Imagining a Better Future in a Multi-faith World

Deakin University

Melbourne

Speech, E&OE — Check against delivery

06 October 2011

In our deeply complex, intertwined and globalised world, understanding is the most valuable currency.

Understanding what we all have in common.

Understanding where real differences lie.

Understanding is also how differences are best dealt with.

We face complex, even unprecedented challenges this century.

But perhaps our biggest challenge is the one it's always been: how to work together, rather than against each other.

Six years ago, conscious of the threat posed by polarisation between our societies and cultures, Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero and Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan co-sponsored the Alliance of Civilizations (AoC) initiative through the United Nations General Assembly.

Their desire, through the AoC, was to fight the extremism that has so torn us in recent years.

As an initiative, it's important, particularly given the challenges since 2001, particularly in the relationship between the West and Islam.

There has been a widely held view that our religious and cultural differences would become the fundamental cause of future conflict.

Samuel Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations" has certainly had a lot of air-play in recent years, particularly in the wake of September 11.

Of course, there have been conflicts — the Crusades; the conquest and reconquest of Spain; the fall of Constantinople in 1453; the Siege of Vienna in 1683.

But conflict has not always been the only story.

The truth is there has also been a deep history of philosophical, scientific and economic interaction between our civilisations - a tradition of conversation, dialogue and mutual discovery.

Over time, as cultural boundaries shifted, expanded and contracted, the norms, mores and thinking of the various peoples of the Book have shaped each other.

Cultural adaptation and adoption, the sharing of art, architecture, design, science, alphabets, mathematics, trade and legal systems.

John Esposito, for example, has written, like other faiths, Islam incorporated elements of the legal systems it encountered: Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian.

Administrative practices were absorbed from the Byzantine and Persian Empires, while Greek science, philosophy and arts were adopted across much of the known world.

Drawing as it does on the common Abrahamic heritage, Islam, through much of its history, has seen Jews and Christians as "protected" peoples — and in some periods of coexistence tolerance has been a strong force.

Of course, there are also many examples of the reverse, and these cannot simply be airbrushed from history.

We should not be naïve about this.

In the last 250 years of the first millennium, as Al-Andalus, Spain was Islamic.

There were, of course, tensions and conflict between the different faiths, but Esposito has pointed to the inclusive nature of the political culture of the time.

Christians were able to serve in prominent positions in the Caliph's court, even as diplomats.

Particularly in the upper parts of society, cross-cultural intercourse was strong: Esposito points to Christians and Arabs adopting names and parts of each other's culture.

In the 12th Century, Toledo was a major centre for scholars from across Europe, particularly translators working between Arabic, Greek and Hebrew.

They founded what became known as the Toledo School of Translators — and so began an experiment in cross-cultural co-existence, co-habitation and understanding that lasted decades.

Some of the most important texts were translated from one culture to another: Ptolemy, Archimedes, Euclid.

Aristotle became known in the West through Avicenna's Arabic translations.

Advanced scientific work by Arabic scientists — in astronomy, medicine, among other fields — made their way into Castilian and the other languages of Europe.

Jewish translators also played a significant role.

On one level, the Toledo school represented an extraordinary example of pluralism, an example of coexistence over a period of decades.

But it also led to a flowering of European thought, as Arabic material was translated.

Here was real philosophical and cultural common ground: science in the service of man and all under one God.

President Obama touched on this truth in his speech in Cairo:

"It was Islam — at places like Al-Azhar — that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe's Renaissance and Enlightenment… Throughout history, Islam has demonstrated through words and deeds the possibilities of religious tolerance and racial equality."

The legacy of the Muslim era in Spain, and elsewhere in southern Europe, is part of an inheritance of knowledge and scholarship for which we in the West have benefitted.

Muslim societies have had economic and scientific dominance in ages past, including under the Ottoman Empire. More recently, so too has the West.

Nonetheless, with some notable modern exceptions, democracy was historically rarely a feature of Islamic countries.

But, contrary to the views of some populist commentators, democracy can and does flourish in Muslim-majority countries such as Indonesia, Turkey and prospectively Egypt — sometimes called the "mother of the world."

These same commentators portray Islamic cultures as being at odds with Western cultures and their values.

Those differences, real and perceived, have been exacerbated by the terrorist attacks of September 11.

The perpetrators of 9/11 did not represent authentic Islam.

They were instead nothing more than a terror gang of transnational criminals, operating under the guise of Islam — a profound distortion of the Islamic faith.

And they continue to distort that faith for their own narrow, Islamist agenda.

For all of us, 9/11 was a fundamentally jarring event.

