Us and Them: Observations on Interfaith Relations and Cultural Harmony in Australia

In Australia, cross-cultural research suggests that Australian Muslims have surpassed Asians as one of the country’s most marginalised religious and ethnic groups.

The back cover blurb says that this book offers “11 essays about interfaith relations drawn from a variety of research projects over past years”. It is difficult to ascertain the contextual use of the term interfaith in this book, for it is not a book about interfaith activity as pursued by practitioners of inter-religious dialogue and relations. That said, this is an utterly valuable book: it provides a wealth of material for serious study of intercultural relations in Australia – in families, in schools, in specific community groups..

The Greater Oxford Dictionary (4th Edition), advises that interfaith is the prefix inter, with nouns, forming an adjective with the sense ‘situated, distributed, occurring, carried on, plying, etc. between …’; usually of communication, commerce, athletic contests, or the like: as in inter-arrival, inter-bank, inter-borough, inter-bourse (between different stock-exchanges), inter-brigade, inter-caste, inter-centre, inter-church, inter-city , inter-faith, inter-family, etc., etc.

We may now understand the author’s use of interfaith as that carriage, relations, discourse and interfamilial relations between peoples of different faith. The survey on mixed faith marriages and choosing the faith of children of these marriages is an eye-opener. These children are harbingers and bridges of extended tolerance, respect and understanding of mixed faith families. Most parents, it seems, will allow their children to choose their belief or faith.

To his credit, the author admits he brings his biases to this work. The list of biases encountered in his works and in his surveys could be that of any ethnic, immigrant, community or ethno-centric grouping (including religion) in Australia:

  • fears of being misunderstood;
  • fears of being monitored;
  • fears of being judged by government agencies;
  • fears of hurting others unintentionally;
  • fears of miscommunication;
  • fears of exposing awkward hang-ups, dislikes, etc.

The author uses the term Arabist in Chapter 1; an odd term not seen often in the Australian media, and certainly, not in context with multiculturalism in Australia. The context in which the book uses this term is a misleading consensus among Arabists that Arab identity rests on religion–that is–Islam. A quick search on Google for Arabist in the Australian context gave results from dictionaries,,, and an entry in the National Library of Australia for a book written in Budapest in 1988. Wikipedia has a more contextual result for arabist:

As used in modern political discourse in some quarters, Arabist refers a generally non-Arab specialist in Arabic language or culture perceived to be excessively sympathetic towards Arabic culture and political views. Accusations of bias appear to have arisen in the United States where “Arabists” in public service were perceived to be “pro-Arab” by pro-Israel commentators after the Arab-Israeli conflict rose to prominence.

It seems that there is a US-driven context for the use of the term “arabist”. This raises doubts that the term arabist is relevant to Australia. Islamist isused frequently in the media as the media’s attempt to both clarify and isolate the behaviour of extremist groups overseas; arabist is not used in our Australian media to describe the activities of terrorists nor extreme militant “islamist” actions.

Nationally, Arabic is the third most common second language in Australia after Mandarin and Italian, with Cantonese and Greek in fourth and fifth places (Note: Not all Arabic speakers are Muslims).

It is important to note that the author admits his own biases; perhaps this is the reason for the (rather) (dated) material on the Lebanese in Melbourne chapter. Nonetheless, this chapter does provide valuable material for perceptions of attitudes by a specific community in Australia. It may, however, no longer be relevant due the growing ethnic population of Melbourne, Australia’s fastest growing city (which will soon outstrip Sydney for sheer numbers). On the other hand, the inclusion of the material on the Lebanese “bad back” phenomenon and false Work cover claims provides the opportunity for reflection on immigrant Australians valuing active citizenship of their adopted Motherland. Love and serve the motherland is rarely seen in public discourse.

Chapter 3 gives the results of a national survey among secondary students on attitudes towards Muslims. (This reader was unable to find a date for this survey.) The survey found that students were divided in the degree and nature of prejudice and tolerance towards Muslims in Australia. Non-religious schools were surveyed, in addition to Catholic schools and “Other Christian” schools. All populations delivered differing results; it was found that there was a strong tendency for the two Christian groups of schools to be less well-disposed towards Muslims and Islam than the non-religious schools.

