when they shared my post, I realized I had no idea how important it was to share something even though I knew it was extremely important to do so. A stranger who is a Sikh that shared my post said, “Greg Worthington, you’re a friend indeed.” It was touching to know I could be the kind of friend Sikh community needs during times like these just by speaking out.”
The take away for me is, you never know what you do or what you say that can hit. That’s the nature of the Internet. You never know what might make an impact. But I know personally, Darsh felt and our family felt, incredible gratitude to anyone and everyone from our communities who responded with something positive. Then, the amplifying effect of it going viral like that, that has done that work not just for our family, but for an entire community who was hurting. So that, to me, was the moment – this was five years ago – the moment I really saw in a personal way power of an interfaith connection online.
>> REV. PAUL RAUSHENBUSH: Thank you so much, I appreciate that. I think that’s a foundational element of, when will you stand up? When will you stand up? If you wouldn’t mind, Dr. Singh, putting that story that you’re reading from in the chat so that people might be able to have it, that would be great. Thank you. Amanda, would you go next?
>> AMANDA QURAISHI: Sure. I like to talk little bit about not so much using social media as a broadcasting platform, which is where I think a lot of people go, that’s their default, especially when you’re talking to leaders, right? I think in this day and age, we’re all kind of vying for attention in the attention economy. The first thing people think of when they go online is how do I get a bunch of people to follow me and get a very big voice? My work actually focuses on, in a little bit of a different area, which is around building community online. Not so much about using it as a platform to amplify messages, as much as how do you convene people and how do you create spaces where people can go and have meaningful exchanges? And, that is both in an interfaith context and actually in almost any context. I work with leaders who are not just religious leaders but in all kinds of fields. I really think that that’s where the value of being online lies, when we look at it as a virtual space and when we look at the ability to transcend time and space and to bring people across all these differences into unique places online to have important conversations.
One of the things I appreciate in an interfaith context is, I’m a part of an organization called the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom. It’s a large, grassroots women’s organization of Muslim and Jewish women in North America and Europe. They have a Facebook group. I was honored to represent that group in the Facebook, their community leadership program. It was a fellowship program that Facebook did last year. The reason why it’s such a compelling group, we were accepted into that program, was because it is doing just that. It’s not, it’s not out there, necessarily, to send a message. Rather to call people in and to create this sort of place where people can have very authentic, safe — and I don’t believe there’s any real safe space online — but in order for people to have meaningful engagement online, we need to be able to be vulnerable. Otherwise, it’s just on the surface. And in order for people to be vulnerable, they need to be able to feel like they have a place where they understand the norms, where there are defined parameters. These are very basic social needs that people have.
So I do think that, I’ve seen this replicated in lots of other ways. There are some groups that are much better doing this than others. For example, last year, or the year before, I can’t remember when it was, when the synagogue in Philadelphia was attacked, we saw, people just kind of, women flooding to this group and really taking solace with one another. The exchanges that people were having were so meaningful and so profound. And in some ways, it’s doing what traditional, off-line sacred spaces and religious spaces have done for years, which is create a place where people can go and share these very important, sometimes tragic, sometimes beautiful things in their lives. Only, it’s being done in a digital way and it’s being done across very different lines. To me, that’s the promise of working online in a leadership role and in a role especially around faith and spirituality, is how are we building out the Internet in ways that we can facilitate these very, very human needs and very human exchanges in new and interesting ways.
>> REV. PAUL RAUSHENBUSH: That means so much That’s such an important reminder. There’s so many different textures to this work and times for public statements, but also times for the calling in, for the conversation, for the deep engagement. So thank you for that reminder. Josh, do you want to go next, please?
>> RABBI JOSHUA STANTON: Absolutely. I think there are a number of roles that interfaith discourse and spiritual leadership can play online. One, as Amanda said, it’s to help people deal with isolation and engage for the connection. One is — I’m going to call you Dr. Singh even though we are running buddies. You are both, I guess, doctors, so Dr. Quraishi, Dr. Singh. Dr. Singh — you both alluded to the idea we can engage in public education and can counter stereotypes.
There’s also the building of basic religious literacy that supports people in their own internal lines of inquiry. There was a moment I thought was an incredible teachable moment online that came about as a result of some of the painful things. Towards the end of this year, there were a huge number of anti-Semitic attacks in the New York area including a murderous rampage in the home of a rabbi just outside of New York City. I was interviewed on television about it and one of the questions was, how can we show solidarity with the Jewish community? It was in the middle of Hanukkah, the middle of the darkest time of year. I suggested to post on social media a menorah. Just put it up there, it’s a symbol of light and hope and strength in the time our community has needed it.
