Transcript – Reimagining our Common Future

Joe Camilleri at RMIT

In recent years, and especially since September 11, 2001, a great many initiatives in dialogue generally and interfaith dialogue in particular have got off the ground in Australia, said Emeritus Professor Joe Camilleri in the public lecture in celebration of World Interfaith Harmony Week, 2014. You may watch the video of this presentation here.

Multi-Faith Australia – Reimagining our Common Future

In recent years, and especially since September 11, 2001, a great many initiatives in dialogue generally and interfaith dialogue in particular have got off the ground in Australia. Federal and State governments have made funds available, meetings of religious leaders have been convened, booklets and guidelines have been produced, and numerous school and community projects have been initiated. All of this has been a useful antidote to the politics of fear and mistrust.

The time, energy and resources spent on the dialogue of cultures and religions have certainly been an indispensable investment in Australia’s multicultural future. But it is time to take stock of what has been accomplished – both strengths and weaknesses – and to think creatively about ways of developing not just more harmonious relations between adherents of different faiths, but a more harmonious society, indeed a more harmonious world.

The task before us is to develop processes of dialogue that are not only respectful and informative, but culturally grounded, sustainable, pro-active and capable of responding to the great challenges we currently face in Australia and internationally

A pro-active strategy

Though interfaith dialogue is not new in Australia, it is the attacks of September 2001 and the Bali bombings of October 2002 which triggered the recent proliferation of interfaith activities. A study by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission in 2003 listed over 101 projects, many of which were interfaith in nature. However, many of these were motivated, it seems, by a desire to moderate “Islamic radicalism” and to defuse actual or potential tensions of the kind that erupted in the 2005 Cronulla riots. Much attention has centred on containing the fallout from periodic incidents involving Muslim communities, especially those that have exposed ‘deep cracks in Sydney’s tolerant veneer’.

Muslim organisations have been asked to enter into dialogue with their Christian and Jewish counterparts in the hope that such dialogue would isolate “militant radicals” or “violent extremists”, with the implication, never openly stated, that this undesirable phenomenon was most likely to flourish among Muslim communities. This is a dangerous caricature of Islam, and a poor basis on which to build inter-faith dialogue in this or any other country.

The evidence suggests that a good deal of the support for interfaith activity, especially but not just on the part of government agencies, has been a reaction to the perceived dangers of so called “violent extremism”. More than a decade later the shortocmings of this ‘reactive’ approach are still not well understood in policy-making circles, in the wider society and even among some dialogue practitioners. Too much emphasis has been placed on responding to perceived tensions and the threat of terrorism. Dialogue, we should remember, is not primarily about putting out bushfires, though it can certainly help. It is about prevention rather than cure. Interfaith dialogue should not be seen as a short-term instrument for solving crises but rather as a long-term approach to the development of cultural literacy and empathy with other faiths, cultures and viewpoints.

Building more solid foundations

In many parts of Australia, religious organisations have been involved in interfaith relations, either through high-level meetings involving religious leaders or participation in peak bodies. Here, the initiative usually lies with those in positions of authority. At lower levels initiatives have also been taken, sometimes with and at other times without the formal approval of the religious leadership. Official initiatives generally have been guarded when it comes to substance, and have often been confined to polite exchanges.

A second major cluster comprises organisations whose primary purpose is to promote interfaith contact and cooperation, for example the Melbourne Interfaith Centre, the Multifaith Association of South Australia, the Jewish-Christian-Muslim Association, and, of course, Religions for Peace. Other organisations that do not have an explicitly religious profile, but have played a significant intellectual and organisational role in promoting interfaith dialogue include the Australian Multicultural Foundation and the Centre for Dialogue at La Trobe University. Many religious organisations have also contributed to the growth of interfaith activity, including a range of Catholic, Uniting Church, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist organisations. Mention here should be made of Muslim-Turkish based organisations associated with the Gülen movement, in particular Affinity Intercultural Foundation in Sydney and the Australian Intercultural Society in Melbourne, which, have sponsored a wide range of high profile dialogue activities, and have popularised the shared breaking of the fast during the Ramadan period.

Prof. Joe Camilleri speaking at RMIT University

Prof. Joe Camilleri speaking at RMIT University during World Interfaith Harmony Week

Perhaps the most positive trend thus far, in which the State of Victoria appears to have taken a lead, has been the growth of local interfaith groups or networks. Many of these have operated with varying degrees of municipal support. Since the inception of the Dandenong Interfaith Network in 1989, close to 40 locally based networks have seen the light of day in Victoria, most of them located in Melbourne. A significant development has been the establishment in 2010 of the Northern Interfaith and Intercultural Network (which covers the municipalities of Banyule, Darebin, Hume, Moreland, and Whittlesea) – this is the first regional interfaith network in Australia. The Eastern Metropolitan Region of Interfaith Networks (Boroondara, Knox, Manningham, Maroondah, Monash, Whitehorse) held its inaugural forum in March 2011.

While the local interfaith movement has achieved a great deal, it is the case that many local projects funded by government or by philanthropy have been relatively short lived. In several instances completion of funded projects has not yielded any tangible ongoing activity. Experience suggests that several conditions must be met if such projects are to prove sustainable:

a) They must be sponsored or supported by organisations that have a long-term commitment to dialogue and are themselves prepared to invest resources in the projects in question – well after external funding support has ceased.

b) The projects themselves must reflect a firm grasp of the philosophy, method and practice of dialogue – something which is readily assumed but is often noticeably lacking.

c) Each project, regardless of its objectives and mode of operation, must have a clearly articulated educational and training component that widens the human resource pool needed to sustain the processes of dialogue over the longer term.