In the light of such findings, the author raises pertinent questions: What then is the role of schools in promoting inter-cultural understanding? Is there a role for school based interfaith programs, intercultural studies and student welfare programs? Admittedly, the last question was possibly raised prior to the introduction of the School Chaplaincy program, and former questions were of relevance prior to the creation and the work of the National Curriculum authority (ACARA) and the work of the Religions, Ethics and Education Network Australia (REENA), which has a strong focus on insertion of religion and ethics education into the Australian curriculum.

Nonetheless, the curriculum questions are of critical importance to the development of a national curriculum which establishes and furthers both tolerance and understanding of other cultures, different ethical systems and religions other than Judaism and Christianity. Given the current drive against bullying – and the proposal that school bullying be included in verbal referee reports by schools and given to prospective employers – it is considered odd that few (if any) have taken up the linkages between bullying and religious prejudice and intolerance in both schools and the community at large.

The next chapter gives an exhaustive examination of data from schools in an attitudinal survey. The aim of the survey was to probe the attitudes of senior students in Australian schools to Islam and Muslims. It will investigate the extent of Islam-phobia among Australian adolescents and the variation within the gender, religious and friendship divide … . In the Method section, we are told the survey population, how many schools (42), whether they are religion based schools or government schools, but the reader is not given any date.

Given the book was printed in 2009, it is plausible to reflect on how much has changed by way of attitudes and tolerance in Australia—due many factors—the development and implementation of a national curriculum, the school chaplaincy program, the schools (and community at large) anti-bullying programs, racism programs, the exposure of discriminatory language in the media and transformation of the lingua fraca of coverage of Muslims and Islam; the prevalence of social networking and its inclusion into ethical consequences; the waves of refugees into Australia and successful resettlement, and the 2009 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Melbourne.

The author claims in the Introduction that his purpose in writing is “to provide ideas for teachers to use in their classrooms.” The format of the book does not lend itself to this purpose; it is a collection of essays with extensive bibliography for each chapter. Some chapters have endnotes. Not all chapters have endnotes; not all chapters have a summary and conclusion. This is an academic text, allegedly directed to secondary teachers and students. The back cover blurb makes this claim. As there are no questions nor discussion starters or thematic questions in the early chapters of this book, the claim about the usefulness of this book for secondary students may be difficult to substantiate. A companion workbook for secondary schools might open the text up to more useful discussion and activity and perhaps, changes in attitudes.

Dr Abe W. Ata

Dr Abe Ata

Dr Abe W. Ata graduated in psychology at the American University and was soon nominated as a delegate to the United Nations’ World Youth Assembly in New York. He completed his doctorate at Melbourne University in 1980 and has since been teaching in several Australian, American, Jordanian, West Bank and Danish universities. He has been an Honorary Fellow at the Australian Catholic University since 1999 and is currently at the Asia Institute Melbourne University.

His teaching and research interests focus in part on the relationship between the cultural and religious diversity and their impact on relationships, well being, attitudes and social distance.

His cross cultural training background, multidisciplinary and sensitivity in conducting and interpreting a wide ranging research projects are demonstrated in his publications of 15 books. These include: Bereavement and Health in Australia: gender, cross-cultural, religious and psychological issues( 1996); Christian and Muslim intermarriage in Australia (2005); and Us and Them: Christian-Muslim relations and social harmony in Australia (2009) – nominated for the Prime Minister’s Literary Book Awards in 2010 . He has also written 102 journal articles of which 17 are published in the Encyclopaedia of Australian People (2000), Encyclopaedia of Melbourne (2005), and Encyclopaedia of Religions (2009, Cambridge University Press).

In 2011 Dr Ata was nominated as ‘Australian of the Year’

Order this book:

Us and Them can be ordered online from the University of Melbourne Bookshop   for $29.95