An incredibly well-meaning Christian leader in Canada posted a menorah that happened to be a menorah with a Christian fish in it from a messianic Jew website that some Jews viewed as appropriative, some Jews viewed as awkward, some Jews viewed as tone deaf. It was interesting for me to watch online as this image went viral, was shared I think 100,000 times. The number of Jews who were not able to receive the blessing that was intended to be was really striking to me as a Rabbi. It’s not as if this Christian leader went about sharing a symbol that accidentally could have been appropriative with malice in their hearts. They were trying to show solidarity, yet there was a lack of awareness the values of symbols, themselves.
So it was a religious education moment, actually, to be able to stand up in this flood online and say first of all, thank you. You are trying to show such support and kindness to the Jewish community when it needs. And this is a particular symbol that has a different kind of valence [sounds like] to it, and there is a history here of supersessionism and appropriationism. But you meant this well, so first, thank you, and let’s take this moment and learn about each other and each other’s symbols and why these symbols matter.
And, let’s talk about authenticity in the online space. I think that is one of the areas religion and spirituality does quite well, is bringing authenticity into a new media. We did it with Gutenberg, in the case of many older traditions, mine being one of them, we’ve done this since the Bronze Age with every technological institution. We had to re-articulate our tradition in a way that feels authentic in an entirely new medium. Goodness knows, we can do it today in a way that benefits our traditions and also helps clarify the boundaries and the distinctions between them in a way that is positive, pluralistic, and also amplified well online — because unfortunately, the haters find it very easy to amplify themselves. Everyone goes and rubbernecks when somebody says something disgusting. We, too, as religious leaders, have the opportunity to amplify something more positive that is really instructive, that helps people cultivate themselves in this new form.
>> REV. PAUL RAUSHENBUSH: Thank you for that. It leads into my next question which is, it would be very easy for you to react to that Christian leader and say, what are you doing in our moment of sorrow, you’re doing this? Are you salting the wounds? Instead, you decide to say oh, I’m curious about this, can we talk further?
It brings me to the question I want to ask all the panelists, if you’re interested in answering it, which is, how do you, is there a preparation for the engagement, of the type of engagement on the Internet that might be different than in person, there is this dissociation, you’re less likely to own what’s coming out of you. There’s been a lot of research about this and people feel disconnected and they can be more extreme in a lot of ways.
I’m just wondering, for any of you, do you put on a particular spiritual force around you when you try to enter into these spaces to be the kind of person you want to be as an Interfaith leader online?
>> RABBI JOSHUA STANTON: I think there are two aspects. One is the idea that there is a human being on the other side of a given comment or quote. Religion and spirituality’s universal themes are recognizing the human being in atypical circumstances. And so far as we are able to humanize each other, we can turn curses into blessings. That’s one of the famous stories from my tradition is basically, someone who sought to curse the Jewish people and for the life of him could not, was almost impeded in doing so and ended up blessing them. Maybe we could be the instruments who inspire the humanization that elevates the conversation and changes the way we interact.
There’s also, in many traditions, the notion of the pause, bechira point in Hebrew we would say, a point in which we have to choose. Pausing just long enough online to formulate a response to something or generate an initial line of conversation that is better than it otherwise could be is worth everything. It’s not to say I’m perfect, I’m highly imperfect in my responses. But in the moments when I am able to follow the sacred mindfulness practice of giving myself just one more breath between receiving a signal and responding to it, those tend to be really sacred moments that don’t necessarily happen with other Jewish people, but create a spark of the sacred between myself and someone else online.
>> AMANDA QURAISHI: I love that, I think that’s wonderful. In fact, when I teach my course, the very first part of the course is about self-mastery, because I feel like we are always out there trying to change the world. There are few of us take into account, when we go online, the impacts that it’s having on us and our responses to it. If we don’t understand those things, if we don’t understand our impulses and the reactions and the way we interact with the technology, then we are just not going to be effective in our communications. So that is a really important piece. I think every tradition has this kind of idea of a sacred pause. I think that’s a really important and valuable piece.
