Creating Policy Proposals and Intrafaith Dialogue at WIAC

By: Rachel Rodgers

March 11, 2016

The theme of the 2016 Wheatley Conference on International Affairs (WIAC) was “Religion and Politics: The Emerging Nexus.” The conference split undergraduate delegates into roundtable groups, each of which focused on a specific topic related to religion and world affairs. These roundtables were each chaired by an expert in the field, be it a scholar or a practitioner—or a combination of the two. Each group developed a policy proposal, intended to provide solutions to the issues that had been brought up within the roundtable discussions. Delegates also benefited from talks by keynote speakers including Dr. Douglas Johnston and Katherine Marshall.

My roundtable group was “Islam: Alternative Religious Voices in World Affairs,” chaired by Georgetown professor Nadia Oweidat. The diverse makeup of our ten-student roundtable group greatly aided the depth and range of our discussion. One student had grown up in Pakistan and was a Sunni Muslim; one student had grown up between Salt Lake City and Tehran and identified as Sufi; and one student was Shi'a but went to a Sunni school. These diverse Muslim perspectives were further enriched by three students who had studied Arabic for several years
—one of whom had spent a semester in Jordan—and a student (namely, me) who had spent a semester in Morocco.

Initially, our discussions focused mainly on expressions of Islam in the modern world, as well as how moderate Islam truly could be. One student contended that the Qur’an encouraged fundamentalism and extremism, and that for Islam to integrate peacefully into modern society, one needed to turn away from Islam’s core tenants. Another student disagreed, claiming that Islam is fundamentally a religion of peace, and that several contradictions in the Qur’an exemplify the importance of flexible interpretation based on the circumstances.

We eventually came to focus on Arab youth. In Arab countries, over half of the population is under 25 years old. This region also has the highest levels of youth unemployment in the world and is a hotbed for extremist recruiters. A term used often to describe this situation is “waithood,” or the idea that many youth between the ages of 20 and 25 are stuck in a state of perpetual idleness. They are unable to find employment or further their education, and they spend significant time online
making them easy targets for recruiters who they believe will help them find a purpose.

However, there are also significant efforts being made among Arab youth to alleviate these problems. We watched a short film that had been created by a young Yemeni filmmaker who also runs a camp to teach Arab youth about how to make films. The goal is to give these youth the capacity necessary to express themselves, as well as skills
—photography, film creation, etc.—that can be useful in a professional context.

In light of these considerations, our policy proposal was to partner with Google to create Arabic subtitles for educational films in English. These films could range from Khan Academy to explanations of skills like carpentry or how to change a tire. Some Khan Academy videos are dubbed into Arabic, but providing subtitles instead also provides the additional benefit of exposing youth to English. Many Arab youth have learned English through watching videos, and doing so allows them access to a much more diverse array of resources and opportunities. Arab youth are extremely active online: 87 percent use Facebook daily, and 66 percent use YouTube daily. For this reason, we believed that there would certainly be a market eager to consume these newly accessible videos.

The translation of educational videos is not explicitly related to religion. Nevertheless, we believed that it was still relevant to the overall theme. Since the end of colonialism, the West has struggled to find a way to interact with Islamic countries that promotes development and human rights but does not create a cycle of reliance or engage in cultural imperialism. It is difficult to transmit certain values while still maintaining the integrity of the original society. We believed that our proposal was a step in this attempt because it allowed Arab youth access to information and resources without imposing a different culture on them. As a result, they would–we hoped–also develop a positive view of the West informed by their own understanding and experiences.

Overall, WIAC was an extremely positive experience. I was exposed to a variety of viewpoints and had the opportunity to put my theoretical knowledge into practice through the policy proposal
—an exercise that often does not always occur in academic conferences. The keynote speeches were all extremely informative, and my fellow delegates helped me think about the nexus of religion and politics from a new perspective. I would highly recommend this conference to anyone, and hope that the Berkley Center will continue to keep sending Georgetown students.
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Creating Policy Proposals and Intrafaith Dialogue at WIAC