Muslim, Christian youths 'hi' on peace
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By Sunshine Lichauco de Leon
Philippine Daily Inquirer
MANILA, Philippines—“It’s very overwhelming to communicate with Muslims [and finding] that they’re the same as me. It felt great. And they were just as overwhelmed with us. They really want to show that they are not the people we think they are. They’re the same as any of us. They’re not people we should be afraid of,” said Sandra, one of the Christian students participating in a mass videoconference.
Almost 25 years to the day, a new kind of people power is beginning in the Philippines. This one is taking place “virtually,” on giant screens, instead of live on the streets, but the seeds of change that are being planted offer the same kind of hope.
On Tuesday, 6,000 Christian and Muslim students and out-of-school youths from Metro Manila and Mindanao came together “face to face” for a videoconference, in a revolutionary use of technology that allowed them to build bridges over the gulfs of ignorance and discrimination.
“Building Understanding through Technology” is a series of mass videoconferences organized by the Philippine-based PeaceTech, a nongovernment organization that is leveraging information communications technology (ICT) to educate, unite and reduce conflict. It is supported by the Australian government’s AusAid and the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP).
It is aimed at building understanding between young Muslims and Christians who are divided by geography and background. The idea is to link up youths from a city in Luzon and the Visayas with those from a city in Mindanao.
Tuesday’s event, one of the biggest to have been staged so far, involved Metro Manila and General Santos City. It brought together approximately 50 high schools, dozens of colleges, out-of-school groups, police, military, government, civil society and the private sector.
For many of the participating high school students—like Sandra who has never traveled outside of Metro Manila—it was the first time for them to communicate with people in Mindanao.
Kimberly, a college junior, attended her first videoconference only because it was a class requirement. But what she discovered has changed her attitude and made her understand how easily discrimination, if left unquestioned, can be passed down through generations.
“I have an auntie who dislikes Muslims. She hates mess, dirty things. She hates Muslims because she says they live in dirty places. And so of course, because I respect her, I unconsciously got that perspective. I tell other people the same thing. Whenever I encounter a Muslim, I would say to my classmate that Muslims are messy people,” she said.
These unfounded judgments can easily be magnified, she said.
“When we Manileños encounter them in Manila, we always avoid them. This is so unfair. Now I see Muslims as intelligent, I don’t see them differently and I really think they are happy people,” she said.
Resembling a talk show
At first glance, a mass videoconferencing event resembles a talk show. It uses moderators and guests in each city, along with entertainment, games and singing to bring people together. Unlike the typical talk show, however, the objective is serious—to use technology to educate, empower and unite.
Singer Gary Valenciano, one of the guest performers, explained why he will continue to support PeaceTech.
“This has been very powerful. Just when you think you have your own story to tell, you hear the stories of those down south. You realize how fortunate you are to not face the same problems. To be able to bring people together in this way using technology, I think this is the way it was meant to be used—it’s a great opportunity for young people to see the other side of what technology can bring,” Valenciano said.
Participants from one city can ask questions of anyone on the other side. Participants in the “facing” city then stand up and respond. Some could be seen wiping tears from their eyes as they talked: “What can we do to treat you better? What do you think about Muslims? Why do you not like us?”
The guests were Christians and Muslims alike, who were victims of prejudice and war. One guest, Jamail Kamlian, a professor of history at the MSU-Iligan Institute of Technology, sat with more than 3,000 young Filipinos in a gymnasium in General Santos City. He related how his Christian wife was barred from purchasing a house by a property developer because her husband was a Muslim.
“I was not the buyer. My Catholic wife was the buyer. We were going to pay cash, not even installment. And then they find out that her husband was Muslim. They said, ‘Ma’am, we will return your money’. Even if you’re Christian but have some connection with a Muslim, you become a social outcast,” he said.
Kamlian worries for his children: “In 20 years, they will be taking employment in a Christian-majority community. What will happen to them if they are not hired for the same reason?”
From talk to action
The ignorance and conflict are just the starting point at this mass event. It progresses to look at commonalities and then concrete solutions, which the audience propose to implement themselves. In this way, the event is not just talk. It becomes action.
Already, participants are beginning their own peace-building projects: virtual puppet shows, mini-video documentaries about prejudice, online forums and youth videoconferences.
Louie Montalbo, an undersecretary at OPAPP, explained the rationale for the event.
“One of the first things that we had thought of as far as the peace process was concerned was how to involve the youth. To involve them you cannot use traditional media outlets. You needed to use the new technology, the Internet in particular. And PeaceTech’s using interactive media is the perfect opportunity. It allows us to tap into thousands of students to basically do what we had thought of doing on our own,” said Montalbo.
He explains how this could also attack the roots of extremism.
A personal story
“Part of extremism is depersonalizing the enemy, so giving them a face, a name, a personal story, helps. To have a positive or at least neutral experience can help. You never know what ripple effect this can have,” he said.
Montalbo admits that although government has a vital role to play, there are limits to what it can do in its peace efforts, and changing attitudes is the hardest.
“You cannot legislate these things. It really has to happen from the ground up,” he said.
Last week’s videoconference is not the only way PeaceTech is helping to effect change at the grassroots. It acts as a catalyst with its array of programs.
At the core of PeaceTech is the Classroom Videoconference Program. In coordination with the Department of Education (DepEd), it pairs classrooms throughout Mindanao and Metro Manila. Students learn about discrimination and prejudice, what they mean, and how to identify and overcome them.
Training sessions are also held for teachers, mostly from DepEd high schools. All programs are done with support from AusAid, OPAPP, the British Embassy and GTZ of Germany.
A multiple series of weekend workshops teach young people project management and Internet skills. They learn how to use the Web to research, make new contacts and find answers to their questions.
Beyond social networking
The common denominator of all PeaceTech programs is to use technology in innovative ways to communicate and build understanding. This is where Montalbo sees the potential.
“There’s a digital divide in the Philippines, but I believe in using technology to go beyond social networking or chatting. We’re divided by seas. Technology is a way of bridging that particular geographical gap,” he said.
Founder Robin Pettyfer chose to begin PeaceTech in the Philippines partly because his British family were prisoners of war in Manila during World War II.
“Unlike previous generations, young people today have an opportunity to connect with other people anywhere. Had this existed before, it might have slowed down the propensity for misunderstanding and war. Today, it is so much simpler to go over the heads of the few in order to reach the many, to question whether what we are being told about the ‘other’ is in fact true, and to learn that maybe we are more alike than we are different,” said Pettyfer.
There is no doubt that the road towards more understanding is a long and complicated one. PeaceTech’s programs have so far reached only 20,000 people out of a population of 95 million.
But sometimes hearing that one voice in the crowd makes all the difference, said Pettyfer.
He told of how a teenage boy wearing broken shoes approached him after a videoconference in Mindanao.
“Thank you very much for giving me a voice. I never felt that I would have one. I come from nothing and for the first time I speak with people on the other side of this country, I never thought they would be like that. Today you made me feel that I came from something, and that I matter,” the boy told him.#