The other thing again, I will reiterate, viewing it as going online, instead of going online or viewing it as a tool or a platform, I look at it as a space. The thing is, we don’t have this problem in real space. If I go to Times Square in New York City, it’s sensory overload. I know that I’m exposed. I know that there are all these different people around me. We know when we go into all these different spaces offline that there are normative behaviors and there are things that are acceptable and not acceptable. We know when we need to be aware of danger and all these other things. When we go online, we think that we’re sitting at home in our pajamas on the couch with our laptop. We don’t look at it as being fully exposed to this random and incredibly diverse place. I think that having that mentality and looking at it in that way when you go online allows you to take that pause, because you don’t feel like you can take anything for granted out there. You learn to stop and “read the room” when you walk into a digital space. And, you conduct yourself according to the cues you get from the communities that you’re a part of online. That protects you and also keeps you from saying or doing things that you might regret, or that make you look like you don’t know what you’re doing online. That allows you to measure your responses and little better.
>> DR. SIMRAN JEET SINGH: One of the interesting things I’m realizing now is, no one ever taught us how to do this. At least for me, no one taught me how to do this. And a lot of it was just figuring it out on your own. Sitting with you both, Josh and Amanda, like we’re friends outside of this, and I’m not surprised to hear you say what you’re saying. But we haven’t even talked about any of this. It’s cool that we’re on the same page and that we use some of the same practices, but they’re kind of like, self-created. It’s scary to me to realize that. I watched how conversations are conducted online and it’s no surprise, no one is teaching anyone, the kinds of things you are talking about. Thank you for the question, Paul, I think for me, there are a couple things, so, yes to everything you have said Josh and Amanda. There’s one thing you have said in particular that I have found really helpful to recognize that I wasn’t totally attuned to before, and that’s the kind of trap of trying to build a platform. You can really easily get sucked in to this idea of, the way to post, the way to get the most followers is to get the most attention and the way to get the most attention is to be the most outrageous. And in some senses, the kind of work and the kinds of things we care about is outrageous and it’s appropriate for us to be outraged. But in other senses, you start doing that and if you get lost in the game of trying to build a platform without any sort of compass of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it — and it’s happened to me, too — you just get sucked into the toxicity. And you start playing that game and all of a sudden — and this has been my experience — all of a sudden you’re not advancing a particular mission. You’re not doing what you care about. While in your mind you tell yourself well, I’m doing this for a larger goal, we all know that that sort of defense or justification, like that’s a pretty slippery slope.
One is like, even just becoming aware to the fact that you are vulnerable to that, too, the moment I realized what I was doing, I was like I want to stop doing that, that was it. I’ve been able to hold on to that feeling, since. The other thing that’s been really helpful to me, and this is also unintentional… I mean, it’s intentional in a sense… When I was a teenager, our family was super nerdy. My dad is the nerd of all nerds. We used to sit down and do family meetings every week. When I was a teenager one year, he brought in a leadership consultant and we created a family mission, vision, and values statement. As a 15-year-old I was like, what are we doing? This is horrifying. But those values that we identified that have stuck with me to the point now, and this is where it actually becomes useful, again, no one is teaching or talking to us about values. Why are you doing what you are doing? But if you can have some clarity around this — and Amanda, this is what you are speaking to and Josh, you were referring to this, as well — if you have some clarity around who you are and what type of person you want to be, it’s much easier to not get lost in the way that we easily can in this ocean. It’s so easy.
The other reason I found this so useful and why I really encourage young people to do this is that it keeps you from getting in trouble, too. It’s so easy, in a moment of anger, just type up something, Tweet it out and three years down the line you apply for a job and it comes back and bites you in the butt. That happens all the time. When you have clarity around why am I posting this, how does it fit into the person I want to be, how does that align with my values, it protects us, too. Those two things have been super helpful for me.
>> REV. PAUL RAUSHENBUSH: To underscore all that’s been said, to recognize that the technology actually invites a certain recklessness. So you have to be on guard. And also, especially, I remember being in a room where someone said to young people “you all know all about the Internet.” I was like no, no, they don’t! None of us do. Just because you… you were born in America, you know all the American history? No, no we don’t! Learn. More knowledge.