It is important that funding bodies (Federal, State and Municipal) as well as philanthropic agencies that have an interest in supporting interfaith activity should as a matter of priority integrate these principles into their brief, funding guidelines and periodic evaluation.

Developing more effective

Success can create its own problems. While the number of initiatives has grown markedly since September 11, it is only recently that we have seen the beginnings of effective communication between projects, networks and organisations. We can do much better when it comes to sharing knowledge, experiences and contacts. To cite one example, in both Victoria and New South Wales a number of separately constructed schools projects have been initiated, with only the most limited sharing of information, approaches and results.

Closer liaison between organisations and initiatives would alleviate these problems. It would probably be useful if a highly respected and relatively well resourced organisation in each state could serve as a clearing house for the variety of interfaith projects, initiatives and networks in that state. It might then be possible to establish a national forum allowing for exchange of information and views across states. At some point it may become feasible to hold an annual or at least biennial conference which brings together all relevant stakeholders to evaluate progress over the intervening period, set broad priorities for the period ahead, and establish more effective methods of communication and coordination. It would be all to the good if such conferences could also expose Australians active in interfaith work to the most innovative thinking and practice internationally. Government at various levels could play a useful supporting role in developing such infrastructure – though at all times we should exercise care not to allow government support to undermine the independence of the interfaith movement and its constituent parts.

The ❛next phase❜

Most interfaith projects to date have concentrated on increasing knowledge and understanding of different faiths, that is, of their respective beliefs, sacred texts and religious practices, including fasting, dress code and prayers. Visits have been made to each other’s places of worship and even homes. Less frequently, joint prayer services and discussions have been organised. Much of this activity has served primarily what can be described as a ‘getting to know you’ function, which is crucial and needs to be actively pursued.

The time has come, however, to aim a little more ambitiously, especially in the case of organisations and networks that are relatively well established. First, we need to foster a wider understanding of the key principles that should inform dialogue generally, and interfaith dialogue in particular. This requires training, sustained reflection, and active interaction. Needless to say, dialogue is not an opportunity to score points in religious or political argument, or to convert or proselytise. Interfaith exchange should be seen as an opportunity for deep mutual listening grounded in the insights of the world’s major religious and ethical traditions.

Here, I can do no more than offer the briefest of summaries.

In dialogue, participants

  • Respect each other as persons;
  • Celebrate the value and contribution of each other’s faiths and cultures;
  • Acknowledge that they do not hold a monopoly on wisdom and truth;
  • Understand the importance of listening as well as speaking;
  • Affirm the important ethical (and spiritual) values they share in common;
  • Accept that there are differences, and that such differences are an invaluable source of mutual enrichment;
  • Recognise that relations between different faiths, cultures and communities have at times given rise to mistrust, suspicion, hostility , even violence;
  • Understand that empathising with and acknowledging the pain and suffering of others is often a precondition to healing and reconciliation.

All of this helps to explain why dialogue cannot confine itself to words, important though words are. Dialogue is worthy of the name when it makes possible cooperative practical action to promote the public good and serve the needs of the less advantaged communities that make up the wider society.

Secondly, we need to develop programmes that build upon past experience and at the same time go beyond the “getting to know you” stage. We must link more clearly religion with culture and the great ethical issues confronting Australian society. Interfaith relations must grow in the context of deeper societal and ethical awareness and engagement

In local settings cooperation can take place around any number of issues: education, health, domestic violence, employment, environment, transport, and assistance to newly arrived migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Harnessing the energies and creativity of young people is another important priority. Dialogue processes should speak to the needs and aspirations of young people, especially those who are Australian born and of non-English-speaking background, and who therefore face the difficult challenge of negotiating life across two cultures.

Where conditions are right, dialogue can also encourage discussion of complex social issues, be they local, national or international, including immigration policies, rights of migrant communities, refugees and asylum seekers, women’s rights, same sex marriage, environmental concerns, the appropriate relationship between religion and the state, Australia’s relations with the outside world generally and with Asia in particular, conflict in the Middle East, state surveillance and much else. There is little to be gained and much to be lost in dialogue that studiously avoids anything that sounds even remotely contentious or controversial. To do so is tantamount to retreating from the major ethical issues of our time.

Community dialogue is most likely to flourish and prove durable when it is able to negotiate across both religious and cultural differences. Much needs to be taken into account – not just the way we eat and dress, but attitudes to authority, to personal relationships within and outside the family, to work and leisure. Dialogue needs to explore the deeper social, economic, physical and psychological insecurities that people experience – including the insecurities that arise from migration, whether voluntary or forced. The purpose of dialogue is to identify the sources of insecurity, and to find agreement on constructive ways of dealing with such insecurities.

There is one other important dimension to interfaith / intercultural dialogue that needs careful consideration – the international dimension. Here we can do no more than refer to it. Religions and cultures involve a web of international connections, exchanges and attachments which can inform and enrich the dialogue in Australia.

Given the importance of immigration, refugee flows, trade, security relations and educational and other exchanges, we have a strong interest in developing our capacity to negotiate cultural and religious differences not just at home but abroad. Professional, school, religious, municipal and other exchange programs can play a key role in nurturing new patterns of understanding and cooperation. They can strengthen the intercultural fabric of Australian society, and add an important new pillar to the construction of an Asian-Pacific community.

Joseph A. Camilleri
29 January 2014

Watch a video of the address Multi-Faith Australia – Reimagining our Common Future

© Religions for Peace Australia, Victoria Branch, 2014

World Interfaith Harmony Week

World Interfaith Harmony Week