A virtual world that breaks real barriers

In Second Life's Al-Andalus, a virtual world patterned after medieval Andalus in Spain, avatars of Muslims mix with avatars of Jews and Christians to strive for a more perfect union.

Courtesy of Rita King and Joshua Fouts
Rose Springvale is the avatar of Georgiana Nelsen, who cofounded Al-Andalus, a virtual world patterned after medieval Andalus in Spain, where Christians, Jews, and Muslims coexisted harmoniously under Islamic rule.
Courtesy of Rita King and Joshua Fouts
The entrance to the library at Al-Andulus, which is run by a Smithsonian Institution librarian.
Courtesy of Rita King and Joshua Fouts
Virtual citizens of Al-Andulus meet to elect a chancellor. The group now has 350 contributors – and thousands of visitors.
Courtesy of Rita J. King and Joshua S. Fouts
Bazaar stall in Al-Andalus, a virtual world patterned after medieval Andalus in Spain, where Christians, Jews, and Muslims coexisted harmoniously under Islamic rule.
Courtesy of Rita J. King and Joshua S. Fouts
Rose Garden in Al-Andalus, a virtual world patterned after medieval Andalus in Spain, where Christians, Jews, and Muslims coexisted harmoniously under Islamic rule.

Thus far in the relatively short existence of online worlds and virtual communities, less than flattering stories typically float to the surface. The Internet is rife with tales of bad behavior: antisocial "trolls" posting inflammatory messages; players addicted to fantasy role-playing games; and marriages ruined by spouses staying up half the night to flirt in virtual spaces, even proposing marriage to people they've never met in the flesh.

Given the power of negative thinking, it's worth repeating: Not all that happens within the digital realms of monsters, quests, and virtual dollars is evil. Much of the zombie-shooting amounts to people having fun or finding an escape. But some online communities embrace a more lofty mission. They're forging new relationships across the chasms of nationality, religion, and language – long the unrealized dream of some who hoped the Internet could bring us closer.

One such place is Al-Andalus, named after a real nation that once existed in the Iberian Peninsula. From the 8th to the 15th centuries, the spirit of la convivencia, "coexistence," ruled Spain. Christians, Muslims, and Jews lived together mostly harmoniously, and created a vibrant artistic, scientific, and intellectual community.

The volunteers who "built" Al-Andalus in Second Life, the virtual world created by company Linden Lab, wanted to re-create that utopian place, particularly in the wake of the intercultural ill will brewing since 9/11. Only their Al-Andalus is made of pixels, not bricks, and peopled not by humans but their digital doppelgängers, or avatars.

"I'm a pacifist. I'm a mother," says cofounder Georgiana Nelsen, a business lawyer practicing in Houston who in Second Life (SL) goes by "Rose Springvale" (and, informally, the "Sultana"). "I want to always teach 'Use your words, not your hands.' And so this appealed to my personal desire to do something positive in the world rather than continue to foster things that are divisive."

After nine months of construction, Al-Andalus opened its virtual doors in July 2007, and now has 350 contributing members and receives thousands of day-trippers. The democratically run community (and recognized nonprofit) is roughly one-quarter Jewish, one-quarter Muslim, and the remainder Christian and atheist. The massive virtual grounds include a re-creation of the Alhambra and Alcázar fortresses and palaces and the Great Mosque of Córdoba, plus a caravan market, library (run by a Smithsonian librarian), theater, and art center. People can attend a flamenco concert; a meeting; or a religious service in a synagogue, church, or mosque – or even ride a magic carpet for an aerial tour (almost 180,000 have done so).

For the uninitiated, SL is a seven-year-old virtual world with millions of users. It's not a game like World of Warcraft: There's no killing or "winning." It's mainly a social space: Residents create and outfit their avatars, chat with others (via voice or instant message), buy and trade virtual property, build houses and towns, and, in communities like Al-Andalus, strive to form a more perfect union. Tele­portation and automatic language translation help smooth over wrinkles in time and space.

Given that the uproar over building an Islamic cultural center near New York City's ground zero has further amplified mistrust, virtual communities like Al-Andalus may be part of the solution.