It forced many people to grapple with Islamic identity for the first time, to ask questions about the relationship between these different cultures and faiths, and whether these differences were reconcilable.

In this country, a nation on the edge of Asia with Western and Indigenous heritage, we have sought to build a society where people from a range of cultural backgrounds live their lives on the basis of tolerance, using dialogue to resolve our differences.

And against all global measures, Australia has been an enormous success story.

We have Muslim neighbours to our north, such as Indonesia and Malaysia — countries with whom we are working closely together on common security challenges, including fighting and working to avert jihadist terrorist attacks, and more broadly to deal with militant Islam.

Harmony between civilisations is not only a "feel good" policy for Australia, it is in our hard, national interests dictated by basic, geographical reality.

To counter terrorism.

To do business with some of the fastest growing economies in the world.

It would not be in Australia's strategic and economic interests to fall for the simplified argument that our different cultures and faiths can't work together.

This has never been a credible option for Australia.

Nor has it been in our nature, given our diverse origins.

Look at the extraordinary diversity in our region: Buddhist Thailand; Muslim Indonesia and Malaysia; Hindu India; Christian Philippines; Confucian Singapore.

And within these countries, there are significant religious minorities.

Because of Australia's combined global and regional interests, we have no interest in religious and cultural differences and conflict escalating out of control.

Calmer voices are often needed.

It is in all of our interests therefore to draw out those histories and traditions of dialogue, rather than those of conflict.

Again, we cannot ignore the fact that differences and disagreements do exist.

But we can choose to define our inter-faith or inter-cultural relationships in a way that serves our common goals, not the goals of those who seek to sow discord.

There is often an assumption in the West that Islam has a homogenous political and cultural identity.

That is simply not the case.

As noted already, there are militant Islamists who seek to use jihad to repel the infidel and to build a new Muslim caliphate.

But the majority of the world's Muslims now live in countries where modern democracy has become (or is becoming) the norm.

Turkey has become a robust democracy.

Indonesia — a country of profound diversity and faith — has undergone an epic democratic transformation.

And that is before we begin to speak of the Arab Spring.

Australia has been a close and admiring partner of Indonesia in this evolution and in building tolerance, trust and understanding around our region.

President Yudhoyono said this in Riyadh in 2006: "I do not believe that a clash of civilisation between Islam and the West is inevitable. But I also believe that Islam and the West will NOT automatically and effortlessly get along in perfect harmony. For that to happen, we need to build bridges and promote mutual understanding".

In his bestseller "No God but God", Reza Aslan has written that there is an Islamic reformation currently underway.

What shape it will take we do not yet know.

That is a matter for Muslims.

But our challenge is to ensure we continue to hold open dialogue and work to embrace mutual understanding.

The Arab Spring points unquestionably to the universality of values and demonstrates that people's aspirations, no matter which culture they come from, are not fundamentally different.

Turkey and Indonesia have already shown that, and are profiting from that lesson.

French academic Jean-Pierre Filiu argues simply that "the Arabs are no exception".

Arabs have been fighting for freedom and self-determination stretching back almost a century.

We in the Judeo-Christian West also belong to a tradition of which we are justifiably proud.

While we are proud democrats today, the Judeo-Christian tradition, stretching across millennia, was not intrinsically democratic.

But that Judeo-Christian tradition has, over time, informed the development of our underlying values which, over the centuries, found expression through the emerging democratic institutions of what came to be known as the West.

So too with the Enlightenment, the celebration of reason, rational discourse and the scientific method — and with it certain notions about the place of religion in democratic governance.

Woven together, these threads — our common heritage and values, history of coexistence and interaction, the current socio-political aspirations we can see being played out — provide a model for our approach to interfaith and inter-cultural dialogue more broadly.

Rather than regard each other as "other", we need to develop a common sense of self.

Some of our values — as the Arab Spring has shown — are universal.

Pointing to the expression of a secular, universalist demand for freedom, dignity and justice across the Middle East this year, Jean-Pierre Filiu also says, "Muslims are not only Muslims" — that once the fear barrier had been broken down, genuine political and individual self-expression could take place.

So in this context, what is to be done, and what is Australia doing?

To start with, Australia is strongly supportive of the AoC focus on fostering mutual respect and understanding among religions and cultures.

Australia is well placed to promote the AoC in the Asia Pacific, as we have extensive experience as co-sponsor of the Regional Interfaith Dialogue.

We also support grassroots interfaith activities in Indonesia and the Philippines.

In our own nation, we have strong policies of social inclusion, particularly for our diverse migrant and Indigenous communities.

