Oh Holy Net Does the Hand of God Know HTML?
Hal Plotkin, Special to SF Gate
Wednesday, April 28, 1999
Recently, while driving through downtown Cairo, our tour guide, Mohammed, turned to me in surprise. “You’re Jewish?” he asked, “I’ve always wondered something: do Jewish people think Jesus was a God, or the son of God?” Despite the fact his country had gone to war several times in recent decades with Israel, he knew virtually nothing about Judaism.
The moment crystallized for me how a lack of knowledge about differing religious beliefs has contributed to centuries of misunderstandings, grief, and warfare. The gulf of ignorance on religious issues is arguably humanity’s most costly information deficit.
The best antidote to ignorance, and the suspicion and hostility it breeds, is information. When I told Mohammed that Jews don’t accept the divinity of Jesus, seeing him instead as a man or another Jewish rabble-rouser or, at best, maybe a prophet of sorts, he smiled broadly. “Yes, yes,” he eagerly agreed, “that’s our belief, too. I didn’t know we had that in common.”
Unlike Mohammed, most Arabs probably don’t have the opportunity to share ideas about theology with Jews in person. Such lack of dialog, though, is exactly the kind of communications problem which the fast-growing Internet is ideally suited to mitigate.
These days, the Internet is mostly portrayed as a powerful new tool for commerce and the media. Its power to bring together people of historically different beliefs, however, could become its highest, and more noble, calling.
We’re beginning to see some of this in the Balkans War which is, largely, a religious conflict between Serbian Christians and local Muslims. Websites and email exchanges have created a level of communications never before witnessed during a time of hostilities.
No one can say whether increased personal exchanges will shorten the course of that war. But given a choice between the more traditional war-time alternative, vitriol in a vacuum, or an increased number of decentralized communication conduits, it seems obvious where humanity’s more peaceful impulses will find expression.
More promising possibilities can be found in Jerusalem, a city holy to three of the world’s great religions, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.
After touring Egypt, I visited Israel where one of my first stops was the top of Mount Scopus, which offers a breathtaking vista overlooking the old walled city of Jerusalem. From that vantage point, the lunacy of religious conflict is laid out in a way no other place on earth can convey.
There is the old wall of the original Jewish temple, and the gate to Jerusalem through which orthodox Jews say the messiah will pass. The gate, of course, was closed centuries ago by Muslim rulers who, yards away, built the Dome of the Rock, from where they say the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.
A stone’s throw away is the now holy Stations of the Cross, where believers say Jesus walked on his way to be crucified. About 300 years after Jesus was born, Queen Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, mapped out the site — even noting the exact place where one of his hands touched a wall.
A lot of people who visit Jerusalem say they feel the presence of God. I had exactly the opposite reaction.
Looking down on the Old City from Mount Scopus, I saw the handiwork of politicians, not the finger of the divine.
As armies invaded and conquered Jerusalem, leader after leader erected their own holy structures — temples, walkways, churches, or mosques — that compelled their subjects to defend the turf to their deaths. As a result, 2000 years later, we have holy sites piled literally one on top of another. As the new millennium approaches, millions are now poised on the brink, ready to fight to stake final claims to those blood-soaked pieces of rock and dirt.
Dissolving this religious rancor won’t be easy. Interfaith groups have been working on the problem for decades — in some cases, a century or more. Fortunately, though, those efforts can now be greatly accelerated by the Internet.
Several websites allow adherents of different faiths to share their philosophies. These sites are particularly powerful since they don’t rely on opposing clerics to define the faiths of others. Muslims, Jews, or Christians can now more fully explain what is really in their hearts.
Because of the Web, for the first time in history, people of differing faiths can quite easily learn more about each other. Ideas banned in one country’s library are available on the Internet. More and more of us will be able, in the years ahead, to go to the most informed sources on religious issues rather than to local zealots with axes to grind.
New uses of the Internet might also make a difference. In strife-torn Jerusalem, for example, one of the most contentious issues revolves around the constant fear that religious sites belonging to one group will be desecrated by other groups. Last year, for example, shortly after the Israeli government announced it would open an ancient tunnel under the Old City, rumors about the impending desecration of a nearby Muslim holy site touched off a riot that cost several lives.
The beauty of Web technology is that we also have the ability to *see* what’s going on. If ever a place called out more for webcams, I haven’t seen it.
We all know about the fishcams and coke machine cams, where Web users can watch mundane events unfold from afar. In Jerusalem, though, these silly little creations might find a very serious purpose: helping to prevent the next, truly catastrophic war.
Jerusalem might, in fact, be the single best place on earth for a webcam vendor to set up a demonstration project. It’s not a complete solution, of course, but I wonder how much religious tensions could be reduced with a few well-placed Mosque cams, or Temple cams. Believers of all faiths could be telepresent around the clock, easily able to monitor the places that mean the most to them.
There’s already one Jerusalem-based website, for example, where users can email written pleas to God, which are then printed out and placed in the cracks of the Wailing Wall, an old Jewish tradition. While such technology doesn’t eliminate the desire of any one group to control Jerusalem, the Internet does make sharing the city, and other holy places, easier and more possible than ever before.
Most of the attention paid to the Middle East peace process focuses on the supposedly big issues, such as trading land for peace, the establishment of a Palestinian state, or reducing terrorism. But while I was there, I read about a small, mostly ignored, working group set up under the Oslo Peace Accords by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. Its purpose: finding ways to use educational institutions and communications technologies to reduce tensions that have long plagued Abraham’s warring descendants.
After a visit to the region, I think that group might have the real keys to the kingdom.
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