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Building Community One Microblog at a Time

By Hafsa Arain


I first joined the interfaith movement as a precocious fifteen-year-old. With an English translation of the Qur’an in hand, I walked into a Christian Bible study at my high school and demanded that they help me get Muslims a space to pray during Ramadan. For me then, as throughout my time in college, interfaith activism meant something very clear: come together to build community, create safe space for meaningful dialogue, and act out the words of our scriptures to make change for the common good. Together, we squirmed at the thought of the emerging “slacktivist” movement, where activists use the internet as their main platform for their cause. The internet was just digital space, so how could it change anything?

Photo: Interfaith Youth Core

Photo: Interfaith Youth Core

My attitude toward internet activism remained steady as I became a campus engagement associate for Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) after graduating college. I traveled around the country meeting students from all walks of life who had built interfaith service projects on their campuses. When visiting universities in small towns, I would sit down with the two or three students of color or of minority faith traditions. I applauded them for their bravery in building community, especially when their presence was what brought diversity in the first place. I was reminded of my sole non-Christian presence in the Christian Bible study in high school and exclaimed my pride in their efforts.

But these students were not as content in this setting as I had been. “I think sometimes we’re tokenized,” said a Muslim student in Fargo, North Dakota, “Sometimes I just want to be able to talk to someone else who is Muslim like me.” I asked him what his outlet was, especially because he didn’t have family nearby to reach out to. “I go on Tumblr,” he said matter-of-factly.

Tumblr is an online social networking site known for “microblogging,” where users can share pictures, videos, and short blog entries with one another. Created in 2007, it has nearly 96 million personal blogs from nearly every country in the world. There are users who have become “Tumblr famous” with millions of followers – one of them being President Barack Obama. I heard about the site in my junior year in college, but had dismissed it as uninteresting. By the time I was working for IFYC, I had already been juggling a Facebook and Twitter account and a rarely updated Wordpress blog. I was surprised to hear this student say he relied upon Tumblr so heavily, and that he would trust the internet for such an important reason.

Intrigued, I opened an account, only to find a blooming community of young people already sharing their stories of religious experience, conversion, and interfaith engagement. Young people were writing about their first encounters with people of other faiths or no faith, and these posts were being reblogged by the thousands. They were connecting in smaller communities.

Jewish lesbians had a hashtag they used to get to know one another, Mormons had their own, Muslims living in the West their own. Those as young as fourteen were telling others about their travels to new countries, sharing pictures of mosques, temples, and churches, and explaining how eye-opening it was to date a person who was raised in a different religion. Most users were using it as a teaching opportunity: using their own experiences to teach others facts about their own religious traditions. It was every storytelling technique I had been training others to utilize that I found on the site.

Interfaith community for me had always meant reacting to a person’s facial expressions, eating her food, or sitting next to her during a worship service. While I do not think this will ever go away, I have come to realize that young people today have the ability to create community in ways I could never have dreamed of. Tumblr became a medium for connecting people who could never have met in real life, mostly for geographical reasons. The lone Muslim in a university in North Dakota could now meet the lone Muslim at a university in Tennessee, and they could share experiences in a way they could only do through Tumblr.

My insistence that face-to-face interaction was the only true activism then became a telling sign of my age. Often, those of us who have aged even the few years past high school and college have the tendency to underestimate young people. We assume they are less excited about true and honest things, less devoted to the movements and causes we hold most dear. Perhaps this is because we believe our generation or cohorts have always had more to offer than the ones who came after us, or if they surpass us we have lost our significance. But young people today stand on the shoulders of giants. As I built on the work that came before me, new generations will take what I have given to create something new and exciting with it. Tumblr is just one place where this is happening, and it is a space that I am excited to watch.