"As this mosque controversy heats up," says Rita King, founder and creative director of Dancing Ink Productions, "one of the things I find compelling that has been completely left out of the narrative is that there are thriving mosque communities that are virtual." With her colleague Joshua Fouts, Ms. King has been studying virtual places like SL's Al-Andalus and its potential to bridge cultural differences. To research their "Understanding Islam through Vir­tual Worlds" project as senior fellows at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, they not only traveled to four continents in the physical world, they also logged hundreds of hours in SL.

"Al-Andalus is a great example of what I would consider to be an upgrade for cultural relations," King says. "These people don't even live on the same continent, so how could they ever possibly form a community together in the real world? In forming a community together in a virtual world, they are sharpening community values that are based on a digital-culture mind-set, which is: What works? Not what works here in the North Caucuses or here in New York or there in Egypt, but works for us as humans."

Similar SL efforts include the "Virtual Haj" within the IslamOnline.net project, where users can embark on a pilgrimage to Mecca, and a virtual Ancient Mesopotamia created from actual artifacts and the real-world knowledge of archaeologists and other experts.

Yet not all is smooth sailing in these virtual paradises. "Whatever you're going to find in the physical world you're going to find in the virtual world," says King. Friction erupts.

In Al-Andalus, community members squabbled over whether people needed to take off their virtual shoes before entering the mosque and if visitors identifying themselves as Al Qaeda should be allowed to visit. "If you're an open-access group, where do you draw the line?" Ms. Nelsen says.

But when the community is working, it works quite well. One witnesses remarkable behavior, such as the time when an Egyptian Coptic Christian group was being persecuted in SL. "People came and performed lewd sexual acts on their pews," Nelsen says. Al-Andalus granted them refuge.

In real life (RL), due to overcrowding or being shunted to a small side room, Muslim women sometimes cannot enjoy peaceful, fulfilling religious experiences in their own mosques. "They found Al-Andalus provided them with a richer spiritual venue than they were able to obtain in the physical world," says King's collaborator, Mr. Fouts. In SL, your avatar can pray, genuflect, and read a holy text.

In a way, Al-Andalus's success flows from anonymity. In real life, people may be leery of strangers. Online, SL members feel more comfortable approaching a "strange" avatar from another background. There's no threat of violence or intimidation.

One Muslim woman King talked to wanted to see the inside of a synagogue, and was able to do so, virtually.

During Ramadan, this reporter recently entered Al-Andalus as an avatar named Ethan Roubodoo. I took the magic carpet ride, tiptoed through mosques, and was welcomed multiple times by strangers. In one exchange, I was invited into the virtual home of a retired ballerina from St. Petersburg, Russia; born Christian, she converted to Islam about 10 years ago. Wearing a traditional black robe and head scarf, Yekaterina "Katya" Kalchek (her SL name) sat across from me in a room decorated with tiles and archways. We chatted (via instant message) for more than an hour about her life, what she called her decision to convert to Islam, and how SL allows her speak freely about things that in RL would be impossible. "Yes, anonymity is important," Katya told me. "Certain barriers – class, religious, ethnic – are brought down in SL."

Among many topics, she corrected my assumption that women find Islamic dress restrictive. "We have changed from bikinis and cut-off tops to hijab because we wish to do that and because we are happy to answer the Noble Qur'an's teachings on those subjects," she wrote. "We are NOT oppressed or driven into this. We do it because we want to and because we believe that it is what Allah asks of us."

I felt humbled and pleased to be set straight.

Later, teleporting to IslamOnline, I wandered courtyards with two avatars I had met only minutes after my arrival: a computer science teacher from Saudi Arabia named "Najm Aho" and a dentist from Egypt, "regetrem Magic." We sat on pillows as regetrem (real name, Ahmed) offered me virtual tea and then, despite the language barrier, gave me advice about an actual dental procedure I've been putting off in the real world.

But it was soon dinner time here in Boston, and I had to go.

Najm Aho said, "Take care, Brothers; peace be upon you."

Quickly checking Google for a crude translation, I bade them both farewell. "I wish you a good Ramadan. Allah Maak [translation: God be with you]." And then I teleported away.

Now that's a meaningful cultural exchange.

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