I do want to encourage all of those of us who are with us to ask questions, the Q&A is open now. So we encourage questions for the latter part of our time together. I do want to encourage each of you to offer some insight about the specific platforms that you find important and for your work. Different platforms, different ways of engaging online are very different. A lot of people now, we talk about the Internet or on leadership, we are talking about technologies that expand from texting to emails to going online on our laptop. All of this is part of what it means to be connected and there’s lots of ways to use it. We’re also recognizing that there are certain places and, specifically, where people are trying to foster and foment violence and hatred. I’m curious if any of you have ever had any experience of being parts off efforts to counteract that, or in your own way. I’m opening up kind of two different areas of questioning, but I would love to hear something about the platforms you feel most comfortable in. Then also, a little bit about what it means to go quite to the heart of where hatred of different faith traditions, as well as race and gender and all of those things are part of a whole. I’m curious if any of you have felt called to that kind of work?
>> RABBI JOSHUA STANTON: Yeah, just an example that feels somewhat salient, I think first of all, historically in all of our traditions, we are supposed to bring messages of hope and higher purpose into places that might not have it. So the idea that traditionally, Jews read Torah on Mondays and Thursdays comes literally from the practice of bringing a Torah scroll and reading it in the marketplace where people may have been engaged in less than savory behaviors. For us now, that’s largely on Facebook, on Twitter, elsewhere. There was a point this winter when unlikely allies stood up in solidarity with the American Jewish community and the Jewish community in New York City. And in this case, someone who is very [indiscernible] and she cannot have been engaged in a lot of private dialogues about bounds of what is anti-Semitic and what is not and how you define that. And a lot of difficult conversations for myself as a progressive Zionist and for her as a Palestinian American about how that plays out in tough contexts. On Twitter, after she helped organize a rally in support of the Jewish community in a way that felt to me to be totally authentic and altruistic and something inside of interfaith solidarity, and a lot of members of my own faith community were attacking her as sort of to whitewash her anti-Semitism. I actually got very involved in some of these conversations saying hey, I supported the planning of this rally and I attended it, knowing that she was planning it because you have to give people the chance to express their goodness, even if you disagree with other parts of how they express themselves. And, you have to engage with and enable people to be full and complicated creatures online, much as they are in person. I felt like people in my own community were not wrestling in a way that felt comfortable to me with the complexity of engaging with someone who is an anti-Zionist and holds positions that I hold to be really problematic, without reducing her to those views, alone. So, I think there are ways we can signal boost and give people space when they might not otherwise have it, to articulate themselves with nuance rather than being cornered and lambasted online.
In so far as we can be allies to people who are having their voices limited, that can be important. I think especially in the case of unlikely allies to our own communities at times when we need those allies.
>> REV. PAUL RAUSHENBUSH: I just want to mention, I remember that interaction and that you, then, got attacked. And I think it was incumbent on many of us who knew you and know the person you are talking about to say, I support this engagement. We all have a role to play. Or at least, a role to play in saying I support constructive disagreement. I think there’s ways to show up for one another, and that’s [inaudible — off microphone]. Others who might want to answer that question? Or go to another one?
>> DR. SIMRAN JEET SINGH: Sure, I do. I want to touch on something Josh was talking about earlier. It comes to this question of, for me at least it comes to a question of what it means to have a voice. For minoritized and marginalized communities who for so long have had not access to media in any way, this technology is creating opportunities for us to speak for ourselves in a way that we never have been before and to make connections. So all of a sudden, I think the advent of social media has created this avenue for invisible-ized committees to become visible. Whereas, Sikhs, for example, have been in this country for 130 years now and have largely been rendered invisible, all of a sudden we are able to create spaces and what we have then been able to do is parlay our voices on social media into traditional media. Then we enter into public consciousness in a way that we haven’t before.
Why does that matter? It’s not just that it’s cool to be noticed. It’s also that, for communities on the margins where being unseen also means being targets of violence, this is actually, the stakes are pretty high. This can be the difference between life or death, people knowing who we are and people being able to see our humanity. For many communities who don’t typically or traditionally or historically have access to power, like these technologies are being leveraged very intentionally in many cases to say hey, this is a way for us to try to equal the playing field. Also, it’s not just a power-play or something that’s institutional or systemic, it’s like hey, this is a way for me to create safety for my kids and family and my parents. So it’s very much personal.
>> RABBI JOSHUA STANTON: Can I ask you, have you been able to change views? I view you as using Twitter and other social media far more effectively than I, and you are really a leading light there. Have you seen people change their views? Have you been able to persuade people and create not just visibility, but hopefully, security, for the Sikh community?