We continue to support AoC outreach activities, including a project by two Australian universities (La Trobe and Monash), in conjunction with the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies, based in Yogyakarta, to hold regional AoC consultations in the Asia-Pacific in order to build awareness and support for the AoC.

More broadly, we'll continue to work on building interfaith dialogue, particularly in our region but also elsewhere across the world.

Australia and Indonesia are the two co-founders of the Regional Interfaith Dialogue.

We jointly hosted the first meeting in Yogyakarta in 2004, but it has now been held five times, including most recently in Perth.

The Perth meeting had participation by 146 delegates from 14 countries.

Discussions focussed on resources for teaching youth about other faiths, collecting and disseminating best practice educational interfaith resources, and media training on interfaith issues.

Together with Indonesia and our other dialogue co-sponsors, the Philippines and New Zealand, we are planning for the next dialogue to take place early next year.

As an outcome of the Perth meeting the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade provided funding to enable a consortium of community organisations, led by the Australian Multicultural Foundation, to developing a Regional Interfaith Network website, designed to enable Dialogue participants to continue to interact, exchange ideas and advertise activities. The website has been active since March this year.

We also need to ask ourselves what we will do to manage real differences — religious and cultural — when they arise.

We need to work openly and peacefully to resolve points of conflict.

We also need to support the economic and political development of the Muslim world.

Afghanistan remains a formidable challenge for us all.

Australia will continue to provide targeted and practical support to the countries in North Africa and the Middle East — in particular Tunisia, Egypt and Libya — as they undertake the difficult task of democratic transition.

Australia is proud to have been the third largest donor of humanitarian assistance to Libya ($41.1 million) and to have provided assistance also to Egypt and Tunisia in the critical areas of food security and agricultural productivity to promote stability and support local populations.

Australia, in the last twelve months, has provided $1 billion in assistance to majority Muslim countries.

We also need to work to resolve what for too long have been challenges which divide us, such as the Middle East Peace Process.

And we have to deepen Australia's relationship with the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

I had the honour to sign an MoU establishing the Australia-Arab Dialogue with the Arab League Secretary General on 21 September. This Dialogue will be an important forum through which to foster greater and closer political, economic and cultural links with the Arab world.

I have also appointed an Australia's first envoy, Ahmed Fahour, to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in June this year.

Ahmed accompanied me to the last OIC Summit in Kazakhstan and in that role he will work to deepen Australia's engagement with OIC countries.

Australia will also take a lead regionally in promoting interfaith dialogue designed to combat fundamentalist religious militancy, as part of an intelligent policy response to global terrorism and religious conflict.

Australia, coming predominantly from a Christian tradition, but living in a region dominated by the other great faiths of the world, again is in a good position to do so.

We have also committed to host, in Australia, an international meeting of religious and cultural leaders, to break down distrust between Jews, Muslims and Christians.

Of course we have the next AoC conference in Qatar coming up.

We plan to co-host, with Indonesia and other key AoC partners, a ministerial event in the margins to promote interfaith and intercultural activities — recognising the civilisational contributions of the great faiths of the world.

We will also remain steadfast when hard conflict arises: when fundamentalist Islam is invoked in support of violence, suppression or conflict, Australia will always act to defend our values and our interests.

And we will also work to tackle difficult questions like the lack of religious freedom in a number of Muslim countries.

To conclude, on a more personal note, that gives you a small sense of what Australia — and the Australian community — is doing to build understanding and break down religious intolerance.

There is a program in Tasmania, a collaboration between Hobart College, the Tasmanian Centre for Global Learning and the Alcorso Foundation - "Students Against Racism".

Under the project, a group of young Tasmanians who have come to our country under the humanitarian entry program — from countries as diverse as Sudan, Afghanistan and Bhutan — share the stories of their arrival here with other schools.

I met one of the students, a young woman with ancestors from Afghanistan, Vahideh.

As an Afghan refugee, born in Iran, Vahideh felt unwelcome in Tehran, unable to be accepted but also unable to return home.

Speaking of that time, of her origins in Afghanistan and Iran, she talks about war, fighting, danger.

She describes her fear, and the terrible things she saw trying to escape to Turkey, twice, which landed her in prison, full of refugees and people looking for safety.

When she came to Australia, she was struck by how clear our sky was, how clean our environment was, and, as a Muslim, how strange it was to be different in a foreign land.

Now, she's still finding her way, but she's happy, safe, glad to be alive.

Its stories like this — told to kids around Australia — that help us build understanding, to build our sense of compassion., to break down the barriers built by ignorance.

We have much still to do in this country.

But I also believe that we have much to offer the region and the world.

ENDS

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