>> DR. SIMRAN JEET SINGH: There are two things I would say. I think what I’ve learned, and a lot of this learning has come post-2016, and as many of you who are watching probably know, the toxicity online has really exponentially expanded especially with like bots and trolls and all these kind of things, and what I have had to accept, which was not something I was willing to accept before, is that you can’t change everyone’s minds and it shouldn’t be your goal to change everyone’s mind. If your goal is to have everybody think like you, you’re never going to be happy. You will never reach that goal, so you will never be satisfied. That was my goal before, I just wanted everyone to like me. That’s kind of my personality as it is.
So the goal really changed, to say I want to provide perspectives for people who don’t have access to it. There’s this beautiful James Baldwin quote that was really helpful to me and he says, “If I love you, then I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.” That quotation to me, that’s what it’s become for me. I don’t really care if people agree with my politics anymore. All I want, and this is what my entire online presence has become, all I want is for people to see each other’s humanity and there are all sorts of tools available for us to do that. It’s talking about your kids, being a normal human, right? But, as everyone on this conversation has mentioned already, the technology is actually structured in such a way that it strips away our humanity. So it takes conscious effort for us to show our humanity and to be vulnerable and then to invite other people in and to view things differently. It takes quite a bit of work. But that, to me, has become a really big shift in how I think about this.
>> REV. PAUL RAUSHENBUSH: Dr. Quraishi, can we try again?
>> AMANDA QURAISHI: Sure, can you hear me? Okay, but I’m not a doctor!
I have a couple things quickly before Q&A. One, I want to thank Rabbi Stanton, because what he mentioned, the courage to stand up, when you feel the online hordes coming for you, it is… you can’t minimize what that does, psychologically and emotionally and spiritually. You are having an effect, it’s having an effect on you.
To me, having the moral courage to stand up and not just for all the things that we want to stand up for, but also to stand up for the things that we need to stand up for, and to assert ourselves in a space that is increasingly black and white and rigid and punitive is important. I hope, my hope is that we see more leaders making that effort. Because we’re losing ground, right? And, I’m not the type of person who thinks everything can be equal all the time and there’s a big soft, mushy middle we should all be happy in. But what I do think is that we have to be able to be willing to engage in deliberative democracy, which means really rigorous, back and forth conversations without destroying the fabric of our society. And that is not happening right now, it’s very, very scary.
One of the reasons, I think, is because, you know, way back when social media was a new thing, the people that blazed the trails online where marketers. As is usually the case, it’s for profit companies that are out there blazing these trails. So a lot of what you see in activism and in leadership online right now is really just the application of hard marketing tactics. Marketing, by its nature, is antisocial. So you’re not going to get the kind of community and the kind of spaces online where you can be productive, if you’re doing that, if that’s the norm.
I do agree with my friend Simran, I absolutely agree that you can’t be all things to all people. But I am a marketing person, that is my profession. I am not a religious leader. I will say, that as a marketing person, if I go to my boss and I tell her look, we couldn’t get it done. This campaign has failed and it failed because people are too stupid to get it, or, they’re bad people — I’m going to get fired, right? Because my job is to meet people where they are and make sure that they get that message. That means having empathy and understanding exactly where they are coming from before I craft my message.
That is what it means to be a professional communicator. These are all very basic things in the world of professional communications. But again, this is not something we were all raised to do. They are not second nature things. These are competencies that have to be learned. At this point, we are all communicators, professionally, regardless of our role, if we are online. So we really need to take a que, these are the basic rules. This is your message, who are you trying to reach, what are you trying to accomplish? What are the tools and the places and spaces where that’s happening? Then, you work within those parameters. You don’t just get to walk into any old space and do and say what you want and be mad when people don’t get it.
>> REV. PAUL RAUSHENBUSH: Thank you so much for that great reminder. We have some super questions. I’m going to read all of them. I’m going to take a round, then I want each of you to respond to whatever sparks your interest. All of these questions are good.
The first one involves ritual. What are ways that ritual plays out in Interfaith Leadership online? Can it? How would it?
Another one really wanted to go deeper with you… everyone is calling you Dr. Quraishi, this is a banner day for you. I blame Dr. Singh, who I think started it. This is a question really about the formats, the strategies, of how to have a good conversation online. I think that might be something they could pursue with you and your Institute. But it is really interesting in its own, important element. There’s another one about service and how service online can happen. What does it mean to be of service online? We talk a lot about service projects as the backbone — that, I think, and food, are the backbone of interfaith engagement. What does it look like to create service opportunities in the digital space? That I love, and I am really interested in how you would try that.
Another question is about “preaching to the choir,” how are we making sure we are not preaching to the choir? I think all of you have mentioned that it’s very easy not to be preaching to the choir online. But I do think that’s important if you feel like you’re only talking to people you already want to be talking to.
Then, there’s just basically a big shout out from someone named Sister Martha Kirk. Dr. Singh, does that name ring a bell? She’s giving a shout-out to your dad.
>> DR. SIMRAN JEET SINGH: It does. She’s an interfaith celebrity in San Antonio.
>> REV. PAUL RAUSHENBUSH: She’s watching you, she’s making sure you’re behaving, and she’s a grateful for what is being shared.
In the last few minutes we have, if you all can take two minutes and close with whatever you feel inspired.
>> DR. SIMRAN JEET SINGH: I will say a word on the question of preaching to the choir, because it’s one I think about often. I think part of that thinking comes to us from the dualistic outlook of it’s us versus them. Either they agree with us or they disagree with us. And if they disagree with us we’re not going to move them and if they agree with us, what is the point of talking?
What I have learned is, especially when it comes to the most, the things about humanity that are complex, which is like, people, our individuality. It’s not so black and white. These conversations can be, and really have been, for me, enriching. They can be informative. Josh talked about religious literacy. Hey, I don’t know about Judaism, I didn’t know about this particular issue with the fish and the menorah. Let me learn about that, that’s cool. Or, it can be something that’s very much like, I haven’t experienced what Amanda has as a Muslim woman in Texas. Like, let me just hear about her life. Or it can be affirmative in like oh, hey, there aren’t many Sikhs around here, it’s cool for me to hear from someone who has a turban and beard and can say I know what your life is like. These sort of things are really powerful to the people who are expressing them. The opportunities are manifold. But I think the question is less about whether we are preaching. The question should be less about who the audience is. The audience is there. The question is what is our mode of engagement? Are we preaching or are we sharing? Are we educating or listening? There are all sorts of ways to engage with these audiences online. I think that, to me, is what has been most helpful in thinking about that.
>> REV. PAUL RAUSHENBUSH: Rabbi?
>> RABBI JOSHUA STANTON: Sure. I think one of the interesting elements today is that we are seeing an acceleration in the creation of social norms online. We are home more than ever before, out of necessity. We are engaging people online more than ever before. And as a result, we are starting to establish those norms and those best practices. And there is a key role for religious leaders to play in them, because we are often people who help develop ritual of all kinds. I have unfortunately had to officiate at more Zoom funerals than I would have ever wanted to in the last month. As much as initially they invariably have a degree of awkwardness, they become very real, very quickly. So we can, in fact, create sacred space and sacred experiences and even rituals that I would deem holy online and in new fora than ever before.
That gives me hope that in many of the places that we have not yet been able to elevate discourse, we might, especially, right now. People are more vulnerable, more open and more connective. So we can get done the work that normally would take a decade in the next month. Now it’s incumbent on us as interfaith leaders to do so. How can we teach, preach, elevate the humanity in one another, and how can we do so in a new medium? If all of us can find one meaningful way in the next month, we will have done real, sacred service for all of humanity at a time that is filled with pain for so many.
>> AMANDA QURAISHI: I absolutely agree with that, 110% percent. Just to riff off of that and touch on the points, the questions about how do we have, how do we create a culture of service and how do we do these other things online, I think that we are kind of learning that very quickly in this pandemic when we are all kind of forced to be online. I think there’s lots more room for us to explore that, and the best place for us to start with that would be to find out from the people who are in need. I know that a lot of my friends who have various disabilities are suddenly very excited, because they’re able to participate in things online that they otherwise would not have been able to, the kinds of events that they may not have been able to get to in the past. Let’s talk to people who need things and see what we can do for them online, and then start building things out from there.
>> REV. PAUL RAUSHENBUSH: Thank you so much to all three of you, to all of you with your wonderful questions, for being with us for this hour. We are all learning. We are all learners. We are all leaders. I think this idea of, we are with one another, even when we are apart. We are humans together, even though it’s pixilated. I am filled with the feeling of being blessed and the many blessings that have been shared today. I look forward to this conversation continuing in myriad of forms in the future. Thanks again to all three of you for your time today and all of you who have joined us online. Be well.